Loving my “invisible” neighbor

I don’t know about you, but right now my Facebook wall is being blown up by posts about some guy named Pastor Jeremiah Steepek. The story is that a well-intentioned incoming minister posed as a homeless man to teach a lesson to his new congregation. It’s quite a great tale, and one that would make anyone think twice about themselves and how they treat people.

Unfortunately, it’s a complete fabrication. There is no “Pastor Jeremiah Steepek” in charge of a “10,000 member” church “somewhere in Tennessee.” It’s a modern parable, equal parts urban legend and Internet tall tale. Nevertheless, the lesson of Pastor Jeremiah Steepak remains utterly relevant.

It’s easy for me to love my neighbor. It’s easy, that is, as long as my neighbor is invisible. By that I mean to ask, have you noticed how abstract and ethereal so much of our Christian rhetoric is on virtually every topic?

Christians rattle on and on about “The Family” while neglecting their kids. Christians “fight” for “social justice” by “raising consciousness” about “The Poor” while judging their friends on how trendy their clothes are. Christians pontificate about “The Church” while rolling their eyes at the people in their actual congregations. Christians are dogmatic about “The Truth” while they’re self-deceived about their own slavery to sin.

I think that’s a tendency for most of us, in some way or another. We affirm all the right things, whether in Christian doctrine or Christian practice, even fight with one another about them. But it’s all just up there in the abstract. These things are “issues,” not persons.

“The Family” never shows up unexpected for Thanksgiving or criticizes your spouse or spills chocolate milk all over your carpet; only real families can do that. “The Poor” don’t show up drunk for the job interview you’ve scheduled or spend the money you’ve given them on lottery tickets or tell you they hate you; only real poor people can do that. “The Church” never votes down my position in a congregational business meeting or puts on an embarrassingly bad Easter musical or asks me to help clean toilets for Vacation Bible School; only real churches can do that. “The Truth” never overturns my ideas and expectations; only the revelation of God in Christ does that.

As long as “The Family” or “The Poor” or “The Church” or “The Truth” are abstract concepts, as long as my interaction is as distant as an argument or as policy, then they can be whoever I want them to be.

The Spirit warns us about this. Jesus lit into the Pharisees for “fighting for” the Law of God while ignoring their financial obligations to their parents, all under the guise of their religious advocacy (Mark 7:10-12). And James, particularly, shows us the difference between “fighting” for a cause, and loving people.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16).

“Be warmed and filled” is advocacy; “get in here” is love. If our love is for invisible people, is it any wonder they’re dismissing an incredible gospel?

The story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek is one that is kind, heartwarming, and one that merits much thought. It’s true in some regard, but not entirely as it is being made out to be as it makes the Internet rounds. Be that as it may, if we do not manifest the servant’s heart that his heartwarming story stirs within us, we show our own profession to be just as much a fabrication as the story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.

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