I heard one of the shortest but most memorable sermons not from a pulpit but from beside a dumpster. I had pulled my semi up behind a convenience store to grab a cup of coffee. As I climbed out of the truck, a woman walked up to me. Her face burned a deep brown. Stained jeans and sockless shoes and weary eyes. “Sir,” she said, “I hate to bother you, but can you help me?”
Pointing over her shoulder, she said her husband was in the dumpster. They were hungry and he was digging for food. Could I give them anything? When I came out of the store a few minutes later, she and her husband were standing beside my truck. I handed them the two submarine sandwiches I’d bought inside. The man took them, handed them to his wife, and stretched out his hand. I shook it, feeling the grime and grease of the dumpster on his palm.
On his weathered face glowed a gratitude more profound than anything I’ve ever witnessed. “Thank you, sir,” he said, “thank you so much. We don’t have hardly nothing. Just got to town a few nights ago. Been sleeping under the bridge over there. But God, he always seems to send people to help us out. Jesus been good to us that way. He always provides.”
And thanking me again, they walked away, out of my life, but never from my memory and gratitude. A man who had no address, no car, no savings account, who was about to eat out of a trash can—he told me that “Jesus been good to us that way.” Every time I think of that dumpster sermon, uttered by a homeless prophet, I remind myself that wisdom lurks in the outer places. Rich gratitude among the impoverished and forgotten. Jesus been good to us that way. Yes, he has. And Jesus was good to me in sending that man into my life for a few brief moments.
He reminded me that God has friends in low places. In low places profound faith flourishes. And from those low places resounds the voice of God from the lips of his people. Thank God for pastors, for church leaders, for bestselling Christian authors, for all those in positions of prominence whom Christ uses to proclaim his Good News of salvation for the world.
But thank God too for people who have never read a word of Martin Luther or Karl Barth but whose lives are inked through and through with the theology of the cross. They drive tractors, flip burgers, shingle roofs, and, yes, dig through dumpsters.
Each of them embodies the earthiness of theology. The same God born in a barn and laid in a feed trough is swaddled in the ordinaries of their unawesome lives. The same God who had nowhere to lay his head sleeps with them under interstate bridges. The same God who was blackballed by the religious highbrows of his day sits and mourns with those who have been broken by the church.
The same God who died between two crooks hangs out with cons and ex-cons today. The same God who let a prostitute weep on his feet and dry them with her hair embraces and kisses believing women today who have been entangled in the sex trade. He is the God of the cross who is found where the world doesn’t seek him—or, all too often, where the church doesn’t expect him to be. Jesus is there for them, for us, for all people. He is a God of surprises, whose ways shock us into expanding our horizons. The laborers in his vineyard may wear suits and ties, boots and jeans, or leather and tats. But they are all his laborers. Or more precisely, his children.
God’s family is full of misfits. Always has been, always will be. For our Father’s family is founded on grace, not goodness. He calls us in Matthew 25: 31-46 to reach out and help others. As we begin the new year can we do the same like the gentleman.