To One of the Least of These
September 20th, 1987 @ 10:50 AM
TO ONE OF THE LEAST OF THESE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
09-20-87 10:50 a.m.
And again welcome the multitudes of you who share this hour on radio and on television. This is the pastor, bringing the message entitled To One of the Least of These. It is a passage out of which we read a moment ago in Matthew 25, this time, verse 40: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these . . . ye have done it unto Me” [Matthew 25:40].
In 1927, I began my ministry, sixty years ago. In 1929, on a black Friday, the stock market crashed, and we entered the Great Depression. And those beginning years of my pastoral work in my little country churches, I saw the hurt and the tragedy of families losing their homes, losing their farms, put out on the lanes, a sadness beyond description.
My first funeral service: visiting in the home of a tenant farmer, praying for their child, the little thing died. We constructed a box, put the precious little bundle in the box, put the box on the back of a pickup truck, carried it to the cemetery in a home dug grave. That’s how I began. In my first pastorate out of the seminary, it was in the midst of the Depression.
In the county seat town, where I was undershepherd, was located White’s Wagon Yard, filled with people who were hungry and cold and destitute. On a Christmas, I thought of a way to help and to bless, and I had the people start a Christmas program by bringing white packages filled with food and clothing, and we helped those poor through the cold of the winter months.
When I came to Dallas, to this church, the Association asked me if I would be responsible for the poor in West Dallas. When I brought it to the deacons, they said, “Pastor, are you prepared to further a continuing ministry of food and clothing and medicine to those people in West Dallas?” I prayerfully and earnestly said “Yes,” and we began. In God’s providence, there came to our church a wonderful woman, Mrs. Hattie Rankin Moore. She gave me the money to build Truett Chapel. And we ministered to those people, poor, down, outcast in West Dallas.
It was in those days that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were killed in an ambush. It was in those days that Raymond Hamilton, their partner, was executed. And we ministered to those families. Hattie Rankin Moore said to me, “Pastor, would you go to Alcatraz and visit Floyd Hamilton, doing a life term in that federal penitentiary, and tell him about the Lord, try to win him to Jesus?” I went to Alcatraz. The warden gave me a guard, who took me beyond one iron door after another iron door, after another iron door, into the heart and center of that vast prison.
And there, witnessing to Floyd Hamilton, I knelt with him on a steel floor and extended my hand and said, “Floyd, if you’ll give your heart to God; take Jesus as your Savior, will you take my hand?” He took my hand, and he said, “Pastor, if I am ever free, first thing I’ll do is walk down that aisle of your church, and you baptize me.” In the gracious goodness of God, he was remanded to Leavenworth penitentiary, and there finally pardoned. Down that aisle—this aisle, he came, and I baptized him. And he gave his life to witnessing, especially to boys, until he was presently cut down by cancer.
All through these years God has placed it on my heart, a ministry to those outcasts and the poor and the homeless, the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. In the gracious goodness of Jesus, we now have twenty-eight ministering chapels all through this great city. This is God’s call and God’s purpose and God’s assignment for us. He placed us in the heart of this teeming metropolis. If I were called as pastor to an affluent congregation out in the greenswards of the city, I wouldn’t take it. I was called to those churches again and again. I love being downtown, and here they throng, they come every day, every night; the poor and the outcast of our city.
I have here a report entitled “The Homeless of Dallas.” Homelessness is now affecting a divergent part of the nation’s population. A research concluded, “It appears that at no time since the Depression has the homeless population represented so wide a cross-section of American society as it does today.” They calculate there are 3,950 homeless on the streets of Dallas. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that Dallas experienced a forty percent increase in its homeless population this year. The administrator of a social services center stated that he has been surprised by the large number of school age children that are now homeless.
Many churches—and I can’t believe this—many churches refuse to become involved. One leader said, “I need church help, but I can’t find it.” He also said that what the street people need is not a handout, but a hand up. And these headlines that I read daily: “Homeless Face New Obstacles; Aid Is Drying Up; Conditions are Worsening.” The situation appears to be more critical every day; another headline, “Working Class Out on the Street”; another headline, “Families Are a New Breed of Homeless”; another line, “Hard Life of Streets Has Many Faces.” It has no end, and it increases every day.
How do I feel being downtown, in the heart of this city, pastoring a church that, because of its location, the homeless and the helpless come here every day? How do I feel? I thank God that He placed me in such a ministry and such a congregation.
Let me have my church
On a downtown street.
Where the race of men go by—
The men who are good,
The men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat
Or hurl the cynic’s ban.
Let me have my church
On a downtown street
And be a friend to man.
[Adapted from “The House by the Side of the Road,” Sam Walter Foss]
The disciples said to our Lord, when the hungry throngs pressed Him on every side, “Send them away.” Jesus said, “Not so. We shall feed them” [Mark 6:35-37]. We can hire—and it would take a hired one—we can hire a staff member here in this church, and his assignment would be to stand here day and night, and when the helpless and the homeless come, to tell them, “We have no interest for you, no help for you. Depart.” Nor could I think, nor could I define a more categorized denial of the Christian faith than such an assignment as that: “Go, depart, we have nothing for you.”
Contrariwise, if I were defining and affirming the Christian faith that would be it: “There is room and to spare for you. We have bread and enough to share. We have a marvelous grace and love that comes from heaven, and God sent it for you.” When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Him and said, “My master asks, ‘Are You He that should come, or do we look for another?’” [Matthew 11:2-3], and our Lord said, “You go back and tell your great Baptist preacher—you tell John the Baptist the lame walk, and the blind see, and the lepers are cleansed, and the sick are healed, and the dead are raised” [Matthew 11:4-5]—then the climactic avowal, “and the poor have the gospel preached unto them” [Matthew 11:5]. The poor have the gospel preached unto them: the hope and salvation that we have in our living Lord [1 Peter 1:3].
If I were asked for a demonstration and an affirmation of the Christian faith, what would I say? I could point to a great convocation of God’s people such as we had here in Dallas two years ago, when forty-three thousand of our fellow communicants gathered in our queenly city. And I could say, “Look, look at that great assembly. That, this is the faith!” But Jesus never mentioned it. He never referred to it.
And I could say, “Listen to that marvelous and eloquent preacher, from one great peroration after another. This is the faith!” But Jesus never mentioned it. He never referred to it. I could say, “Look at this glorious and vaulted cathedral. This is the faith!” Jesus never referred to it—never mentioned it. I could say, “Behold the surpliced minister in his gorgeous robes. This is the faith!” Our Lord never referred to it. He never mentioned it. I could speak of the incomparable rituals of the state church: “This is the faith!” The Lord never approached it. But He did say something about a cup of cold water [Matthew 10:42]. He did have something that He said about feeding the hungry, and visiting the sick, and loving the lost, and winning the poor [Matthew 25:31-40].
I was asked in a convocation last week, “Pastor, the appeal you’re making for this Inner City Chapel, could not that money be given in other areas such as on a foreign field, and it be much more and wisely spent?” Not that we deny our calling of God to preach the gospel to all the kingdoms, and nations, and tribes, and families of the world [Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8], but I cannot help seeing in the example of our Lord and in His words of commission our responsibility for these who are here at home [Matthew 11:4-6, 25:31-40].
Our outreach ministries win more people to Jesus and baptize more converts than all of our downtown church put together. That Inner City Chapel wins people to the Lord every day and baptizes them every day. Two of their converts I asked to be seated here on our platform. They’ve been won in that Inner City Chapel, and they are over there in our preacher’s college studying for the gospel ministry. This boy is named Robert Free. He was on the streets over four years and in the ministry of that Inner City Chapel, won to Jesus, now in school, preparing to preach the gospel. This boy is Bud Power, won to Christ in that Inner City Chapel and is now in our school, studying to be a gospel minister. I marvel at the wonder of the ableness of God to pick these up out of the streets, out of the gutter, set their feet on a rock and send them out to preach the gospel of the grace of the Son of God.
Not only that, but, inherent in our humanity, God has placed a responsibility on our hearts. If a man is hungry and I have bread, if he is thirsty and I have water, if he is lost and I know the way to heaven, if he is outcast and undone, and I know Him who can remake and rebirth and reborn, and I don’t tell it, God says, “His blood will I require at your hands” [Ezekiel 33:8]. To me, it is not optional. It is a mandate from heaven.
May I speak of the specifics? Our present inner city mission is one block that way, and about three blocks that way on Ross Avenue. It is small. It’s a very small property. There’s a dear couple who own it. They let us have it just for our paying the taxes. But, it is subject to be taken away from us upon a month’s notice. They want $870,000 for it—$870,000. It is small and very expensive. We have wrestled with that. And in God’s providence, a little further out on Ross, where the overpass of Central crosses Ross, Mr. Vasek, who owns the property, said, “You can have it for $311,000.”
The city demands certain things in any change of property like that, such as smoke detectors, such as a sprinkling system, and they will not let us use it without those accouterments. And then, of course, we must place in it a chapel for the preaching of the gospel and the kitchen for the feeding. It will cost $150,000 to make it usable for our ministries. This means the project will cost $461,000. And we’re asking our people the first Sunday in October—October 4—to bring an offering to the church to pay for and to make possible the use of that chapel for our Lord. What I pray in my heart, $461,000 for that lower floor—if our people were moved of God to do beyond it, we will take the second floor of that building and renovate and make possible its use for a dormitory, where the man to find a place to sleep off of the street until he can find a job, be rehabilitated, won to Jesus, remade in Christ, and start anew, this time, as a child of God. Lord, give us that response from the hearts of our people.
And now, an addendum: I would love for our people to make the offering an atonement. That’s the only word in the English language that has been added to theological nomenclature; atonement, at-one-ment, atonement, at-one-ment; to make it an atoning offering unto God, at-one-ment with the Lord, at-one-ment with Him—partners with Jesus our Savior; at-one-ment with Him, in His heart’s purpose, in His calling for us, at-one-ment with God and at-one-ment with our dear people in our precious church.
Much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary . . . God hath tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor to that which is lacking . . . that there be no schism in the body, that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with him . . .
[1 Corinthians 12:22-26]
At-one-ment, atonement, at-one-ment in our church, in our fellowship, in God’s healing presence among our people: O God, bind us together in a new love and a new fellowship in our dear church.
Richard Baxter, preaching on an English common—a sheriff with his retinue passed by with a young man to be hanged; Richard Baxter stopped, watched the procession, and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Who is a sinner, and I am not a sinner? All of us bound together in an atoning love and grace bestowed by our dear Lord; if one of them is sick, I am not well. If one of them is in prison, I am not free. If one of them is blind, I cannot see. If one of them is homeless, I have no dwelling. If one of them is lost, I am not saved. And Lord, as a token of my at-one-ment with Thee and Thy purpose in the earth, and as a token of my at-one-ment with my fellow pilgrims, Lord, I bring an atoning offering unto Thee, and pray humbly God shall bless us as He binds us together in His grace and love, and as He heals us and makes us well.
Precious orchestra, in a minute I want each one of you to kneel, and dear and wonderful choir, just where you’re seated, I want you to kneel. And our people here, if you can move, I want you to move into the aisle and toward the front as close as you can. And in the balcony, move to the aisle and kneel, and if there is not room in the aisle, kneel in the pew. And Lanny Elmore, our Minister of Outreach, I want you to come up here, Lanny, and I want you to lead us in a prayer of healing, and compassion, and mercy, and grace, that God shall make us a beautiful and a wonderful people; remembering Him who died for us, remembering one another in His grace and goodness.
And in this moment that we sing our hymn of appeal, if God has spoken to your heart and He sends you to us, with arms wide open and hearts moved with gratitude we welcome you. A family you, coming into the fellowship of our dear church, a couple you, a one somebody you, as the Spirit of God would press the appeal to your heart, come. From the balcony down a stairway, in the press of people on this lower floor, down an aisle: “Pastor, this is God’s day for me and here I stand.” Make the decision now in your heart, and in this moment when we stand to sing our appeal, on the first note of the first stanza, come. God’s angels attend you in the way, while we stand and while we sing our hymn of appeal.