Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stranger stewardship

Matthew 25: 31-46

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

November 23, 2014

This morning I have for you a song and a story.  I have questions that do not necessarily have answers.  Usually when we read this teaching from Matthew we wonder to ourselves:  I’m a sheep, right, not a goat?  But as is typical with the gospel, the lesson is not about us; it is about who we are in relationship to the gospel, the good news.  The questions before us are:  Who are we in relationship to Jesus?  Who are we in relationship to the stranger?  Who is this church in relationship to the kingdom, the beloved community of God?

Today is the Sunday we celebrate Jesus as head of the Church, as sovereign of God’s beloved community, as God’s anointed one, the Christ.  If the members of Christ’s family are the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, then the Reign of Christ is also the Reign of the Stranger.  If Christ is Lord, then so too are the needs of the least of these.  If we say that Christ has a claim upon our lives, then indeed we are declaring that the stranger has a claim upon our lives.

i got plenty and then some
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get plenty and then some, too

i got a roof over my head
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get a roof over their head, too

i got supper on the table
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get supper on the table, too

'cause i got it to give
i got it to give
and when you got enough to give away
well it's the only way to live

i'm going to heaven
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get to heaven, too

©2007 Susan Werner, Frank Chance Music (ASCAP)

            Two weeks ago a man walked through the front door of the church that I thought I’d never see again.  The last time I saw him it was spring.  He said he had a job but needed some help with rent, food, and some boots for his work.  Some might shake their heads and cluck their tongues, but I loaned him some money to do all these things because I got plenty and then some, I got a roof over my head, supper on the table.  I got enough to give away.  I live in what some would consider heaven, so I’m gonna go out and help somebody get to heaven too, right?  I got his name, his cell phone number and address.  We scheduled his first payment—$20—on the loan.  He said he’d see me in church.  He plucked all the right strings.

            Well, as you already know, he never came to church; he didn’t pay one cent toward that loan.  So I thought he’d have to be crazy to stand in my doorway again, and yet that’s exactly what he did.  He told me he had been in jail because his construction job had taken him into Pennsylvania, and even though he’d left a message with his parole officer, they still arrested him for parole violation.  That day he came looking for me he was looking for help with getting some kind of I.D. and to put some minutes on his phone.  He showed me a copy of his parole card, and I noticed something different from what he had told me last time.  His last name was not the one he had written down for me.  I had kept the piece of paper on which he had written his name, his cell phone number, and what turned out to be a bogus address.  The two last names were similar but definitely not the same.

            When I confronted him and showed him the piece of paper with a different last name in his handwriting, he said that it was just the way he writes.  I told him I couldn’t loan him any more money.  He said he would make good on the previous loan, that I’d see him in two weeks with $20, but I’ve long since forgiven that debt.  I sent him on his way to the Empowerment Center, who phoned me afterward that they couldn’t help him because he’d been in before and was caught stealing from people’s offices at the church.

            Later that same day (God was on my case) a man who is deaf and lives out of his 1990’s Chevy Astro van once again came to me to ask for help with gas.  I’ve helped him in the past, and once he has repaid the amount I put in his tank.  But I know I cannot allow him to become dependent on me.  This is why the Empowerment Center was created in the first place, because if he’s asking me, he’s asking everyone for help.  This time, though, he said needed surgery to remove his gall stones.  He was also not shaven like he usually is, and I could smell alcohol on his breath.  I referred him to the Empowerment Center.  Whether he showed up there or not, I do not know.

            I could tell more stories than these and so could you.  The scripture makes it sound so simple, but it’s not anymore.  So many folks who need help staying alive are dealing with addiction or mental illness.  Are we helping or are we enabling?  And none of us likes to have the wool pulled down over our eyes.  We want to help the stranger.  We want to see a life changed, transformed for the better.  My heart breaks over stories like these.  Being kind doesn’t seem to make a dent when systemic change is needed.  What are we to do?  Sometimes the Jesus we meet is addicted, suffers from mental illness, manipulates to get what he or she needs, isn’t interested a relationship with a church.  How do we connect with that Jesus?

            It would seem that we need a dose of the twelve steps, because we are striving to love someone who cannot love themselves, a Jesus who cannot see that he or she exists because of God’s love.  These steps have nothing to do with the one we wish we could help but all to do with our own souls.  The first four are the hardest.  We admit we are powerless; that only a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; that we turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God; that we make a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.

            Part of that inventory is what do I keep and what do I give away.  And though the gospel lesson is a story of the last judgment, I’d like to think that God appreciates both my desire and my sometimes ill-fated attempts to be faithful.  I’d like to think that when I do refer someone to the Empowerment Center, that I am not withholding something from a person in need but setting them on a path that they can choose to follow or not.  I find tough love difficult because I am such a soft touch. I still believe that there is good in everyone, even if we need night goggles, a map, and a compass to find it.  I still believe there is Jesus in everyone, and the gospel is the way to find him.

            I’m not sure I have an answer to any of this, except to say “never give up on the stranger”, and perhaps that’s what Jesus is getting at.  The stranger in all likelihood will not be able to give back to us or to anyone else.  What we do may or may not make a difference.  But that doesn’t mean we stop trying to give what we can.

            Ultimately, stewardship isn’t about money or resources.  Those are just tools of the true treasure we have been entrusted with, which is love.  How will we spend our love, something we have an infinite source for?  How will we spend God on God’s most vulnerable?  And how willing are we to be transformed in the process?  Amen.

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