Like an archer who wounds at random is one who hires a fool or any passer-by. Proverbs 26, verse 10.
Something interesting happened on my way into work yesterday; please don’t take what I say here to be bragging because it isn’t. I’m nobody worth bragging about. It’s just to illustrate a revelation (of sorts).
I was working in San Francisco, where I’ve spent the last few weeks working with a city health plan. My career has allowed me to spend considerable time in the Bay Area over the last six years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to stay at posh hotels. Enough travel nets you high status, and I am privileged to take most of my meals in private concierge or members-only lounges when they’re available. This week’s hotel had one such lounge, so I had a free breakfast there every day.
If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you’ll remember that the city is full of homeless people. There are many reasons for this, not the least of them are both the tolerant atmosphere of the town as well as the fact that the city pays people a stipend if they are homeless. But I’ve been homeless myself, or at least nearly so, and I feel bad that others suffer when I don’t. Homelessness is a seriously discouraging condition; who among us would desire it? Some of the homeless are troubled, some down on their luck, some are freeloaders; being Lutheran, I immediately assume the worst possible scenario about their condition.
Following the example of better people, I took to getting extra food from the concierge bar, then finding a homeless person and giving away the food. I have done this for years. By my selfish reckoning, this isn’t a bad thing because chances are they are hungry. Besides, the free food would be either eaten by already satisfied customers or just thrown away. God wants us to help our brothers and sisters, and this was a way I could do so. Sometimes it was a cup of coffee, or a sweet roll, or (as in yesterday) a paper Starbucks cup full of fresh fruit.
So there I was, walking down Mission St towards the office when I chanced upon a bedraggled looking woman wearing rags. She was an older woman, holding a cup, asking for money. I walked up to her to do my good deed, and then our conversation went like this:
Woman: “Sir, do you have some change…”
Me: “No, but you can have this,” and I offered her the cup of fruit.
Woman: “I don’t drink after strangers, “she curtly replied, thinking it was just a cup of coffee.
Me: “But it isn’t coffee. See,” and I took off the lid.
Woman: “I don’t want that. I already ate,” and she showed me her cup of spare change that others had already dropped into. She then shot me a dirty look from a dirty face.
Me: (shrugging my shoulders) “Good luck”
I walked away and said “so be it” to the wind. I also said a quick “God bless her” in a mostly heartless prayer as I walked down towards 3rd St and my turn to the office. The woman came off as a bit mean, and even a little selfish. I thought she was just a freeloader; there are many of them in the city. The exchange annoyed me, but it’s happened before so it didn’t annoy me too much. After all, there are plenty of other homeless people in the city and I would just find another one. If she didn’t want my free gift, someone else would.
That’s when it hit me: I’m her. I’m homeless, I’m lost and I’m troubled. Whether I have a quiet place to lay down my head is moot: I am her. I’m the selfish person who didn’t want something wonderful offered to him. I’m the lost soul, begging for what I want but ignoring what’s important. I am just like her, holding out my cup for more while turning away something that could help. In my pursuit of doing something to please God (and in reality doing it to please myself) I am both the archer who shoots random arrows and the fool who is hired on the spot to do Godly work. In my spiritual journey (as well as my daily journey on the streets) I am the selfish woman who wants something for nothing. I’m the person who shuns the goodness God offers in favor of pursuing something worthless. What’s worse, instead of my heartless prayer, I should have indeed prayed hard for her, doing so with earnest hope instead of some social and meaningless epithet.
She is my sister, and Jesus loves her just as much as He loves you, me, or Fidel Castro. She may be a ‘nobody’ beggar working the streets of the city for spare change, but she is somebody to Him who created each of us. Her acts and her situation pain God just as much as when I make my own mistakes. Even more than this, she wasn’t the self-righteous one walking along in public, looking for somebody on which to bestow his gracious gift of something that cost him nothing. Who is the better person: the shameless beggar or the shameful consultant? I know what I think.
Before I got to work, I did indeed find another homeless person. He was standing on the other side of the Moscone Center. He was a middle aged black man, also dressed in rags and smelling bad. At first, I saw him and started walking away because he was lighting a joint. Then I saw him look into a trash can and pull out a sandwich box – it looked like a Big Mac container – and then throw it away again. That was when I gave up my pretenses and walked up to him. I gave him the cup of strawberries and a banana I had in my coat pocket. He didn’t appear to even notice me until I stood right beside him.
You know what he said? “Thank you, brother.” He didn’t know me from Adam, and maybe it was just a colloquial term, but he called me ‘brother.’ I responded “you’re welcome, brother,” I shook his hand and walked away. I realized that I am him too: hungry, cold, dirty, and looking for something to numb the pain I take on as I walk through the streets of this life. I realized that he and I really are brothers after all. Like the woman, He is important to God just as much as you or me.
Sometimes God gives us chances we don’t deserve. It’s called “grace.” Sometimes He speaks to us quite plainly through His Word. Other times it happens through our conscience, or the Sunday preacher, or the kind words of a friend. And other times, God speaks to us through the predicament of strangers, letting us know that He knows what the score is, and that He loves us no matter what. Here’s to hoping some careless, selfish and stupid archer doesn’t shoot us with his arrows before we each get to share that with other people who may not know it.