“Time to Get Personal?”
Craig Butler, June 7, 2020
Amos 5:21-24; Matthew 25:31-40; 1 Corinthians 13, 16: 1-4
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.26

“Joy for human beings lies in proper human work. And proper human work consists in: acts of kindness to other human beings, disdain for the stirrings of the senses, identifying trustworthy impressions, and contemplating the natural order and all that happens in keeping with it.”  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


Do you remember the first time you found out about giving?

It must have been very hot that day in Wichita, Kansas, where my family was living. My mom didn’t pack my brother, sister, and I up and take us to the municipal swimming pool downtown every day. In fact, this is the only time I remember that happening. We parked in a full parking lot and walked towards the front door through a landscape boiling with people also taking their kids swimming. Most of them were of a different race than us. I was the oldest kid in our family, somewhere between six and eight years old and all of this was new to me.

As we walked we came upon a group of three kids having an argument. The youngest of them was crying. Now when I think of the word “shy” I think of my mom. I can’t ever recall her starting a conversation with a stranger. But that day she bent down to eye level with those kids and asked them what the problem was.

The three kids lived in the neighborhood and had started out with enough money to all get some treats and go swimming. But the oldest had miscalculated and spent too much on treats and now the youngest was being told they didn’t have enough money to all go swimming, so he’d have to go home. My mom asked how much money they were short. They said a dime (remember this was the sixties back when my grandfather complained that a McDonald’s hamburger cost a whole eleven cents).

This sermon introduces the theme of “Mission” for June 2020. Helping others is an integral part of being human. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman philosopher, an important stoic, who became (unwillingly) emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD. He wrote a diary for his own use only, which consists largely of exhortations to himself. In the passage above the first thing he puts down for proper human work is acts of kindness to other human beings. Marcus was a pagan, but even the pagans recognized the need to help others. Every major religion encourages giving or charity to others.

The urge to help others is strong, and psychologists have found that one of the most difficult things for many of us when we are made isolated or impoverished, is the loss of the ability to help others, which can be very stressful. Anne Frank, hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II, struggled with this and wrote in her diary: “Give of yourself… you can always give something, even if it is only kindness… no one has ever become poor from giving.”

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Tzedakah is used for Charity. Tzedakah is an ethical and religious obligation that must be performed regardless of one’s financial standing. It is based on Tzedek, the Hebrew word for righteousness, fairness, justice. The passage from Amos is about how God wants fairness and justice, not an outward show of religion. In practice, Jews carry out tzedakah by donating a portion of their income to charitable institutions, or to needy people. Traditional Jews commonly practice tithing 10% of their income to support those in need. The Christian concept of tithing comes from this. Islam has a similar practice, and Charity is the third of the five pillars of Islam.

In the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians Paul talks about all the traits of love. Greek has multiple words for love, and the one used by Paul here is “agape,” used for the highest form of love, charity and the love of God for man and of man for God, as opposed to “philia”, or brotherly love, the kind of love between siblings, between teachers and students. In the King James Bible, the last part of what we normally hear as “And now abides Faith, Hope, Love, but the greatest of these is love”, is “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” “Charity” is reserved in the King James Bible for the love Christians should have for other people. Many scholars have proposed they made a mistake in translating First Corinthians. I don’t think so. I think the King James Bible was onto something. Charity is Love put into action.

But then what is Mission? Mission is organized Charity. I consulted a dictionary to define Mission. There were ten different definitions! The first is “an important assignment carried out for political, religious, or commercial purposes, typically involving travel.” Second: “the sending out of persons by a religious organization to preach, teach, and convert.” The seventh definition in that dictionary is closest to the way we use “mission” at Southminster: “any charitable, educational, or religious organization for helping persons in need.” Mission is many of us getting together, pooling our talents, time and funds, and going off to make a difference in the world. Missions are as old as Christianity, as evidenced in first Corinthians 16 where Paul talks about gathering alms for Jerusalem.

I should probably have told Don, when he signed me up to do this sermon, that I have a love/hate relationship with the word “Mission.” “Mission” also makes me think of things like Marcus Whitman (a doctor and Methodist by the way) crossing the continent to convert the Indians, settling near Walla Walla, but with the result that settlers brought with them smallpox that almost wiped out the Indians there. It reminds of the “White man’s burden,” of Europeans forcing their ideologies and preconceptions on indigenous people in Africa, Asia, South and North America, and elsewhere. The point is we must be careful when developing mission to make sure we address the needs of the recipients, not our own. In the story above my Mom did the right thing when she first asked the boys what the problem was.

We are of course in a pandemic due to the Coronavirus. As I read on the internet: “The churches are closed. The casinos are closed. When heaven and hell agree on the same thing, you know it’s probably pretty serious.” Well, pandemics are always serious. They’re serious because they not only kill people, but they can destroy people’s economic existence or cause serious follow-on problems. They can put people into debt or bankruptcy, eliminate their reserves, knock them down a level. It can take a generation or two to recover.

These days we get information much faster and from many more sources than our forebears did in previous epidemics, like the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-19. We have the internet, TV, radio; they just had newspapers. We have a Federal Reserve injecting trillions of dollars into the economy; they had a Fed just five years old that didn’t think the epidemic or employment was its problem. All this information we are bombarded with today raises our expectations about what government can do for us. Some want government to take the place of Charity. The US government has created an unprecedented number and scale of programs in a very short time. Some are actually innovative. But they have all demonstrated that the government has no way to determine what individual people need and no sure way to get the right help to each person that needs it. Think of who got and who didn’t get the $1,200 stimulus checks quickly – the people that needed them the most, who are often not on the tax rolls, got their checks last. In many cases, the government is still trying to figure out a way to reach them, while people like me who don’t need the funds as much got them the very first day. Think of the backlog Oregon has had in setting up unemployment checks. Governmental programs are necessarily blunt instruments, and they miss people.

This is where we people of faith come in. God needs us to be the eyes, ears, and hands of God in the world. God needs us to fill the holes in the dike, the holes in the social safety net that the government can’t even see. God needs us to get personal where the government can’t.

It seems to be the case in every pandemic that the poor and downtrodden are the most affected. 14.2% of Oregonians are currently unemployed. The unemployment rate nationwide among whites is about 10%; blacks 30%; Hispanics and Native Americans more than 60%. We made real progress in fixing unemployment among minority groups from 2010 to 2019, but this pandemic has ripped the Band-Aid off the wounds in our economic system. The recent deaths of George Floyd and other black men at the hands of the police or vigilantes and the days of anger and protest that have followed demonstrate the anger and despair out there. And we have other groups of people who are being left behind in this pandemic and economic situation. For instance, many contract, temporary, and other workers in the “gig economy” have yet to receive unemployment compensation, and many of our elderly and people with preexisting conditions are alone and shut in their homes and likely to remain so for some time. Migrants are being excluded purposefully.

At the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, held right here in Portland in 2016, our Presbytery of the Cascades submitted the overture “On Choosing to be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25.” It was passed, and has now become a national movement called “Matthew 25 in the PCUSA: A Bold Vision and Invitation.” One of its three foci is Dismantling Structural Racism. Action with and for those who suffer is the concrete expression of a compassionate life and expression of our gratitude to God. Jesus did not cling to his divinity but came down to our level and participated in our lives, and as Matthew 25 says, can be found wherever there are hungry, thirsty, alienated, naked, sick, lonely, and imprisoned people. We can recognize Christ in the poor, the oppressed, the lonely and downtrodden, hear his cry and we will know what to do if we just listen.

A lot of people think the pandemic will all be over quickly. I wish it were so. One blind spot in human nature is we always overestimate the effect of current trends and events. When this epidemic started we all probably overreacted and assumed things would be worse than the really became. Some people bought all the TP and hand sanitizer for instance. But more importantly, people underestimate the long term effects of major trends. Like we all probably did about the internet in 2000. Like we are all probably doing about the growth of solar energy right now. Like we are all thinking there won’t be long-term changes due to the Coronavirus epidemic. No, the effects of it will last longer than we want to think and we will emerge from it into a different, and I fear, more needy world.

What we do in the future will probably need to be different than what we’ve done in the past, and we need to be ready to listen and then react, and not presume we already know the answer or force our reaction through already existing means. At the recent congregational meeting, you heard about the $1,000 challenge grant from Presbytery. Presbytery wanted to help its 96 churches and 3 emerging congregations and the needs of the area of our Presbytery covers in general. But it was not at all obvious how. We had lots of meetings of the Leadership Council (think of that as the Session of the Presbytery). Each person could talk about the situation in their own churches or others they knew and it became very obvious that each church had different strengths and different needs. So the council changed an emerging plan for Vitalization (one of the other three areas of the Matthew 25 vision) to issue challenge grants to encourage innovation in the churches of the Presbytery. At the same time, it asked each church to return information about its own situation and how the Presbytery could help.

I am very proud of the way Southminster reacted to this challenge by funding four different ministries, obtaining matches for our funds in some cases. You heard today about one of the four, a long-time focus of our church, Meals on Wheels. You will hear later this month about what our Southminster Foundation has granted to multiple charities this year. And our mission committee has made other grants. You can and should participate in all these things if you can and wish.

But it’s equally important that you take the time to think about what your own role in helping out could be. It does not necessarily be financial. There are many other kinds of opportunities. If there is anything I have enjoyed about this crisis it has been watching my fellow Presbyterians and Americans innovate to solve problems. I’ve really enjoyed and been impressed by the way some of our congregation made masks for health care workers for instance. I know that members of this congregation are adaptable, flexible, clever, and hard-working and that if we listen to the needs of the world we can react to it in ways that matter.

Oh, yes, what happened back in Wichita? My mother handed me a quarter (which was to me a lot of money – it was probably admission to the pool and a snow-cone) and said to me “give this to the youngest boy.” I vividly remember giving it to the boy, and seeing how his eyes grew wide and tears turned to laughter. I remember the wide eyes of the other two boys and the smiles. To them, a miracle had occurred.

My mom could have lectured the oldest boy. She could have insisted that the older boy sell her some of his candy to teach him a lesson. She could have asked where their parents were and gotten them in trouble. She could have handed them the quarter herself. But instead, she had me hand them the quarter. I am sure she wanted to teach me lessons about giving, about how race doesn’t matter, about making sure the least among us get what they need. But I also think she did the right thing. She listened to what they needed, she addressed the problem in the way that helped them, and she gave generously.

Yes, it’s time to get personal with our mission giving, to really connect with the downtrodden. It’s going to be different moving forward. I’m looking forward to see how we jointly rise to the occasion.

Let’s make sure everybody gets to go swimming this afternoon.