I want to do a few things with this sermon. For the month of May we are taking up a special offering for our Love Fund, and rather than give a Moment for Mission describing what the Love Fund is and how it works, I thought I’d include some of those stories and thoughts within this first sermon of May. So part of what I want to do here is tell some stories about how we have used this Love Fund in the last few years. And then today the offering is strategically placed after the sermon, so you know what you’re giving to.
But hopefully this is more than just an extended infomercial for being a contributor to the Love Fund. I also want to bring in a couple scriptures and think about what they have to say about this particular kind of giving. Giving to people who ask for money. How do we respond in a helpful and loving way in these kinds of situations? This is an ongoing question.
Another thing I want to do is to practice up for two Sundays from now. In two Sundays Bart Campolo is going to be a guest speaker here, talking about faith in the workplace, and he has suggested that part of his sermon be a time of interaction with the congregation, a chance to respond to what he has to say, ask questions, make comments, whatever. So I want to have a similar format today and see how that works out for us. After saying what I have to say about this I’d like to open it up for some interaction with whatever thoughts may arise.
In all this I hope we can do it in the light of this Easter season that we are in when we celebrate the Risen Christ among us, and recognize that Christ shows up in all sorts of forms.
So let’s see where we go with this…
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” This wouldn’t be so bad, except that we in the church have this strange idea that when Jesus says “you,” give to everyone who asks from you, that “we” are the “you” he is referring to. Like other teachings of Jesus, this one isn’t easy to swallow.
Our church’s location in Oakley, and the fact that we serve a meal twice a month attended by people who struggle to have enough to live on, puts us in relationship with people living on the edge. It puts us in relationship with people who, from time to time have certain needs, and ask for help.
This means that we can’t very well get away with exploiting one of the major loopholes in Jesus’ teaching. One of the key strategies for avoiding having to give to everyone who asks from us is to avoid getting in situations where someone might ask something from us. In being in this neighborhood, we’ve kind of forfeited that option.
A couple years ago we realized that it would be helpful if we, as a congregation, had a fund available to give in small amounts to people who came to us with particular needs. We called this the Love Fund. We took up a special offering and gathered over $1000, and for the last couple years have been using that money to give to those who ask. We’re now at the point where we have given away just about all of that money, and are taking this special offering to replenish this fund.
One of the relationships that we entered into upon having this fund was with Stan and Jan Abel, a couple who had been homeless, living in a tent on the railroad tracks a few blocks from our church. Helping out with some food and transportation led to a more in depth relationship, especially after taking Jan to the downtown traveling homeless medical van and discovering that she had stage four cervical cancer. We walked with her and Stan through her illness and, after she died, held a memorial service for her here at the church in October of 2009. At one point Jan handed me a $1 bill and said that she wanted to give some money back to the church for helping her. The story of the widow’s mite came to mind immediately, when Jesus praised the poor woman for putting her small offering into the temple treasury. I kept the dollar bill in my desk drawer for a while, not sure how to best use it, since it felt different and more special than the average dollar bill. But then figured that Jan gave it for the purpose of helping others, not as a momento of biblical generosity for the pastor to ponder over and keep locked up in his desk drawer. So, it has been given away as well.
The amounts that we give from the Love Fund are quite small, usually less than $20. And they usually are not in the form of cash. In conversations with others who oversee similar kinds of funds, it’s agreed that it’s best to give other kinds of gifts rather than just cash. For those seeking money for a meal, we have a number of Skyline gift certificates that they can walk across Madison Road and use. One of the most common requests is for bus fare, so I try and keep bus tokens on hand. We also have some gift certificates to Goodwill that people can use to buy clothes and other household items. Surprisingly, there haven’t been many times when those Goodwill gift certificates have been applicable to a person’s need.
By far the largest gift that we have given from the Love Fund was for a regular at Community Meal. His wife had just died and he was facing eviction from his apartment since he didn’t have her disability check anymore to pay for the rent. We gave him $385, paid directly to his landlord. As it turned out, that was the last month he was able to stay in his apartment. Perhaps that extra month gave him some needed time to grieve in that space where he shared life with his wife.
Usually when we get requests for large amounts of money – just about always related to rent or gas and electric, we refer people to St. Vincent de Paul out of St. Cecilia. Like us, they focus on people in the Oakley area, and they have an excellent system set up for working with people. They go in pairs and visit people in their homes and determine how they can best be of assistance. They have a good relationship with a representative at Duke and pay directly to them. They also keep a list of people they have helped in the past and have reasonable ways of determining whether it’s appropriate to help a person at a particular time. There have been a couple occasions when we have referred someone to them, and then our Peace, Justice, Outreach committee has donated money to them to assist in their work with that household.
Jesus’ statement, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,” occurs in that series of statements in the Sermon on the Mount that could be classified as third way kinds of responses – engaging with a different kind of energy than the one presented. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” If someone backhands you on the cheek of inferiority, turn to them the cheek of dignity and equality. If anyone wants to sue you and take your outer cloak, give your inner cloak as well. If someone wants to take the shirt off your back, literally expose their injustice for all that it is and strip down and give them all you’ve got. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. If someone pushes the boundaries of what is lawful, find a way to get the law on your side. Right after this series comes, “give to everyone who asks of you.” So what is the third way thinking here? Is there a way to boost the dignity of both parties involved, a way to avoid the patron/client relationship, a way to share power rather than simply dole out an act of charity?
One way of approaching this is that we should give to those who ask, but we don’t have to give what they ask. We give something, but not always what is requested. This is part of what is behind giving Skyline gift certificates or bus tokens rather than cash. Lord knows, the greatest fear of the giver is that the receiver will misuse the gift. What if they use it to buy alcohol, or support the drug habit that we’re not sure they have? This is pretty hard to avoid. If somebody wants drugs, even if you give them a Skyline gift certificate, they’ll find a way to sell it and get what they want. It’s hard to guard against this kind of abuse.
In keeping with this interpretation, that we always give, but not necessarily what is asked, I have to say that often the only thing we’re willing to give is a smile and a wish that they can be well. We turn people down all the time. Especially if there is no relational connection – in Oakley, in the congregation, or knowing someone connected with us. Hopefully a blessing and a prayer can still be of some worth for people.
Also, it’s a lot easier to give money or a gift certificate than to give time. If someone asks for money for food, it’s easier to just give them some cash and be done with it rather than taking them out to eat and sitting down with them for conversation or inviting them over to one’s house for a meal. If you want to change someone’s day, give them money. If you want to change your day, give them time.
I have found that some of the most satisfying encounters are when we are able to offer someone work to do. Something that needs done around the church, such that the exchange benefits both parties in some way. Basically, hiring them for a short period of time. This is a story that I shared in a Musing last year but which I share again here, with the name changed.
“I’m going to need a couple bus tokens again Pastor Joel, if that’s alright. Got to go to court on Thursday.” It was the beginning of Community Meal on Tuesday and before he got up to get his supper Bill wanted to check with me about this. As has been our pattern the few times this has happened, I told him to come by the office the next morning and we’d work something out.
I know Bill has a little bit of money and could theoretically buy tokens himself. Every Wednesday morning he gets up early and walks the streets of Oakley collecting aluminum cans put out for recycling. But all the money goes to buy beer. He tells me this. As soon as he comes across money, it goes to beer. “I’ve got a problem,” he says, half chuckling. If I were to give him money to buy his own tokens he doesn’t even trust himself to use it for that purpose. That’s why he asks for bus tokens.
He comes by the office right at 9:00 the next morning. He’s been up since 4:45 collecting cans. I’ve tried to make it a practice to never just give out money. Instead, if people need something, I try and hire them for a fair amount of time to earn the money for whatever need they have. It doesn’t happen all that often, once or twice month, and the amount is usually pretty small. People seem willing, even eager to work for it. Often, I sense a sudden surge of pride and self-worth when I ask them to do work. The shoulders raise up and the chest comes out, ready to give what they are able.
Sometimes I’m not sure what kind of work to ask people to do, but there were some vines growing on the fence of the church rental property and I take Bill back there with a yard waste barrel and ask him to do some clearing for 20 minutes or so. After he finishes he comes in to Peace House, gets a drink of water, washes up, and I give him the bus tokens.
There’s a lot about the situation that makes me discontent. Hardly a solution to a problem. He needs a job, AA, and friends who will keep him accountable and love him even if he screws up. Instead he has a bag full of cans that are going to be cashed and converted straight into alcohol and a couple bus tokens that are going to get him to a trial to try and explain why he shouldn’t be convicted for taking scrap metal from someone’s backyard (to recycle for beer money).
What I try and treasure from the morning is that as he leaves we’re able to shake hands and say thank you to each other. I thank him for helping clear some weeds for the church, and he thanks me and the church for the bus tokens. It’s a small dose of humanity and dignity.
To put things in a little perspective, while we focus on small gifts (or, sometimes, wages), about $500 worth a year, the Oakley St. Vincent de Paul has a budget of about $20,000 a year, donated from St. Cecelia members. This past Wednesday I sat down to lunch with Tom Schimian, president of the Oakley St. Vincent de Paul, and Brian Collings, a staff member at Crossroad church down the road whose job it is to oversee the equivalent of their love fund. To put things in even more perspective, the amount that Crossroads gives out to people in a year is more than twice as much as our entire church annual budget. Their focus is on Crossroads members or people with a relational connection to their church. But it is similar requests that they receive – bus fare, rent, and gas and electric. Brian also noted that they are receiving more requests from middle class people who have lost jobs and may be losing their houses to foreclosure. In our conversation Brian noted that he has found it helpful to distinguish between two kinds of poverty. One is situational poverty, where people are going through a difficult time due to a job loss, a health problem, or another temporary set back, but ultimately have the resources to recover if they are given a hand up during a difficult time. A second kind could be called chronic poverty, or generational poverty, also connected with folks with significant addictions or mental illness, where a one time gift is quickly consumed and the need remains as strong as ever.
We are all painfully aware that a lot of what we are doing here is band-aid work, and not really getting at the roots of poverty, and the quest for self-sufficiency on the part of those struggling. When confronting these bigger issues, one can’t help but ask who’s responsible. Are we responsible – called to be compassionate to those with whom we come to be in relationship? Is the individual or household responsible – up to them to do all they can to get work, get sober, get back on their feet and achieve self-sufficiency? Is society responsible – to provide the opportunity for a just and equitable way of life – meaningful jobs that pay a living wage, good transportation infrastructure, affordable housing, good public schools. The answer, I believe, to who is responsible, is Yes. The church, the one in need, and society. I take it as one of the great themes of scripture that there is an emphasis on both personal and corporate responsibility for shalom, overall wellbeing. How the church plays its part in that is always a matter of discernment.
One of the things that we might be confronting more and more in the years to come is that if society fails to do its part, the church will be faced with more and more of the castaways of a system that simply does not work for a large number of people. How are we going to repond to that?
When Thomas struggles with his doubt in Christ, his request is to see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and put his hand in the wounded side of Jesus. It’s an interesting request, not one we might expect. Why not seek a miracle or look for some glorious appearance of the risen Christ? But Thomas comes to believe, comes to be an apostle, after his encounter with the woundedness of Christ. This could point to the reality that there are really no loopholes in a life of faith. It’s pretty hard to be in the church, to be a part of the people of God, and avoid the pain and struggles of the world. We have pain among us, and there are people in pain who come to us. These kinds of experiences and encounters might be the very thing that propels us into a deeper faith, a closer walk with Christ. When Christ comes to us as a wounded human being, a wounded social system, it gives us the opportunity to more deeply believe in the steadfast eternal love of God, and to be a part of the flowing out of that love to all creation.
I’ve tossed out some ideas, some stories, some numbers, and would like to hear some of your thoughts. What comes to mind when you hear this? Do you have any short stories to add here? What troubles you or provokes you here? What did I say that needs correcting or qualified or questioned? Any thoughts?