Giving Our Gifts, Part One

Here at the beginning of Lent, I have a confession to make, Beloved. It was my freshman year in college, and I needed money to help pay my way through school, so, I got a job… as a telemarketer—for a semester. I know, I know. I’m sorry. But as an 18-year-old kid, they were the only ones who would hire me. So, for months, I sat in a room with a bunch of other young telemarketers who were trying to raise money for the school by cold calling alumni and their parents. Our supervisor was sitting at the front watching us to make sure we didn’t take a break between calls. You just had to keep going.

I was new and untested so the top of the battered and creased multipage spreadsheet I was calling numbers from was labeled: People Who Have Never Given Before. It was hardly an inspiring title to a new recruit. And hang-up, after hang-up, after cursing, swearing, shouting hang-up, in which people reminded us just how much bleepin’ money they had already paid to the school, under the watchful eye and sharp ear of my supervisor, I just had to keep going. And I didn’t want to. The sound of the tinny ringing tone through my headset became dreadful to me. And the only worse sound was the sound of it suddenly stopping and a voice sweetly saying, “Hello?”

Needless to say, this was years before I had perfected my giving pitch and techniques, and I didn’t make much money for my alma mater. One night, halfway through a shift, I realized that if I quit, I wouldn’t have any money, but I also wouldn’t have to make another phone call—to anyone—ever again. I walked up to my supervisor’s desk and said, “I’m not very good at this, am I?” And she says, “I think you’re doing a great job, actually!” which was a lie. And I realized I must not be the only one who doesn’t want to be a telemarketer. And I walked out into the night and ran down the middle of frat row hollering for joy at the top of my lungs. Frat boys, assuming I had been at a party better than theirs, came outside and cheered me on. And I was free.

Years later, as a labor organizer in the restaurant industry, it was my job to build workplace justice campaigns in restaurants. And one way to do that is to find the house of a restaurant worker in a workplace that you’ve targeted for a campaign and walk up to the door and knock. This is called a “house visit.” But that euphemistic term hardly describes the terror of walking up to a stranger’s door and knocking in the hopes that they will let you into their house. There were times I would just stand at the door and wait, my closed fist one inch away from the wood of the door—hovering—for long minutes at a time. Sometimes I would think, “Maybe, if I just bashed my head against the door, that would be less painful than what I’m about to do.”

Have you ever experienced anything like this? An aversion like this? Can you relate at all? Like I had a friend once who had a complex about ordering takeout over the phone—she just couldn’t do it—so, she’d ask me to call for her every time. I was like, “They want you to call, you know. They want your money. You’re not inconveniencing them!” But she just couldn’t do it.

The point is, it couldn’t have been easy to be that midnight friend running through the dark to beat on the door of a house with no light no inside. Right? I mean, we’re New Yorkers and we’ve all had some drunken reveler buzz our apartment accidentally trying to get back into a party somewhere in our building at 2 AM after smoking a cigarette or something. You know, we probably sympathize more instinctually with the family that gets woken up, with the person that gets the annoying phone call at dinnertime. We don’t usually sympathize with door knockers, or telemarketers, or—OH—those street marketing people on the sidewalk with the bright vests and the clip boards asking you if you care about things you do care about, but you don’t want to stop and talk about anyway.

Sometimes, maybe we forget that those telemarketers, and door knockers, and street outreachers of the world are more afraid of us than we are of them. We forget, I think, that asking can actually be WAY HARDER than answering. How many helpful people do you know who never ask for help themselves? Yeah? How many times in your life have you said, “Hey everybody, I could really use your help!” Now, how many times have you said, “Well, I didn’t want to bother you.” Yes, even when we’re knocking on the door of a friend, it can be hard, especially when we think—or maybe know—that we’re putting someone out.

But, Beloved, I think it’s important to recognize that asking, seeking, and knocking are essential to the bonds of community and they’re an important component of the economy of generosity. Let’s say you had a nice little chunk of money in your giving budget and time in your volunteering scheduling for the year and you wanted to put it to good use. So, you went to a local organization and said, “What do you need?” And they said, “Well! Nothing. Don’t worry about it. We’re fine.” Are you taking out your checkbook? Are you signing up on that volunteer board? Probably not.

I mean, it’s the same thing at church. The amount we feel we’re able to give has something to do with how much time and money we have in our total budget, yes. But it also has to do with the fact that we as a church, as a congregation, have articulated an ask—that we have shared what our needs are with one another. Ya know? I once said to a friend of mine, “I call my friends a lot, but my friends hardly ever call me.” “Oh yeah?” she said. “Well, I don’t call you because you just seem fine. It doesn’t seem like you need anybody. You’re good and, so, I don’t worry about you.” It was an important realization for me at the time. That if I seem like I don’t need anything, people are going to take me at my word. So, your ability to give generously and effectively to all of us is tied directly to our ability to ask and to receive from you.

And, maybe even more than that, my ability to give to you when you ask, is tied to my own ability to have asked for and received help when I needed it. It really is like an ecosystem. On Ash Wednesday I was signed up for the 8-9 AM ashes-to-go-on-the-sidewalk slot, which meant I had to wake up at 6 AM. And it was freezing cold and windy outside. And I wasn’t feeling too energized about asking people if they’d like to stop and get some ashes as they commuted to work and school. Oh, yes. You heard right, Beloved! Street outreach! But instead of a bright vest, I had a stole. Instead of a clipboard, a bowl of dirty ashes.

So, right away, I just started saying “Good morning!” to people. And they started saying, “Good morning!” back, as if they could tell that I needed it. And with every “good morning” I got, the more my spirits lifted, and the brighter my greetings became, and the more heartfelt my sidewalk blessings became. And soon we had a little line of people waiting for ashes. And we had people we had never met standing on the sidewalk in the cold weeping and saying, “thank you for what you’re doing as a church; thank you for making me feel welcome.” And when 9 AM rolled around I thought, man, I could keep going. I was amazed at how much I was given by a few “good mornings” and how much I was then able to give to the people who showed up who really needed those ashes and that touch and to hear the words, “You are a beloved child of God.”

That’s why in Jesus’ parable, the knocking friend isn’t knocking because she has an empty belly herself. There’d be nothing wrong with that, but instead Jesus throws in another twist. Jesus creates a parable about the interconnection of receiving and giving: The friend is knocking because somebody else has come along to her house with an empty belly. She is knocking, and asking to receive, because she is a giver. And a giver must first receive. And a receiver must first ask, seek, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.

That’s the really impolite piece of Jesus’ parable, right? Knocking and knocking and knocking. I mean, Jesus says, at that hour, they might not get out of bed for you because you’re their friend. But I bet they’ll get out of bed if you just keep knocking! It’s incredible how rude Jesus’ spirituality can be. Jesus is such a pragmatist. You gotta ask, says Jesus. And you need to be persistent until you get what you need from the world. And THEN you need to give back, pass it forward, do unto others.

Jesus realizes something that we don’t necessarily believe, even though it’s perfectly sensible: that a world in which no one knocks on their neighbor’s door is a cold, poor, empty, and unjust world. And a world in which you feel empowered to ask, even to demand, what you need from your neighbors, that world will be a thriving, connected, fulfilling, and more just place. When we refuse to ask, we contribute to the spiritual, and social, and economic poverty of the world just like when we refuse to give. Refusing to ask really is a kind of stinginess: We’re refusing to give our vulnerability to the world.

So, beloved, before we go any further down the road of Stewardship Season, before you fill out your pledge card this year, before you decide to give something up for Lent, let me ask you: What do you need? What are you asking for? What are you seeking? What do you need to knock, and knock, and knock at midnight for? Think about it. Really think about it. And at community hour this evening, if you’ve got something you need, do us all a favor, and ask somebody. Let’s kickstart the cycle of generosity. Let’s be brave enough with our friends to be honest about what we need.

Amen.