"What Do I Do About Panhandlers?" - from Sunday, June 17, 2012
A Sermon – by Alex Evans
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Texts: Isaiah 58:6-11; Matthew 5:3
“What Do I Do About Pan-handlers?”
The Dave Matthews Band is familiar to some of you, especially the younger people here. DMB is a contemporary rock band, originally from Charlottesville, that has become world famous. They play an eclectic, alternative style of music that often tells a story. They have recently been touted as some of the best ambassadors for Virginia.
On one most popular CD, the Dave Matthews Band has a song (“Dive In” from Big Whiskey CD) that starts like this: “I saw a man on the side of the road with a sign that read: ‘Will Work For Food.’ Try to look to busy, till the light turns green. . . . . . Strange kind of world. . . . tears me to pieces.”
The song continues – “tell me everything will be okay if I just stay on my knees and keep praying. . . . Tell me everything is all taken care of by those qualified to take care of it. . . .” And the song asks: “Do you think we will wake up in a world, on its way to getting better? And if so, can you tell me? . . .” The song is about the twisted and complex things of life.
Several weeks ago I sent out an email inviting you, the congregation, to help me with some sermon plans, asking you “what would be most helpful for me to preach about?”
I have received some wonderful responses and I am still getting them. This has been a fascinating exercise that has led to some good exchanges, and lots of thoughts and plans for me.
Already before today some of my recent sermons have been focused toward your comments. And I look forward to using your many suggestions across the weeks and months ahead.
Today’s sermon title is one of the very poignant questions I received: “what do I do about panhandlers?” More specifically, this is how the note read: How do I respond to the "homeless" or "jobless" individuals that I face daily as they sit or stand in the medians of our streets in Richmond? A part of me wants to hand them money or a gift card to a restaurant, while another part of me has been told not to do this but to try to get them to the various resources that are available to assist them. Part of me feels sympathy for them, and another part of me questions their actions, especially when I see them using a cell phone, or having the leg of their pants rolled up so I can see their disability. I find it very concerning, confusing, and a real challenge as to the right or best thing to do. Thanks, Alex, for helping me with this.
Well, here is an attempt to address this question that challenges us all: what do I do about pan-handlers?
When Jesus saw the crowds increasing around him, Jesus went up to a hillside near the Sea of Galilee, and he taught his disciples. This is the first thing that Jesus says in the familiar Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
There are several words for “poor” in Greek. This word “poor” in the Beatitudes - ptochos - has a very specific meaning: it refers to those truly “poor, crushed in poverty.” Ptochos is an adjective that means those who feel their poverty. We are not just talking about the working poor, who do not have much. The word here refers to the truly destitute, those who cry out to heaven for daily help, those who suffer their poverty everyday. In fact, the Greek word –ptochos – generates the verb – ptokeuo- which means “to lead the life of a beggar.” The truly poor lead lives of begging.The word also generates a noun - ptocheia – which means “destitution, and the life of a beggar.” So when Jesus says, “blessed are the poor” both in Matthew and in Luke, he is indeed talking about the people we see on our street corners, begging. The heart of Jesus goes out to these people.
Then there is something more about what Jesus says. As you heard, “theirs” is the Kingdom. It is possessive. The Kingdom is for the truly poor. The kingdom EXISTS for them. Indeed, there is some evidence that the possessive form of the sentence – “theirs is the Kingdom” – is actually exclusive, meaning those who are NOT poor are further from the kingdom of God. And we hear this from Jesus too: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom” (Matt. 19:24). Jesus also tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about how to inherit the Kingdom, and Jesus says “go and give all you have to the poor.” And the man went away sorrowful because he had many possessions and much wealth. The point is very clear, and for emphasis – the God of the universe has a special inclination toward the destitute. The Savior of the world blesses the poor – the really poor – the beggars and downtrodden. Jesus says to them directly “I am with you.”
And God’s special care for the destitute is not just in the New Testament, but all through the Old Testament too. Leviticus urges “do not go over your vineyard a second time, or pick up grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and alien, for I am the Lord your God” (19:10). And in many other places in the Old Testament: “If there are poor among you, . . . be open-handed toward the poor (Deut. 15:7-8). There is the sense that God blesses God’s people and God’s people are to live in such a generous way so that poverty disappears. Page after page through the Scriptures confirm God’s special affection and abiding care for the poor. If you ever hear of people so proud of taking the Bible literally and sincerely, check to see how much they care for the poor, because it is all through the Bible. God cherishes these poor people – who are destitute – whose life is about begging. God seeks to be their protector and urges God’s people to be generous and caring toward the destitute.
All these references give us clarity about our lives in these days. If God cares, cherishes those who are poor, we as God’s people have to care and cherish the poor too.
. . . . . So what do we do about the pan-handlers?
First, when we see them, if we claim to be God’s people, our hearts need to remind us that these people are cherished by God. They are children of God! Jesus says, “blessed at the poor, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We cannot have cold hearts toward these people whom God cares so much about. Without staring at them, or objectifying them, we might immediately pray for them, ask God to shine hope and light into their destitute lives. As God’s people, we have to have compassion upon them no matter what – this is the consistent call of Scripture. Jesus blesses the destitute. God loves the least among us, maybe loves them the most. God continually calls us to be open-hearted, open-handed toward the poor. If we try to hide from them, or denigrate them for where they are, we are hiding from God and denigrating those whom God cares most about. That is a judgment upon us. If we are cold-hearted, or ugly, or even indifferent, we can expect God to be cold-hearted and indifferent toward us.
Second, having compassion on those among us who are truly poor might mean extending to them help and aid. If we claim to be God’s people, we will seek to be open and to be used by God in various moments. Those moments might come when indeed someone approaches us, asks us for some money. Generally, when this happens to me, I do not reach into my pocket. I will say more about this in a moment. But sometimes, moved by God, seeking to be an agent for healing and hope, and knowing well that Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” we may indeed offer help. I have offered help. I suspect you have too. I have given money for a bus ticket. I have offered $10 for a meal at Steve’s Restaurant across 5th St. I have helped those people who come regularly around the church. I have used the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund to help someone even when I was not sure where the money would end up. My expression of care and help might have been used well, or it might have gone to buy drugs, or booze, or something else. But in some moments, it feels BETTER to care for the poor, extend aid to the needy, than over-analyze, and hold back, and run – not literally, but keep distance from those whom God cherishes – the ptochos. In some moments, I find myself seeking to be more caring, than cautious, more generous than cold-hearted. And I would rather be taken advantage of, than fail God.
In this case, I am recognizing that there are two needs. There is the need of the poor making a request, whether it is from the median on the streets, or someone approaching me on our sidewalk. There is the need of that poor and destitute person who begs. Then there is my need to be caring, my need to feel faithful, our need to follow Jesus. The giving of change, or a bus ticket, or a meal, helps the one asking, but it also helps me. There are some moments when I need to give too, to confirm that I seek to take Jesus seriously. I need to give sometimes, because I want to be open to an encounter with Jesus. Jesus reminds us, “as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me” (Matt. 25:40). We cannot close that giving, that faithfulness off. If we do, we are in danger of closing God off, of closing off what and whom God cares about.
And undoubtedly, we have all been taken too. Someone’s sad, sad story can become, when the person turns the corner, a whooping and laughing about how he fooled some generous Christian once again. That is okay with me. That is part of the risk of being faithful to Jesus.
Third, and this is mostly what I try to follow, the giving to pan-handlers and those begging may NOT be the most helpful. I see them in the medians; I look at them in the eye when they approach me directly on the street or when they come to the church. I pray for them. And instead of reaching into my pocket at that moment, we have other options. I seek to give generously, and work sincerely for a community, a city, a culture, a world where there are no poor and destitute. This is why we have long had the weekday feeding program in downtown Richmond. There is a place every single day of the week where you can get a hot, balanced meal if you are hungry. We host it on every single Monday and have 125-225 people in our building for lunch. It is why we support ACTS – area congregations together in service. It is why we support many other programs which care for the ptochos – the cherished poor whom God cares so much about.
So if we see these people on the streets, we should pray for them in that moment. We should remember that God cares so much about them, and so should we. And we might be moved to help them in that moment with a gift, a donation to meet their need. That would be fine because we seek to follow Jesus who cherishes them and reached out to them. But we should also, and maybe mostly, ask ourselves: am it giving generously so that programs and outreach agencies are addressing the systemic issues that lead to poverty? Am I supporting the church’s work with the poor in our city? Seeing that person in the median, or encountering that begging person, becomes an opportunity for us to assess and take a step further toward broader faithfulness, generosity. Could I do more that would inspire my compassion and care? Is my life as generous as Jesus expects it to be, especially toward those poor whom he loves so much? If and when we drive by, “when the light turns green,” or if we walk by ignoring the out-stretched hand or plea for a bus ticket, we should be committing, and re-committing our lives to helping, to serving, to following Jesus, to working in our churches, in our city, to keep the poor from becoming more poor! Yes, anytime we do not help directly should nudge us a bit more to think and act and give to churches and agencies that seek to assist the poor and alleviate poverty and its causes in this area.
See, as I read the Bible, there is no such thing as “comfortable Christians.” We are born, and God loves us and claims us, as we remember today in celebration of the baptism. We grow and God watches over us and blesses us. But our lives are meant to have a certain focus – the kingdom of God: we are to work for the kingdom. That means we are never comfortable – we are to be helping the poor, comforting the afflicted, doing God’s work in word and deed. We should struggle when someone begs from us – God cares very deeply about beggars; theirs is the kingdom. We should check our levels of compassion and commitment – am I serious about Jesus? Am I worthy of the name Christian?
Look friends, we cannot help everyone. Only God can do that!
We cannot assist every poor person. God does that.
But we cannot also drive by without hearts attuned to the poor, or without sincere care and prayers for them. That is not discipleship. We have to maintain an open-ness to helping, to being an instrument of God’s love and light. God cares deeply for the poor. So must we. We have to keep seeking to grow in generous commitment and zeal toward agencies and efforts that alleviate and assist the poor. Seeing pan-handlers on the street should give us all pause and encourage us to ask – how is my blessed life attuned to alleviating poverty? As Christians, we should be always asking: what portion of my life should be about helping the most needy – the ptochos. Jesus says “theirs is the kingdom.” There are no comfortable Christians. Jesus comes to comfort the afflicted. That would be those on the streets and those who beg. Jesus is on their side. Jesus comes too to afflict the comfortable – to call us to live and act in ways that promote the kingdom – that would be hope and life for ALL people, especially the poorest.
There are no comfortable Christians. We are meant to be journeying to the Kingdom. May God’s Spirit keep working on us for compassion and care, justice and hope for all God’s people. And may the kingdom come quickly. Amen
Prayer of Commitment: Challenge us, O God, toward a generous, faithful, helpful discipleship that facilitates the coming Kingdom of Christ our Lord. We seek to follow Jesus. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Sunday, June 17, 2012. This is a rough manuscript.