February 23, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Acts 8: 26-40

The Power to Ask for Help

You know I really believe, our good intentions are not the problem. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But our desire to help, the fact they have to tell you on the airplane to put on your own oxygen mask before you help those around you, our impetus to risk getting in trouble if it means reaching out in kindness, all of this is very good. Our good intentions are not the problem. I think they might be the beginning of the solution, even when we have such a long way to go.

There is a mayor of a small town in France who was recently reminded of this long way still to go. Much like the United States is trying to navigate the choppy waters of immigration reform, France is dealing with this too. Of particular concern is crafting a policy that will address whether and how to accommodate the Roma population. French officials are dealing with the complexity that comes from respecting the separate culture of the Roma people while also providing adequate social support.

Well, this problem fell right in the lap of the mayor of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. According to French law, the Roma people must be allowed to integrate. Their children must be welcome in the schools. And if the mayor finds their camp is uninhabitable, the people must be relocated on the city’s dime. Indeed, this mayor ordered the Roma camps shut down and moved the families to a hotel. The next day, the manager of the hotel called to inform him that the guests had taken the furnishings from the rooms along with the hinges and the doorknobs, and they left.

In your own body, can’t you just feel the sigh from the mayor after he hung up the phone with the hotel manager? I mean, they took the doorknobs! On the one hand, I sympathize with the framers of a social policy that says people are entitled to safe and decent housing. On the other hand, this Roma community lives in camps. These families were not looking for a hotel voucher. It makes me wonder whether they were ever consulted or listened to.

Of course it is good help people, but on whose terms? Who gets to decide how help is given and received? Once I was approached by a woman in a bus station who asked me for money. I said to her, “Oh I don’t give money like this, but here have this” and I gave her an apple. Friends, she was missing her front teeth! Seriously, who was helped by that exchange…

So often we mean to help, but we get chained up in offering help on our own terms. Have this hotel room or this apple. Here if you’re poor, you can have the leftovers nobody else wants. You can have my old clothes that are starting to wear out. You should be so grateful!

So often we demand help, but we get chained up in insisting that it come to us on our own terms. Here just take my blood pressure or my dry cleaning. Change my oil or bag my groceries, and I’ll gladly pay you for your service. Please don’t tell me your name or your life story.

The problem is not our good intentions.

The problem is when we give and expect help transactionally. We don’t even realize how chained up we have become. We don’t even notice the people we don’t notice.

Until we do…

The story we hear this morning presents an exhilarating alternative. As we remember the exchange on that wilderness road, you might try this. You might try to track on whose terms help is being offered and received. Try to keep your eye on the ball bouncing between the evangelist and the treasurer. Then we’ll see, it’s not really about who has the ball; it’s about the web of connection they make together.

Our story begins with the treasurer of the queen sitting in his chariot. Make no mistake, this is a man of power. He is the court official in charge of all the money, and he knows how to read. He is also an outsider. For one thing, he is said to be Ethiopian, which means he had dark skin and came from somewhere south of Egypt. Ethiopian was a term used to describe people from places that are far away and exotic. This man is also a eunuch, meaning that he was castrated, and was therefore not permitted to go inside the Temple. Even though he could not become Jewish, he has an interest in the scripture.

On this particular day, he is reading from the prophet Isaiah when along comes a man running toward him all filled by the Spirit. What are the odds, right? It’s like here your car stalled on the highway, and the one who stops to help just happens to be a mechanic. Now while the treasurer is trying to understand this scripture, he is approached by Philip, one who was charged with proclaiming the Messiah and performing signs so the people would believe.

Without any introduction, or any “Excuse me sir,” Philip asks a question which seems a little bit brave and a little bit rude: “Do you understand what you are reading?” I imagine the treasurer lets an entire moment elapse while he considers his options. Then he makes the decision that makes possible the miracle. He says, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?” And I’m thinking he says this with a sharp edge of indignation and exactly half a smile. Then he invites Philip to come into his chariot and sit next to him. As Philip hoists himself up, that clanking you hear is the sound of their chains coming unfastened.

Together they read Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant. The treasurer asks, “Who is the prophet talking about?” and Philip tells him the story of Jesus. As they’re traveling down the wilderness road, the treasurer asks, “What is to stop me from being baptized?” and he orders the chariot to stop. Both men go down into the waters of baptism. The treasurer was baptized by the evangelist. He went on his way rejoicing, while Philip was snatched away by the Spirit. And nobody was the same anymore.

There is a saying that emerged from an Aboriginal activist community in Queensland, Australia: “If have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

“Do you understand what you are reading?” is what the treasurer gets asked by Philip. And he says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” See your liberation all bound up with mine.

Showing up ready to help, that is not the problem. Asking for help is not the problem; it is the beginning of the miracle. But wow, is it ever hard to do. There’s another saying we hear around us all the time. It goes, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Oh I really understand this. I know exactly what it is to claim control over a project and just run with it on my own. I mean, working together takes time. It takes listening to new ideas and re-evaluating my approach. Just let me take care of all of it, then I can prove myself and get the job done my way, on my schedule, on my terms. I suspect this is how the French hotel got its doorknobs stolen, and I know this how the woman in the bus station got handed an apple when she needed a dollar or maybe a friend.

The truth we all might learn one day: Asking for help is not becoming a burden. Asking for help is not relinquishing our pride or giving up in the light of our limitations. Asking for help is an invitation to cancel the competition and re-balance the power dynamic. It’s like cracking a window in a stuffy room letting the sweet air pour in and billow the curtains. Asking for help lets us move over and make room so everybody can breathe. That clanking you hear is the sound of our chains coming unfastened.

A few years back, the documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock had a television series called 30 Days. Each episode features an issue usually of polarizing controversy. Often a person from one side of the issues goes and lives with someone from the other side for thirty days. In one episode, a man named Frank is a minuteman, that’s a volunteer who patrols the border between Mexico and the United States watching for Mexican immigrants who are crossing illegally. For thirty days, Frank goes and lives in East Los Angeles with an undocumented family from Mexico.

As you might expect, at first Frank and the Gonzales family are awfully skeptical of each other. Frank makes no apology for his position that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law and damaging America. The Gonzales family makes no apology for their position that they are just trying to make a living.

There are some intense moments especially between Frank and Armida Gonzales their oldest daughter. And during these weeks, Armida and Frank go and play golf together; she teaches him how. Both Frank and Armida change. Now they don’t switch sides. Armida prepares to go to college here even though she’s not a citizen, but she has kind words to say about Frank. Frank is still a minuteman, but his heart has been changed by the Gonzales family.

Friends, you know our commitment to help people in need is not the problem. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how the miracle begins. But we need to ask for help too because we have so much to learn from the people we serve. In these days of visioning, I invite you to consider what it is that we could learn from the kids who come to the Book Nook, from the mothers who come here during the week to learn English, from the families who come to the food pantry. How can we follow the example of that treasurer from long ago and find new ways to ask for help? Our liberation is bound up with those whom we serve, and we don’t even realize how chained up we’ve become.

Until we do. Then one by one, when we play golf, or read from Isaiah, or share a cup of coffee, one relationship at a time, we work together. See everybody gets set free. Amen.

PDF – The Power to Ask for Help

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