We live in risky times. The risk is not just to ourselves, there is risk also that we will harm others by our mere presence in their lives. In response we have the call to stay away from one another. In church that is almost completely unconnected to social media, I offered online worship last Sunday. The experience was surprisingly positive; we had real conversation, heartfelt prayer, we struggled with scripture and it’s meaning for today. The next morning the state called for us to stay physically separate until April 7. Now it seems likely to last even longer. For the social well-being of our neighbors, we will follow this guidance.
The risk/benefit balance between whether we should worship together or apart is clear. God can handle our absence from the sanctuary, we can handle finding remote ways to connect to each other and to God. The side affects of feeling disconnect, anxiety, and loneliness are worth the benefits of protecting our neighbors from illness. Not all acts of distancing have so few side affects.
When those of us with ample resources stay away from people who have few resources—when we stay away from people who don’t have homes or who are food insecure, when we decide against volunteering at the shelter or the food pantry or the meal, the risk/benefit analysis is quite different. Yes, we are reducing the risk of sharing illness with people who are possibly at high risk. Yes, we are reducing the risk of bringing illness from the streets and into our homes. We are also leaving people hungry and isolated. Isolation for someone who is already shunned by our society is more dangerous than isolation for those of us with extensive community supports. I can talk to my congregation, my family, a circle of friends. Homelessness is both caused by social isolation and exacerbates it.
How do we balance the risks and benefits for ministries to those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, those who are sick, and those who are in prison? Matthew 25:40 (“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”) is certainly relevant, yet when it comes to taking risks, other words of Jesus are also important.
Consider Matthew 16:24-26. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’” While in modern times we may think of “the cross” as small challenges we face, in Jesus’ time he was literally talking about the possibility of being killed. I don’t think he meant we must be willing to die for our right to worship (although there are Christians in other countries who are risking their lives to worship). If, as I believe, the true test of our faith is whether we have cared for the least of brothers and sisters, it is hard to see how we are not called to take real risks to do that caring.
Perhaps in your church, there is much angst about deciding these things. Many churches are not coming to a unanimous decision about any of these choices. That brings to mind the battles between children and their parents, fights between members of one’s own household, mentioned in Matthew 10:34-39. Verses 37-38 are especially harsh, I hate when I have to preach these words: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
These hard texts seem distant on ordinary Sundays, but now as we face significant risk, risk to ourselves and risk we carry back to our neighbors, families, to the wider community, we must ask what exactly they mean about what we are canceling in our church buildings. Suspend worship, for sure. Move bible study to online. Certainly get rid of the self-serve buffet!
But we are called to take on the risks that come with continuing to serve the poor, the hungry, the sick, and those that alone. We must figure out what we can do for the prisoner and the elderly, each behind different locked doors. As a church must ask ourselves whether we are the only place that might offer safe space for AA, for the guy who talks to himself on Main Street, for the hungry, the displaced, for those who don’t have homes.
We want to be as safe as possible. Thus we may move our food pantry to the doorway, limit visiting, and pre-package the foods we give away. We may switch our meals to take out, most certainly we will wear gloves as we serve. AA and NA maybe asked to limit their in-person meetings to new comers or to people with less than year of sobriety. Perhaps if your program was two days a week instead of one you can limit the size of each gathering. Send letters every day to people you used to meet once a month in prison or in a nursing home. But take a risk. Do not assume that the only right answer is to cut out all risk, and therefore end all programs.
Christians are willing to risk our lives to make the good news real to others who are suffering.
"Rock balance" by kingzoot is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
I love the images of Jesus eating, eating with tax collectors, eating with Pharisees, eating at weddings and eating with crowds. Jesus eats throughout his journey, on the night before he dies, and again beside the Emmaus road. In an incredible image of plenty—plenty of fish, plenty of bread, plenty of sharing food, drink, and God’s love, Jesus offers us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
After the creation of good food in the Garden of Eden God provides daily bread in the wilderness, Isaiah challenges us to eat rich food without cost, and Jesus turns water into wine at Cana. The Kingdom, God promises again and again, is full of good food, great drink, and more than enough to share.
Despite starting his ministry by creating the finest wine, the bread Jesus offers in the feeding of the 5000 is barley bread—not flavorful oats, not the treat of cinnamon raison, not even fine ground wheat bread, or a good sourdough, rather the cheapest of the breads, the most basic of foods.
With this lowly staple, however, he offers the crowd fish, an extravagance, food usually reserved for the Sabbath meal. For the Kingdom of God is not only about having enough to fill our stomachs, the Kingdom is enough food, the Kingdom is rich food, and the Kingdom is more food than we could need.
For there were leftovers that day, twelve baskets leftover, leftovers so significant they had to be gathered and measured. And that is the miracle that fills me with hope when my soul is dry, when my soul is starving, when my soul cannot survive another day. Those twelve baskets tell me again that Jesus will sit and eat with me, despite my selfishness, despite my lack of faith, despite my sinful and disobedient ways. Those twelve baskets of plenty insist that in God’s Kingdom there is more than enough for you, for neighbors, for strangers, for friends, for enemies, and yes even for unfaithful, doubting, and distrusting me. There is a ridiculously vast supply of leftovers.
In God’s world view there is food to spare, drink to share, and yes, above all else, there is love enough to hand out freely, twelve baskets, in fact, left over. And THAT is Good news!
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.
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.