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Thursday, August 19, 2004


As promised, here's the further reflection on last week's situation. I actually wrote it up as a sermon and delivered it to the congregation:


August 22, 2004


Most of you were here last week when I talked about a situation that had come up, and asked that we pass the hat for donations to the Samaritan Fund.  If you weren't:  a woman showed up just before worship about three or four Sundays ago, saying that she had been abused by her husband, and asking for help in getting home to her parents in Toledo.  She wanted a tank of gas and some lunch money, specifically.  I have to admit, the request caught me off-guard.  So I asked around very quickly, and heard that we did not have any money set aside for such situations, which turns out to be not quite the case.


But I didn't want to humiliate this woman by making her sit in the back pew while we passed the hat, and she didn't want to stay for church anyway.  So I punted:  I told her I was very sorry, but there just wasn't anything we could do for her right then, and suggested some other places she might try.  Now, I know that didn't sit well with some folks, and I assure you, it didn't sit very well with me, either.  As one of the Consistory members said when we talked about it the other night, "as you have done it to one of the least of these, so you have done it to me..."


And:  you haven't heard the entire story.  Seems a woman with a very similar story has been making the rounds. Apparently, she hit up a Methodist church in Spring Grove one week, then another in New Oxford the next, not realizing that these places share a pastor.


That proves nothing, of course.  We don't know that this was the same person, and we don't know whether her need was legitimate or not.  So let's not judge her. But at the same time, let's ask the obvious what-if question.  What if we were able to discover beyond the shadow of a doubt that this woman was a fake?  What lesson could we say we'd learned from the experience?


Would the lesson have been:  trust your pastor?  No.  I could have been wrong in this situation just as easily as right.  One thing that you learn pretty quickly in dealing with such people is that there's always somebody who's going to pull the wool over your eyes--and there's always somebody whose predicament will turn out to be true, despite all your doubts. There's really not much way to tell the difference.  That's one of the reasons I stopped giving out cash at my church in Lancaster:  I couldn't verify anyone's story, but I could make sure where the money was going.


So, is the lesson that people who come to us looking for help are scam artists?  No.  As I say, people's need can be surprising.  Honestly, I've gotten burned a few times over the years, enough so that when somebody asks for money in a time or situation where I feel pressured to make a decision--such as ten minutes before the start of worship--I get a little suspicious.  But as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, we should not neglect to extend hospitality to strangers, for "thereby many have entertained angels unawares."  Once again, we don't know the legitimacy of someone's need, and on a certain level, it doesn't matter.  We're called to help.  End of story.  Besides, we need to let ourselves get scammed every once in a while.  It beats the alternative, which is to become so cynical that we miss those in real need.


Well, does that mean we should just hand out money to anyone who comes walking through the door?  No.  Even Paul has to encourage his deputy Timothy to make a distinction between various classes of women that his church supports, "so that it can assist real widows," meaning those who have no other way to make ends meet.  We're called to be generous, not to have rocks in our heads.  We need to be wise about how we use our resources, not so that we can deny those resources to those who don't deserve them, but so that we can extend their reach to those who do deserve them.  


So how do we tell the difference?  What is the lesson we're supposed to take away from this situation?  Well, this:  faith walks a real tightrope sometimes.  We need to be generous, but not too generous.  We need to be wise, but not hard-hearted.


How do you walk that line?  That's a good question, and I'm glad you asked me.  I don't know.  When it really gets down to it, I don't know.


But I do know this:  that if you put all your eggs in one basket, if you put all your trust in one person to make these kinds of discernments, chances are they're going to blow it.  I'm not wise enough to make the right call always, and neither is anybody else.  That's why we need to talk about such things as a community.  We need to have such conversations with one another, even if they don't lead to any kind of decision.  As boring and as unglamorous and as unproductive as it sounds, talking about these things is part of the work of the kingdom.


So:  should we have given this woman some money?  I don't know; that's for us to decide.  All I know is that this whole experience has been unsettling, unsatisfying--and wholly and completely necessary.  The gift in this situation is that God calls us to keep growing, to keep maturing, in the faith we have been given in Christ Jesus.  'Taint pretty, 'taint sexy, 'taint very much fun.  But there it is, and thanks be to the God who gives us the problem to solve, and one another to talk to as we seek the solution as best we can.  Amen.

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