Charity as a Foundation

A while ago, Jacobin published an article titled “A Foundation, Not a Net.” Here’s an excerpt:

A better metaphor, both in terms of accuracy and rhetoric, would be the foundation. The welfare foundation provides a universal set of services on top of which people can build their lives. It is a permanent support structure, not a temporary failsafe. The precise mix of welfare benefits individuals get will of course vary depending on what stage of life they are in, but the welfare state as a whole is there for them at all times, giving them the stability to do everything else they want to do with their lives.

Go read the whole thing, of course. The basic idea is that the welfare state isn’t a safety net. Pensions, social security, medicare, public education, and other entitlements and services aren’t things that people rely on in a disaster. They are “universal services for life events that basically everyone goes through.”

I wonder if we can think of charity in the same way.

Often, when we think about charity, we think of it as a safety net. Sometimes, that means that we think of it as something that people use when the high wire snaps (during a disaster). Other times, when we see people in the safety net a lot, we think of it as something that people use because they can’t do the work to use the high wire successfully (they’re lazy, entitled, dependent, and so on). At its worst, this becomes charity skepticism: the idea that the safety net entangles people, and that people start treating it as a hammock.

But, at its most basic, charity is something deeper than that. The word ‘charity’ comes from the Latin word caritas. In Latin Christianity, caritas was one of two words used to translate a Greek word: agape. The kind of selfless love that God shows the world and that we are commanded to show each other.

I would like us to imagine charity as the love we owe each other; the foundation on which people can build their lives. Sometimes, that might look like a robust welfare state providing education, social security, and access to health care. Sometimes, that might look like private philanthropy providing community centers, child care, and cultural opportunities. Sometimes, that might look like personal charity providing someone with a place to sleep or a hot meal.

In every case, it means not having to worry that taking a risk – whether that’s leaving a soul crushing job or leaving an abusive relationship – will result in destitution. A charitable community is a community where there is a foundation for life; where people are free to create their best selves in covenant with each other.

The Cost of Grace

This sermon was delivered at Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities in Davenport, Iowa, on September 17, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.

A little over a month ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a young man named James Alex Fields Jr drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of people, hitting a sedan, which hit a minivan, which pushed into the crowd, injuring nineteen people and killing one. The person who was killed was Heather Heyer, who was a paralegal and a waitress, and who stood in solidarity with people who needed someone who was relatively privileged to stand in solidarity with them.

If it had been any other day, James, like so many other misguided young white men who kill, would have been tagged as mentally ill or misguided or a bit of a loner. But this time the nation saw a pattern. James was misguided. James was a bit of a loner. James may have even been mentally ill. But James was also an unabashed white supremacist who chose to march with others like him while chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans. And who chose to drive into a crowd of people.

And a couple of days later, Heather’s father Mark stood in front of cameras and forgave James.

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

In today’s first reading, we see Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph was younger, he had some dreams. And he told his brothers those dreams. And his brothers were jealous because those dreams seemed to mean that Joseph was important. So they sold him into slavery and told their father that he had been killed. Y’know, like brothers do.

Joseph became a slave in Egypt. And because of his master’s wife, he became a prisoner in Egypt. And because of his skill at interpreting dreams, he became a chief administrator in Egypt.

And then there was a famine. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food. Eventually, they met Joseph, who kept his identity secret. And, after some trickery and accusations and false imprisonments and threats, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and there was joy and celebration. And it turned out that Joseph really was important.

And then Joseph’s father, Jacob, died. And here are Joseph’s brothers, worried that Joseph might still be upset that they sold him into slavery all those years ago. So they go to him and they say, “Dad said — y’know, on his deathbed — that you should forgive us.”

And Joseph replies, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… Have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

If there is anyone who has the right to hold a grudge, it’s Heather Heyer’s parents. Her death wasn’t an accident. It was at once purposeful and impersonal, the act of someone with a hateful ideology who wanted to hurt as many people as he could.

If there’s anyone who has the right to tell his brothers to pound sand, it’s Joseph. Whatever good had come out of his ordeal, he was enslaved and imprisoned and lost out on years of his life.

Forgiveness shouldn’t be this easy.

No, that’s not right. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world. Mark Heyer shouldn’t have to live with the burden of hating James Fields. Joseph shouldn’t have to live with the burden of a grudge against his brothers. No one should have to live with the ceaseless work of stoking the fires of our anger. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world.
Being forgiven shouldn’t be this easy. Grace shouldn’t be so cheap. And it can almost sound like Jesus says that.

There once was a man who was called before the king. Now, the man owed the king, like, two million dollars. And he did not have two million dollars. The king was going to make him sell everything he had to pay the debt. But the man fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the king was moved. And the king was merciful. And the king forgave the debt. And the man walked out.

Before long, that man ran into a neighbor who owed him, like, ten bucks. And the man told his neighbor to pay up. But his neighbor didn’t have ten bucks and he — who owed so little — fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the man wouldn’t have any of it and had his neighbor thrown into prison and other people saw all of this and told the king.

And the king… got mad. And the man was called before the king. And the king said, “I had mercy on you and forgave your debt, but you can’t forgive your neighbor?” And he sent the man to prison.”

And, for a moment, it almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven is hard. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that grace comes at a cost. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven requires something.


It’s easy for us to fall into that way of thinking. It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven, Joseph’s brothers have to fall on their knees and recount their wrongs and beg Joseph for mercy. It’s easy to think that, in order to be forgiven, James Fields has to fall on his knees and make his confession and beg Mark — and, even more, Heather’s spirit — for mercy.

It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven for all that we have done, we have to fall on our knees and break down in tears and beg God for mercy.

But the cost of grace is so much less… and so much more.

The man who had two million dollars forgiven wasn’t free just because he had his two million dollars forgiven. He wasn’t free until he could escape the cycle of borrowing and lending that had ensnared him. And I want to be clear here: he wasn’t in that cycle just because he had owed two million dollars; he was in that cycle also because he cared about the ten dollars he had lent out.
It was only in forgiving the debt of his neighbor that he could truly be free of the debt he owned. As long as he still cared so desperately and angrily about his neighbor’s debt, he was still trapped by his own.

Or, as St. Francis put it so elegantly, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

I don’t know if Joseph’s brothers ever let go of their jealousy and their hatred. I hope that they did. I hope that they could accept that they were forgiven and live the rest of their days in mercy.

I don’t know if James Fields will ever let go of his prejudice and hatred. I hope that he will. I hope that what he has done and what he now faces will change him. I hope that he will accept the forgiveness that has been offered to him. I hope that he will live the rest of his days as an instrument of mercy.

And I don’t know if I will ever let go of the thousand little slights that I hold onto. It seems like too much. It seems like too much to say that I will not be part of the systems of debt and shame and anger. It seems like too much to let go. But I pray that I will. I pray that reaching out for God’s grace will force me let go of the weights that hold me back: the people I hold down.

The cost of grace is so little. God offers it freely.

The cost of grace is so much. We have to give up all those things that make us think that we’re better. Or that we’re more important. Or that we have a right to throw our neighbor in prison or the power to sell our brother into slavery.

And I pray that you and I and all of us can pay that price. Then we will have a world of peace and love and pardon; of faith and hope and light and joy. Then we will live in the Kingdom of God.

Membership and Engagement

Recently, I’ve had a few conversations about church membership. The simple fact is that most mainline congregations are facing declining and aging memberships, and some of the congregations want to do something about it. And I always answer the same way:

I’m not concerned with membership; I’m concerned with engagement.

Membership in most mainline congregations is a formality. Someone who has been coming to worship for a while might take a membership class where they learn things about that congregation and its denomination. Then they stand in front of the congregation some Sunday morning and make some promises. And the members of the congregation who are there that morning make some promises. And the new member signs a book.

Now that person is a member. And the perk is that they can serve on committees and vote in the congregational meeting. And if they don’t show up for a few years and somebody bothers cleaning up the rolls, they’ll be taken off the membership list. Yay.

Engagement is a way of life. Each summer, at the church where I’m a member, we have Christmas in July. That Sunday morning, we collect diapers and toilet paper and feminine hygiene products for the food pantry. And this year, a young woman who is not a member and who occasionally comes to services reached out to her friends and said,

My church is doing this thing and I think it would be great if you got involved. If you want to give, but don’t want to come to services, let me know. I’ll get your donation and take it myself.

I don’t know if that young woman will ever stand in front of the congregation and make promises and sign a book. I don’t know if she will ever become a member. But she is engaged. She may even be more engaged – at least in this one thing – than some of our members.

We know for a fact that not all members are involved in the life of the congregation. We know that not everyone who is involved in the life of the congregation is a member. We know that someone who is engaged in the life of the community makes more of a difference than someone who is not, even if they aren’t a member, and even if the person who isn’t engaged has been a member for forty years.

And yet we spend so much time and energy worrying about membership when we should be focusing on engagement.

I’m not saying to ignore membership. Membership, probably, still matters. But if we focus on engagement – if we focus on getting people involved in our communities, without worrying about whether they take the formal step that improves our numbers in the yearbook – then membership, if it matters, will follow.

I’ve Been Offered the Exciting Opportunity to Pay NANOE to Work for Them

I’ve written about the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives before (here). They’re the organization that suggests that nonprofit organizations should pay their board members, and that the primary responsibility of those board members is to support a strong executive director.

Recently, I received an email from NANOE letting me know that I’ve been nominated to sit on their Board of Governors. Of course, this isn’t the same as their Board of Directors. No. The Board of Governors is a large group of people who are tasked to review a handful of documents that NANOE is preparing:

  • New Guidelines for Tomorrow’s Nonprofit (2nd Ed.)
  • Harnessing the Power of Differentiated Relationships
  • Evaluating Impact: Before, During, and After Growth

Naturally, members of the Board of Governors must be members of NANOE. That means paying $100 a year for the privilege of reviewing and providing feedback on these documents. That’s right, an organization that wants you to start paying your Board of Directors believes that I should pay them so that they can use my expertise.

Why, it’s almost as if NANOE is kind of a scam!

The Establishment: People Who Have Never Lived In Poverty Should Stop Telling Poor People What To Do

The answer, then, is not that poor people live differently, but instead, that we create a society and an economy where people who work full time can live in the community where they work.

No amount of cutting back on luxury spending or driving extra hours for Uber can change the fact that there is literally nowhere in the country where a minimum wage job can support a family, that good union jobs have been in decline for decades, or that housing costs have priced people out of their homes. Cutting coupons, commuting by bike, and enjoying outdoor activities can’t really fix that.

So, instead of telling poor people what they should do to work around a system that’s leaving more and more people behind every year, we need to consider how the system can bend and change to better fit the needs of all people.

The Establishment: People Who Have Never Lived In Poverty Should Stop Telling Poor People What To Do

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