October 16th, 2022 Sermon
Michael was one of the most effective fundraisers and service providers I’ve ever known. I met him when I was living in Boulder, Colorado. To get by, I was working three different jobs that all had some sort of interaction with Michael. During the week, I was on a Parks and Recreation Crew that had the task of maintaining a street that had been closed, bricked up, landscaped, and turned into a beautiful outdoor mall area. On the weekends, I worked as the custodian for a downtown church, and, finally, off and on, I was a substitute worker at an emergency shelter for youth. I interacted with unhoused folks in all three positions, and Michael’s calling was to help.
He always seemed to know who needed the most help, most urgently. He helped get food, medical care, medicine, and shelter to a lot of folks just in time. He also knew how to stretch a dollar like no one else I knew. He always seemed to know where to get free food to supplement the food he purchased. I saw him take 30 dollars and stretch it into a good meal that fed 20 people. On what was going to be a bitterly cold night, he asked me if the church I worked for might donate a room where someone could sleep. The church gave permission, and as I showed him the space, he said, “This is great! We can fit four more folks in here! Come on, boys!” And four more people came around the corner with their back-backs thanking me for letting them sleep there. Another time, he asked another church for a room at a cheap local hotel for someone who was really suffering. Michael knew that a soft bed and shower would help renew this person. The minister of that church checked in with Michael the next day, and Michael said, “It made all the difference! Ralph got a great night’s sleep! And almost 30 other people got a nice, warm shower!”
For a lot of people, Michael was a nuisance. When I first met him, I thought he was a nuisance. People would see Michael coming and turn the other way. They would avert their eyes. I tried.
Michael was a Vietnam Vet – former Special Forces – and during his tour, he’d been exposed to high levels of Agent Orange, which caused significant nerve damage. He showed me old pictures of himself in his dress uniform, and although the eyes and the smile were the same, the person in front of me looked a lot different. As he described himself, he was a skinny guy in a wheelchair.
He was always in pain. The VA gave him three weeks’ worth of pain medication every month but never a fourth. It never made sense. He always had an appeal pending. Once in a while, it would work, and he’d get that fourth week of pain meds, but then, the next month, he’d be given three weeks of a month’s prescription again. Even the folks at the local VA thought this was nuts, but no one could figure out how to fix it. So, during that fourth week, he’d drink alcohol to try and take away the pain. He’d been married and had a child, but over time, his declining health and alcoholism led to his marriage ending, job loss, and homelessness.
The first time I interacted with him in any way was early in the morning at my job with Parks and Recreation. It was one of the weeks he was self-medicating. As part of my job, I was up early with the cleaning crew and swept around him as he slept on the ground. He smelled awful. I found out later there was no public restroom around, and it was hard for him to get in and out of his chair so… Later that day, he asked me for money several times and mumbled something not too friendly when I didn’t give it. He was dismissed by many as a homeless, alcoholic panhandler. Which he was. He used some of the money he raised for alcohol.
About a week later, after I met him, I was sitting and eating the first half of my sandwich when he rolled up, pointed at the other half, and said, “You going to eat that?” I felt trapped on a park bench and, to get him away, I gave it to him. But he stayed and started a conversation. By the end, we liked each other. Over time, as I got to know him better, I respected him quite a bit. When it was time for me to move from Boulder, he gave me a picture of himself to remember him. Since then, it’s been someplace I could see it almost every day. When I find it in one of our moving boxes, I’ll show it to you.
For many reasons, I understand many people did not want to help Michael when he asked them for money or food on the street. Giving money to him resulted in an imperfect result. And yet, it also helped save his life and the lives of many others who were failed by almost every other system with which they interacted.
One of the reasons why the Gospels are good news for everyone is because of stories like the one we read today from Luke. What I said in the children’s sermon is true. This is a story about persistence and repeated asking, and kids seem to know the effectiveness of this intuitively. There is, in this story, more encouragement for persistent asking than discouragement. Not only that, but this scripture seeks to differentiate between the corrupt judge and our loving God. The widow had to wear down the judge with repeated begging and haranguing for a just resolution. Still, Jesus suggests that God is not only more receptive but anxious to hear and fulfill a request for justice.
This encouragement to ask for help is far from unique in the Bible. Hundreds of scriptures refer to asking God or someone for something. Although sometimes, these are stories of God refusing to help someone not in a right relationship with God, most of the time, these are stories of God’s generosity or God overcoming a human’s refusal to help. Scripture models the reality that, for human and divine relationships to work best, sometimes we’ll need to be the asker, and sometimes something will be asked of us. There is a give and take in relationships that is natural and good, and fair. At its best, it’s not about scorekeeping or trading favors but about the realities of a world that works at its best when we help one another. At its best, it’s not about our power over one another but our power with each other. It is best when we work, share, and figure out solutions to the world’s problems together.
If you want to check out a fascinating organization, open your computer and check our IDEO.org (spell it out). Their work is so great that I won’t even be offended if you check it out a bit right now. IDEO is a design-based organization whose mission is “to design a more just and inclusive world.” A little more than ten years ago, they did a study to try and figure out what makes the most effective and efficient teams in workplaces. They looked at the psychological make-ups of groups, families of origin or culture of origin, educational levels; various forms of business structures; and on and on; nothing seemed to work consistently. All the metrics and skills used and taught for years seemed very effective in some places but ineffective in others, and they couldn’t figure out why. At some point, they took all the things they had been measuring, set them aside, and asked new questions. Slowly but surely, they discovered that the most productive, effective, and efficient organizations were those made up of people who asked each other for help. As opposed to how some organizations treated asking for help, it wasn’t a distraction for individual work. It didn’t take people off the primary task or the organization. Instead, it increased communication, cooperation, and collaboration among the team to such a degree that individual work was enhanced and focused on serving the organization’s mission. The organization was made more effective. I read of a following study by another organization – that I couldn’t find the reference by the time of this sermon – that showed that the amount people asked for help in an organization could lead to an increase in overall productivity by, if my memory serves me correctly, around 70%.
We need the reminder that asking for help is normal and helpful and good and, actually, the key to our individual and mutual survival. We’re human, so, of course, it’s as complicated as we are. I know I’m not alone in finding it hard to ask for help from anyone, including God. Part of me has been taught that asking for help is a sign of failure, weakness, or dependency; that asking for help means I must have done something wrong. The fact I was raised male doesn’t help either. And, because of all of that same programming, being asked for help can sometimes make me squeamish, too. So, not only does some of my programmed self-shaming get projected onto others, but it also exposes the reality that I can’t help someone else, which kicks all those failure, weakness, or dependency tapes into gear.
Help avoidance is killing the world. It’s killing the Church. We’ve all backed into a customer service mentality where we only purchase help. Help has a fee for which we are charged or pay. Too often, it’s meant that we’ve become people who complain about problems and expect others to fix them instead of using the time and energy we put into complaining to find a solution together.
In the “for profit” world, maybe this makes some sense but not in most other situations. As a citizen, paying taxes, voting, paying for public utilities, treating each other civilly, obeying laws, changing laws, speaking our minds, participating in changing unjust systems, asking for help, and giving help are all part of doing our part in making our communities work. We’re not paying people to do these things for us but with is. We all have responsibilities to make sure these things happen, and we’ve found it helpful to get specialists and experts involved sometimes. At its best, these systems are systems of mutuality, help, and service that improve our lives through a normal give and take.
Membership is very similar. There are a lot of for-profit entities that might call programs memberships, but they’re not. They’re customer loyalty programs that give you some benefits for giving them your money. The only influence you have over them is as a consumer.
A member chooses to be part of and support a group of people with a shared mission and vision. The word “member” is rooted in a biological understanding where all body parts were once called “members.” In the same way, in a membership-based organization, what happens to one happens to all. Because of that, a member doesn’t expect to be served but to participate in mutual service to the best of their ability and capacity. Not only that, but the members agree that those who join have that capacity.
Part of the reason First and South are good partners, and a large part of why I’m here is because I see this commitment to membership at the core of both congregations. It will be essential to re-emphasize and remind people of this in the coming months, but it’s there.
From my previous position working in regional, denominational, ecumenical, and interfaith ministry, I saw this understanding of membership being increasingly forgotten. I don’t use the word “heresy” lightly or often, but many churches have become infected by a customer-service heresy that makes members into consumers and leaders into management where the primary goal is serving the members as consumers instead of collectively figuring out how to serve God and God’s people with our time, money, energy, and spiritual gifts. As opposed to a membership organization that counts on participation and mutual help, many folks have been encouraged to think about their church as a spiritual health club that is there to serve them and that they have no role in supporting these with anything else than their monthly fee (if that).
Among all the reasons for the decline of churches, this one is huge. The customer service mentality that started to take over the world in the 1950s and 1960s took over membership organizations. It created a rot at the core of our collective social and faith life that is threatening our vitality, viability, and relevance, as well as our ability to change what needs to be changed and heal what needs to be healed.
If these pandemic years have taught us nothing else, it is that we need each other. In those beginning days, when no one knew what was going on, for the most part, we did a tremendous job of helping each other and figuring things out. Was it perfect? No. But, in my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like it on such a global scale. It was only after some of those organizations and systems that had lost control during this brief period tried to reassert themselves and make themselves central that things started to fall apart. As we moved away from a global “We’re all in this together” to “We’re all in this together, but they’re not,” things began to fall apart. We saw, in a very real way, how refusing to recognize our mutually intertwined lives and need to help each other could kill hundreds of thousands of people. By contrasting the two approaches during the pandemic, we can see how the same thing is likely happening in many other areas of global challenge, especially climate change.
The widow’s plea and the comfort of Christ make me wonder if two phrases might help turn things around; “I need help” and “I can help.” The widow and the judge were transformed from being two objects to each other to two people in a relationship with each other. Sure, it might not have been the deepest of all relationships, but it was a start. Asking for help and offering help are not signs of weakness. Asking for help and offering help are tools God gives us for creating a whole, vital, and vibrant life together. It helps expose those places we are collectively weak and transforms some of those things that may seem like weaknesses into experiences from which we can all benefit. It is not about one-way dependency in a moment but two-way mutuality over time. Look at those around you and those on your screen, my siblings in Christ. I invite you to say out loud to each other, even if you are watching at home, these two simple phrases, these two simple recognitions; “I need your help” and “We can help.”
If you’d like to make a donation to support the ministries of South Congregational Church of Pittsfield, follow this link: https://southchurchpittsfield.org/donate/