I was moved this week by an encounter I had at a grocery store. I posted it on facebook. An interesting discussion of Christians, ministers, and non-church-goers ensued.
I was at the store helping a church member and friend. A disease was changing his life and his family’s. He had not been able to work for three weeks due to this disease. It made him chronically sick. He was just starting to think about applying for disability. His wife and four kids had run out of food. The lack of income was beginning to cave in on them. We were out at the grocery store getting food for the next week before some other aid kicked in. The difficulty of the whole situation was really heavy on he and his family. We talked about what was harder: the emotional stress of the family’s financial crisis and no longer being able to work, or just suffering through the disease that was making it all happen.
Shopping at the store, I overheard another young woman near crying to a store associate. She was a young mother. All I heard of the conversation was this as I passed by filling our cart: “…and the churches kept saying that they would only help out their own members. I have three kids. What am I supposed to do?…” I immediately felt convicted by her words. I am a full-time minister. I was helping friends that were members of my church. Even though they had not attended for a while, the situation they were in was not – and is never – the time to talk about how often they had been attending. I had a relationship with them. I care for them. It had been years since we saw each other, but we shared a heartfelt connection. But, what about this women at the store? I thought about the verse in Luke:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6:32-33)
This was the same passage in which Jesus teaches to give without expectation of return and to love our enemies. This is the heart of Jesus’ gospel.
The women I overheard was now down the aisle. I opened my wallet. All I had was $20 in cash. The $20 was neither guilt money or anything to get puffed-up about. It was simply a matter conviction, a matter of principle.
I chased her down. I gave her the $20 and said, “I’m a Christian. I don’t believe churches should just look after their own. It isn’t much, but please take this.” I put it in her hand. She received it. No angels sang. No crisis averted. It was no great act of generosity. It was simply a moment of awkwardness between strangers, but also a moment of graciousness. Maybe not all churches and church-folk were the same. Or, that’s what I hoped. I walked away with a feeling I still can’t explain.
I get the arguments. I’ve been a church administrator. Church’s could not help anyone if they practiced no discretion in offering financial help. But, can we justify restricting generosity to our own membership? What do church’s say about Christ, Christ’s message, and God’s mission when they only support their own? I think this is the deepest betrayal of the gospel, and I think Luke’s gospel supports that way of thinking.
On the facebook discussion about the experience of this young mother, there were several insights. They came from good friends and ministers in the UCC as well as some ministers and volunteer pastors in Community of Christ. One was from my friend Derek Sanders, who said that he is more interested in relationship than membership. I believe Christ’s example is precisely that relationships are the fabric of the gospel and his ministry. To that, I say, “Amen.” Nan, another pastor of a Community of Christ congregation, talked about her struggle with how many people were reaching out to her small congregation for aid. She said her congregation was going to have this conversation about building relationships soon. Others talked about how congregations they knew cooperated with local agencies to pool resources and centralize ways to help. These are things that, I think, churches can and should do – not proselytize to those in financial crisis or only help their own.
In the end, for churches, the question of helping others in material ways comes down to a simple matter of Christian identity and mission. What are churches, really? Why do Christians comes together in “churches”? For themselves? What is their gospel and who is the good news of the gospel really for? Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ judgment of the nations in chapter 25 should not be read as a scriptural scare-tactic for church folk, as much as a humble moment of clarity. When churches reach out to those in need, the good news of the gospel come to both.
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory…34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for 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,36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 31,34-40)