Here is the Massachusetts Conference UCC article about being arrested for the poor people's campaign.
Part 1 of 3.
Unlike Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 6:1-6 is not at the tip of anyone’s tongue when discussing charity, although it may be a story of early church food ministry at its best—and of course at it’s worst. In the midst of adding more and more followers, a group of widows have been neglected perhaps in the rotation to serve, perhaps in receiving charitable handouts. The whole church is gathered around this challenge. New leadership is recognized and in the verse after this pericope, the church continues to grow.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6 NRSV).
More recent scholarship on this text falls into three broad categories. Feminists engage the widows themselves, and wonders if widow necessarily means poor. Post-colonial scholarship identifies this as a story about the interaction of two cultures. Reta Halteman Finger and Andrew McGowan focus on the way this text contributes to our understanding of shared meals in the early church. First I’ll provide some of the traditional critical background to Acts and to this story. Most critique suggests this is a transition story intended only to introduce Stephen and other new leaders in the church.
According to Robert Wall in the commentary “The Acts of the Apostles” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Acts was written by the same anonymous author Luke, and addressed to a new or immature believer, Theophilus (Wall 5), to consolidate the diverse membership of the church, to be a Christian apologetic (Wall 8) and to deepen the faith of new believers (Wall 9). It is likely that the writer (who scholars call Luke) was not present for the stories found in Luke and Acts and thus is dependent on stories that were handed down (Wall 13). Of the many theological purposes of Acts, most relevant to this project is to help believer’s to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to join this community that shares everything in common (Wall 23).
Acts 6 continues the image of sharing material belongings from Acts 2:42-44 (Wall 71) but addresses conflict arising out of the sharing: the widows have been neglected (Wall 112). While Wall identifies that diakonia is translated “distribution” when referring to widows, and “ministry” when referring to the apostles (Wall note 244 p111) he still accepts the traditional reading that the widows have been overlooked in the distribution of charitable handout (Wall 111). While the story is about a break-down in the equal sharing of goods he finds good news in the decision to show solidarity with a full community meeting (Wall 114). Wall defends the apostles by noting that the existing leaders cannot “preach and do bookkeeping at the same time” (Wall 115), although it is hard to see how the criteria in Acts 6:3 (“men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”) could point to bookkeeping. Wall’s argument is that here, and in the pastoral letters, the requirements point to the Greek ideal of choosing leaders based on character rather than skills (Wall 115). It still seems to me that these requirements imply leadership more than simply keeping the books, and at least some of the seven do go on to be church leaders, more than managers of a meals program.
Bruce Malina and John Pilch in Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts suggest that the purpose of Acts 6:1-6 is to introduce these new leaders, especially Stephen (Malina and Pilch 55). They note that each narrative in Acts begins with everything fine in the community, introduces a disturbance, and then neatly resolves the disturbance to ends with the restoration of “equilibrium of life, their collectivistic life story” (Malina and Pilch 10). The disturbance is created in part by the cultural differences between the civilized Hellenists and the barbarian Hebrews (Malina and Pilch 29), the Hebrews are insiders and focused on Judean customs, while the Hellenists, returned from the Jewish Diaspora, would have adopted Greek customs and language (Malina and Pilch 56). The seven appointed new leaders are Hellenistic based on their names, starting with Stephen, who is critical to the next story in Acts; the last is Nicolaus, a foreigner (Malina and Pilch 56). Thus the story of the widows exists mostly to introduce leaders, to carry the story forward, and to show the growth of this new Christian community.
Acts 6:1-6 is about widows
Gail R. O’Day in The Women’s Bible Commentary focuses on the failure of the community to name women to solve the widow’s neglect. She notes that Hellenistic women are likely to have high standing since we know that the women Paul meets in Greece are identified as leading women of their communities (O’Day 396). O’Day accepts that the story is about almsgiving (O’Day 397) but notes that Luke is reinforcing the concept that table ministry, assigned to seven men, is identified as less important than the preaching ministry of the twelve (O’Day 397). The value of the widows is further downplayed when we see that the widow Tabitha is identified as doing good works (not ministry) later in Acts, while the work of the men assisting widows in this text is identified as ministry (O’Day 399).
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, on the other hand, is certain that this is an argument over the Eucharist. In Memory of Her explores the biblical language around service and finds that “serving at table”, found also in Acts 16:34, Luke 10:40, 12:37 and 17:8 is not giving away money but is table service at a meal, “most likely the Eucharistic ministry” and includes all the prep, serving during the meal, and clean up, which we know from Acts 2:46 was happening every day (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Schussler Fiorenza argues that to be overlooked the widows could “were not assigned their turn in table service or they were not properly served” (Schussler Fiorenza 166). She notes that it is likely that Hellenistic women would have expected to be included ‘breaking of bread’ while the Hebrews may not have allowed it (Schussler Fiorenza 166). The solution of assigning the twelve to do the diakonia of the word, and the seven to do the diakonia of the table (Schussler Fiorenza 162) adds to Luke’s earlier Martha/Mary story which also makes clear that diakonia of the table is the lesser ministry (Schussler Fiorenza 165).
Once the conflict is about serving rather than eating, it becomes clear that the widows who feel neglected may not be poor. Schussler Fiorenza notes that the text does not say either way (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Certainly women involved in this new church movement were not all poor, for example Mary, mother of John Mark, who was cousin to Barnabas (Col 4:10) is likely in charge of a Hellenistic house church in Jerusalem (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Her argument is that Mary would not be named if John Mark’s leadership that was most important, and Schussler Fiorenza wonders if Mary is not one of the dissatisfied widows in the story (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Thus this is a story about identifying the importance of table service, not about charitable giving, and the widows complaint is about not getting a chance to serve, rather than about whether they are given charitable resources.
Scott F. Spencer in “Neglected Widows” notes that it seems to be hard for scholars to stay focused on the widows themselves (Spencer 718). As we have seen in our study of food ministries, it seems to be hard to stay focused on the people in need. Spencer traces the widows throughout Luke-Acts, starting with Anna in the birth narrative (Luke 2:36-38), the widows at Nain and of Zarephath (Luke 7:11-17 and 4:25-25), the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4, 20:27-40, 45-47), the neglected Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1-7), and ending with Acts 9:36-43 and the supported widows at Joppa (Spencer 718). “These scenes featuring four individual widows accumulate over the course of the gospel to constitute a group of Lucan widows in the reader’s mind” (Spencer 719 italics original). He notes that while widows certainly are women whose husbands have died, biblical studies generally assume they are all also destitute and unappreciated, which fails to recognize the biblical widows who are not (Spencer 720). Still Spencer notes that Hellenistic widows, by virtue of being far from home, are cut off from family support (Spencer 728). He disagrees with Malina and Pilch that this story is neatly resolved, instead he notes that the apostles are more concerned about being distracted from preaching than about members going hungry, and they refuse to be part of the solution (Spencer 729). Spencer argues the apostles fail at the test to act as Jesus would act (Spencer 730). For Spencer this is a story of a community failing to make caring for one another a top priority. They have failed to provide food for the hungry, and then failed to let needs of people who are hungry trump the authority of the leaders.
O’Day, Gail R., “Acts” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed C.A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe; London SPCK; Louisville Westminster John Knox 1992 check all this 305-12.
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her A Feminist Theological Reconstructions of Christian Origins, Tenth Anniversary Edition, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994.
Spencer, F. Scott, “Neglected Widows in Acts 6:1-7” in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no 4 Oct 1994, 715-733.
Wall, Robert W. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X, Leander Keck et al, ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
 I have not included the related arguments made by some scholars that this story must not be about widows but about an underlying dispute between the Hellenists and Hebrews. Recent Scholars, including Wall and Finger, show those arguments are unsupported, but they do not add to or take from my arguments about food ministries.
The assignment was to write the introductory paragraph for each chapter of my project, which ends up being an interesting summary of the whole thing.
In recent years there have been critiques of church-based direct service ministries, with most authors arguing that churches should engage in community development and end all direct service programs, save emergency ones. While it is clear that many types of local and national systems need to be changed to improve people’s access to affordable food, it is wrong to conclude that fear of dependence and/or other harm means that Christians should end their involvement in direct service food pantries, meals ministries, and community gardens. With 17.4 million U.S. households without access to adequate food resources, these food ministries are critical to the health of our nation. But these programs must be changed to account for their failures, namely the lack of interaction between those ministering and those being served: people who serve food need to be eating with people who need food, and people who lack food resources should be serving with those who have enough food. I call this shared ministry. While engaging in shared ministry, food ministries need to look for, and liberate themselves from, oppressive structures—i.e., classism—that separates people with material resources from those who lack them. This paper will explore the problems with direct service ministry, consider what Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 6:1-6 contributes to the discussion, engage with Gustavo Gutierrez and Letty Russell for a liberation theology perspective, and then grapple with what it is that keeps ministries from shared ministry. I will then describe three examples of shared ministry found in the literature, propose a research plan to observe shared ministry, report on what I found, and the conclude with a description of shared food ministry.
In most direct service ministries in the United States, people with enough material resources are allowed to see themselves as almost god-like in their ability to give—they give not only resources but also services to people who are in turn seen as unable to contribute either skills or knowledge. People in need are not recognized as possible members of the congregations where they receive food, and are encouraged to adopt -middle class values as the only path out of poverty. Direct service ministries can perpetuate the focus on individuals as problems rather than identifying the systemic causes of poverty. Most importantly, direct service ministries often perpetuate the stereotype that people who lack material resources are defined by their needs—they do not have gifts to contribute to ministries, or presumably, anywhere else. One concern with direct service ministry is whether the programs create dependency, and whether as Christians depending on one another is necessarily inappropriate behavior. Several critiques conclude that Christians should stop all except emergency direct service ministries and instead engage in community development and systems change. While systems change is certainly necessary, direct service ministries should not be eliminated; they should be converted to shared ministries.
The Biblical witness concerning giving people the things they need is clear—in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says each person’s final judgment is based on whether they have given food (drink, clothes, welcome, visits, and healing) to people who need it. Christ says that he is not only within, but actually is each person in need. Even those who do not have material resources must be givers. Presumably, as someone gives to Christ, they will want to sit and eat with him, and will believe that he/the person in need has gifts and skills to offer. Acts 6:1-7 builds on Acts 2 in identifying the importance of eating and serving together in order to be part of the community of Christ’s followers. When a few in the community are neglected in the chance to serve the others, perhaps because of a language or cultural barrier, the apostles respond by fixing the meals program to be more shared—they create a leadership team made up of those who are culturally outsiders. In Acts a sense of belonging is created not only by eating together, but by serving together, regardless of an individual’s material resources. These biblical texts suggest that Christians are called to direct service ministry where there is an equal sharing, and an equal sense of belonging, between those who have many material resources and those who have few.
Liberation theologians Gustavo Gutierrez and Letty Russell use the language of solidarity to describe the relationships that Christians both with and without resources are called to have with communities that have few material resources. Gutierrez emphasizes that material poverty is effectively a death sentence and that it is important that the Church does not spiritualize it. To effectively address poverty, conscientitzation is required—the people in poverty need to see the systemic nature of it, while the people who have enough need to see the role they play in perpetuating those systems. Gutierrez addresses the difference between community development and systems change and warns against helping people adapt to systems that are meant to oppress. Russell focuses on the wide depth of leadership among people who are oppressed, and notes that when we stop identifying leadership with those in power, we will find extensive leadership within the community. Direct service food ministries are called to build solidarity, conscientization, and leadership by eating with, listening to, and making safe space for the gifts , abilities, and even the leadership of the people who come to eat.
The biblical and theological consensus is that direct service ministries must engage people deeply enough to create solidarity and a sense of community. Ministries could do that by learning the gifts and skills of the people who need food, but for the most part they do not. Why is that? There are technical reasons for creating systems that prioritize fairness, equity, and order over relationship-building: it is easier, people want to feel good about themselves, funding rewards efficiency more than building relationships, and people fear being confronted with their own plenty. Not all reasons are specific to food ministries; there are systemic reasons to avoid building relationships across the gap in material resources. Our segregated communities isolate people of one kind from others who are different, and that isolation creates fear. Similarly, classism keeps us separate and wary of one another. Therefore a more liberative direct service ministry must not only create opportunities for interaction between the people with material resources and those without, but the program must consciously engage the systemic oppression in our society and in our programs, opening up the topic for frank discussion and working toward ending that oppression.
Direct service food ministries can do three things to address their problems of maintaining inequality. The first is for people who are serving food to engage with the people receiving the food by eating together, waiting in line together, gardening together. The second is to share the leadership of the program so that those with and without material resources are planning, cooking, organizing, serving, and cleaning up together. And the third is to attend to oppression—as a community the food pantry, meal program, or garden must learn about how class-based oppression works, notice the systems that are perpetuating that oppression, and work together to overcome oppression. Three books propose shared ministry. Using these books and the biblical and theological conclusions from above I will develop a research strategy to describe shared ministry in action in four U. S. congregations.
The four congregations identified for study were in Columbus Ohio, Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Portland Oregon, and Granbury Texas. Two are Episcopal, two are United Methodist. I visited two food pantries, one community garden, and one meal program. All of the programs engaged in some level of shared ministry in that people who need the food were engaged in some of the work to produce and distribute the food, and some people who didn’t need food helped also. Interestingly in some programs there were very few volunteers who didn’t need the food. At the garden the spring schedule and transportation challenges meant that no one attended who needed thee food, but they reported that at harvest time there are volunteers who come in order to take home the food they harvest. Shared ministry in all the contexts was inefficient, chaotic, and awkward, there were conflicts and struggles. At the same time all of the volunteers reported a significant level of involvement, were proud of their contribution, and most reported feeling like they belonged to the ministry and were respected for their gifts. Everyone felt the food ministry they were part of was using the right approach in including a diversity of people as volunteers. The study was limited by some poor decisions I made for the surveys and by the short time spent at each program. Still, it is clear food ministries are trying to run themselves differently, are trying to be in solidarity with the people who need the food, and are finding shared ministry as an appropriate way to deliver food to people who need it.
Direct service ministry needs to adapt, but not be eliminated. Arguments suggesting that direct service creates dependence are unfounded, but there are real problems with the inequality that is perpetuated by ministries where only one class of person is allowed to serve. Food ministries can fix those problems by engaging in shared ministry, e.g., including the people who serve the food in the eating, and the people who need the food in the serving, and by addressing the issues of oppression between people with more resources and people with less. The biblical tradition calls Christians to serve others, regardless of whether we have plenty or little, and calls us to eat together to create communities of belonging. Liberation theology calls us to solidarity—deep solidarity, not just friendship. Both the people who serve and the people who need the food need conscientization—the ability to see the systems that keep poverty in its place. Our programs must face the way they oppress those they mean to serve, and work to be liberated from those structures and assumptions. The result will be ministries that start with food but are most importantly creating communities of belonging. Further study would find more programs where the ministry is shared; spend more time to look for evidence of belonging, solidarity, and conscientization; and look more explicitly for how they do, or could, address oppression. Another valuable study would explore the how to change an existing food program to shared ministry. It would be interesting to learn whether congregations who engage in shared food ministry become more motivated to engage in community development and community organizing. Crossing the boundary of difference in material resources may lead to additional community building, stronger belonging, and perhaps a changed neighborhood. Shared ministry is a step toward that.
 United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx Accessed July 22, 2016.
From Apr. 2nd, 2012. Palm Sunday was on April 1 that year.
The forecast was for rain, and the clouds certainly were dark. It's a first Sunday and that often means low attendance at the Worcester Fellowship lunch line. I was late for morning church and and then late to Worcester Fellowship. All in all, a start that did not prepare me for a wonderful day.
Despite the forecast, the sun was out, the wind was warm, and lots of people were present. We had cheeseburgers for lunch! Both St. John's and St. Andrews brought lots of palms. Several of our "regulars" who had been inside due to rain last week, and cold the week before, and who had this pressure and that to deal with, they were back at Worcester Fellowship. It was like "old-home day".
We marched to "we are marching in the light of God", parading around the common like the fools that we are. Occupy Worcester folk turned their head and smiled, waiting for us to finish our song so they could continue to meet. Six folk from our congregation and one youth from Yarmouth, Maine, took part in the reading of the passion story. We had silent prayer after the woman anointed Jesus, and prayers after Peter denied Jesus. And then a delightful reflection on how appropriate it is to look at the passion on April Fools day, how foolish all those actions are, how foolish we all are, to follow this faith, this foolish faith that trusts that no matter what, love wins out.
At the peace I foolishly interrupted the occupy worcester discussion, several folk turned as I whispered and signed "peace". At the Eucharist I foolishly misplaced the bread, but not the love that is communicated in the sharing of the body and blood, the brokenness and the forgiveness.
And then we handed out Palms at the 701 Main Street shelter, where we were called foolish for confusing public and religious spaces. And we handed out Palms at the hospital atrium, where people grinned at our audacity, and a man wearing a Johnny and sitting in a wheel chair put down his coffee to grab our hands and say thanks.
The passion story certainly calls for rain and dark clouds. But somehow it was good news this week. Foolishly good news.
See more about worcester fellowship at www.worcesterfellowship.org.
Is it weird to post my sermon in advance? March 6, 2016.
Luke 10:1-12 After this the Lord appointed seventy (two) others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
I love this text, but I must admit I always use it to talk about doing our ministry two by two. Frankly, when I started my outdoor church I was too afraid to go out by myself, so this two by two message seemed really important.
And, in fact, it is. Not just the safety in numbers, but we also know “wherever two or more of you are gathered, I am with you”. Two by two is good news.
But lately I’ve noticed some other things about this text that are very important to who we are as a church. First of all, do you notice that Jesus doesn’t send them out to start churches? Or to get folk to come to church? Or even to get folk to come to worship or Sunday school or bible study? Nope the people are sent out to “cure the sick and tell them the Kingdom of God has come near you”.
That’s it, that’s all. Deal with people’s problems, and say The Kingdom of God has come near.
This is clearly not the right-wing evangelical message of “sinners repent!” But it also isn’t the UCC and progressive Christian message of “we should just love each other”. There is changing going on here: curing. And there is this crazy idea that the Kingdom of God has come near you. What on earth could that mean?
Jesus’s message is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Some of us have gotten this confused with the idea of Heaven—but Jesus is not talking about what happens after we die. And some of us instead imagine a time, as mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, when God’s work is done on earth, just like it is done in heaven. But this text, and all the other times Jesus’ proclaims this, the Kingdom of God is “at hand” or “nearby” or “right within sight”.
For year’s I preached that the Kingdom of God is at hand in a little tiny church that met in a small restaurant. The ceiling was low and when I’d point up, as preachers are inclined to do, I’d point directly at the heat vent. Now the heat in that church rarely worked, and the church was in new England, so we had lots of jokes about the Kingdom of God being there in that not-working heat vent. But one Sunday, just as I reached up toward the vent, and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand, the heat came on!
Indeed, those little things that make us laugh, or feel joy, or feel the love of one another, I think those things are little hints of the Kingdom. In the early church, the community gathered for a potluck, possibly every day. There was enough to eat for everyone, even the poorest of the poor—and that in itself was evidence that the Kingdom of God was indeed already begun. Standard Christian theology is that God’s rule has already started. It’ll be more, it’ll be better, it’ll be everyone, but today our celebration is that it has started.
It feels, today, in the United States, in many mainline churches, like it would be audacious to proclaim that we are already feeling the Kingdom of God. Part of that is because our lives are just fine the way they are. We imagine the Kingdom is great, and can't see how to get from fine to great.
But for people who are struggling out in the world, it would not take much for their life to be a great deal better. I was at a retreat yesterday where someone said their picture of a beautiful community would simply be one where they felt they belonged. Belonging is a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide, if we are trying to reach people who do not feel like they belong. For people who have been abused as children, or who are abused now as adults, being in a community where they are safe would be a great improvement. Safety is a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide. I’ve worked recently in a church that has many parents of kids with mental health challenges. They constantly have to explain, and ask for, basic services their children need. Acceptance and Affirmation of that even kids that act out are Children of God would be a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide. People who are hungry and lack housing and clothing and education and opportunities are treated as if that means they have no skills, no gifts, no contribution to make to the world. Respect and Appreciation would be a great start of the Kingdom that churches can provide.
You may notice that none of the things that bring the Kingdom near seem to be about stuff. And you may notice, as I have failed to notice, time and time again, that in this scripture text, the disciples don’t bring any stuff to give out. It’s actually worse than that, and that is probably why I ignore it, but they are not allowed to even bring the stuff that they need to care for themselves.
Essentially, the disciples are sent out to beg for their own needs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to do that. And yet, what does it mean that Jesus’ asks them to do that?
When I started at Worcester Fellowship, I used to worry about whether I had what was needed to give to people. But over time I learned that what homeless people wanted, more than just about anything, was to do something useful for the world. Some of it was simple: there was no reason for me to try to get 5 gallons of hot chocolate out of my car; someone wanted to do that. There was no reason for me to figure out how to set-up the altar table; someone wanted to do that. There was no reason for me to shovel the walkway and chairs; someone wanted to do that. But later it was even more complicated things. When someone needed help finding the shelter, there was a person without a home who could take them there; when someone needed to figure out food stamps, there was a person without food who could work the system; when there was a call for Worcester Fellowship to speak out on youth homelessness, there was a youth without a home who wanted to speak at the state house.
It turns out not having stuff doesn’t take away knowledge, or compassion, or helpfulness, and it certainly doesn’t take away the desire to serve one another. But more than that, it turns out that when I stop thinking that I need to have what people need I start to be connected to many people who have many things that other people need. And it turns out that there is no better way to treat people as children of God than to treat people as gifted, helpful, ready to serve. In the end it was my ability to leave behind my purse, my bag, even my sandals, that made me more able to proclaim the Kingdom of God in near.
And that is good news.
To see more about Worcester Fellowship go to www.worcesterfellowship.org. This sermon was written as the introduction to my workshop "Mission Goes Where the People Are". For more on that workshop, use the "contact me" page.
Sometimes at Worcester Fellowship our lunch line is just like Church. I hate it for its rigidness, its rules, its “lets keep you in your” place mentality. I love its for its hopefulness, its building of community while we wait, its promise of abundance at the end of the line.
As we wait in the park each Sunday I am impressed that the lunch line works at all. There are people moving into and out of the line, people looking for someone else to take their place in line, people arriving very early, people who arriving very late, the late ones worrying whether there is enough, and asking if they can cut ahead, and begging the line authorities to provide absolution for their lateness, or drunkenness, or disorderliness, and to provide a place further ahead in the line.
But as there are no shortcuts to heaven there is no cutting the line. Those who are late must wait behind a hundred or so hungry bodies to see what is the little snippet of the Kingdom today. Is it ham or bologna or tuna or will there be only peanut butter and jelly left when I get to the front? Is today’s message one of hope and abundance or one of despair and less sandwiches than people lined up?
“I’m hoping for tuna” Sam who is always a little late, always a little anxious, always in need of lunch for himself and his girlfriend, over there, on the pew-like bench by the fountain, Sam tells me, pointing. He asks as politely as he knows how: “Will there be any f’in, excuse me, any tuna when I get to the front of the line?”
Like all those in indoor church who need reassurances before worship starts, these questions drain me of the good news. I’m not a detail person. I don’t know if the Sunday School teachers are ready or the coffee is hot in indoor church, and I don’t know if the tuna will run out in outdoor church. We are here to proclaim release to the captives and I’m stuck in the sheer tediousness of getting started.
But before I can check on the tuna there is a fight brewing in front of Sam in the lunch line. Someone is trying to cut the line. An older white man I don’t know says quietly but firmly “hey, don’t cut” and I head toward the problem knowing that while many folk will sulk to the back of the line, others will simply leave if challenged on their place at this altar.
And so I was thinking about the order of people at God's altar as I was moving closer, looking up at a very angry young Hispanic man, noticing his hands clenched in his pockets, he was gritting his teeth, pacing a bit, but staying there, close to the front of the line, waiting for me, the authority, with my stole flapping around me. I said, as he expected, “you cannot cut the line.”
And he said his confession, "I haven't eaten in days."
And I refused him absolution, sticking to the agreed upon Levitical Commandment: "You have to go to the end of the line."
"Well then I won't eat." He sulked away in despair.
Harvey, a regular, and a good line following Christian could not contain his anger at this blatant disregard for the rules. "Why the f** do you always cut the line?" and "Why can't you go to the end of the line?"
And so the man came back screaming "I'll go anywhere I d*&$ well please" and "why don't you mind your own business".
And so now I am standing between two tall men, holding forth like Moses holding the waters, and saying in my most grown up, deep, calm, and forceful voice: "Stop fighting and do not cut the line." Repeat eight times.
And the line continues forward, like a prescribed liturgy, without the cutting man, without all those who cannot follow the prescriptions of order and predictability and neatness and beauty.
And then an elderly white man behind this whole scene, also very tall, the one who said "hey, you can't cut", the man just ahead of us, with the white shirt and blue stripes, he reaches the food table and takes one of everything without a word, a sandwich, an orange, a bag of chips, a box of juice, and heads back to the end of the line, stopping for just barely a second to hand the entire lunch to the angry Hispanic young man, the one who had tried to cut.
And then the elderly man waits in the line again to get lunch for himself, probably not tuna this time, probably peanut butter and jelly.
And I am reminded once again that this is, indeed, just like Church.
For more on Worcester Fellowship see www.worcesterfellowship.org.
This is from Nov. 11th, 2008
I was eating lunch at an outdoor table with a few friends while visiting in Austin last week when several homeless guys walked by. One stopped a the table next to us and asked if they had any change.
One of my companions turned to our table. "They shouldn't do that." She said.
"Shouldn't do what?"
"They shouldn't ask people who are eating for change."
This is one of the difficulties of this job. "They" aren't "they" anymore. While I probably agree, its probably rude to ask people for money while they eat, it's different to make such a statement when the person asking is Jo, or Jose, or Juan, not "that guy". And the more people I've met, the less I can see "that guy" as "other". I don't know him, but I know others like him. I have people I could call "friend" who ask people--indeed who ask ME, for change.
Many visitors to Worcester Fellowship ask about change. "Should we give people who are asking for money any money?"
One answer is easy. "This ministry is not about giving people money. Worcester Fellowship doesn't give people money."
"But should we, you know, the rest of the time? Should we give people money?"
I've spent a fair amount of time searching for proof that the Bible doesn't ask us to give poor people money. Unfortunately, it does. In proverbs it says "if someone asks you for money, give it to them." Damn.
"But won't they use it for alcohol, or drugs?"
"Yup, some will. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes. And also for coffee at Dunkin' Donuts so they can use the bathroom. And phone cards so they can be called for jobs. And a chocolate bar. And a lottery ticket."
The fact is, except for cigarettes and drugs, I've used MY money for all those things, too.
Here is my advice. Decide for yourself about the money. But look the person in the eye when you say "yes" or "no". And ask "how are you today?" And smile. And think of them as "Jo" or "Jose" or "Juan" and not as "them". Maybe say a prayer.
People shouldn't have to ask people who are eating lunch for spare change. That I know for sure!
Pedro is part of a healthy vital congregation, and feels very much at home with the people who are active there. The worship is upbeat, the sermons are inspiring, and when his family had struggles they received great pastoral care from the congregation and from the ordained leadership.
The ordained leader tries to be collaborative, but has trouble letting go of the approval process; new ideas often get caught in the bottleneck of his overwork. The budget is never quite in the black so the congregation spends a lot of time looking inward, and can be anxious instead of hopeful about the future.
At the start Pedro could see that if the leader would allow teams to form, the congregation had the energy to be more involved in the community. He met with him and presented some ideas for outreach, but never got the okay to proceed. He tried meeting with the decision making Board, but they deferred to the ordained leader.
After trying one more time to get the leader on board Pedro was ready to quit, or try to get rid of the leadership, or do something dramatic to create change. But the leader was well liked, and it wouldn't help the vitality of the congregation to have a battle over his leadership style. Pedro realized it was time to lead from the side by working around the formal authority.
People in the local community were talking about how they could take a more active role in protecting the environment. Pedro announced at church that he was starting an environmental ministry and invited other church members to join him. He decided to have a leadership team from the start, and have that small group decide together how they would reach out to the community, how they would engage in study and action, and how they would connect their work to the gospel.
The team funded the advertising and flyers for the community themselves, and reached a large number of people from the town right away. They had already decided that they would add to their leadership team anyone who had a passion and desire to help make the environmental ministry happen---whether they were members of the church or not. The environmental ministry took off, developed leadership inside and outside the church, and helped the people in town to better see the Church as integral to the community.
“But I was still disappointed” Pedro shared. “I was hoping the leadership would see the ministry and realize that they should be more collaborative. They didn’t even notice the team approach! It was worst when I would get complimented for my leadership, as if I’d done it all.”
Leading from the side created a great ministry at this parish, and gave Pedro an opportunity to be the collaborative leader he wanted to be. But it didn’t change everything. The bottleneck still existed. New projects still struggled to work through the hierarchical system. Pedro realized that people were still afraid to work around the leadership. He’s learned that leading from the side is slow and doesn’t guarantee that the whole system will change.
Do you have leading from the side successes, near successes, and failures? I'd love for you to share them on my contact page.
*Names and details of this story have been changed.
I met Patty in a small group Bible study. She heard me ask people for stories about leading from the side and pulled me aside afterward to tell her story from early in her relationship with Church.
Patty moved to a rural area for her husband's job and went to the church nestled in the hamlet, her three young kids in tow. The only worship service was at 8:30 am, the sanctuary was cold so as to save money, and her children were the only ones present. She was the youngest adult present by a couple of decades.
"Even for the adults the worship was boring. I was a never going to keep my children interested."
After a few months Patty realized she needed to speak up rather than complain to others. So she met with the leader of the congregation and asked for a family service later in the day. He was kind and caring, listened fully, and clearly was not interested in creating another service.
It took some weeks of reflection for Patty to realize that she might be able to create the alternative worship herself. She got support from another elder in the congregation and buoyed by that support asked the leader again, this time if she could do the work herself. He said yes.
"I was new in the area, and new to rural living, so I had no idea how hard this would be. There was hardly anyone coming for the first six months." She was used to working with teams and expected other parents to offer help, but that didn't happen. Still, Patty was not deterred and somewhere along the way realized that if she asked the children to help with the worship she might get more response.
Starting with the connections her own kids made at school, slowly kids accepted her offer of opportunities for leadership. The kids were young so their parents came along. As the children’s leadership team grew, parents and other adults began to volunteer and eventually the whole ministry was run by a lay team.
"It's easy to get frustrated," Patty told me, "but I had the motivation that I wanted my kids to enjoy Church the way I had growing up."
I asked Patty what she learned about leading from the side. "Mostly I learned that my voice is important. I thought this could work, and it had a lot of struggles, but in the end I was right. We offered something that was needed and so it worked."
Do you have a side-ways leadership story? Use the contact page to share more leading from the side stories!
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