Beyond Good Intentions
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2012
It is certainly true, as John Calvin said of this passage, that the gifts of the poor are valuable even if small, and that the rich should not be proud just because their gifts are large. Many small contributions can make a political campaign, as we learned in 2008, or can sustain a church budget. In fact, as our congregation weans itself from dependence on a few large contributions, the participation of everyone, at every level, is important. This is how we support our ministry and mission.
And I can tell you that when I think about your church council’s stewardship of your gifts, or contemplate purchases myself for programs or outreach, it is the smallest gifts, given in faith and love, that I remember. Is this really worth someone’s entire pledge? Would he, or she, or they, be proud to have made this possible?
True as all this may be, it is not what this passage in the gospel is about. What I want you to do right now is to throw out all you have ever heard learned about the story of “the widow’s mite” and forget every stewardship sermon you have heard that used this woman as an example of faithful giving. Because Jesus is not lifting this woman up as a model of faith; he is showing his disciples that the religious system that is supposed to take care of her is actually exploiting her.
This story takes place during what we think of as Holy Week. In Matthew’s gospel, Holy Week begins with Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers – disrupting the practices of those who bought and sold and profited from the religious obligations of others. For three days Jesus sits in the temple debating the nature of religious authority, and the purpose of religious practice, and the failures of the religious elite. He is asked questions about the public role of religion, paying taxes, the nature of marriage, and the importance of law – and Jesus notes the insincerity behind each and every question. The greatest commandment, he says, is love – but love in biblical, covenantal religion, carries obligations to care for those Jesus elsewhere calls “the least of these.” Instead, what he sees is a whole host of hypocrisies.
He sits down opposite the treasury – opposite, as in opposed to – and watches people putting in money. He sees the gifts of the wealthy, given out of abundance, and then he sees a widow – putting in – out of her poverty – everything she had – all she had to live on.
This is not right. It is not the practice of biblical, covenantal religion. It is exploitation. She is a widow, as in “the widows and orphans” – the biblical way of saying “the poor of Israel” who the abundance of others is supposed to lift up and protect, not take from.
If there is a contrast between the two types of characters, between the scribes and the widows, it is that the scribes make a show of their faith, praying ostentatiously, seeking public recognition, enjoying the best seats at the banquet tables, all the while devouring the homes and livelihoods of the poor, while the widow, her poverty and her need, is barely noticed. In fact, Jesus has to point her out to his disciples who would otherwise have missed her.
Biblical, covenantal religion sees the poor, the widow, the orphan, those without other means of support, and cares for them – it does not exploit them, or ignore them.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we have seen great need, and we, as individuals and as a congregation, have not lacked the desire to do something. Being able to do something in a crisis makes us feel good and helps us feel useful. But feeling good and useful is not the best measure of our response. Last week I said that neighbors taking care of neighbors and congregations organizing for long term recovery are what the love of God and neighbor will look like for some time. This week I want to say that this takes discernment and organization, because well intentioned action which does unto others without asking the people affected what would be most helpful can, in its attempt to help, create as many problems as solutions.
One example from White Plains and one from Manhattan: Last week, soon after the storm, our local Salvation Army was given a large donation of frozen chicken to be used in their feeding of local families in our White Plains Shelter system. But the donation of all that chicken, all at once, created a new problem: where to keep it until it could be cooked and served. Suddenly the crisis was not just one of feeding people but a new crisis of refrigeration. The Salvation Army dug deep into funds they didn’t have and bought a new freezer. But it wasn’t enough. So our congregation was approached and our mission commission bought and delivered another freezer. Now, I want to be clear: we did the right thing. We were asked, and we responded. And the additional freezer not only helped feed hungry people last week but expands the capacity of our city to respond to the next crisis. Far better would have been staggered, smaller donations of food geared to both the actual present need and the capacity to respond. It would have saved nearly $800 from two church budgets that could have been used for something else, and would not have used up the better part of a day for the staff and volunteers of the congregations.
A second example: In New York City, mountains of clothing have been dropped off by well meaning individuals without any mechanism for their distribution. As one person put it to me yesterday, the crisis has presented many people of good will with an opportunity to clean out their closets. Numerous plastic bags of clothing remained piled up outside at least one Manhattan church even as the next storm rolled in on Wednesday, bringing snow and rain. Response in a crisis needs to be laser focused on what is needed, when it is needed, and how it is needed.
This is why we work through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, or PDA, and immediately encouraged your donations to their work: Presbyterian Disaster Assistance works differently. It has established relationships on the ground not only here in the US but around the world. So when a crisis comes, people are talking with one another about what is needed and what is not. And because it typically takes years to rebuild after disaster, PDA is there for the long haul, not simply for the first month following a crisis but for several years. This is one of the great things about being part of the church. When FEMA and The Red Cross move on to the next crisis – and there will be another crisis – the church remains. Think about it – congregations exist in every community. We have buildings, often large buildings, we have kitchens, office staff, intelligent volunteers and generous members, and we have local relationships. The old joke used to be that when faced with a problem, Presbyterians organize a committee, and that we have a love for ‘decency and order’. Well, in responding to a crisis these are immense gifts.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in one of three program ministries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that is funded by the One Great Hour of Sharing offering during Lent. The other two program ministries are the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Self Development of People Program. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the visible presence of our love, prayer, and resources during times of crisis. In New Jersey, this means Sally Dyer and Milton Fulton, who came from Ohio and Florida to be with and help the Presbytery of Elizabeth. On Long Island it means The Rev. Sandra Lynn Price and Bill Welch, who met with the Presbytery on Tuesday in First Presbyterian Church in Freeport. For New York City it means Merritt Schatz, Tom Hoffman & Cheryl Ann Baldwin – a team of first responders who led a workshop for a group of us on Wednesday. These folks, who were trained for just such a time as this, will help organize, train, and direct the ongoing work of recovery, not just for the emergency needs of the crisis – that’s where Red Cross and FEMA do their best work – but for the material and spiritual needs that are present 18, 24 or 36 months down the road. And that’s how long many people are being told it will be before they return to their homes, if they return at all. In a few months it will be clear that there are needs beyond the warm meal and the roof over one’s head that will need to be met.
Right now, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has a member at the table during all of FEMA’s dialing briefings so that we know what the responses have been, what the needs are, and where the resources are. PDA is also a member of the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, which help organize effectively, efficiently and compassionately the care you and I would like to offer. They will alert us to each new need as it arises. But remember, they are planning for the long haul.
Last week the mission commission asked for donations to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; one of our members offered to match the first $1000 given. And you responded. On Friday, our office manager Noel Warner mailed a check for $3000 to PDA for Disaster relief. Each of our Presbyteries immediately received $10,000 for relief, and other funds are being targeted to particular needs – each with the promise of long term accompaniment and care. Every day I am asked if there is not more we can do, and many have offered helpful suggestions. We will continue to listen to our partners, and to pass along their requests to you.
For example, our partners at Stony Point Center have opened all of the beds in those houses our mission team painted last summer to sixty adults and forty kids who lost their homes during the storm. Most of the kids are back in school thanks to a special arrangement for bussing by the county. These families have a warm, safe place to stay and good food to eat while they figure out what their next move is. But at the same time: mountains of donations. Stony Point have received so many unsolicited donations of food, school supplies and clothing that they had to post on their website and send out in a special email that they were no longer taking donations of these items. Remember: response in a crisis needs to be laser focused on what is needed, when it is needed, and how it is needed. Stony Point is now accepting donations of school snacks for the kids – specific items are listed on their website.
By the way, in addition to money, PDA is asking for blankets. Now I want to emphasize blankets because sometimes people think, “oh I can do better than that” and they send a quilt or a coat or other clothing instead. It happened over and over last week. But quilts and coats are not as versatile as blankets which are not only used to keep people warm, but are used to carry things, to make temporary shelter or privacy screens, for cleaning, and dozens of other uses.
Next will come the organization of volunteers: congregations from Florida to Illinois are already planning to send youth groups and mission volunteers over the holidays, during spring break, all next summer. And they will make a big difference. These groups will need hosts, congregations to put them up for a week, cook for them, and they will need direction, tools, cleaning supplies. We’re not all that far from NYC, and Manhattan churches will eventually need a break from the needs of volunteers.
God created us and made us for relationship with one another. Our love of God is bound up with our love of neighbor. In biblical religion, this love is guided through covenantal relationships that are more than random acts of kindness, that seek to preserve the dignity of all involved when charity is given, and has a long vision that tends toward justice. Through Sally and Milton and Sandra and Bill and many others, you are providing help for many who need it, and you are not only there right now but you are committed to being there with those in need for some time to come. Right now, through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, your love, prayer, and resources are visibly present where they are needed most.