This is a talk I gave at Worcester Area Mission Society.
You remember, perhaps, the story that Jesus told of the sheep and the goats. The nations are being judged, divided into right or left, sheep or goat, eternal life or eternal suffering and everyone is equally surprised by where they end up. The unexpected test is whether you provided food, drink, or clothing to those who have none, whether you have welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, or visited those in prison. (You can look it up in Matthew 25:31-46.)
It is clear that Jesus wants us to care for those who have limited access to material resources.
But we live in an age where many of us, even people who are not very wealthy, have an excess of things. Individually, most of us in the U.S. have more food, drink, and clothing than we need to get by. We all have excess that we want to get rid of.
My question is this: are we giving in order to get rid of our excess? Or to help people in need?
We certainly long for both to be true!! But is it?
It’s tempting to take a diversion and tell you a story you may know about government cheese. In the United States our food programs were developed to take care of excess, rather than to feed hungry people. In the 80s, the US government was buying cheese in order to keep dairy prices high. When faced with huge quantities of cheese, we created a program to give poor people cheese from our excess.
In their book When Helping Hurts Corbett and Fikkert argue that getting rid of our excess creates a “God Complex” in the giver—we think we are special to have been able to give things away. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that giving away things you don’t need is not exactly painful. In fact, I find that people feel pain at *not* being able to give away things they don’t need. Giving from our excess is for our own benefit. It makes us feel better.
Its not necessarily bad to feel better, I don’t love everything about Corbett and Fikkert’s arguments. My DMin project argues with their book, and with Lupton’s Toxic Charity, that they are overly concerned with the poor people developing dependency, and not concerned enough with making sure people have what they need to get ahead. Independence is not a Christian value.
But there is something to the question of whether getting rid of what we have, but don’t need, is actually covered by Jesus telling us to offer food, drink, and clothes. It’s certainly not the point with welcoming strangers, healing the sick, or visiting people in prison. The point of the last three is relationship. Shouldn’t that be the point of the first three?
Early on in my ministry at Worcester Fellowship I was recruiting a church in the wider Worcester Area. I met with the pastor in early spring. (This pastor is long gone from the area, so you don’t have to try and figure out who it was.) Pastor Mary and I met and talked about Worcester Fellowship, hoping to get support. At the end of the meeting he offered us three expensive fur coats from people in his congregation.
I don’t know if this pastor didn’t get what we are doing at Worcester Fellowship, or perhaps the pastor was stuck, maybe some members of the congregation had this excess and pressured the pastor to get it to a “good cause”.
As soon as he offered the coats I knew for sure this meant that the church wasn’t going to make a financial donation. I was thinking in my head about whether there was some way to sell the coats when Mary spoke up.
“Oh, we can’t take these. Our ministry is about building relationships, not about giving things.” With practice I learned to say the same thing when the situation called for it.
Outdoor church is based on relationships. We teach all the outdoor church leaders that if your aim is to be church, you can’t give away stuff. Things are transactional. Once you create a transactional connection, it’s hard to build a relationship. People know the rules for getting stuff—what to say, how to say it, how to pass the test as “worthy” in order to qualify for the thing being given away. People learn to say what is required.
Relationships are built as we learn to say what is true. Transactions—saying things to qualify for getting things—reduce relationships. If we go the other way, if we build relationships first, we will learn enough about one another to give out of knowledge. A person we know may tell us what they really need. They may tell us something they can give to us. The giving becomes a small part of a mutual sharing.
Recent research points to the likelihood that early church worship was gathering every day, people with means and people with few means, eating together. People were confident that the kingdom of God had actually begun. Jesus tells us the kingdom is at hand. Can you imagine being a person who survived by begging in the first century, or being a day laborer, and suddenly joining a community where you get to eat every single day? It is Isaiah 55 come true:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
The meal is an example of community sharing. For sure, those with plenty are bringing from their excess, and those with little are bringing only a little. But they are all volunteering. They are all working together (That is a little plug for my upcoming book Five Loaves, Two Fishes, Twelve Volunteers). The sharing creates relationship, so the giving is to people we know.
Returning to the story of the sheep and the goats, we find that the surprised sheep and goats ask what they did to deserve this judgement. Jesus’s answer is “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Jesus actually is the person who needs food, drink, clothes, healing, welcome, and prison visits. Chrysostom, an early Christian theologian, says that the resurrected body of Christ is two places—in the church, and in the poor. He goes on to critique the one for not letting the other inside.
So what does all this tell us to do? I certainly am not arguing for not giving things away. Worcester Fellowship could not build the relationships it has without the churches that bring lunch and socks. But I am saying to ask organizations what they need. Ask individuals what they need. Listen to the answers. In general you can trust that organizations need most of all three things: your money, your time as a volunteer, and your prayers.
In the book The Homeless by Jenkins, he comes to the unexpected conclusion that people who are homeless want three things: housing, work, and love. Interestingly, that’s exactly what I want! Get to know people. When you are in relationship, what you give is like giving to Jesus. Get to know organizations. When you are in a relationship, you care about what they ask for. Give because its needed by someone, not because its not needed by you.
From May 10, 2018, a talk at Worcester Area Mission Society.
The one chair, over there, on the left, is broken and alone, almost the same color as the worn out deck, almost invisible under the leaves, almost part of the natural order of decay. It is separated from the stacks of working chairs: chairs that invite us into the cheery, sun-filled, social space. I remember broken chairs I have seen before, sometimes being fixed by an enterprising owner, sometimes hidden in the back of a garage, often with a leg appearing over the top of dumpster.
That chair in the dumpster I remember clearly, because a man without a home, his name is Joel, was pulling it out. He explained to me that grey afternoon how he was going to use it in his tent at the back of the park--how it would be like a table for him, rather than a chair, how he would sit on a rock and put his writing on the chair, how it would fit just fine in the furthest back corner of the tent, and how his writing would stay dry when it rained. How this chair was just perfect for him.
Broken chairs are, in some way, perfect metaphors for my homeless neighbors, I think to myself that evening, sitting in my warm house, writing on a oak desk, noting all of the furniture around me, lots of furniture, all if it unbroken. Broken chairs are set aside so casually at first, just like the people who so casually are set aside when they cross the line from having to home to not having a home. Joel's last straw, after the crack in his leg from the car accident, and after losing his hourly job when the leg couldn't be properly fixed, and after he was turned down for disability, the thing that broke him was casual and small: the landlord raised the rent. And just like a chair with one leg that is loose and unstable, Joel was set aside, out of our thoughts, off there in the corner, out of sight of all of us with homes.
There are people who have tried to fix Joel, just like there are enterprising chair fixers. Some focus on his drinking, others on getting his disability approved, others on simply trying to get him inside. Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces so many broken chairs. Can we change the design, can we change the materials, can we test the product before selling it? Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces people without homes. Can we change our definitions, can we change our supports, can we test new ideas before we impose them on the people who live on the streets?
Perhaps it is not important that chairs, which are things, end up brushed aside, hidden under the leaves, and then end up in the trash. But it is important that people--real people, people named Joel, and named Anna, and named Butch and named Daryl, real people are brushed aside, hidden, trashed. Real people whose brokenness is disability, whose brokenness is addiction, whose brokenness is mental illness, whose brokenness is simply poverty, these real people are treated as trash, and thrown away with as little thought as we throw away a broken chair.
From October 30, 2015.
Sometimes at Worcester Fellowship our lunch line is just like Church. I hate it for its rigidness, its rules, its “lets keep you in your” place mentality. I love its for its hopefulness, its building of community while we wait, its promise of abundance at the end of the line.
As we wait in the park each Sunday I am impressed that the lunch line works at all. There are people moving into and out of the line, people looking for someone else to take their place in line, people arriving very early, people who arriving very late, the late ones worrying whether there is enough, and asking if they can cut ahead, and begging the line authorities to provide absolution for their lateness, or drunkenness, or disorderliness, and to provide a place further ahead in the line.
But as there are no shortcuts to heaven there is no cutting the line. Those who are late must wait behind a hundred or so hungry bodies to see what is the little snippet of the Kingdom today. Is it ham or bologna or tuna or will there be only peanut butter and jelly left when I get to the front? Is today’s message one of hope and abundance or one of despair and less sandwiches than people lined up?
“I’m hoping for tuna” Sam who is always a little late, always a little anxious, always in need of lunch for himself and his girlfriend, over there, on the pew-like bench by the fountain, Sam tells me, pointing. He asks as politely as he knows how: “Will there be any f’in, excuse me, any tuna when I get to the front of the line?”
Like all those in indoor church who need reassurances before worship starts, these questions drain me of the good news. I’m not a detail person. I don’t know if the Sunday School teachers are ready or the coffee is hot in indoor church, and I don’t know if the tuna will run out in outdoor church. We are here to proclaim release to the captives and I’m stuck in the sheer tediousness of getting started.
But before I can check on the tuna there is a fight brewing in front of Sam in the lunch line. Someone is trying to cut the line. An older white man I don’t know says quietly but firmly “hey, don’t cut” and I head toward the problem knowing that while many folk will sulk to the back of the line, others will simply leave if challenged on their place at this altar.
And so I was thinking about the order of people at God's altar as I was moving closer, looking up at a very angry young Hispanic man, noticing his hands clenched in his pockets, he was gritting his teeth, pacing a bit, but staying there, close to the front of the line, waiting for me, the authority, with my stole flapping around me. I said, as he expected, “you cannot cut the line.”
And he said his confession, "I haven't eaten in days."
And I refused him absolution, sticking to the agreed upon Levitical Commandment: "You have to go to the end of the line."
"Well then I won't eat." He sulked away in despair.
Harvey, a regular, and a good line following Christian could not contain his anger at this blatant disregard for the rules. "Why the f** do you always cut the line?" and "Why can't you go to the end of the line?"
And so the man came back screaming "I'll go anywhere I d*&$ well please" and "why don't you mind your own business".
And so now I am standing between two tall men, holding forth like Moses holding the waters, and saying in my most grown up, deep, calm, and forceful voice: "Stop fighting and do not cut the line." Repeat eight times.
And the line continues forward, like a prescribed liturgy, without the cutting man, without all those who cannot follow the prescriptions of order and predictability and neatness and beauty.
And then an elderly white man behind this whole scene, also very tall, the one who said "hey, you can't cut", the man just ahead of us, with the white shirt and blue stripes, he reaches the food table and takes one of everything without a word, a sandwich, an orange, a bag of chips, a box of juice, and heads back to the end of the line, stopping for just barely a second to hand the entire lunch to the angry Hispanic young man, the one who had tried to cut.
And then the elderly man waits in the line again to get lunch for himself, probably not tuna this time, probably peanut butter and jelly.
And I am reminded once again that this is, indeed, just like Church.
From Feb 18, 2016
More on Worcester Fellowship see www.worcesterfellowship.org.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.