The Rev Debra Sabino September 9, 2018
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is a true story – and there are others similar to it, but some are urban legend. This one is true. I talked with one of our parishioners a few days ago who has been helping a homeless man with food and Christmas socks for years – and I went to funeral of dear friend last week who did the same thing you’re about to hear…
This one happed in Clarksville, Tenn when a pastor was called to serve a new congregation.
He said he heard a still, small, uncomfortable voice three days after receiving news in April of his appointment as pastor of a United Methodist Church,
It was a dream woke up the Rev. Willie Lyle at 2 a.m.
This dream was different from any in the past.
In this dream, God told Lyle to do something very specific.
The good reverend had a problem. God asked Lyle to do something that Lyle had no interest in doing it. It was clearly out of his comfort zone.
God told Lyle that he needed to live on the streets of Clarksville, a 145,000-population city with a military base to its north and Nashville about 45 miles southeast, as a homeless and hungry person.
The Lord challenged Lyle to experience firsthand just what it was like to have nothing — no home, no money, no friends, no food, no nothing.
Essentially, what God was saying to Lyle was, “I hear you preach the word of God and share the message of Christ. Now, I want you to actually live it. And I want to hear how you liked having nothing and being treated with disrespect and disdain by almost everybody. I’m not finished. I want you to tell your new congregation about your experience and challenge them to make a difference in the world, beginning right here in Clarksville.”
According to Lyle, his conversation with God was pretty much a one-way conversation. God talked. Lyle listened.
He later said “I didn’t find any comfort in what I was hearing. I definitely wasn’t comfortable with the idea of living on the streets, even if for only five days.”
Lyle’s wife, Suzette Lyle, dropped him off in downtown Clarksville early on the Monday of June 17, and he lived on the street through the morning of June 21. In those 4½ days, Willie Lyle learned a great deal about the homeless, the working poor who face hunger daily and those in need of spiritual and emotional help.
Willie Lyle learned something else uncomfortable. He learned from firsthand experience just how many people who are fortunate in life look down upon and ignore the homeless, the hungry and the poor without ever taking the time to learn their story.
“Generally speaking, people are not kind to the homeless,” he said.
“I know there are people who live on the street and choose to do so. I am talking about the homeless and poor who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control and they have nothing,” he said.
“They most definitely want food and shelter, but they also seek the food and shelter found in the message of Christ,” the pastor said.
Once on the street, Willie Lyle learned some important things he needed for survival, including who to trust and not trust, where to get meals, where to sleep so police would not arrest him and where to hang out.
“People on the street don’t trust you or talk with you at first,” he said. “They want to know who you are and why you are homeless. It’s not that they are rude, but just very direct.”
Then he learned to navigate the city’s services for the homeless.
“I learned immediately that Loaves and Fishes served a meal every day,” Willie Lyle said. “That meal was delicious, and the volunteers were great.”
They treated me with respect and dignity.”
Although he never made it to place called Manna Café, other homeless people said that agency was the best place to go for assistance. He heard about the Old Firehouse. He walked there one morning from downtown to get breakfast. He noticed only five people there and wondered why.
“After arriving and being handed a bunch of paperwork to complete and submit, I decided maybe the paperwork requirements kept people away. It was a hassle. I did get to take a shower and was grateful for that.”
There were other places you could even get a haircut.
Remarking on what he now understands so much better, “Homeless people walk slowly, and now I know why. They physically hurt all over from sleeping on concrete, the ground or on wooden floors.”
Something that Willie Lyle noticed during his week on the street was the large number of families who battled hunger every day. Most are referred to as America’s working poor. They simply do not have enough money to feed their children on a regular basis.
Throughout the week, Willie Lyle kept a small journal of what he was experiencing. These notes become the foundation for the sermon he delivered June 23 at the United Methodist Church.
Only four people at the church knew what their new pastor was doing.
Early in the morning June 23, Willie Lyle lay under a tree on the church lawn covered in a big overcoat. He still had not shaved or combed his hair.
“I wanted everybody to know what I had been through, what I had learned and the physical and emotional discomfort I experienced and that I am still dealing with.”
The Rev. Willie Lyle wondered how many people would approach him and offer him food, invite him to sit inside an air-conditioned room, or just see how they could help. Twenty people spoke to him and offered some type of assistance.
The title of his sermon was The Least Used Parts of the Body.
”Often the least used parts of the body are the ones that mean the most, like our heart and mind. We need to understand that there are no small or least used parts in the body of Christ,”
Willie Lyle told the congregation that was started more than a century ago.
While he preached, his daughter-in-law cut his hair and his daughter helped shave off his scruffy beard. He changed shoes, and beneath the overcoat, he was wearing his Sunday clothes. He put on a tie and his suit coat, all the while continuing to preach his message.
Before the 200 people gathered that morning, he went from looking like a homeless person to the new pastor of the congregation.
“I wanted everybody to know what I had been through, what I had learned and the physical and emotional discomfort I experienced and that I am still dealing with. And I made sure to mention more than once that Christ was not comfortable on the cross.”
Willie Lyle got the attention of those present, and some were uncomfortable.
“Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus,” Willie Lyle said. “You see, we look at the outside of others and make judgments. God looks inside at our heart and sees the truth.”
As I read his story I thought of the places we have here in Placerville, I know of at least one place when I served in Fairfield that made people sign papers and sit through a talk about why they need to turn their lives over to Jesus before they could be fed.
I felt proud of the people Our Saviour – it’s not just serving the homeless – but looking for others like the foster children and veterans and those who experience violence in the their lives – we, reach out to a lot of people.
It’s more of an attitude than the actions we take – not making distinctions among yourselves, and others and become their judge. It’s all about love, the love of Christ, that we sang about in the entrance hymn – to end divisions.