What are the children doing?
I want to do an experiment—can you all help me? I have all these boingy things, and I’m going to give everyone some of these, and to one person I’ll give a LOT of boingy things, and one person gets none—your name is Lazarus.
So with these boingy things, you can get whatever you need—you can get food, you can get toys, you can get a house. But can Lazarus get any of the things he needs? No. Who has the most boingy things? Now think of all the things you could get with all these boingy things! You could get your favorite food, you could get a biiiig house, you could get the fanciest toys. How awesome! Are you thinking about it? Yes. Now, the thing is: to get into your biiiiig house, you have to pass by Lazarus. There he is, with his hand out, like always. He doesn’t have any boingy things at all. He can’t get any of the same things you can get. But you pass by him and ignore him, because you’re thinking of <favorite food!> and <favorite toy!>.
But here’s the thing. You and Lazarus will both die. Lay down on the floor, like you’re dead. And you don’t get to take your boingy things with you after you die. Except that Lazarus, who never had any boingy things, gets alllll the boingy things. Oh no! What happened?
This is like the story Jesus told to his disciples—the man with all the boingy things (Jesus called him a “rich man”) used all his wealth only for himself, and he didn’t make sure that Lazarus had what Lazarus needed. Even though the Bible says over and over and over about how important it is to take care of the people around us who don’t have what they need, the rich man ignored all of that. And after he died, he found out there were consequences. Ugh, don’t you just hate the consequences, right?
What could the rich man have done differently while he was living? He could have shared his boingy things. Let’s practice with our own boingy things—let’s throw them all into a pile right here, right in front of the altar.
And let’s say a prayer: Dear God, thank you for Jesus who tells us stories about what it is like to live richly. We’ve piled our boingy things here, and help us to imagine the ways we share all that you have given to us—our wealth, our creativity and ideas, our love, our time. You give us all that we need. Help us to share, trusting in you to provide everything we need. Amen.
I want everyone to take one boingy thing with you, and you can change it into another shape, however you want, just be careful with the poky end.
Alicia Cisneros wakes early every morning to work in a school cafeteria in New Mexico, preparing breakfast and lunch for 640 students, most of whom come from low-income households. At the end of her school workday, some afternoons she also cleans homes in Santa Fe for extra money. Cisneros feeds other children so that she can earn the money to feed her own family. She came to this country from Mexico thirty years ago, and she now has three grown sons and a teenaged daughter, hoping they’ll be successful here in the United States, with opportunities they wouldn’t have had in Mexico.
I learned this story from the advocacy organization Bread for the World, who shared Alicia’s story as a way to help people understand what life is like for people who work and still need assistance, for people who feed others and are still sometimes hungry. Bread for the World has statistics and data about poverty in the United States and feeding programs and the benefits of tax credits and large-scale stuff like that, but they still highlight Alicia’s story.
Because Bread for the World, and marketing professionals, and Jesus all understand something important when it comes to stories—stories about individuals are essential for getting to our hearts.
The Gospel story today is about someone who doesn’t know how to pay attention to what’s important. Maybe you know someone like the rich man who is wealthy and who is not generous—are these people really happy? Or are they always measuring their wealth and measuring their value against what other people have? Isn’t that exhausting? Is that a good way to live?
Or do you know people with wealth who are generous with their money, who decide on an amount they want to give away, and then they joyfully do this? I have met people like this, and they are so happy. Sometimes these are the folks who speak at fundraising banquets about why this organization means something special to them, and they’re so delighted to give their money away to help the mission of that organization.
When Jesus tells this, admittedly, pretty extreme story about a rich man and life and death and heaven and hell, you could easily get caught up in the heaven and hell part of the story, but in the end, that isn’t what Jesus is focusing on. The question we’re left with in the end is: who are you going to listen to?
You’ve heard the same story from prophets throughout the ages, like Amos whose voice we heard in the first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures—"alas for those who are at ease!” You’ve heard it again in the first letter to Timothy, “be rich in good works” and “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Just to be clear, money itself is not evil! But your attitude toward money could be evil, so that’s the part to pay attention to.
And a lot of us are the kinds of people who have heard the cries of the poor, and we want to share what we have, we want to help others, but what’s the right way? What’s the best way? Do you ever get caught up in this, acknowledging that are legitimately many options for caring for people who are poor? Is it okay to give cash directly to people who are poor? What if we share resources instead of cash? What if we advocate with our elected representatives to make sure that tax money is going to help people in poverty?
Whew. Take a deep breath. God is in this conversation, and we’re not going to get stuck in the many options and remain paralyzed because we couldn’t decide what to do. (For those of us with ADHD like me, this is a familiar scenario—getting stuck in the multitude of possibilities.) What if, instead, we listen carefully and prayerfully for God’s call to us as individuals? So let’s look at a few different options for ways that God could be calling on you to respond.
If your heart is moved by an individual in poverty, or a family standing in a busy intersection asking for money, and if God calls you to respond to that individual with a gift of cash or resources, then give with a clear conscience. You’re not going to catch me getting in the way of God’s work, nor telling God what to do. A gift is given freely, and after you give to someone else, you are not in charge of what that person then does with that gift—that’s on their conscience, not yours.
However, if you don’t feel good about this kind of giving, maybe that’s not your calling from God. Again: that’s fine! I’m not telling God what to do!
But what if a person comes to the door of the church building and needs some kind of assistance? I’ll tell you: sometimes this happens. Sometimes people need cash, sometimes people need money for fuel, or they need a place to stay, or they need clothes, or baby formula, or a wheelchair, or someone to pick up their prescription medication…I’m not making this up, I have heard all of these things before, at some point in my years in ministry.
So then how should the church staff respond, since there are some of us who are here during the week and we are the ones who hear these requests? Well, we’ve decided to talk together with the Social Action committee and have a time to discuss this with members of the congregation, so we can decide on some kind of policy for responding to these widely varying requests. Among all of us church staff—office manager, connections coordinator, music director, and me, the pastor—none of us are social workers, and none of us are trained to respond to these requests. And honestly, we aren’t getting such a volume of requests for assistance that it would make sense to hire a full-time social worker. Some congregations do have a social worker as part of their ministry in their neighborhood, but I don’t think that’s what’s needed here.
However, this congregation does have some social workers! Within this congregation, some of you do work with people in poverty, and you do have ideas about best ways to respond! We really want to hear from you, to help us decide as a congregation how to respond to requests in this neighborhood. You can join the conversation on October 9th—that’s in two weeks—at 9:45 during the Sunday School and fellowship time. Ken Bauer will lead the discussion on behalf of the Social Action committee. And the church staff agrees to honor whatever policy is put in place by our congregational leaders.
But what are other ways we care for people around us? Perhaps you noticed the pile of diaper boxes in the hallway—that’s not usually there. Why diapers? In the words of Maryn Olson, a member of our congregation who works with our ministry partners, Maryn writes: “Each month, we are ONLY asking the Gethsemane congregation to bring specific "big ask" items, primarily non-food things that can't be purchased with SNAP benefits. [SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.] The intention is to give people one or two things to focus on rather than a long list that can seem overwhelming.” And our ministry partners are St. Anthony’s and Isaiah 58, which are local, South City ministries that serve people who are hungry or who are in need.
What does any of this have to do with creation, since we’re in a Season of Creation, purposefully taking time to give thanks for creation and all that God has given to us? Well, I always thought food pantries were mostly about feeding hungry people, and that’s true. But also, some food pantries with enough space and resources are masterful at letting nothing go to waste. St. Anthony’s will take donations of anything—food, clothing, household items—and make sure it gets to someone who needs it. When I visited, there was a washing machine on the porch, and children’s bicycles inside the basement, waiting for a home.
They let nothing go to waste. They are truly like the modern-day version of ancient landowners—the Hebrew Scriptures instruct owners of fields not to plow to the ends of the rows, but to leave the edges for people to harvest for themselves, if they’re travelers or don’t otherwise have their own land on which to plant.
So those are ways to help people who are hungry or poor, in the immediate, near-term future. But what about looking at the bigger picture—why are there hungry people in the first place, when we live on a planet with enough resources to sustain all human life?
Bread for the World was started in the 1970s by a Lutheran pastor who noticed that it was not enough to keep responding to food emergencies; is there a way to help people before there’s an emergency? Pastor Art Simon said that it’s better to build a fence at the top of a cliff than to have an ambulance at the bottom. Help people before they fall off a cliff and get hurt! He found some friends, and they all agreed to talk to their elected representatives about how to care for people who are poor. This is called advocacy—advocating for someone who is hurt or in trouble.
Bread for the World has a letter-writing campaign every fall—is this something in which we could participate? Writing letters to our elected representatives to advocate for those in need, whatever will help people to get food, to have safe shelter and healthy places to live. I’m told this is something our congregation has done in the past; could we do this again?
Okay, so those are some ideas about how to care for people. That’s a lot of doing. But to come full circle, why would we do any of these things? So that we can call ourselves good? So that we can make God happy? So that we can stay out of hell?
Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, in the explanation of the third article of the Creed, that part about the Holy Spirit, Luther writes, “Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”
It’s the love of God that motivates us to care for others—we have everything we need, so we look around to make sure others have what they need too. Listen for the stories of people around you, notice where your heart is moved—that’s your compassion. God is in the conversation with you, and God knows your heart, and God knows your story.