Yesterday as I was leaving my office, I noticed a man on a motorcycle in the parking lot. It’s always an adventure walking out to the parking lot after work. Our church building is right on the frontage road for I-55 in Jackson, Mississippi, so we get an impressive sampling of travelers. Motorcycle guy was studying his phone with the same expression I use when I’m mentally arm wrestling with the GPS.
I walked up to him and asked if I could help him find something. He told me he was looking for a particular restaurant so I gave him directions and made sure he understood where to go. He seemed pretty committed to finding this exact restaurant so I asked him if he was meeting someone there and he said, “No, I just want some dinner.” Well, as you may know, Mississippians take food very seriously. There is a reason we are consistently ranked in the top three fattest states in the U.S.; we have fabulous food. And since I’m a cup-half-full kind of person, I like to think part of that diabetes-afflicted statistic is that we seek the community created by preparing and sharing a meal with others. I have unashamedly chastised others for eating mediocre food when visiting Jackson. I explain to these unsuspecting victims that doing so is grounds for a citizen’s arrest, right before I start texting them names of restaurants for the next trip to Jackson.
Since motorcycle guy wasn’t meeting anyone, that gave me permission to scrap his mediocre food plan. There wasn’t anything wrong with the restaurant that he chose. That particular place is close to my house and I have been there many times. It’s just fine, but not appropriate for a new friend. He needed something better. Why? Go back and read paragraph two. I quickly directed him to follow me since I could take him to a great restaurant faster than giving him directions. I picked a yummy place that wouldn’t get him off track from his travels and would give him some great Mississippi food.
After pulling into the parking lot of the better restaurant, I hopped out of the car to say goodbye and to see if he had any questions. He smiled and introduced himself. I did the same and said, “Welcome to Jackson. Enjoy dinner and have a safe trip.” Then he said something that was so curious. He said, “Thanks. I didn’t expect to find an angel in Jackson.” I’m really hoping that doesn’t sound creepy; there was absolutely nothing creepy about it. He was just expressing appreciation and his own stark surprise for the five minutes I spent with him.
As I pulled away, I said a little prayer for him, hoping that he felt God’s presence in those few minutes. God continues to show me how genuinely surprised people are when welcomed in by a stranger, even at church, where the expectations are high. Every Sunday, we have new people at our church and I can see it on their faces, hear it in their responses, and I totally get it. I’ve stopped believing that people don’t want to be in relationship with Jesus; they do. The question is, “Are we equipped to show them God’s sincere invitation into relationship?” To me, every time I see in someone’s eyes that they believe this invitation I’m offering is sincere, I am the one who feels the intensity of God’s welcome. I feel the surprise that God wants to be in relationship with me, that he is happy to see me and that he wants to talk with me. He wants to invite me to share a great meal and to see if we know any of the same people. It’s no wonder that it’s not only easy for me to want to share this part of Jesus with others, I simply can’t wait to do exactly that.
And even as I write these words, too much of our world is harsh, beyond depressing, and anything but welcoming. The brutality of the recent Las Vegas shooting is still difficult to comprehend. A few days before that, the shooting in Antioch, Tennessee, was one more shock, but less shocking than it should have been. At our church, we have to keep our building locked to protect the 100 preschoolers who are here every day. We even have to lock the classrooms because too many of our TVs have been stolen. I’m under no delusion that I understand all the complexities that can heal a culture like ours that reveals such deadly anger and hurt. My prayer is that God uses me, in whatever tiny ways I can contribute, to seeing people through God’s eyes and to sincerely offering that invitation into relationship with Jesus and into my church family.
Some might say I shouldn’t have talked to the guy on the motorcycle because it was risky. However, right now, at this moment, all I can think is that drastic measures to keep ourselves safe and isolated from risk seem to contribute to the fear and isolation of those who need a relationship with Jesus the most. Jesus is real; death is real. We live in the tension of these realities, but we aren’t the first to do so. I’ll leave you with Scripture from Matthew 10, in which Jesus gives marching orders to the twelve. Like them, as we invite people into a relationship with Jesus, we have to use caution, fiercely protect our children, and use common sense in protecting ourselves. To me, the point is we are using these protections as we engage with others, not as we isolate ourselves from others.
Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!
“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”