WHO ARE “ALL”?

Matthew 25:37-40, Acts 2:42-47

Faith Westdorp

In today’s reading we see the beginnings of the first church.

Matt Skinner writes that this passage “describes a community of faith that operates in the power of God’s Spirit. The virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity–not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.”

Working for BNP and for a church is pretty amazing. One of the biggest surprises to me when I started and over the course of the past six months has been how God shows up at Brethren Nutrition Program. It is astounding. Items that we need seem to appear out of thin air, volunteers come through at the last minute with donations of materials and their time. We feel God’s presence in other ways too, in the gratefulness of our guests, in the simple way that things work out day in and day out, even when they shouldn’t. These are, I believe, “signs of the Spirit within this community of volunteers and guests who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity”.

The community described in Acts 2:42-47 consisted of God-fearing Jewish people who had come to Jerusalem after hearing of Jesus’ resurrection. Together, they witnessed the wonder of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when a wind blew and suddenly people who spoke different languages could understand one another. The first church consisted of people from vastly different places, cultures, and backgrounds who were united in faith.

These people sold their possessions and pooled their resources in order to better care for one another. Isn’t that beautiful?

Do you think that there were forms to be filled out in order to confirm and establish that Sarah really needs that loaf of bread, or that David needs a new shirt? I know some of y’all are sitting there like “Wellll these people were prob illiterate so… no there weren’t any forms because no one could read”.  That’s not my point. The point is that this passage illustrates needs being met, no questions asked.

 Why then is it so much more comfortable for us to create processes and systems for helping others? Why do we create systems and bureaus for interacting with the needy instead of connecting with each other, and folding everyone in?

Raise your hand if you remember the first time a stranger asked you for money. I do. I was six.

A year later when I was in first grade my family moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland. My mom commuted into DC and would take my brother and I in with her on days that we had off from school so that we could stuff and seal envelopes at her office. The highlight of working in my mom’s office for my brother was always competing with himself for how many envelopes he could label in a set amount of time. For me, it was a trip to the Chipotle of the ‘90s, Baja Fresh (they had BLUE Hi-C in their soda fountain). On our way to DuPont Circle from my mom’s office a man sitting on a stoop asked us for change and my mom ignored him, or maybe didn’t hear him, or more likely was so accustomed to these requests that she didn’t even register it. But at 6 years old I heard him and saw him in full, and I stopped to open my red, heart-shaped purse to give him my dollar bill. My mom quickly came over when she saw what I was doing and gave me a “stranger-danger” lecture as we walked away. I felt like I had done something wrong by helping someone in need.

My mom isn’t a bad person, and she definitely had a strong influence on my path to BNP. A year before this, she had encouraged me to run a penny drive at our church to benefit a children’s charity. She obviously took on a lot of the associated work because I was 5 and mostly remember being annoyed that people had contributed silver coins to our PENNY drive.

These two experiences have stuck with me because they are reminders that we are all taught who to help, and how. Through my Psychology coursework, I was introduced to a slew of psycho-social phenomena that are useful when analyzing how and why we’re taught to help some people, and not others. One theory that’s applicable when thinking about why and how we help or don’t help people in need is in-group/ out-group theory. An ingroup is defined as a social group to which we think we belong, and an outgroup is a social group that you do not think you belong to. The strength of our attachments to our multiple personal “ingroups” varies. For example, my sense of belonging to “women” as a group is much stronger than my sense of belonging to “soup kitchen managers” as a group.

Social scientists have shown that we feel more positively towards people we perceive as members of our ingroup. On the surface, this is another classic example of psychology confirming something we already know to be true: we like people we can relate to, who are like us.

The unfortunate outcome of our tendency to gravitate towards people who are like us, is what it does to how we think of people who are not like us, AKA members of our various outgroups. An outgroup that social scientists have found to be among the most likely to be thought negatively about and discriminated against are people experiencing homelessness.

One study using MRI/ fMRI scans to map people’s brain activity as they were exposed to different pictures of people and things drives home this point. In one picture, a study participant sees a chair. And in the next, they see a picture of someone belonging to their ingroup. In the last picture, they see a picture of someone experiencing homelessness. Participants’ brains’ responses to pictures of people experiencing homelessness are closer to how they perceive a chair than how they perceive a member of their ingroup. Essentially, when we see people experiencing homelessness we process them as furniture instead of as people. This process is referred to by psychologists as “dehumanization” and is the nasty mechanism behind some of humanity’s greatest atrocities, like the Holocaust. 

The practical implication of this is that we don’t notice and don’t see people who are members of outgroups. People who are homeless. Our brains override our view of them. In other studies, social scientists have shown that we perceive the pain of people belonging to outgroups as being less severe than our own (which, as an aside, has been used to explain why doctors under prescribe women’s pain meds). Dehumanization causes us to literally not see people in need, just like my mom walking by the man on the stoop.

There’s a big advantage to not seeing the suffering of people who are different from us. It allows us to focus our mental and emotional energy on our ingroup, a pool of people who presumably share more genetic information with us than members of our outgroup do. Positive affect or “feelings” for people who are like us aids in group cohesion, which in turn strengthens familial bonds that support the propagation of our own genetic lines. Beyond that, city and close-quarter living would be unbearable if our brains processed every person we see the same way we process our loved ones. Can you imagine the exhaustion that would ensue if we greeted every person we saw like they were our best friend?

But Jesus DID see each and every person as if they were one of his best friends, his loved ones. He is and was perfect, saw society’s castaways and tended to them with compassion. A life modeled after Christ must include compassion and love for those who are vastly different from us.

My favorite bible quote is found in Matthew 25:37-40 (NIV)

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The ways in which we come to view others, between “ingroup” and “outgroup”, “stranger” and “friend” are all learned.  If the first Christians, through the power of the holy spirit were able to overcome lack of a common language in order to “give to one another” then we have the power to open our hearts wider, to love deeper, to widen our circles to include people we haven’t before. We can break bread with more people, and we can strengthen the bonds that we have and bring more people in.

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

SHE GAVE ALL THAT SHE HAD

Mark 12:38-44

Jeff Davidson

Things were not going well. Not well at all. She was tired. She was worried. She was under a lot of stress.

Some people age gracefully. Some people move from one part of life to the next with all of the ease and all of the beauty of the changing of the seasons. Not her. Getting old was tough. Her body didn’t do all of the things she wanted it to do anymore. It didn’t even do all of the things she needed it to do. The things her body did do took a lot longer and hurt a lot more. Talk about the changing of the seasons – she knew when the seasons were changing, all right. She could feel it in her joints when she got up in the morning, or when she had sat too long in one place. The change of seasons seemed to get harder every year. “Oh well. It’s just part of the price of still being alive,” she thought.

Oh, to be young again. She would walk for miles back then, enjoying all the beauty around her. The beauty of God’s creation, the beauty of being with friends and neighbors in the town, the beauty of picnics and worship services at church. Back then it was nothing for her to walk from one end of town to the other and back again. Okay, it wasn’t a big town, but not everyone could do that. She and her husband used to walk all the time. Walk around the town, walk to the store, walk to church two, sometimes three times a week.

Those were the days, when she was younger. When she could walk with ease. When she had a husband. She smiled at the memories. How long had Abe been dead now? Was it fourteen years? No, it was fifteen. Well, it was too long anyway. She missed him. After fifteen years she missed him as much as the day of the funeral. She missed lots of things, but none more than her life with Abe. She stopped a moment, and smiled, and a tear trickled down her cheek.

She was a little surprised that she still shed a tear after all this time. Well, enough sitting here feeling sorry for yourself, old woman. There’s work enough to be done just going to church today. She tried to feel thankful, but today it was hard. It wasn’t the sadness of her memories that made it hard to feel thankful; in some ways, memories were the best things she had left. No, it was just a little bit of everything.

She didn’t have a lot of food left in the house, and just a little money in her purse to buy groceries tomorrow. She was still pretty sore and stiff; she probably could have used some liniment or something from the doctor, but she didn’t have any insurance beyond what the government provided and she couldn’t cover her share of the cost. Not ‘til next month anyway. She usually got some money every month, and through careful shopping she usually made it last through until more money came in. How long had it been since she’d had a new dress? How long since she’d had a new wrap, or new shoes?

That’s one good thing about getting old, she thought. You weren’t expected to try to compete with the young women in the clothes department. She remembered how much she’d enjoyed new clothes when she was younger. It seemed kind of foolish now, but what she wouldn’t have given for a bit of bright color to put on today. Her dress had been bright and cheerful once, but lots of wear and lots of washing had made it kind of drab. It was also starting to look a bit threadbare. Well, it would do. It was clean, and that’s what counts.

Slowly she walked to church. The walk seemed to get longer every week. She greeted her neighbors as she walked along – the ones she knew, anyway. Seems like almost all of the folks she and Abe had called friends had either moved away or died. There were still a few familiar faces around town, and that was good. And some of the children she used to babysit – why, they had children of their own now. It was fun to see how they had all grown up and what kind of people they had turned out to be. She chuckled thinking about some of the rowdier and more adventurous kids that she had cared for.

At the church already! My, how good memories made the walk seem shorter. She stopped for a minute and tried to wipe the grin off her face from thinking of the children. Time go get serious now, old woman. Time to be respectful. You’re at church now. It’s time to pray and worship.

As she walked inside, she wanted to stop and drop something into the poor basket before she went in to the sanctuary. She knew what it was like to be hungry; she’d gotten a basket or two of food in her day through the poor fund, and she always tried to put something back in when she could. She took a coin from her purse. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

My, the lobby is crowded today, she thought. Lots of people out for church. Well that’s good – a full church was always a blessing. She didn’t recognize everyone, either. That meant there must be some new folks here today, she thought. Good news again!

She saw a group of young men standing off to the side of the lobby. She didn’t know them, and they showed no sign of recognition as their eyes passed over her. That was all right, though. It was good to see younger people in the church this morning, especially some younger men. That certainly was unusual. She smiled

And then she stopped smiling. Just a little bit ahead of her on the way to the poor box, it was….  It was… oh my, she couldn’t think of his name. She knew him though. Everyone knew him. He made sure of that. One of those fellows who was always doing something. Nothing bad, mind you. He wasn’t a crook or anything. But he was always doing something big, and always making sure that everybody knew it.

He would talk about how hard he worked for the church and how he had donated this or that to the yard sale. He was always showing up at church events and complaining about everyone else who wasn’t there. He would volunteer to chair every single committee that came along and then complain loudly about how hard he worked. Then he would always sigh loudly and say, “Well, it is for the church after all.  Another star in my crown, I guess.”

She wanted to be fair. He did work hard, after all, and the money he gave did a lot of good. There was no doubt about that. She just didn’t like the way he always made sure everyone knew that he was making a gift. She’d known him for years, and she knew that for all his big talk, he didn’t give half as much as he could have. He had plenty of money in the bank, and plenty more invested, and while he certainly gave a lot more money than she did, it didn’t even make a dent in his interest income. None of his gifts ever came close to touching his investment principle.

And now here he was, looking around as usual to see if anyone was watching. He waited until he saw those young men over there looking his way, and then he walked right up to the poor box and dropped in a big handful of shiny coins. Everyone could tell from the sound that they were silver, so it was a big gift all right. Sure, it was a lot of money for most folks, but it was nothing for him. Still, he had waited until he was sure that those fellows had noticed how generous he was being.

She’d been watching him do this for years, but for some reason it affected her more than usual today. She couldn’t describe it, but she had a feeling she’d never had before. Kind of sad, kind of wistful, kind of dreamy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, she thought, if I could give money like that? Wouldn’t it be grand, she thought, if I could put in the kind of money he does.

And then the old woman did something very strange. Without even thinking, she opened her purse, took out all the money in it, and dropped it all in the box. Every penny.

My, that felt good, she thought as she turned away from the box. But as the old woman walked away, her senses returned to her. What had she done? It wasn’t yet the end of the month, and she’d put all her money into the poor box. She didn’t have anything left for emergencies. Forget about emergencies, she didn’t have anything left for groceries. How could she have done this? She had budgeted so carefully all month – how could she have put all her money in the poor box?

She stopped for a moment, shaken. What would happen to her? How would she get by? Again a tear ran down her face, but not a lone tear of fond remembrance. This time it was a tear of fear, of worry. The first tear of many, if she didn’t get hold of herself. She took a deep breath and looked around to see if anyone had noticed how upset she was.

She saw that group of young men again. She saw the one in the middle, probably the leader, gesturing at her as he spoke to the others. Probably laughing at her, she thought. Probably saying, “Look at the old fool. Put all her money in the poor box, and they’ll just have to give it back tomorrow to her in food.”

But then the young man looked at her again, and he smiled. Not the derisive smile of someone making fun of her, but a gentle smile, an understanding smile. A loving smile, even. And despite herself, she smiled back. Their eyes met for a moment, and then she turned away.

Suddenly her fear was gone, replaced by a peace that she couldn’t quite describe. Slowly the old woman walked on into the church. She would be all right. God would provide. God had given her so much in her life, and here she was worrying about a few pennies. Let the others trust in their stocks and their riches. She would trust in God.

Then she had another strange feeling, one she hadn’t felt in a long time. She felt like Abe was there with her again, just like the old days. She felt like he was smiling, and she could almost hear his voice. “Well, old woman, I guess we’ll get by somehow. It’ll just be us and God this week, and who else do we need, anyway?”

Who else indeed, she thought. Who else but God could I possibly need? She gave everything she had, but she still had more than she would ever need.

Returns

WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN

Jeff Davidson

May 4, 2014

RETURNS

Psalm 116:1-4,12-19

Almost everyone has a memory of a gift they have either given or received that was so ugly, or so wildly inappropriate, or just so strange that they would have returned it in an instant if they possibly could.  It’s become so much of a cultural cliché that there are sit-com episodes about the clueless husband who gives his wife an iron for Valentine’s day and there are advertisements at Father’s day about what to get Dad besides yet another tie and there are parties at work dedicated to wearing ugly Christmas sweaters.

I think the most unusual – no, it was more than that.  I think the weirdest gift I ever got was when I was probably 12 or so.  It was a Christmas gift from Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred.  Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred were known for giving unusual gifts.  They were thrifty people, and when it came to gifts they truly and rightly believed that it is the thought that counts.

I remember that particular Christmas receiving two gifts from Xoa and Fred.  The first was a pair of socks.  There’s nothing wrong with that; socks can be a fine gift, although for a 12 year old boy they are kind of disappointing.  But these socks were weird.  They were orange and they were really, really thin, thin like hosiery.  They were still on the cardboard that they had been on in the store, but they looked old and smelled a little musty and I had the impression that they’d spent several years in the attic before being plucked out of some dusty, long-forgotten trunk to become my Christmas gift that year.

The second gift was a pack of gum.  Well, that’s not quite right either.  The second gift was part of a pack of gum.  It was a six pack of Beech-Nut gum, but it had been opened and there were only three sticks in it.  And those three sticks weren’t soft like new chewing gum is supposed to be.  They were really hard. And the package didn’t look like the Beech-Nut gum that was in the stores.  It looked old.  It looked like 1930’s old.  It looked like it had been something my Uncle Fred had gotten when he was 10 or so, and that after eating some of it he’d decided to put it away for 40 years or so to give to me.  Along with his new socks that he’d gotten that year.

Back then the idea of returning gifts to the store for a refund was unheard of, and even if it hadn’t been there was no way to return these gifts to anyone.  I thanked them for the gifts and kept them in my room for a few years.  I don’t know what ever happened to them, but if I ever find those socks and that gum I’m looking forward to figuring out who to re-gift them to.

These days when you get a gift you don’t like, it’s not too much of a problem.  The gift almost always includes a special return receipt, just so you can take it back to where it was bought and get the money.  I know that it’s not as busy as Black Friday, but the week after Christmas is plenty busy at the returns desk as people bring back the gifts they just received from people who love them in order to get some cash.  It’s so routine that when I bought Julia some jewelry a few months ago they asked me if I wanted a gift receipt with it or not, and when she bought a handbag for herself they just automatically gave her one without asking.

God gives each of us gifts every day.  The fact that you are here this morning means that you’ve been given the gift of life today.  Mark has shared his gift of music with us.  Don and Steve and Mary and John and Ruth and others have shared their gifts in preparing this space for worship this morning.  We’ve shared our financial gifts in the offering plates today, and those financial gifts are the result of money we’ve earned through using yet other gifts and skills and talents and abilities that God has given us.

All of that is in addition to the gifts of sunshine and mild weather we’ve had this weekend, and after the winter and spring we’ve had so far those aren’t gifts to be taken for granted.  They’re in addition to the gifts of family and friends, both near and far.  They’re in addition to the gift of a home, a gift that many do not share.  The gift of a country that for all it’s faults and all of it’s shortcomings is free of the kind of violence and fear that our brothers and sisters in Nigeria or Egypt or North Korea or other places face each day.

God has given us many gifts.  The Psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  The gifts God gives us are given out of love, and if God has given them to us then there must be a way to use them.  If God had given me the orange socks and the gum from 1932 I probably could have figured out something to do with them besides look at them and scratch my head. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, whatever they are, and in using them, return them to God.

I’ve never paid a lot of attention to investments.  I’ve never had a whole lot of investments to pay attention to.  As I get older, though, I find myself taking a closer look at some of the statements that come in the mail.  I have a couple of retirement accounts from jobs I’ve had at one time or another that have some money in them and of course I’ve got social security.  When I was thirty or thirty-five I didn’t care very much.  Now that I’m fifty-five and therefore closing in on retirement age I’m reading the statements more carefully and checking out the projections of what I’d get each month depending on when I retire.  I look at how much the accounts have earned or lost.  I check out the return on the investments.

The concept of a return on investments is seen a few different places in the Bible.  The most famous example is the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.  In The Message, this passage is talking about the Kingdom of God and says,”It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, and to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.”

There’s another sense In which returns matter to God.  God calls us to return our gifts through using them and sharing in offerings to God.  God also calls us to get a good return on the gifts and skills that he has trusted us with.

You may remember that back in January I flew back to Ohio for a couple of days to be with my sister as she was preparing for heart surgery.  I flew in to Cox International Airport in Vandalia.  I grew up less than five miles from that airport.  We lived on Peters Road, and you could come out of our driveway, take a right, and in five minutes be at the airport entrance.  You just took a left into the airport and drove down a long driveway to the lobby with the control tower on top.

It’s sure not that way know.  Peters Road now dead-ends before you get to the airport entrance.  My old house is still less than five miles from airport property, but it now takes about fifteen minutes to get there because you have to loop around to the other side of the airport.  The airport itself is thirty times larger than it was when I was a kid.  When I was growing up it took five minutes to walk to your gate from the ticket counter.  Now it takes ten minutes just to walk to the security checkpoint, and once you’re past that it’s at least ten or fifteen minutes more to get to your gate, and that’s if you have a close-in gate.

When I flew back into Cox airport in January it felt strange.  It didn’t feel anything like the place I’d known growing up.  But as I got into the rental car and drove through the city of Vandalia and then out into the country I got more and more excited.  The country out there still isn’t built up.  There are still farms.  I recognized houses that had been on our bus route for school.  I remembered friends and where they had lived.  I drove past cousin Ron’s, and Uncle Verlynne’s place, and then past the church I grew up in.  It felt familiar.  It felt comforting.  Even though I haven’t lived there regularly since I was in high school, it felt like I home.  I felt like I had returned home.

Do any of you ever have that feeling?  That you’re returning home, returning to a place and a time where you once felt comfortable and connected?  Maybe home is where you grew up.  Maybe home is where you live now.  Maybe home isn’t about a place but about people, people with whom you feel safe and loved and cared for.  Maybe it’s some combination of people and place depending on what’s going on in your life.

Like the old hymn says, there is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God.  Our relationship with God is like that of the prodigal son, who wandered far away and squandered his inheritance and wanted nothing more than to be home, whose father came to greet him when he was still far from home.  As the Psalm writer says, God has heard our prayers and our supplications.  God has listened to us, and saved us from death.  When we are with God, we are at peace.  We are in safety.  When we return to God, we have returned home.

We can return to God from the gifts and skills that God has given us.  We can use what God has given us to spread the Kingdom even farther, and give God a good return on his investment in us.  We can return to God to find warmth, and safety, and mercy, and forgiveness, and love forever.  May we always look for ways to return to God, whatever that means in our lives.  Amen.