When Did We See You?

Matthew 25:31-46, 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth United Church of Christ, 9/15/13



Some of you may remember me telling the story of when my father had a severe, nearly fatal, accident on the farm on which I grew up. It was spring; none of the field work had been done. None of the crops were planted, and it was getting late. Without those crops, of course, we would have nothing to feed the dairy cows or sell on the open market. I was about to graduate from high school, and needed to finish my course work in order to graduate, so I could only help with the milking and feeding before and after school. I will never forget the deep worry and my sense of helplessness to get the task accomplished. One day, as I had just gotten home from school and was changing my clothes to go out to do chores, I looked out the window and saw 10 tractors coming over the hill, plowing our fields. The neighbors had gotten together, plowed, tilled, and planted all of our fields! It still brings tears to my eyes, and I will never forget my sense of relief and joy from this gift of others - a gift that might well have saved the farm.


This morning, we are focusing on mission, Plymouth Church's mission beyond its doors. But I start with this story because I think that is where we as individuals and the church need to start. That is, profoundly aware that we have been, and in real ways always are, the recipients of the gifts and sharing of others.


Plymouth is rightly known as a very mission oriented church. We often think that "mission" is what we do. Yes, it takes form in certain actions and programs, but really, it is who we are. This is the case not just for Plymouth Church, but for the whole Christian Church. As Emil Brunner, a leading theologian of the last century put it, "The Church exists by mission like a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church." Yes, there may be an organization, but it will not be a church. Everything that the church does is mission. That is, to announce and further God's just and peaceable realm. That's a realm we understand, through Christ, to be where all people are valued, where "goods are shared and pain relieved," as a great hymn puts it. Yes, that mission finds expression in our ministry to one another and to our children, so that we are more whole, can live richer lives, and become effective ambassadors of Good News in all the places we find ourselves. That ministry within the congregation is what we focused on last week. Today, we look at how we serve others beyond our doors through service and material goods. This we are calling "mission." Next week we look at how we serve through social justice and advocacy.


Of course, we all know that the church can, and often does get bogged down, serving itself as if it was a club for the sole benefit of its members. But, I think you will agree that Plymouth's life, spirit, and vitality comes from reaching and sharing beyond ourselves, making a real difference in the lives of God's children, especially those whom life has dealt a difficult hand and even those who have played it poorly. We do this for the simple reason that Christ's example was not one of judgment, but of service. He demonstrated that no one should go without being affirmed as God's child. No one should go without food, healing, hope, and the presence and compassion of others.


We are aware, and rightly feel good about, our mission orientation. But, because it is, "just what we do," we don't necessarily stop to see and celebrate the many ways we are faithful in this regard, so let's spend a minute doing that.


Mission, as we will see, is certainly much more than the money we give to ministries beyond Plymouth, but that is a good indicator, because we don't let go of our money very easily! As most of you are aware, 20 % of Plymouth's budget goes to ministries beyond our doors. And if you add other monetary ways of sharing outside the budget as well, like special offerings, etc. in any given year, 35 - 40% of what people give is to ministries outside our doors - in the community and world!


That means that in just the past 10 years, you have given around $338,000 to Our Church's Wider Mission. That is support for the ministry of our denomination as it reaches into the state, nation, world, and back to the local church. You have given nearly $95,000 to One Great Hour of Sharing. That translates into relief for refugees, victims of disaster - both natural and humanly caused, fresh water, literacy, development of sustainable food production, and disease prevention, for thousands. That means countless lives saved and quality of life improved.


You have, in just the past 10 years, given nearly $50,000 to Neighbors in Need, supporting programs here in the U.S. to reduce violence, improve literacy, train the jobless, and feed the hungry. In that period of time, you have given some $70,000 to United Church Outreach Ministries, and you are hearing how effectively they multiply our gifts. And we have also used $20,000 to help members of our own congregation through tough times.


Indeed, sometimes it is easier to give money than it is our time, but it isn't an "either/or;" it is a "both/and." ("Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.") And money clearly is needed - right, Bruce! (Bruce Roller, Director of United Church Outreach Ministry is a member of Plymouth Church and was present.) Giving of our money does represent a sacrifice, because few of us are rolling in it.


We also support other ministries in the community. Of course, the needs are endless, so we try to support ministries that are related to, or rely primarily upon UCC church support or would not be popular with other churches or funders, ministries that match our passion and understanding of what God would have us do, and ministries where our money will make a significant difference. In addition to UCOM, locally, we support the Compassionate Care fund at Pilgrim Manor so that people who have outlived their savings will still be able to live there, Habitat for Humanity, Partners for a Racist Free Community (this used to be the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism), the Grand Rapids Urban League, the Domestic Crisis Center (through the YWCA, provides a safe house and other supportive services to battered women and their children), Family Promise/Interfaith Hospitality Network, Gays in Faith Together. Beyond that, we support Olivet College (the UCC related College in Michigan), The Chicago Theological Seminary (the UCC related seminary in our region), and Re-Member, a ministry with the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Re-Member was started by a UCC clergy, and now is directed by our own Ted Skantze.


Of course, most of these have Plymouth people involved, and there are many other hands-on ways that you make a difference. Several people here sponsor children in Nepal through ANSWER, and Doug Donnell and Barry Karlson are on their board. We have had several people on the Board of Re-Member, and over the last 10 years have probably supported some 150 - 200 people going out to work on the Rez. In addition, our quilters have supplied hundreds of bed quilts for people on the Rez, and donated thousands of dollars from selling the quilts they make quietly every Thursday morning downstairs.


We have settled three refugee families, all of them Muslim. Two of them were from Iraq, we being one of the few churches willing to sponsor Muslim families.


We have people serving the local, state, and national structure of the UCC. Currently, Dan Spaulding, our Moderator, is the Moderator of the Grand West Association. Linda Looney is the Registrar. Dave Smith used to be the Moderator, also the Registrar, and I believe is still on the Church and Ministry Committee, as is Betsy Dole. Bethany Rozeboom just finished her term as a General Synod Delegate; she was preceded by Sandy Swayman and Jeane Ripley. Stan Dole and I are on the Conference Finance Committee and Stan is their investment manager. Both Stan and Betsy Dole have long been involved in the wider church and heavily involved with Olivet College. Melissa Anderson and Doug Donnell are on the UCOM Board of Directors and Jan Slotten helps with event coordination. And I have missed many!


We also do a great deal of mission through our building. I was at a community gathering at another church last Saturday. One of the pastors welcomed us and said that the church was happy to open its facility up to the community - with the exception, perhaps, of the custodian! But our custodian calls it "job security." Yes, it does wear on the building, and we can't just do anything we want, any time we want, but having a building can be a great ministry if it is shared rather than hoarded. It is not a show place for God, but a resource for God's people. Our church building is used by at least one outside group every day. We sponsor the Chin Baptist Church, refugees from Burma, who are able to worship here in their native language. We are the meeting place for the West Michigan New Horizons Music Ensembles, a band for mostly retired people picking up their instruments again after a long time of inactivity. The whole group of about 80 of them meets here on Monday, and 30 - 50 on Thursday. Tuesday nights an AA group meets here, Wednesday evening a Vietnam Veterans Support group, Friday noon another AA group, and Saturday morning Over Eaters Anonymous. We are used for music lessons on Thursdays and Friday evenings. And we often sponsor community groups and presentations as well as periodic meetings of the Neighborhood Crime Watch group. We seem to be the "go to" meeting place for gatherings around justice and peace issues.


Both you and the building are involved when we host homeless families through Family Promise, which we have done for 16 years. Over that time we have provided shelter for nearly 1000 people, nearly 7,000 nights of sleep in a bed, in a warm, safe place for people who would otherwise be on the street. But even more, we have provided a place of welcome and sanctuary.


When did we see you? Some 1000 times, right there. And we are the richer for it!


We have been privileged to help others. But we must be cautious and very humble here. There are two loaded words in that sentence. They are "privileged" and "help." We must admit that we are privileged in many ways. Most of us are privileged in our status in life-where, and to whom we were born. Most of us are privileged in the amount of material goods and wealth we have. Given that, it is easy to give some of our time and money without thinking about our place of privilege and how that can diminish others or how it can cause us to be judgmental of others. It can cause us not to seek, or really want, to change structures that cause inequity and need for "help." (That we will address next week.) We can think that we deserve this place of privilege by our works or "chosenness." We can think that we don't have any responsibility for the care of others, or that we dispense that responsibility by giving a few dollars or hours. I am reminded, however, of something that Mohammed Ali once said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for life on this earth." Punch a nominally satirical magazine put it much more bluntly in an 1843 edition, "What have you done for the happiness of those below you? 'Nothing?' Do you dare, with those sirloin cheeks and that port-wine nose, to answer - 'Nothing?'?" That sounds like Amos calling the high society ladies "cows of Bashan" as they dwelt secure in their mountainside palaces unconcerned for the poor and needy.


The text from Matthew 25, upon which our litany for today was based, reminds us that Jesus is in the poor, the stranger, the sick, the convict, the hungry. I must ask myself, how many times have I been judgmental of Jesus by looking down my nose at the person without a job, just out of prison, or begging in the street?


When did we see you?


Sometimes it is frightening, when we say that we want to have a closer relationship with Jesus, to realize where he can be found!


The other problematic word, as I said is "help." It connotes a distance, a power disparity: the helper and the needy. It is easy to pat ourselves on the back and feel all righteous-we are the helpers, aren't we good and benevolent! It can create distance, and hard as we try, it can reinforce our feelings of superiority. That is especially the case when we see others as objects of mission rather than real people, children of God with gifts to share. It can create distance if we are not directly involved in some place like IHN, or one of the myriad opportunities to get to know others as real people, not objects of mission. The distance can be closed if we see them, not as poor unfortunates whom we help, but rather when we see Christ's face in them. We can close the distance if our sharing is not out of pity (pity is demeaning) but rather out of compassion-care and concern for a sister and brother. We come closer; we become sisters and brothers, when we realize that others have helped us - like those tractors coming over the hill in my youth. We come closer together when we realize that we are all indebted to a vast host, to borrow a phrase from Howard Thurman.


The Apostle Paul held up the poor fledgling church in Macedonia as an example for the Corinthian Church. He said the Macedonian church's abundant joy and extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity. "They voluntarily gave according to their means and beyond, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry."


The privilege is in sharing Christ's ministry, sharing from our abundance and receiving in our places of need. I can say honestly that I have learned far more about faith, about trust in God, and about generosity from poor people and poor communities than I have from the rich. I have experienced far more by way of joy and celebration in cultures of poverty and oppression than I ever have in cultures of wealth and privilege. They have fed my poverty of Spirit.


But, finally, we are about mission-caring and sharing, because that is what Christ did. That is what Christ calls us to do. It is, simply, who we are as followers of the one who poured himself into the world.


Praise be to God. Amen.