Help: Drop the Micah

by | Oct 9, 2022

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Jarrett McLaughlin
Help: Drop the Micah
October 9, 2022
Micah 6: 6-8

Pre-Scripture:

“Okay, I’ve got it now…I’m certain it’s this way.”

That’s what I said as I marched a mixed group of my children and their cousins up a steep hill.
It had started raining…hard…but we promised them a hike after the Thanksgiving meal.
I was trying to find this randomly placed trailhead in the middle of some neighborhood. Unfortunately, I was operating off of 3 year old memories. Still, I was determined to find it.

“Look – there’s somebody who lives here,” Meg said, “Let’s ask him.”

“No, no – no need for that…it’s just up this hill and off to the left. I’m sure of it!”

That confidence was completely unfounded!
We climbed the steep hill only to discover there was no trail to be found.

I had a gaggle of increasingly restless children on my hands.
I had no idea where I was going.
The rain was only getting heavier, perhaps only outmatched by Meg’s growing disdain for my stubbornness.

All because I didn’t want to ask for directions.
All because I didn’t want to ask for help.

Today we begin a new sermon series called Help.
If you’re wondering what that tiny picture is in the bulletin – that is your staff recreating the poses from the Iconic cover of the Beatles album. You can find it in full-color glory in the latest edition of the Chimes.

For the next three weeks we’ll explore some different aspects of what it means to ask for Help.
And I’m not just talking about help with our boiler problem, though we’ll take that too

Today we examine Help from the outreach angle.
How do we offer help that is appropriate.
How do we make sure that our help doesn’t in fact hurt the ones we would serve.

A reading from the Prophet Micah:

Scripture:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Sermon:

It was a December evening and Robert sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee with the father of the family next door. After years of running ministry programs from the suburbs, Robert and his family discerned a call to embed themselves in the community they sought to serve. This was the first Christmas they spent in their new home.

The living room was tidy and he knew they were expecting a family that had been paired with them through the Holiday adopt-a-family program.

The doorbell rang and a well dressed family came in bearing armfuls of neatly wrapped packages. Robert noticed that before the mother of this family answered the door, the father had quietly stood up and slipped into the back bedroom and closed the door. Just before opening the presents, one of the children asked “where’s Dad?” Nobody questioned her when Mom said that he stepped out to the store.

This experience kept nagging at Robert, though, and he later reflected: “after organizing these kinds of Christmas charity events for years, I was witnessing a side I had never noticed before: how a father can be humiliated in his own home for not being able to provide presents for his family; how his wife is forced to shield her children from their father’s embarrassment.”

It was experiences like these that led Robert Lupton to write the book “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).”
Before you run out and get a copy – be warned – it is not an easy read.
It calls into question a great deal of how churches have practiced outreach for a long time.

But this isn’t just a church problem. It’s a human problem,
And things like this don’t only happen on the local level.

I was 19 years old the first time I met Ari in Haiti. He was somebody who helped me understand the complexity of foreign aid. “Haiti is a very poor country,” he said to a group of college students, “my people have been in poverty – many of them literally starving – for a long time. So,” he asked, “is it good for the US to bring rice to Haiti for hunger relief?”

“Yeah,” many of us muttered, “feeding people who are starving sounds like the right thing to do.”
“Yes,” Ari said, “feeding people is a good thing…AND what do you think happens when cheap rice grown by American farmers is dumped into the middle of this economy…what do you think happens to the HAITIAN farmers here? The prices plummet…they cannot compete. They leave the countryside and go to the city in search of jobs that do not exist and find the poverty is even worse there.”

As if our shoulders weren’t slumping enough, he kept going: “Now, think about what happens 25 years later. Does anyone learn how to farm? Does anybody in this country know how to grow food anymore? We’ve become utterly dependent on foreign aid.”

Sensing our growing despair, Ari said “Feeding people is a good thing. I’m not here to make you feel guilty for being Americans. But HOW you feed people is really important.”

Ari was helping us see how complex it can be to help another person.
Robert Lupton’s book does the same.
Is our help actually helping?
Or does our help create dependencies?

Or as the great Shel Silverstein put it:
Some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping is all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without.

I always took Ari at his word – it’s not about feeling guilty.
The instinct to help is good and holy.
It would just help if we……asked for directions.

The prophet Micah had some directions to give.
Micah hailed from a small, peasant community called Moresheth in Judah.
I suspect it was the kind of place you’d have trouble finding without asking for directions.
No surprise that such a community would produce a prophet who was laser-focused on the poor.

Micah spends much of his word count raging against the privileged ones who pervert justice on the regular. One gets the sense that the ruling class leveraged their position to create an ever-increasing wealth-gap in the community. It’s a tale as old as time – the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

It’s not that the 1% weren’t generous per se – there’s a reason Micah rattles off a list of extravagant gifts offered in service to God: burnt offerings, calves a year old; thousands of rams; ten thousand rivers of oil. It would seem that there was no shortage of generosity. But if all that wealth comes from ill-gotten gain, is it really pleasing to God?

No, Micah says. If all that generosity fails to actually change the life of a person who is desperately poor, it’s worthless in the eyes of this prophet. It’s toxic charity.

“What God really wants,” Micah says, “is Justice, Kindness and Humility.”
How do we give help that doesn’t hurt?
Practice these three.

There’s a trap that privileged people can fall into.
When one has been “Successful” or “High-Achieving” in his own life – it’s tempting for that same person to assume expertise concerning the lives of others.
It’s not uncommon for such a person to say things like:
“Well you know what you need to do is…”
Or
“If only they would do this, and this and this, their lives would be better.

Micah might ask such a person to humble himself and wonder:
“What if a single, working mother is actually the expert on her own life?”
“What if the immigrant who works two jobs is the expert on his own life?”

If you want to help such a person – what if you ask that same person for directions.
“What kind of help would be most helpful for you?”
“Who among your neighbors feels the same?”
“What can I do to support you all to make that change a reality?”

It takes a certain humility to put your own opinion aside for a moment and listen – really listen – and take direction from the experts themselves.

In his book, Robert Lupton lifts up what is often called
“The Iron Rule of Community Organizing.”
Never do for another what they have the power to do for themselves.
There’s a dignity that comes when individuals or an entire community takes part in their own uplift. The Church’s outreach is at its best when we honor that dignity and enable it.

This past Wednesday we had about 40 people turn out in a sandy sweet potato field in Benson. This was a gleaning project organized through the Society of St. Andrew.
In a couple hour’s time we pulled 6,286 pounds of perfectly good sweet potatoes out of the ground.

That’s an impressive number for sure – but what was even more interesting was where those taters went afterwards.
I had noted that a bit after we started gleaning, this fleet of pickup trucks appeared on the far side of the field. As we were winding down I first met Tricia who is the Fayetteville coordinator for the Society of St. Andrew. Tricia doesn’t look like much, standing at about 5’ 2” and leaning on an orange cane she needs to get around, but she clearly knows the Fayetteville community.

She pointed at each of the trucks and told me stories about each driver and the ministry they represent:
“Now in the silver truck – he takes the produce you all pick and brings it to his Church – I think it’s an Assembly of God church – and folks in the community stop by and pick up what they can use.”

“In the white truck – he has connections with the seniors all throughout his neighborhood and he delivers food to them each week. They love fresh fruits and vegetables and so he is always up for whatever our volunteers can pull out of a field.”

“In the red truck – he’s a minister and he literally cooks out on the street.”

I got a chance to meet that gentleman – Rev. Gilmore is his name and he runs “Touching Lives Street Ministry.” He told me a bit of his story – that he was 15 years sober now from a serious drug addiction. He knows all too well that – for addicts – a hot, healthy meal is sadly far down the list of priorities. So he comes out to where they congregate with a large cooker grill and the people come together and they eat together and he has an opportunity to encourage them to go into recovery.

Speaking with Rev. Gilmore, I was painfully aware that I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to do outreach to the people he is reaching. And though I was grateful UPC could help him out with some sweet potatoes, I was even more grateful for the fact that he does have a clue how to do that kind of outreach…that he has been there and daresay might even be an expert on the lives of those who travel a similar path.

At the end of the day that’s what the best kind of help looks like.
We cannot assume to have all the answers.
We cannot presume that the amount of help we throw at a problem will actually make it better.
All we can do is endeavor to hold three things in a delicate balance – Kindness, Justice, Humility.

Come to think of it, Appropriate help is almost like…a recipe…a recipe for something that’s delicate. A recipe where you have to get the ingredients measured just right.
A recipe for something like…Tomato Aspic maybe.

Today we have a second Sunday lunch…after my last sermon aired out my dislike for the dish, I have this bad feeling that a whole lot of Tomato Aspic is going to show up in that Fellowship Hall.

Because my my – many of you had some opinions about the proper recipe for Tomato Aspic. You were so sure I didn’t like it because of the way it was made.
“Maybe it was made with Jello and not gelatin.” One person said.
Another came at me with “You said it has Mayonnaise on top…REAL Tomato Aspic doesn’t have mayonnaise on top.”

I appreciate your passion for that particular delicacy, but I regret to inform you that nothing is going to redeem Tomato Aspic for me…but I think by God’s grace we can offer
Help that is healthy and not toxic.
Help that actually does help rather than hurt.
Help that respects the dignity of all who receive it.

Read the recipe. Follow the directions:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?