By: Chris Townley
I once stood outside and preached a sermon. Not like on the corner with a megaphone, rambling on about unquenchable flames and punishment. But in a church courtyard with a microphone strapped to my face, and some of the verses read like, “Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.” So maybe, more like the preacher on the street corner than I’d care to admit.
Preaching outside is different; it feels risky, like you need to shout in order to be heard. Or perhaps, as the preacher, I was simply more aware of not being heard. By the time I started talking, the sun had set and a November desert chill began to wrap us up. Honestly, I wasn’t as cold as I thought I’d be.
However, I bet Joe was as cold as he thought he’d be. Considering this night was another on the calendar of uncountable nights sleeping in the park, wrapped in whatever weather the evening might bring.
When you are preaching outside, as the night approaches, and the courtyard gates are unlocked, and you say things like “all are welcome”, well, then, why shouldn’t Joe make an appearance?
But before you get carried away with the image of the hellfire preacher, I should clarify. I was actually preaching a sermon about Joe. On this Sunday in November the passage from the Revised Common Lectionary was from Matthew 25:31-46. In order to spare you the details of my sermon, it should be noted that many a “street corner preacher” has summoned this Scripture to announce at the nice family walking to the market that they are destined to burn in hell. For such a preacher, theologically speaking, the Bible says it and that settles it.
Given my druthers, I would have a mind to chaperone these hell-obsessed preachers to the park (or even our church courtyard!) and introduce them to Joe and his friends. First, let me set this straight. While you have likely gathered that Joe spends most nights sleeping outside, and you have likely assumed Joe is a bit of a homeless wanderer, I hope you will see him as a real life, in the flesh, brother.
On the night I met Joe, I was preaching this sermon, echoing Jesus’ sentiment, that reminded our congregation that Jesus was in their very midst every single time they encountered someone in need of food, or water, or hospitality (shelter), or clothing, or health, or visitation. And literally, I do mean literally, the moment my sermon began Joe walked into the courtyard, promptly laid in the grass… and took a nap.
If I was a devious huckster of a preacher then I would have planned and coordinated such an event, but I am much too wounded from the practices of such hucksters to string together this human creative element. Instead, the wind of the Spirit was in the air… and it chilled me to my core. Turns out real life will unfold before our eyes if we’ll keep them open. I’m referring to my eyes, not Joe’s. I’m glad he was able to catch some peaceful sleep.
Joe has a pedal-rig set up that includes three sections. First, he has a low-seated bike with a cushy seat, backrest, and handlebars that make it look like they were ripped from a jet pack. Apparently Joe prefers to ride close to the ground, launching himself along the earth. Next, behind the pedals and the seat, are two connected kid carriers packed with, not kids!, but all of his earthly belongings. Strapped to the top of these two carriers on his bike train are 3ft long solar panels. It is all a brilliant and efficient contraption. A work of art, even. Joe said, in this here rig, was everything he’d ever need.
On this particular night he rolled up and asked one of our other pastors if he could bring the rig into the courtyard.
But before our pastor could muster an answer, Joe confessed he was hauling a rifle with him. Joe was calmly told he probably needed to leave the rig outside of the gathering place. Somewhat surprisingly to all involved, Joe willingly complied and joined us. And minutes later he was sound asleep. Maybe someday he’ll turn his rifle into a garden tool. Until then, may he receive the rest and relationship he needs.
Then the King will say to those on the right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me… And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”
1. Joe is not his real name. By changing his name I feel as if I am able to offer one more layer of dignity to a friend who calls the park his home.
Meet the author:
I have long held the dream of planting a church that shares leadership and centers life around the table. After my wife, Kate, and I moved to PHX in 2014 as she began medical school the dream took on a new life. We partnered to plant Kaleo Phoenix in 2018. I love joining people as we walk the path of being transformed by the Spirit of Jesus whether we are drinking good coffee, sharing a meal in the neighborhood, or playing basketball.