Sermons from Silverside
Silverside Church Delaware
Preacher: David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
August 9, 2015
Today’s Sermon: Surreptitious Sharing
(Sermon Series: Spirituality and Gardening)
Our spirituality is enhanced, not diminished, when we help those who are in need. Whether we help strugglers with non-material needs like the need for encouragement and the need for a supportive presence simply to “be there,” or help people with something that costs us some money out of our own pockets we are benefiting from the transaction(s). If we help just to seek a reward such as recognition then there is no spiritual gain whatsoever; but if we help purely for the sake of helping someone who struggles then an overflow from that is enhanced spirituality.
There isn't any reason to sit around and wonder if someone who has a need will happen upon us, upon our community. We're not supposed to wait for them to come and seek us out necessarily. The ideal pattern for this kind of support more often sees us initiating the privilege of helping someone in need.
It's also being smart enough to realize that people in need are always around. No one has come up with a magic solution to poverty, for one example. As much as Jesus would like to have seen poverty and hunger and homelessness eradicated he doubted that would be the case, and so he said on one occasion: the poor you will always have with you. He didn't mean don't help them because there always will be a class of poor people somewhere, everywhere; and that's their plight. You should take them a Hanukkah basket or whatever, and with that you've done your duty; you don't have to go overboard because you can't eradicate the poverty anyway.
I've heard people who believed Jesus meant with this remark that there is no sense in going overboard with assistance for the needy and used this sort of a reading of Jesus’ teaching to justify the “little dab’ll do ya” approach to responding to people who are in need. Many of you have heard me mention across the years the book Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame wrote at the height of his celebrity about how he built his church up from nothing, and he did that. It was an amazing undertaking until family greed became, fairly recently, the undoing of the whole enterprise. Rev. Schuller died only about four months ago after having watching his children feud over church leadership and money until the one uber wealthy church went bankrupt. Back to the book though; he wrote about a frequently asked question of him, “Rev. Schuller, how can you justify encouraging people to spend such an immense amount of money on a grand facility, the Crystal Cathedral, when the plight of the poor at your doorstep and around the world is staggering?”
I don’t know how many of you ever got up early enough on Sunday mornings to watch his television show, “The Hour of Power.” Schuller was the most unique media pastor of his generation. When he entered his massive pulpit and greeted the congregants and the television audience he turned to greet more hearers who had pulled up into a a drive-in theater from where they could participate in the service from the comfort of their automobiles. When Schuller greeted the outdoor crowd, a wall literally moved so they could see him directly and not through thick glass.
Back to the question. How could he have justified the expenditure of funds on one of the most grand modernized worship sites ever conceived with hungry and homeless people right under his nose? This is the answer he gave in the book, which was a required textbook for a seminary class just so you know why I read it in the first place; said the Reverend Schuller: “If we applied every penny people gave (toward building expenses) to the poor, the poor would still be around; and those who love worshiping in the place or at this place would have been deprived.” He was alluding to Jesus’ comment that the poor would always be around except that he twisted it for his benefit; he tried to have Jesus saying that you might as well not go all out to help the poor because no matter how much you do there will always be poor people.
Schuller was a smart person; he knew better than that. He seems to have ruled out the possibility that God managed very well before the Chrystal Cathedral came along, and in fact had a much longer history of touching lives in less than ornate places. I can guarantee you 1000% that Jesus never encouraged people with means to avoid overdoing benevolence gifts to the poor.
Preben Vang and Terry Carter in their book, Telling God’s Story, insist, “Jesus picked up on the Old Testament prophetic message that social injustice was an abomination to God; God had a special love for those whose only strength was found in God." Their insight is irrefutable.
There was a habit in ancient Israel out of which Hebrew Scripture grew, a cultural habit, which in that situation was not separated from religious expectation; in the modern world such separation is so necessary and such a gift for those of us who have that privilege because of the values of our foreparents. Nonetheless, in the ancient Hebrew world, from early on, the people had embraced the reality that almost always somebody in a community is in need; it may or may not have been a permanent predicament, but at some point in time the person struggled and may have been doing without life’s necessities. With that in mind, the pattern was established that when harvesting was done either by the owner of the garden or by those working for the owner reapers did not pick up grain or other food items that fell to the earth while the harvesting process was underway; nor did they scrape the garden clean from edge to edge. They left the items that fell to the ground during harvesting, and they intentionally did not harvest to the furthest edges of the garden because the food items that fell and those that grew around the edges of the garden were for those who that year had no garden--for whatever reason.
If you have ever taken an opportunity to serve at Emmanuel Dining Room where we provide the noon meal on the thirteenth of every month, you know that the philosophy is to ask no questions of anyone eating there that day as to what their situation is that caused them to have to seek out a free meal that day. The assumption is made that people who show up and stand in line to receive free food need it. With few exceptions that is absolutely true.
In the ancient Hebrew situation, leaving grain on the ground or grapes on those vines at the edges of the vineyard were comfortable ways for those who didn't have what they needed at a given moment the chance to get what they needed without having to ask. Since the community had realized strugglers were going to be around all the time, and typically not the same strugglers at every meal or at every harvest, the practices I’ve described were devised so that provisions was made for those in need not as an afterthought but rather as a forethought.
I say again, it's a deeply spiritually enhancing not a spiritually depleting act to be able to help somebody who has a need that she or he cannot fix at this moment. This is such a meaningful planting and harvesting experience in our spiritual gardens!
St. Francis of Assisi memorably embodied compassion for the poor. Francis was born in 1182--rich kid, spoiled rich kid. His father was rolling in dough for selling cloth. He assumed, we gather, that his son would in some kind of way continue the family traditions. Francis must have thought so himself, but two arenas of experience caused him to question a life focused on wealth. One of those arenas was military service; that can teach lots of values lessons especially if you are in a battle situation and/or see a comrade get wounded or worse. I don’t know what it was about military service that caused Francis to rethink his life center.
The other arena of challenge was a profound religious experience. Presumably, being in a church wasn’t a foreign experience for him, but hearing what he took to be the risen Jesus speaking directly to him was. At church one day, he thought the voice of Jesus said to him, “Francis, repair my falling house."
Francis decided he’d better believe it was a real encounter and do as he was told. He thought Jesus wanted him to fix that church building in particular so gifted himself with a lot of silk from his father’s warehouse and sold it for a stash so that he could give the money for church repairs.
His father was outraged, to say the least, and he publicly, officially disowned his son; among other things this meant, “No need for you to show up for the reading of the will.”
“Fine,” Francis said. “If Jesus is telling me to do one thing, and you’re telling me something else, it’s pretty clear who I’m going to listen to.” And with that he handed his father his billfold, which had in it all the money Francis had; then to make sure his papa got the point, he stripped, left his expensive clothing at his furious father’s feet, and walked away naked.
From that moment on, Francis never had another coin he could call his own. He had a special sense of calling to help the poor, and that included those who were poor because they were physically ill and couldn’t work.
“For it is in giving that we receive,” he once said. On another occasion, he said to his followers, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”
Francis attended to the poor as best he could. For himself, he tried to get enough work each day to earn food for himself and others; if that didn’t work out, he found food he considered edible in trash bins. He became so enamored with poverty that he personified poverty. He called her Lady Poverty, and he married her. Some traditions say that Francis set up the first manger scene to stress the relative poverty into which Jesus himself had been born.
Confucius: “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”
The Mahabharata, one of the most revered Hindu scripture sources in ancient India: “He who feeds a stranger and a tired traveler with joy attains infinite religious merit.”
The Buddha: “Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering.”
Baha’u’llah, founder of the Bahá’í faith, believed he heard God speaking in this message: “O ye rich ones on earth! The poor in your midst are my trust; guard ye my trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.”
We were talking at Bible study on Friday a little bit about the Charter for Compassion, something we once talked about a great deal around here, but in recent years have not. We should keep connected to the Charter and support what it’s about--definitely not forgetting about it.
The Charter was birthed by the brilliant Karen Armstrong, who said what others should have said long ago--namely that there is nothing of a theological nature that has ever or will ever unite people. What we should be able to embrace with others, though, is compassion, which includes compassion for the poor. The Charter proclaims that the “principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect….We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”
I can’t help thinking today of some hymn words I have loved for a very long time. They were written by Grace Noll Crowell, and the tune that kept them in my heart was written by Church Music Professor Phillip Landgrave:
Because I have been given much, I too must give.
Because of thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live.
I will divide my gifts from thee
With all the others that I see
Who have the need of help from me.
Because I have been sheltered, fed by thy good care.
I cannot see the others’ need and I not share.
My glowing fire, my loaf of bread,
My roof’s safe shelter overhead
That they too may be comforted.