I can’t imagine any novelist, alive or dead, who has created a greater gallery of eccentric characters than Charles Dickens, and this morning I want you to meet one of them who appears briefly in a great novel entitled Bleak House. Her name is Mrs. Jellyby and we meet her when other characters in the novel arrive for the first time at the Jellyby home in London. They discover a crowd gathered outside the door of her house, noisy and excited because one of the little Jellybys has gotten his head caught between a couple of iron railings. The crowd is astonished to learn that although his mother is in the house, the trapped child is howling his head off, and the crowd is noisy enough to alarm the whole neighborhood, Mrs. Jellyby has not noticed. Mrs. Jellyby, it turns out, does not notice much of anything. She is obsessed, not with concern for the lives all around her, but with lives in faroff places. Her eyes, Dickens tell us, have “a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if…..they could see nothing nearer than Africa.” When the visitors I mentioned go upstairs in her house to meet this woman they encounter several other of her children. One of them trips and falls downstairs, and as his head bangs loudly on several of the landings, they all wince in sympathetic pain…..but their mother pays no attention at all.
Mrs. Jellyby is caught up, head over heels, in what she calls her African project. She talks incessantly of the poor natives of Africa and how she must collect money for their education and welfare. At meal time (that is, when Mrs. Jellby remembers to fix a meal) she occupies herself writing notes about these far-off people. Her hair, people notice, is abundant and pretty but she is too busy with her remote mission work to brush it. Her dress does not quite meet up the back; her house is a mess of dropped clothes, last week’s dishes, and open cupboard doors. Her children might as well be proclaimed public property because if anything happens to them it is up to others to rescue them. One child gets lost in a market for an hour and a half and is finally brought home by a policeman. People learn to recognize a Jellyby child at first sight by its bruised knees, runny nose and empty stomach. Mrs. Jellyby has no time for these mundane matters because she is dreaming benevolent dreams about people thousands of miles away whom she has never seen. Dickens, in a marvelous putdown, calls this “telescopic philanthropy” — concern for people made exotic by distance while close to home are all sorts of unromantic people dying of neglect.
Mrs. Jellyby, of course, is not aware of the strange paradox in her life. Her eyes are focused on a remote continent; they see nothing very interesting in the familiar people who call out for help around her feet. I have, through the years, met her philosophical children in churches — forever looking, like their metaphorical mother, for some faroff good work to substitute for the one they keep stumbling over. Here are some of the voices I remember from counseling sessions: “Yes, he’s very busy and away on church business a great deal. We try to understand, but it’s hard sometimes for the children when they need him.” She was the wife of an outstanding minister. “Yes, my father has written 20 books,” the young man in trouble told me, “but I wish he had given me the time he took to write just one of them!” When I heard her last name and wondered, the delinquent girl said, “Yes, that’s my father. He’s the biggest booster of Wichita you ever saw in your life, but he spends most of his time looking right over the top of my head.”
I used to see an occasional student wince in the World Literature class when we read about how ancient people, to avoid the wrath of a god or win his help, would cremate their children on an altar. Or how parents of an unwanted girl child or crippled boy would expose the child on the steps of a temple to die of starvation or cold. They liked feeling superior to such people so much that I thought it wise to read them this passage from a book by David Woodyard called To Be Human Now . A bitter daughter says, “My father has never selected a gift for me; he has always written out a check. Last Christmas it was for a thousand dollars. That may sound lilke a lot of money but it didn’t mean that much to me. When I tried to tell him later that I was having trouble in school, he picked up the phone and ordered me a new car. Last summer, I wanted him to understand I wasn’t happy at home, and he responded by putting in a new pool, He has never been there when I needed a father — only his checkbook. I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer think of him as a human being. He’s just a bloated dollar sign.”
There are certain responsibilities we can’t leave up to others while we seek out more romantic duties. Ask any teacher about the education of children, for example. Any parents not deeply involved in that process are flunking — victims of that widespread, ridiculous notion that if you pay a teacher to be with your child for several hours a day you can sit back, do nothing, and wait for the finished product to drop off the assembly line. It doesn’t work — not in public education and not in Christian education. An hour in Sunday School may reinforce but it can never equal all those hours when your child is watching and learning from you at home. I saw a man walk up to the cash register in a grocery store and hand the clerk a coin. He said, “I’m sure you thought this was a 50 cent piece, but it’s a silver dollar. I’m sorry I didn’t notice until I got home.” He had a boy with him, about seven years old, whose glowing face had pride written all over it. I thought, This kid will remember this moment when he has forgotten fifty sermons on honesty. What an incredible amount of good there is to do close to home!
I am delighted that we have a new Outreach Committee which hopes to increase the compassion we show to people in need right here in Wichita where we can monitor how wisely we use our time and money. I stayed away from their meetings as much as possible because I wanted that essential part of church life to spring from the strong desire of others and not be a project of mine — the best guarantee I know that it will go on and on with a vigorous life of its own. The wise people involved in this effort have drafted thoughtful guidelines which guarantee the best possible use of the resources available to them. And instead of being telescopic, aimed far off, their philanthropy will focus on faces we can see, improvements we can touch. I expressed the hope to them that as soon as we pay off what we owe on this beautiful physical plant, some of the debt service money we save will become part of their annual budget.
A thought which leads me, despite a deeply ingrained reluctance, to ask an urgent favor of you. As of this morning we have had four good people, on successive Sundays, to tell you from the lectern how crucial your financial support is for the programs of this church: George Warren, Bob Scott, Jim Kelley, Bucky Walters — none of whom, I can promise you, stood in line hoping to be chosen for this job. They are busy people who accepted the assignment for no other reason but their affection for this church, and as much as I hate talking about pledges I am ashamed not to do what I can to help them succeed. For their sake — and for the sake of this place which I assume adds an important dimension to your life — let’s wrap up the Stewardship Campaign quickly. It really makes no sense to drag it out for weeks and then ask a few more people to spend a night or two “picking up the pieces” — which in plain language means getting in touch with the final few members who intend to pledge but just keep forgetting. I have looked on with astonishment several times when men and women with worlds to do and families to enjoy have sat for hours before a telephone bank jogging the memories of good people who do not forget the utility bills and the mortgage payment but sometimes need help to remember the church pledge. So please — if you haven’t turned in your pledge, pick up a card and envelope on the table in the foyer after this service and either fill it out and leave it, or take it home and mail it back by tomorrow. Please!
We have always tried to avoid the pressure and the gimmicks used by some churches to reach a stewardship goal. We don’t use one of those little cards with a wheel on it that tells you to locate your salary and then turn to the percentage you should give the church. We don’t send three guys in black suits to knock on your door. We don’t even call you at the start of the pledge drive to be sure you are ready ahead of time. We prefer to tell you what is needed and trust you to feel strongly enough about this church, and what we do here, and what it means in your life, to see that we meet our obligations. You are wise in the ways of economics and you know about inflation, so you need to be generous. This year, especially, because with some companies moving and some others closing, we have lost more supportive members this year than at any time in our history.
And perhaps even more importantly, you need to be uniformly generous. The very sad truth is that in this church, and I’m sure in many others, there are a few who do not financially support the church at all. This will surprise some of you, and I do not profess to understand it even for a moment, but I know it to be true. And I am not talking of that rare instance where crisis or dire poverty makes it difficult to be generous. We have, to our dismay, members who do not even pledge to their church an amount of money equal to what they spend in theaters for a year. They participate in worship, they tell me how much it all means to them, they send their children to Sunday School, they appreciate the beauty of this place for weddings, christenings and funerals, but because they are under no contractual obligation and because our approach to support is so low key, they leave the burden of finacial support to others.
I learned long ago in ministry that there are always some good people who simply want to come and worship, find some comfort and challenge for the week, and then go quietly off until Sunday comes again. I would like to see them more involved, but I do not chide them for not spending time on the essential boards and committees of the church — we have different needs. But they, too, have an obligation to help pay the bills in a place that serves them on Sundays, even when they suppose they will never need anything more. The truth is, they never know, and I have lost track of the times when some of these good people discovered the need for a wedding, a funeral, a christening, a counseling session. I’m reminded of the story about a man who was crawling through the desert on his hands and knees, desperate for a drink of water. Against all probability, he encountered a man who had set up a table and was selling neckties. “Would you like to buy a nice necktie?” “No!” the man growled, “all I want is a glass of water.” The salesman had no water, so the parched man kept crawling across the sand. And then, miraculously, out in the middle of that vast desert, he came upon a beautiful restaurant. At first he thought it was a mirage, but as he got closer he saw it was real. With his last ounce of energy he struggled up to the entrance and said to the doorman, “Please, I must have a drink of water!” To which the doorman replied, “I’m sorry, sir, gentlemen are not admitted without neckties.”
I can’t match Bucky for the comic relief he gives us while he volunteers to help a church that has come to mean something in his life, but I always end up with a joke, too, because that’s the easiest way for me to handle what makes me uncomfortable. So I shall close with the true story of a little boy who sat very patiently with his mother while the stewardship sermon went on and on…..until finally he turned to her and said plaintively, “Do you think if we give him our money now, he will let us go?”
You may go…..and we invite you to pick up the pledge card and envelope thoughtfully provided for you on the card table in the foyer. What a pleasant surprise it would be if no one had to make a single call at the end of this month!
May the generous grace of God, the limitless love of Jesus Christ
our Lord, and the spirit of goodness be with us all through every
day of this new week. Amen.