We Need a Better System
Luke 10: 25-37
I felt a mix of surprise and suspicion when I was told about 15 years ago or so that if someone comes up to you on the streets of NYC asking for money, you shouldn’t give it to him. This was a Sunday Go To Meetin’ kind of guy with a lot of credibility amongst clergy-types, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He claimed that there are more soup kitchens and homeless shelters per capita in NYC than any other urban pocket of the world. Apparently, the homeless of Manhattan, in particular, can walk any direction in a 5 block radius and find a place to eat or sleep. Also, he reminded us that our social services system provides mandatory hospitalization for anyone in a medical emergency. The implication was that people asking for money might not be using it toward a good end since they were definitely having their basic human needs met through government programs, our churches and other non-profits. If we really wanted to help the homeless, we’d give that same dollar bill to a church where it would be used to support the soup kitchens and homeless shelters, clothes lines and food banks. Like I said, I felt a mix of surprise and suspicion – but I also felt some relief that there was a sophisticated system answering the tangible needs of the thousands of homeless men, women and children calling out on the busy streets of Manhattan.
Moving to Washington, DC several months ago, the sidewalks of our neighborhoods seemed even more need-filled than New York’s. Until summer vacations started, there just weren’t as many people walking around the streets of Washington during the day. In the evenings, the place empties out. So, when you’re living and working in the West End and Foggy Bottom, the homeless are a tangible presence, all the time. No way to avert that many eyes. A smile and a nod only goes so far. I was getting the sense that that NYC system didn’t apply.
I started a new system of giving away dollar a day. It became a sort of neighborly roulette. Who would I give my dollar to that day? That seemed to work for a short while, but too often I would come upon another guy who needed help on a day when I’d already given away my dollar. He seemed to really need help. My new system was falling apart. I knew that Miriam’s Kitchen serves an extended population, but the folks I was seeing didn’t seem to be our clients. Who was taking care of our neighbors?
Scott Schenkelberg took me to lunch in my third week at Western. (Scott’s the CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen.) I told Scott about my NYC experience and asked him about the system in Washington. He explained to me the decrease in the number of housing units, shelters and soup kitchens here, which only served to heighten my anxiety. When we got back to the church, Scott handed me a stack of 2-sided Miriam’s Kitchen cards. These cards’ll let a guy know that Miriam’s can help him get employment or mental health services, toiletries, hot meals or even housing in DC. You can download a sheet of cards from MiriamsKitchen.org. I felt like I was creating my system for helping our homeless neighbors who were becoming my friends.
William Sloan Coffin asked, “Is charity ever a substitute for justice?”
Somehow, we need to get a system for helping all of our neighbors. In 1937, not long after our nation’s Social Security system was created, FDR said in his second inaugural speech, “Our pledge was not merely to do a patchwork job…” In an economic climate that some would say was not too far from where we are today coming out of the Great Recession, he said, “Our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstances. Advance became imperative under the goad of fear and suffering. The times were on the side of progress. To hold to progress today, however, is more difficult. Dulled conscience, irresponsibility, and ruthless self-interest already reappear. Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster! Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose.” Tragically similar to his observations in 1937, we can say today that we “see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day. (We) see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. (We see a meaningful percentage of) a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” But I will echo what FDR said then, “it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope because …seeing and understanding the injustice in it, (let us) propose to paint it out…”
Dear Friends, it is clear that somewhere along the way, we’ve put our paintbrushes down. Of course, money, like time, is fungible. Egged on by evidence of scarcity all around, too many have become concerned that their resources will run out. They’ve adopted what could be called a Depression Mentality of hoarding resources out of fear that they won’t have enough, depending upon a now-dysfunctional, government managed system to close the gap. Simply walking between 24th and G and 26th and Pennsylvania, you’ll see for yourself that we need a better system. Just as our government-led solutions have become tainted by tack-on amendments, our Christian sensibilities have become tainted by even Sunday Morning Go to Meeting excuses. But just as walking on the other side of the street will not make the guy shaking a paper cup go away, presuming that the collective body will apportion funds to ameliorate the plight of the homeless will not insure that a little neighbor girl will rest her head on a pillow tonight. While crowdfunding now comes to the aid of some of those whom the Salvation Army used to attend, deep inside you and I know that we have a personal responsibility to put salve on the wounds of the suffering and fill the stomachs of the ones who are starving. For a compassionate Christian the heightened degree of want all around leads to a deepening level of despair in our hearts as we come to realize that we can never solve the problems of the world.
Sometimes overwhelmed by the needs of the world, we have to wonder if there might’ve been times when Jesus felt overwhelmed, too. Luke’s gospel tells more stories about Jesus and justice than any other gospel. Yet with all of the want and suffering in Jesus’ day like today, Luke’s gospel presents only 20 miracles. 17 of those were healing miracles of one sort or another, and two were related to feeding and one about Jesus’ extraordinary power over creation. We have to believe that there were more than 20 people who needed a miracle or a meal in Jesus’ days. Jesus talked about generosity and almsgiving, but we have no stories about him giving money to anyone or any institution at all. This indicates that Jesus was doing a lot more than healing and feeding, himself.
I think that Jesus was setting up a system. In his ministry of sharing and caring and parable telling like this story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus was setting up a system to model for others the many ways we can be forces for goodness in this world in need of healing and mercy – justice, if you will. Jesus was modeling Godly behavior so that others could learn to pick up the pieces scattered around by those who felt uncalled or unable to help, leaving no hard and fast rule for us to follow, but in a way that is characteristic of all of his parables, giving us tools to discern when and how to help those so desperately in need of justice today.
Scripture may not report that Jesus solved all of the day-to-day problems of the world. But Luke’s gospel, in particular, tells us that Jesus models how each one of us can help. Jesus modeled justice so that others can learn to pick up the pieces in a system that is falling all around us. Jesus modeled justice to set up a system that moves with the times so that we can understand where we find where God is calling us to help the neighbor in this unjust world today.
God knows that one person can only do so much. So our God, in God’s providence, in God’s infinite goodness and grace, creates a system in which each one of us has a part. God creates a system that calls each of us to discern our role in reversing the great injustices of the world, having confidence that our providential God is calling someone else to discern his role in addressing great injustices, too. Between the many of us whom God persistently calls in this world filled with need, the great needs of the world can be met – no one extending herself beyond the point of usefulness lest she deprive someone else the opportunity to participate in this system.
Andy Stanley, a Southern Baptist preacher I’ve mentioned before, prayed for God to guide him in discerning and serving the deepest needs of the neighbors to his urban congregation. Considering the tremendous need around their church, Andy and his wife determined that they would do for one what they would like to do for everyone.
Andy and his wife agreed to go deep with a drug addicted, alcoholic, homeless woman named Jane who’d been showing up regularly for quite a while. They went deep with Jane for years – from memory, I believe it was as many as 20 years. Over time, they helped Jane live into the kind of Christian life that could become a model for others. They helped Jane enter into the reciprocal system of justice that gave her a platform for educating and nurturing other women who were going through trials like she had known – and she’d known many. They spent years with Jane before she died with the family she had finally reunited with. They would have loved to spend that much time helping more Janes. But they could only help one. Their decision reflected their trust in a providential God: Do for one what you’d like to do for everyone. That’s easy to get your head and your heart around, isn’t it? So while some nagging thought in the back of your mind suggests to you that no one can solve the problems of the world, the problems of the world can begin to be solved if you and I are willing to take even one great, systematic step toward that end.
In a world filled with need, we need a better system. In a world of unjust practices, we need a better system. In a world threatened by ill-conceived government policies, we need a better system. But I didn’t hear God calling me to be a legislator, and so I am not going to go on about that. Since I heard God’s call to preach, I will say that in a world seemingly governed by a depression mentality that misinforms that resources are too scarce for us to be neighbors, we need a better system. A system of justice that perpetuates into eternity, obviating our dependency on secularly led systems that can become grounds for controversy and disappointment and often – too often – fall short of the glory of God.
May each one of us come to trust that our providential God calls each one of us to participate in a system that serves all people, recommitting ourselves to extend an experience of mercy, an experience of grace, an experience of healing to at least one person today. And may you and I trust that the experiences of justice that we extend today set in motion a great expansion of the horizon of hope for all.
 Coffin, William Sloane, “To Set At Liberty Those Who Are Oppressed,” found in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 91__) p 56.