And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.
[This is the second installment of a four-part discussion on this scripture.]
A little while ago my sister posted something on Facebook that caught my eye. It’s been around for a while so you may have seen it. There is a blind, homeless man on the sidewalk with a sign that says, “I’m blind. Please help.” Very few people are giving him donations. A young woman comes by, changes the sign, and suddenly people the money starts pouring in. When the young woman reappears, the blind man asks her what she did to his sign to make people so generous. She says, “I wrote the same thing with different words.” What did she write? “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.” The video then ends with the words, “Change your words. Change your world.”
After I shared the video, I got a Facebook conversation with my sister and a couple of friends about the difficulties involved in helping those in need. She is retired now, having worked in social services for more than 30 years. She has a great love for people and a clear understanding of the difficulties involved with providing the kind of care that actually helps change people’s lives for the better.
It really hit me. What group, other than the church, creates communities that are truly diverse? What group, other than the church, embraces those in need in lateral relationships? Governmental social services, rehab facilities, and other similar agencies are of great help for those in need in our society, and the people they serve are treated with respect. But they are not treated like equals. They are treated like dependents. They are treated like ducks.
Ducks? OK, let me explain that. In Chicago we lived near a park that had a little pond. It was a breeding ground for ducks. All around the pond there were signs that said, “Do not feed the ducks. If you feed the ducks the pond will get overcrowded and dirty and the ducks will die of disease. Please keep the ducks healthy. Do not feed the ducks.” And yet every day of the week you could go there and see someone feeding the ducks. There was something so compelling to city dwellers about feeding the ducks that they just couldn’t stop. They liked the way the ducks ran toward them when they threw out the food. They liked feeling like they had helped the ducks. But in reality they were killing the ducks, but I guess they didn’t care. They didn’t have to dispose of the dead ducks. The park district and friends of the park did that for them. So there was really two layers of unhealthy dependency – ducks that were inappropriately dependent on people, and people who were irresponsibly dependent on park district caretakers.
That’s what my sister was saying on the Facebook post. Government really can’t do an effective job helping those in need because of its limited financial, emotional, and creative resources. It can only be done through communities where people are encouraged and challenged; where they are can practice and improve their relational skills; where they can discover that they have great worth and that they are capable of helping others; where they can love and be loved. Jesus didn’t think affluence and prosperity were good fruit. It was the fruit he was always looking for. It was the fruit that was missing from the Temple and the religion and the culture of his day.
I am always amazed at how welcoming people in churches are when it comes to people who have disabilities or special needs. Even in our church in Chicago where people didn’t have much money, they extended warm hospitality and did everything they could to help someone out. For example our old church building’s sanctuary could be reached only by climbing two long sets of stairs. When a man in a wheelchair started attending the church, the men carried both the man and the wheelchair up and down those stairs every week. If someone in the community lost their housing they usually received an invitation from a church member. They were always willing to pray for each other and provide a sympathetic ear. The members took turns providing a big meal every Sunday after church so that everyone would have at least one really great meal every week. They didn’t have a lot, but they shared what they had. Anyone with a perceived need would be sent home with a lot of carry-outs, too. And even though certain people had more needs than others, the relationships were always lateral. It was never the “haves” and the “have nots”, the givers and the receivers. People treated each other with respect. It was a true community.
At one point in my career I had to more or less force one of my employees to take early retirement because he didn’t want to step up his computer skills. It was time for him to let it go, but he was extremely angry. Several years later he came back and visited me. He said that after he was retired for three years he got brain cancer. He told me what it was like to go through that as a person who had no family. Even though he had not been an involved member of his church, he said that from the day he got his diagnosis his church was just wonderful to him. They took him to the doctor. They held his had before he went into surgery. When he was released from the hospital they brought him dinner, washed his clothes, made sure he was taking his medicine, read to him, cleaned his house, and continued to take him to the doctor. I guess they also taught him about forgiveness because he told me how grateful he was that I laid him off. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the gift of those three years when he didn’t have to work, before he got the disease. He said they were the best years of his life. He was moved to tears when he described the kindness of the people of his church. And he wasn’t the kind to cry. When I knew him he was pretty distant and aloof and self-sufficient. But that church awakened the love in his heart by loving him well.
I’ve mentioned before that our current church serves as a homeless shelter and food donation center. It’s a small church and we don’t get a lot of visitors, but one day this little white suburban church amazed me with its care for a middle-aged Black couple who wandered in during the middle of one of our services. They seemed a little addled. During the time of greeting they were welcomed so warmly by everyone with hugs and conversation that I thought they must have been to the church before, but that was not the case. After the service our pastor talked to them and found out that they trying to get to Indiana but they were lost. Someone at a gas station told them to come to our church. The pastor drew up a little map with directions to Indiana. He was worried about whether they had enough gas so he gave them a little money from our assistance fund, and had my husband offer up a prayer for their safe travels. They went on their way and we haven’t seen them since. It was sweet. They were church fans, so I’m sure they found a good one in Indianapolis. I’m sure they found a caring community where they could love and be loved for the long term.
Like I said in the Facebook exchange, every church I have ever been to has warmly welcomed people in need and would love to have the opportunity to serve and learn from a blind man. They would encourage him and feed him and make sure his material needs were take care of. They would make sure he had decent housing. They would try to find something useful for him to do with his time. They would ask him about what it’s like to be blind and pray for him to be healed. They would ask about his medical condition and find out whether there’s any possibility that it could be corrected surgically. They would find ways to cheer him up and make him laugh. They would hug him. They would love him.
The woman in the Facebook video about the blind man displayed this same kind of love and respect for the blind man that is demonstrated routinely by churches. But she is only one person and she can only do so much. And while she did a good deed, the video doesn’t indicate that she went on to become the man’s friend. He had more money, but he was just as alone as he was before the woman changed his sign.
Most churches treat all people like real people. They don’t treat people like ducks. I think that the churches are generally both able and willing to provide long-term love and support for those in need. I think they are a big role to play the solution for a lot of society’s problems. But if the church is so loving and supportive and helpful, why is it shrinking? It’s not because people don’t have needs, that’s for sure. Why aren’t people flocking to the churches?
Tomorrow will be another reflection on today’s church and its fruit. And maybe a suggestion on how to get a little more of that fruit to set.
What does this scripture say to you?