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.