Living as if the Needy Don’t (Fourth of Sermon Series, Memorable Biblical Meals)

I.
The easiest way for me to deal with people in need asking for help whom I know that I can’t help is to ignore them as best I can. I don’t want to see the looks in their eyes several hours after I’ve encountered them. I don’t want to have to be engaged in conversation with one more person I can’t help, trying to explain why I can’t give her or him anything after I’ve just exited the grocery store with a couple of sacks of groceries in hand. If I tell the truth, frustrated that I feel forced to explain and reveal my personal business, I sense that my “excuses,” sound to the person in need like pitiful piles of nonsense–though they are not: “I don’t carry cash,” and “I give all I can manage each month to organizations that feed the hungry.” I don’t want to wake up the next morning and, first thing, remember the hand-lettered signs they held at intersections or on corners. So, again, the easiest way for me to deal with a problem I cannot solve and may not even be able to make a dent in is to ignore the harbingers of human need themselves.
Not for a second do I defend my responses as exemplary. I’m not at all proud of the pattern into which I’ve fallen; thus far, it’s an emotional survival technique, but I cannot preach this sermon without being honest about how I respond to the needy, the hungry in particular. I am not the person to look to if you want to figure out how to respond as Jesus would have responded. I am not the person to emulate if you want to preserve all that is possible of the needy person’s dignity.
My previous two congregations were urban churches where knocks on the door asking for help of all kinds were a part of practically every day. In both cases, we as a staff tried to divvy up responsibilities for daily door duty; the pastor took his turn with all the others.
In both places, we had cash at first, which we converted to vouchers; then, we found out the vouchers were being sold by some of those we tried to help, and the proceeds from the sales were purchasing drugs. The Board of Finance and the Board of Ministry in both cases wanted to get me off the door as soon as possible. I gave away everything we had. I believed every story I was told. Even if I didn’t wholeheartedly swallow every detail of every tale told to me, I was at least highly sympathetic with the factors that had put a person into a position to have to be going from church to church asking for food, even if some were con artists. A surprisingly large number are since churches are widely regarded as easy marks.
A suburban congregation as a rule has many fewer people knocking at the door asking for money or food, but it still happens here on occasion. In place of knocks, though, we are likely to get phone calls and an occasional email from a high tech needy person using a computer in a public library. “If you have funds to share, please deposit them into my Pay Pal account, and may God bless you.”
Silverside Church doesn’t ignore the needy, the hungry or any others. One of the things our congregation doesn’t do well is to toot its own horn, and while that has merit in some respects the end result is that people, often our own friends and members, don’t have any idea what we are doing to make a difference beyond these lovely walls. Periodically, I think we have to make known where our benevolence dollars go so those who are supporting us know that their money isn’t just going to repair aging roofs and pay a small set of salaries. We have one Board whose exclusive responsibility it is to lead the church in its support of causes that help the needy; we call this board the Board of Outreach, and the current chairperson is Marsha Mah.,, We give budgeted and over-and-above-budgeted monies to benevolent causes most of which, not all, deal with helping hungry and homeless people–largely in Wilmington, but not only in Wilmington. Combined, there have been years when gifts to the indigent have totaled a third of all dollars that pass through this place in a year’s time. Here’s a horn toot: that’s remarkable for any congregation, especially a small congregation, and you need to know that what you sacrifice to contribute to the church is making a huge difference in the lives of countless needy people, locally and around the world.
Broadly, members and friends of Silverside Church, through their contributions to the Church, support not only our operational needs for keeping a staff and a building going here at 2800 Silverside Road, but also we support with dollars and person-power locally where we can the following programs that minister to the needy, the hungry in particular: the Christmastime Adopt-a-Family community project through which we provide for three or so families (usually) assigned to us by the Claymont Community Ministries staff Christmas gifts for each member of the family, funds and/or supplies to meet actual needs made known to us, and the fixings for a very nice Christmas meal; the annual America for Christ offering through which we try to help meet the needs of some struggling people in our own country such as the first round of Hurricane Katrina survivors; the Claymont Food Pantry, which is like a small grocery store with the goods supplied by people like us creating a means for people with the need for food to come into the Pantry and gather food for individuals and families as if in a small grocery store; the Delaware Food Bank; Emmanuel Dining Room, which I often mention, so most of you know that this is the ministry that has an organization, usually a church, preparing and then serving the noon meal for hungry folks in downtown Wilmington one day per month, which for us is the 13th; Friendship House, a multifaceted ministry program foundationally directed toward the multiple needs (clothing, food, job training, pastoral care, and so on) of the homeless–from street addicts to couples and whole families left homeless because of foreclosures in these economic times with our main involvement with the hungry being those meals served at Andrew’s Place and Epiphany House; Meals on Wheels, continuing a very longstanding project for Silverside members and friends along with many others in our community who deliver a hot, nutritious noon meal to a homebound person every week day; Project Purple, a church and community effort for the homeless on nights when trying to sleep outside would be deadly–so when the temperatures get to a certain low, ministry participants make loads of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and rush them downtown to a central shelter that will add hot beverages and share with other shelters all over the city; the Souper Bowl Offering taken on Super Bowl Sunday and applied at the discretion of our Board of Outreach to a pressing hunger need typically close at hand; and the World Mission Offering, which sometimes goes to hunger-related causes and sometimes not.
That’s a lot, and I’ll bet many of you didn’t know how far reaching your financial gifts were going. The good news is, I probably omitted something!
II.
The infamous biblical meal at the center of our thoughts for today is really a series of meals, but essentially the same characters are involved. The story is a fictional tale, one of Jesus’ parables, and the parable has a nickname, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Some traditions give the rich man a name, Dives, but the version with the nameless rich man is probably the one original with Jesus because of what he wants to emphasize in his timeless tale.
In this world, everybody who was anybody knew the rich man’s name, and only a handful of people knew the poor man’s name; but those who remembered were also insignificant, societally speaking, so he was primarily known as the troublesome poor guy who hung out at the rich man’s gate asking the rich man and his endless flow of guests to ease his misery a bit by tossing him a few of the crumbs that were being swiped off the tables and on the floor for the dogs to come through and gobble up, thus also cleaning the floor.
From all indications, though the poor man sat there day by day in hope of help, not a single individual tossed him as much as a crumb. Most ignored him. To most he didn’t exist; he was invisible. He was neither acknowledged nor noticed. The rich folk walked over him like an irritating bump in their important pathways. I’m very sorry to tell you and ashamed to admit the truth, but it is the truth. Considering my current and historic behavior, if I were a character in this parable, I’d have been one of the rich people ignoring the destitute man one day after another. I should be ashamed, and I am.,, Back to the name thing. As Jesus told the parable, the hungry man ignored by every other earthly character in the parable has a name. How could that have been possible? If bad guys and gals get enough notoriety, we remember the names of even the sleaziest politicians and criminals who commit the most heinous crimes, though we probably don’t recall for long, if we ever knew, the names of their victims like those of the movie theatre assassin in Colorado. I appreciate the Holocaust Museum, and AIDS Quilt, and other vehicles of memory for this very reason. Those who unjustly lost their lives are remembered. Square by square, engraving by engraving those whom many others intended to forget are not forgotten after all.
So, Jesus tells his stirring story, leaving hearers then and now squirming in their seats, and his original hearers who experienced culture and day to day life the way he did were troubled because the rich man remained nameless, and the poor man’s name was continually called. That is preparation, though, for the climactic irony in the story. At death, the rich man remains nameless and is separated from God while Lazarus, the poor man (not to be confused with Jesus’ real world friend whom Jesus resuscitated from death), keeps his name and awakens from death in God’s abode where Abraham, the founder of monotheism no less, is his guide, representative, and friend.
Nothing in the collective Jewish mindset of Jesus’ contemporaries made a place for such an upheaval of propriety. Many of them, including many of the poor in Jesus’ hearing, were thinking to themselves, “Something is very wrong here!” The fact was, however, that something, finally, was terribly right.
You might be interested in knowing that a theology of a significant life hereafter, as opposed to the long prevailing idea of life in the next realm as nothing more than a shadowy leftover of what life had been in this world, was at least in part related to the sense on the parts of some philosophically and justice oriented thinkers that few people got their true dues as of the ending point of life in this world. The really evil weren’t punished sufficiently and, therefore, needed to be notified formally that the way they’d lived had been a way of choosing to be separated from God for eternity–not in a place with temperatures as we’ve had in Delaware this week, but in nothingness. The biological end of life in this world was also the end of spiritual life and any possible connection to God for them. Conversely, the truly good often were rewarded insufficiently for the good they’d done in this world so there needed to be, and surely was, a place where just deserts were served; this is a part of how a concept of heaven came to be.
In the First Testament, in Hebrew scripture, there is really no idea of hell; everyone, moral and immoral, goes to the abode of the dead. Generally, rewards and punishments are not meted out; a bare existence continues for all people who in this world were three-dimensional, but in that world are nothing more than shadows of what they had been. The beginnings of a longing for a heaven may be noticed in ancient Hebrew theological reflection, but nothing well or fully developed shows up.
In the Second Testament, in Christian scripture, there is certainly a doctrine of hell, though it doesn’t get much attention; and there’s is a finely developed notion of heaven not only as the abode of God, but also the abode of all those who by their actions in this world indicate that they wish to continue throughout eternity in God’s more intimate embrace.
OK, so Lazarus dies, as Jesus tells his parable, and he’s eating well and having a good ole time with Father Abraham. God is somewhere nearby, but doesn’t make a personal appearance. Lazarus discovers that he hadn’t been just a prop in this world, just an empty poor person draining the society in which he lived and offering nothing to be betterment of humanity. In fact, he had been a good man. He was devoted to God and didn’t curse God for his plight as one of the many hungry people in his time and place. Thus, after he’d felt his last pang of hunger in this world, he awakened in God’s abode at a Sunday brunch that was to die for, in a manner of speaking, where the jazz ensemble was playing “Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham. Oh, Rocka My Soul,” and a server was saying, “I highly recommend our Hummus Souflle, Sir.”
Far, far away from such joy was what’s his name, the rich guy, who’d also died, but who awakened to find himself hungry and thirsty. Soon he will disintegrate into nothingness, but in the short span of time he has, he has the gall to call for Lazarus to sprinkle a few drops of water on his parched tongue and to get word to his brothers that there are consequences for ignoring the needy. Abraham doesn’t allow Lazarus to speak to the man who had tormented him for years; instead, Father Abraham himself speaks and says, “Surely you can see the huge chasm that separates you from us; there are tobe no water deliveries. And as for your brothers, they’ve been taught the same truths you were taught but chose to ignore. A reminder at this late date isn’t going to change how they’ve chosen to focus their gaze. Like you, they have chosen to live as if the needy didn’t, and, as for all of you, the feasting of the former world will one day come to an abrupt, eternal stop.”
III.
I don’t think Jesus told this parable to threaten anyone. I do think, however, that Jesus believed we are what we do, not what we say. I also think Jesus knew what real ministry is all about and who, in reality, were his true followers. At every turn, the issues are detailed by our actions, not our proclamations. What I say is only of value if it connects honestly with how I act.
Jesus, carrying on the tradition he learned from his ancient forebears, said ministry to the poor is paramount in any faith community connected to the God of monotheism, the one and only living God there is. It’s not a nice little extra touch to leave a little time and money for the poor; serving the poor is paramount. For most of us, at home and at church this requires a reversal of how we live. What is central becomes a nice little side touch, and the little extras here and there become core values. I think of the needs of the poor before I buy my iPad and its monthly upkeep, not after I’m committed to two years of tender care and financial responsibilities for my unnecessary tech product. And do I really need designer labels more than a hungry baby needs milk?
What a party pooper I am today huh? Nobody much lives with a sacrificial commitment to the poor the way Jesus did except maybe for Mother Teresa who, it turns out, was crabby and rude to anyone who wasn’t dying on the streets of Calcutta and except for Bill Perkins who gave up his clerical collar for a pair of bibbed overalls. The Roman Catholic Church will certainly make Mother Teresa St. Teresa, and that same church will certainly NOT make its former priest, Father Bill, a saint because he left the priesthood and married his amazing companion in life and in service, Marcie. Bill and Marcie Perkins in my eyes are saints just the same. They are living out the true ministry of Jesus right before the eyes of Wilmingtonians, though most don’t know it.
Marcie and Bill, and those who work with them like our own Gordon Umberger, begin their ministry to the needy by noticing them and giving them names. One evening a few years ago, Gordon invited me down to talk about fatherhood with a few of the addicts in his housing and recovery program. It turns out that addiction has severed many a relationship between parent and child. Masterful at his long time ministry, the very first thing Gordon did was to take me around the room before we gathered in a circle of conversation to introduce me to each person who’d be involved in the discussion that evening–each one a respected individual with a name, regardless of how many times he’d fallen off the wagon.
The law in Jesus’ day required lepers to become invisible. A diagnosis of leprosy meant immediate quarantine at a distance from a leper’s home, family, friends, and community of spirituality. The main concern was disease control, but there was also a concern that if the disease came as the result of God’s punishment of lepers, no one wanted that curse to rub off on them either. If a stranger were passing through an area and happened upon a leper colony unawares, the lepers were required by law to scream out, “Unclean! Unclean! Get away from us now! Do not come near us!”
Jesus spat in the face of that law and intentionally went out to the lepers, ignoring their warnings, and standing among them like they were real, like they were there. Imagine that! Sometimes, he was able to heal them, sometimes not, but at the very least he left with them the blessing of self worth, the blessing of being persons of real worth with real needs.
I lived in New Orleans when AIDS was first getting its name. Thank goodness for all the progress that has been made in treating the disease and building respect for those afflicted with the disease since that time in the mid 80’s. Though the disease finally had a name, it was still much misunderstood, and when someone was diagnosed with the curse that was still widely thought at the time to be a disease reserved only for gay men, the patients, modern-day lepers all the way, were typically popped into isolation rooms within Intensive Care Units. Since the medical world didn’t know how the disease was spread, being airborne at the top of the list of suspected means of contagion, every precaution was taken when visitors were allowed to enter, and typically visitors meant only immediate family members and a few willing clergy. Boyfriends, partners, lovers were considered out of the loop so they were generally excluded.
When I’d go to visit an AIDS patient who, by the way, had no reasonable hope of recovery–Magic Johnson being a notable exception–the ICU staff required me to wear what they wore every time they entered the isolation room of an AIDS patient: surgical cap, gown, gloves, and mask. They weren’t ignored like Lazarus was by what’s his name, the rich guy, but they were ignored in the way lepers were in Jesus’ day. They were removed from the sight of the general public and kept out of sight, sometimes even after death. When I came to serve in Baltimore in the 90’s, many churches would not permit the funeral of an AIDS patient to be conducted on their premises or buried in their church-owned cemeteries.
Families of deceased AIDS patients who wanted a religious service for their sons in a church had to add to the already endless list of details any bereaved family had to go through the pain and embarrassment of calling around from church to church to ask if that church and its minister would offer funeral rites to a man who had died from AIDS. The vast majority of the time, the answer they heard was, “No.”
I’m happy to say that there was never any consideration at University Church of saying, “No,” to any such request. I can tell you with a heavy heart and a measure of anger remaining that we were among the very few churches who would offer funeral services for AIDS patients and bereavement ministry to their families, including their lovers, left behind. I wasn’t proud of every aspect of that church, but when it came to compassion and a refusal to turn eyes away from any sufferer, they were at the top of the small list in and around in Baltimore.
In those days, many AIDS patients who did get well enough to go home between hospitalizations for such recurring disorders as pneumosistis pneumonia had trouble getting meals if they lived away from compassionate families or near families who’d long since disowned them. Getting food to AIDS patients became a specialized ministry for which volunteers were in very short supply. Having AIDS was bad enough, don’t you think? How could anyone exacerbate the pain by making it difficult for AIDS sufferers at home to get food? Society at large wanted to continue ignoring AIDS patients even if they were hungry by pretending that they didn’t exist.
I can imagine, soberly and parabolically, that one fine morning an AIDS patient who’d died in the night awakened to find himself in God’s embrace. He could breathe freely; the pneumonia had disappeared during what TRU-DEE calls his transition, meaning his move from this realm to the next; and also all the sores on his body and in his mouth were gone. God was calling him by name and making sure he was well-fed and assured of his self-worth founded on God’s enthusiastic love for him.
Far, far away, there was a church board along with its pastor who ironically had died the same night the AIDS patient died. They were yelling to the AIDS patient and suddenly remembered his name, even though the pastor had preached sermon after sermon saying AIDS was God’s punishment on gay men and that homosexuality automatically meant hell and even though that board had voted not to allow Arthur’s funeral to be held on their “sacred” grounds.,, “Arthur, remember us from when you grew up in our church? Remember the vows you made at confirmation, Arthur, about helping people in need? Well, we’re really hot and thirsty over here. Could you spin over and sprinkle a few drops of water on our tongues and a few crumbs of something to eat? And by the way, could you make a run back to one of our board meetings and let the people know that you made it to heaven after all?”,, A voice rumbles in response, perhaps it was God’s voice, “Arthur is busy getting measured and fitted for his heaven-wear; you know how fussy gay guys can be about their attire. Well, that carried over to heaven FYI. As far as the board meeting, no; he can’t cross the chasm back to where he was treated as if didn’t even exist. Besides all the board members already made the same promises at confirmation that Arthur made when was a teen.” Suddenly, Arthur looked dapper, and the pastor with his board disintegrated.,, Don’t fret. It’s only a parable.
Rev Dr David Albert Farmer
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On Saturday, July 21, 2012 at 5:05 PM, Rev Dr David Albert Farmer wrote:

Rev Dr David Albert Farmer <pastor777@silversidechurch.org> wrote:
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