Be the Church: Care for the Poor

Be the Church: Care for the Poor

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In my first week or so of seminary, I met James… twice.

The first time was at church. I saw him come into the narthex after services and I heard him tell a story: He was homeless. But he had finally found a job and was on his way to getting back on his feet. It was just… well… that job didn’t start for a couple of days and he just needed something to tide him over. So could you just…?

The second time was on the street. I was walking back to the seminary from somewhere, and he caught my attention and told me a story: He was homeless. But he had finally found a job and was on his way to getting back on his feet. It was just… well… that job didn’t start for a couple of days and he just needed something to tide him over. So could I just…?

It was exactly the same story. He had rehearsed it. It must have worked. And I gave him a few bucks and moved on.

James was a common sight in Hyde Park and around the seminary. Every week or so, I would run into him. Sometimes he would ask for money and sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he would tell the story and sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes I would give him a few dollars and sometimes I wouldn’t.

And, after a long time, he stopped telling the story altogether… and he stopped asking for money altogether… and we would just make some small talk. He was homeless. I think he was a veteran. He had family in the area and he would go to their place for holidays. He slept where he could sleep and he liked the soft couches in the seminary’s lounges.

I didn’t get to know James that well, but I got to know him a little bit. And even though I got to know him a little bit, I always wondered why he told the story… why he rehearsed it… why he didn’t just ask for help.

This week, we’re continuing our summer sermon series: Be the Church.

You see, the United Church of Christ has this… thing. It’s on mugs and aprons and banners and magnets and coloring books and a bunch of other swag. And it goes like this:

Be the church. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.

And this summer, we’re spending time with that thing. That list. And this week, we’re on this: be the church; care for the poor.

And our reading from the gospel according to Matthew today may just be one of the hardest passages in the entire Bible. It goes like this:

When Christ comes in glory to judge the nations, he will separate the people into two groups: the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.

And he will say to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

And when the sheep are confused, he will say to them, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Whatever we do for the least in the world—for the least in our communities—we do for Christ himself. And, of course, whatever we refuse to do for the least, we refuse to do for Christ himself.

It turns out that this entire thing is not about the appearance of piety. It isn’t about showing up on Sunday morning, or reading the Bible every day, or praying before meals, or reciting the creeds with deep sincerity. Those things can be important. So many things can be important. But the most that they can do is give us glimpses of the kingdom.

In turns out that this entire thing is about caring for others and serving each other. The fullness of the kingdom is found in sharing what we have with the least of our friends and neighbors: in giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; in welcoming the stranger and giving clothing to the naked; in caring for the sick and restoring the prisoner. Not just once. Not just every so often. All. The. Time.

And I know that we are a congregation that serves one another, the wider community, and the world with our time, talent, and treasure. But let’s be honest. There are so many ways that we—as individuals and families, as a congregation, as a society, and as a world—fall short.

And I know that because James told his story… that he had rehearsed… again and again… and it worked. And he was still homeless.

Long after I met James, and graduated from seminary, and moved away from Chicago, I read this sermon by a fourth century archbishop named John Chrysostom: John with the Golden Mouth. There are a lot of problems with John Chrysostom. He was eloquent and he was anti-semitic. But…

In this sermon of his, he asked, “Why to people living in poverty… made in the image and likeness of God… standing before us begging and with hand outstretched… stand there naked, trembling with cold, and barely able to keep themselves upright? And why do some of them throw away their clothes and pretend to be cold and weak?”

And then he tells us: it’s because of us.

Some of us have enough and more than enough. Some of us can eat and drink and be merry. Some of us have nice clothes and soft beds and warm houses. And we have the audacity to look at someone in front of us… living in poverty… made in the image and likeness of God… and demand accounts.

We ask people in need to prove that they have nothing and to show us that they are doing everything that they can to avoid asking for help.

And when they’ve done that, we give them the smallest fraction of what we can spare without disrupting our lives too much. And then we act like we’ve given them the whole world!

And I know. John Chrysostom is harsh. But it’s a little bit true. I know it is.

John was preaching in the fourth century. But even today, the safety net that we have put in place to help our friends and neighbors in need asks people to prove their need and there worth. Prove that you live in the right place. Prove that you need the help. Prove that you are doing everything that you can to do better. Paperwork and appointments and interviews and home visits.

And then, when you have proven what you need to prove… we will help you a little bit… for a little while. And then we will talk about how generous we are.

We do all of that as individuals and families… and as agencies and organizations… and as giant institutions and governments. We demand accounts. We share a little. And we talk about how generous we are.

That’s true when it comes to money. That’s true when it comes to food and housing and medical care. That’s true when it comes to justice and liberty and equity. That’s true when it comes to love.

And again, I know it’s harsh. But when I read that sermon and I learned about how our safety nets work, I knew why James told his story… that he had rehearsed… again and again. It was because simply saying, “I am hungry” wouldn’t be enough. He had to give an account.

But here’s the thing, and it’s a thing that God has told us again and again and again: there is no reason that anyone has to live in poverty… or hunger or homelessness or sickness… or bondage or oppression. 

God has promised. People have done the math. There is enough and more than enough.

If we take the extra that we have and share it.

If we share food with the hungry and drink with the thirsty. If we share welcome with the stranger and clothing with the naked. If we share care for the sick and community with the prisoner. If we share homes with the homeless and justice with the oppressed. If we share help with the helpless and hope with the hopeless. If we share. 

If we are generous with those who bear the image and likeness of God. If we are generous with the Christ who we encounter in every pleading face and outstretched hand. Just as God has been generous with us.

And I’ll be honest. I don’t know exactly what that looks like. I don’t have a set of action items.

But I know that when we come to worship, and read the Bible, and pray the prayers, and recite the creeds, and do all of those other things… we see glimpses of the kingdom. But when we are generous with Christ—when we are generous with each other—we won’t just see glimpses of the kingdom. We will be living in the kingdom.

And I know that can start with something as simple as sharing a meal with someone in need. And I know that can start with imagining a world where all that James would have to do to have a safe place to spend the night—where all that anyone would need to do to have a safe place to spend the night—is ask.

And then we build on that.

And I know. That will take big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. So thank God I know some people who can do big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some people who can be leaders in doing big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some people folks who can be the church.

Amen.

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Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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I’m a pastor, an author, and a nonprofit development and communications professional. My passion, my mission, and my calling is bringing people together to do good, with a particular focus on serving people who are experiencing poverty and other forms of marginalization.

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