It is an uncomfortable feeling and I will tell you about it in a minute. First, you need to know that I am a life-long Indiana Pacers fan. For those who might not know, the Pacers are our local professional basketball team which plays in the NBA. I was a fan, however, back when they were in the ABA before 1976. The American Basketball Association (ABA) was the league in which the basketball was red, white and blue. It was the league that started the 3 point shot and was the home to Dr. J. (Julius Erving) for his first five seasons. The Pacers were three time ABA champions, more than any other team. They have not had as much success in the NBA, but Reggie Miller will always be my favorite player. (I still tear up when I watch the videos from the 1990’s of him dropping points on the Knicks.) But this year could be different. Most of the season is gone and we presently have the best record in the league. Here’s to hoping. I recognize that is probably more than any of you want to know about the Pacers, though I could tell you a lot more.
So what is the uncomfortable feeling? It is this. Whenever we go to a game we walk by several homeless people and their signs – “Anything will help.” “Haven’t Eaten Today.” “Why lie. It’s for beer.” Last night was particularly uncomfortable for me. As we were leaving the game an older gentleman was laying on his side, slightly propped up on his arm. His brown coat was wrapped around him and his black hat was pulled low. He had also been there earlier when we walked into the game. As people walked back to their cars he was saying, “Sure hope you enjoyed that game. You all be careful going home.” I have not been able to get the image of that man nor his words out of my head. I wondered where he was headed that night. Does he have a home to go to or is his home the streets?
We live in a world of great inequality. I had just gone to a basketball game where young men were being paid exorbitant amounts of money to entertain us. I had forked over some of my own cash for that entertainment. Though they had to hone their basketball skills to get to the professional level, their height and athletic ability was a gift of their birth. Just a few hundred yards from the basketball court was a man who had a small cardboard box set in front of him begging others for dollars so he might live. Since a significant portion of the homeless suffer from mental illness, was that his case? And if so, why was he one of the unlucky ones at birth?
Walking by the homeless can be a very uncomfortable feeling. I am always torn about how to respond and what to do. At times, I have carried extra money to put into their cups. At other times, I have decided that isn’t the best way to help, so I have given to the missions and charities that house and feed them. I know this, I don’t ever want that feeling of uncomfortableness to leave me. I want to be pushed to think about the inequalities in the world and what this means for the church and how we respond as a people who believe that everyone is created in the Sacred image. I don’t want the unfairness of life to be hidden from me or kept in a place where I don’t have to walk by it. As uncomfortable, and sometimes as helpless as I feel in the face of it, I want to be reminded that there is a world that is much more important than my own pleasure or entertainment.
I know this, the life of that old, gray man who wished us safe journey home after the Pacers’ game, is worth every bit as much as my own life, the life of any of those basketball players, or any life at all. I believe he is a beloved child of God and worthy of the dignity and respect such heritage brings. As I mentioned, I don’t always know how to respond in the immediacy of such situations. So I support local housing and food ministries and give to those organizations that work in a larger capacity in helping meet such needs. And as a pastor of a congregation to which many people in need often turn for help, I am determined to treat each person with patience and compassion. Being conscious, the best that I can, not to treat them or their situation as a burden on my time or their need as something that doesn’t concern me. Since I call myself a Christian, that means I follow Jesus, and what I read in the gospels is of a man who had compassion for others, especially those who were on the edges.
Well, the Pacers will be in the NBA playoffs. That’s for certain. They were the first team to secure their place. And I will probably make it to a couple of those games. I hope I come across that same man in the brown coat and the black hat. I want him to know that I made it home safe. That I appreciated his kind words and caring. I want him to know I care too.