Loving Those On The Margins

Context: This was our message at Titirangi Baptist Church on July 19th: Beth started by telling a story about Denise, reading Luke 8:40-48 and then she gave some thoughts about this lady Jesus healed, who'd been bleeding for 12 years. I concluded by delivering a message about "loving those on the margins"....

If I was able to introduce you to Denise today, you would see a very petite woman in her late 50’s with bright eyes and a wide, welcoming smile. It was my privilege to get to know her earlier this year while she was living at Naomi House, Cornerstone’s homeless shelter for single women.

Denise’s past was filled with a solid and consistent work history. For 30 years she was employed with Illinois Bell, a large phone company. She began in the mail-room and was promoted 12 times. Following Illinois Bell, Denise began working for a moving company, but after 8 years that business relocated to Florida. Denise found herself unemployed and alone. Finding a job proved difficult and she eventually lost her apartment. As she was looking for work, she faced the hardship of being too young for social security benefits, but old enough to experience age discrimination. Denise didn’t know where to turn to for help.

Denise had a storage unit that was about 3 meters by 3 meters. It was located in a large lot, filled with other storage containers, on the far south side of Chicago. The space held all the items from the apartment Denise had lost. And with no immediate solutions, Denise moved into crammed small space. 

Without a heat source and only a few flashlights for light, Denise told me she prayed, read her Bible and cried a river in that storage unit. Keeping clean was a real challenge, and while trying to wash up in the local public bathrooms, she told me she endured people who seemed to fear or despise her. Her former life became utterly lost. 

For three years, and throughout the harsh Chicago winters, Denise stayed in her storage unit and begged God to deliver her. This sweet hard working woman had been forced so far out on the margins that she couldn’t find her way back. 

In a state of utter desperation, while fearing the deadly cold of January, Denise found her way to Cornerstone. It didn't take long, because I am happy to report that Denise has a full-time job working at a domestic violence shelter, she is saving up and looking for a place. She is no longer alone and she is a source of encouragement to everyone around her. She gives God all the glory for bringing her back from the brink. 

Denise’s story reminds me of another woman we find in scripture. They both were pushed to the margins by society and they both serve as examples of God’s absolute unyielding love for those who are often overlooked.... 

Read Luke 8:40-48.....
The woman, even in the jostling noisy crowd, was alone. She was considered unclean and she had lived without the sympathy and understanding of people. She lived without everyday kindness and fellowship. She had spent all she had on cures that never healed, and now she was destitute. She had been broken by harsh judgements and the knowledge that others viewed her as “undeserving” had seeped into her own soul. She began to believe it and lived accordingly. She stumbled along after Jesus, at a safe distance.
Jesus was being hurried to the deathbed of a child. Not just any child, the child of an important and religious man. Everyone felt that this was a worthy mission. Word traveled quickly that this would be no ordinary miracle; this was special, this was a young person with a good name, and therefore, truly a justified miracle. In everyone’s eyes she was deserving of healing and health, after all, she was a little girl. 

Her father, Jairus, a respected leader of the synagogue, had openly begged Jesus to heal his daughter; physically flinging himself at Jesus in a loud and desperate way. His display of faith was so different from the woman’s secret faith. This sick woman was timid and private, but she had faith, and maybe for the first time in a long time, had hope as she watched Jesus. In the rushing moment, in the churning crowd, this marginalized woman took her chance, she crept up behind Him, crouched low and touched His hem. 

She was timid and private in her faith, but Jesus was aware, public, relentless and wielded a love that is beyond all reason; “Who touched me?” It was no mistake. He knew the answer to the question, “who touched me?” The timing even was no mistake. The sweet child, who’s life was slipping away, and this isolated woman, trailing behind and so easily forgotten. She carried her inferiority with her, yet her faith was there too, even while the excited crowd pressed ahead toward the sweet dying youth. The urgency and the worthiness of a miracle for this child was palpable, but Who would stop for the woman hiding on the margins with her shred of faith; grasping and cringing?Jesus!

The noisy parade had come to a halt. The crowd became angry with this pause in the journey, and why shouldn’t they be? They were backing up Jairus, a reputable religious man, who was so desperate to see his daughter's life to be saved from the power of death. 

The procession stopped, because clearly, Jesus wanted this woman noticed. He wanted her faith noticed. He stopped everyone, and frustrated even his own disciples, to question, probe and search. Did the disciples think that this was the moment, the opportunity for Jesus to get his foot in the synagogue door? To get in with the religious leaders? These were not the thoughts in Jesus’ mind; His thoughts were on more important matters, they were on His daughter, trembling there in the dust. Can you imagine the angry or dismissive faces in the crowd, in contrast to the look of love on the face of Jesus? The verse says, “When she realized that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling and fell down before Him.” It is clear that she did not desire attention or feel worthy of the miracle that she sought.

This private woman was intentionally given a very public reception by the Son of God. The crowds were made to stop, see and watch Jesus make a loving spectacle of the shamed and forgotten woman. He turned the attention of everyone on her and lovingly called her "Daughter".

This woman on the road, on the margins of the crowd, she was alone, but only up to the point when Jesus looked at her with compassion and called her "Daughter". No longer was she alone. She was taken into His family in a way that her reach of faith could not have predicted. She was recognized as a beloved daughter, accepted into an eternal family and she was home.

Loving those on the margins:
When I think of Jesus healing the bleeding woman, I am reminded of when we first opened our men's shelter back in 2001; there was this one man who entered our doors who challenged my faith and my love in a brand new way. 

Over the years, there's been many fellas who've challenged me in different ways, but this guy stood out from the rest, which is hard to do in a homeless shelter! I'd seen him before, often wandering around the streets by himself, dumpster diving and being picked on by the public. He was a loner who looked "homeless", had a stench and often didn't know how to look after himself!

In the evenings, when the guys entered the shelter, there was a routine, they were often chatting to their buddies and would sign in for a bed. They'd approach the table, quickly write and sign their first and last names, along with their age, and then hurry to set up their mats for the night. But this guy was different, he'd slowly limp up, get his face really close to the paper and take an eternity to write just the 4 letters of his name: N I C K! That's all he'd write; no age, no last name and often missing the lines.

Nick was his name, and he was alone in this world. I don't know much of his history, but I think he was Polish and Italian, been homeless for many years, had rotten health, bad eyes, an inability to read or write, no money or home and a severe mental illness. Nick's mind was young, he reminded me of a 7 year old boy, trapped in an adult's body. But there was something special Nick did have, he had this beautiful child-like faith; he loved Jesus, believed in Jesus and always wanted to know more. 

We tried to help Nick in many ways, we tried to make him feel part of the Cornerstone family, we tried to make him feel loved and I believe he felt it! I believe he found love, not just with us, but also with those who were homeless with him; who slept on the mats next to him. We all tried to lift him up, and he found love amongst a bunch of people living on the margins. 

Even though Nick felt love with us and we were trying to help him with his ongoing severe health problems, we still live in a cruel world, and due to some "homeless haters" and unfortunate situations, Nick sadly ended up dying under a tree in Uptown. Even though Nick was invisible, alone and marginalized throughout his life and death, we can now rejoice, because I have no doubt, Jesus has lovingly accepted Nick into His eternal family and Kingdom. His pain, suffering and sorrow is no more!

Nick's life and death changed and challenged me in new ways. All homeless folk are marginalized, but there are some who are even more marginalized and Nick was one of those; he was the least of the least, the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor! He was a modern day outcast. 

When I think of this woman creeping up and touching the fringe of Jesus cloak, I could imagine Nick doing the just the same, wishing to be healed from the many things that plagued him! The crowds would have pushed him aside; they would have told him he was dirty, stinky and wasn't worthy. But just like this woman, Nick had a strong faith and was determined to find healing through Jesus! 

Nick's life and death challenged me to change how I view those around me; to be like Jesus, to follow in His steps! Jesus could have ignored this woman, let her go freely, she was healed, but He didn't, He stopped and focussed all His attention on her! He was busy, He was being told to rush, because He had something very important to do, there was an important person down the road that needed His tender loving care. But He stopped and focussed all His attention on her! He didn't do this to embarrass her, but because He loved her and He wanted her to know of His love, He wanted her to feel that love, He wanted her to feel accepted, He wanted her to know that she was important to Him and His Kingdom! 

We can't let our busyness get in the way of His Kingdom! I've done it too many times! We can't let our friends or the crowds stop us from seeing the needs around us. I've done that too many times too! Jesus stopped and focussed His attention on this marginalized women, why? because she needed Him and He knew it! 

What Jesus did here is a glimpse of how He wants us to live out His Kingdom, that we need to take notice of those around us who are rejected and marginalized! The Kingdom of God calls us to see and love those who the world bullies and ignores. The Kingdom of God doesn't want us to respond to just powerful and rich people like Jairus, the Kingdom of God needs us to respond to those who are weak, fragile, poor and despised; to those quietly hiding in the shadows.

God used the tragic death of Nick to inspire me to notice those in my life who are marginalized and reach out to them. 

In Uptown, where I live, I have people, all day, everyday, coming to me, needing help; as a caseworker and outreach worker, it's part of my job, it's extremely busy! These people are often louder, more confident and eccentric. It's a similar challenge that a teacher has, where certain kids always get their attention and some can easily be forgotten. I constantly have to challenge myself to see past the rowdy ones, the trouble makers and the needy ones, to notice the invisible quiet ones hiding in the corners; they need just as much help, if not more, but are too shy, too afraid and too embarrassed to ask!  

Over the years, I've had many Nick's come into my life and to be brutally honest, it would be easier to ignore them, and too often, I've done just that; ignored them! Despite my selfishness, God constantly reminds me, saying "love your neighbor as yourself, and that person standing over there, in the shadows, on the margins, is your neighbor; go to them!" 

The Kingdom of God is calling us to see those invisible, marginalized and forgotten people in our midst, meet their needs and to love them! Loving the marginalized can actually be energizing, fun and exciting, but it can also be depressing, tedious and difficult. Loving the marginalized also invades our lives; our time, our money. But I believe, when we live out the Kingdom of God, there's a reward, a joy, that comes with the sacrifice. 

Over the past couple of winters, the temperatures in Chicago have been horrifying, with record lows and record snowfalls! Right down our street is a glaring need, there's dozens of people sleeping outside under bridges. Every year, my heart is heavy, because I know all these men and women could get frostbite, get hypothermia or even freeze to death! 

During these past few winters, I've been able to witness and be part of the Kingdom of God moving in our midst; right there in Uptown! Loving people would notice these folk living outside and bring them blankets, tents, sleeping bags, gloves, hand warmers, toe warmers, socks, hats, coats, hot food and hot drinks. We were able to be part of this movement, by bringing many of them out of the cold and offering them a bed and warmth in our CCO cafeteria. 

Not only were people's lives, fingers and toes saved, but they also experienced the love of Jesus. I'd talk to these men and women and they'd share how random strangers would stop and flood them with love; and they'd in turn, thank Jesus for not forgetting them in such a hostile environment.

This reality isn't Auckland's reality; no one is going to freeze to death here. But there are people around us who are depressed, lonely, lacking food, in abusive relationships, bullied and struggling to get around. The needs are numerous here also. Whenever we come down here, I love seeing how people don't forget their neighbors, and reach out to them, by baking biscuits and hot meals for that lonely neighbor, driving that disabled friend to her appointments and visiting that depressed friend who struggles to get out of bed every morning. 

One night, Beth and I had just been sharing at home group and we went to supermarket down in New Lynn. A formerly homeless young man recognized us from TBC and we drove him home. We chatted for a while, he shared about how someone at TBC had taken him in and how he felt the love of Jesus. These actions may seem small and insignificant, but they are huge in the Kingdom of God.

Another guy who challenged my faith and love in a new way was this dude named Walter, he was the grumpiest, most stubborn, most hostile senior citizen I've ever met in my life; and I've met a few! He would swear at you and wanna beat you with his cane for being nice to him, but God reminded me with his still small voice "he has no one, be his friend and love him" Life would have been a lot easier to ignore him, but the Kingdom of God calls to remember lonely grumpy old men like Walter and to love them. I remember driving him to some appointments one day, frustrated by all endless his ranting, hatred and complaining, then all of sudden he surprised me by saying, "thank you Jeremy for being a friend!" I couldn't believe it, those words gave me goosebumps, they gave me joy, and I prayed God would continually speak into this man's heart.

Then I think of Thomas, who is very different from Walter! He is quiet! He is extremely humble and polite! People wouldn't know he existed; he blended into the background and never asked for help. I watched a friend, a coworker, notice this abandoned, lonely Vietnam veteran and take him under his wing! I watched the Kingdom of God in action. Thomas had been homeless for 30 long years. Ignored and forgotten for 30 long years. He'd been invisible in countless shelters and on the streets for 30 long years until he came to Cornerstone and met my friend! This friend knew Thomas needed to get housed, so he figuratively held his hand and took him to countless appointments, which he never would or could have done on his own. The good news is, Thomas was seen and has now moved into his own apartment. 

God doesn't call us to choose between what's comfortable or hard, he calls us to represent His Kingdom here on earth. He calls us to respond when we see the need. He wants us to take leaps of faith and leap into the unknown. He calls us to be strong and courageous. He calls to do all this, but He doesn't leave us alone, no, He's got our backs and He's given us His Holy Spirit to strengthen us, guide us and empower us!

What does Jesus tell us in the book of Matthew: "When we see someone hungry, feed them. When we see someone thirsty, give them a drink. When we see someone homeless, take them in, house them. When we see someone lacking clothes, clothe them. When we know someone's sick, visit them and comfort them. When we know someone's in prison, visit them and write to them."  

We are all called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we all know people who are like this women who crept up and touched the fringe of Jesus cloak and we know people in need, who are marginalized and need to be touched by the love of Jesus. 

As we go into a time of reflection, I encourage you to look around and take notice of your families, communities, work places and schools! Look around and I wanna encourage us all to take a leap of faith, pray for courage and leap into the unknown. I want to encourage us all to think of those neighbors, school mates and friends who would enjoy a hot cooked meal, a shoulder to cry on or someone to drive them to a doctor's appointment. I want to encourage us all to think of people who need a little more love in their lives. I want to encourage us all to not forget about those who live on the margins and to love them with an unconditional love....
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