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Because You Care, We Can Serve the Community
In a recent issue of Weavings magazine, which had compassion as its general theme, Sue Monk Kidd writes of the time when she was twelve years old and her mother made her go to a nursing home with her church youth group. It was the last day of summer vacation; her friends were enjoying themselves at the city swimming pool, but she had to go to the nursing home. She wrote,
Smarting from the inequity, holding a bouquet of crepe paper flowers, I stood before this ancient-looking woman. Everything about her saddened me--the worn-down face, the lopsided grin, the tendrils of gray hair protruding from a crocheted lavender cap. I thrust the bouquet at her. She looked at me, a look that pierced me to the marrow of my twelve-year-old bones.
Then she spoke the words I haven't forgotten for nearly thirty years.
"You didn't want to come, did you, child?"
The words stunned me. They were too painful, too powerful, too naked in their honesty. "Oh yes, I wanted to come," I protested.
A smile lifted one side of her mouth. "It's okay," she said. "You can't force the heart."
The author concluded, "genuine compassion cannot be imposed from without....Compassion, which is the very life of God within us, comes through slow and often difficult metamorphosis deep within the human soul. It happens through a process." Throughout the rest of her article, she describes her spiritual journey, how her heart became a womb where compassion was gestated and birthed.
What she overlooked, or failed to take into account, was that the process included going to the nursing home. She went to the nursing home. She gave a paper bouquet to a patient. She expressed compassion even though it was under duress and she didn't feel compassionate. Feeling compassionate came later in her life. She performed the compassionate act at the age of twelve, and it so influenced her and impressed her, she remembers it vividly thirty years later. Perhaps you can't force the heart, but you can act compassionately.
Caring is an act, not necessarily a feeling. Many of us fail to do what God wants us to do because we are waiting until we want to do it! We are waiting until we feel like it. No doubt it is true you cannot force the heart, but you can direct your feet to walk to the nursing home. Your hands can offer the bouquet even if you don't feel like it. We Americans, like few peoples before us, put an undue emphasis on pleasure as a goal, and feeling good as a motivation. As I read the Bible, I find neither pleasure nor feeling good mentioned.
Take the two great commandments as an example. The suggested scripture lesson from the lectionary for this morning is Jesus' answer to the question, "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus replied, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
These commandments are not original with Jesus. They are both found in the Old Testament. But, what Jesus did was to make them the foundation of the church. What Jesus did was to make love, caring, and compassion the ground on which and from which his disciples live their lives. You shall love God, you shall love your neighbor, Jesus said. There is no choice. Love is where we begin. Caring is the starting point. Feelings have nothing to do with it. Waiting to care until we feel like it is completely foreign to Jesus.
I don't know what Aramaic word Jesus used which is now translated "love," because the gospel writers translated Jesus' Aramaic into Greek. The Greek word translated "love" in this text is "agape." Agape means self-giving, sharing, sacrifice on behalf of someone else with no thought of personal gain. The supreme example of agape is Jesus' death on the cross. He went to the cross, not necessarily willingly (remember how he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, finally yielding to the will of God). I doubt if Jesus went to the cross because he felt like it. He went because of agape. Greeks use different words for romantic love and for friend love. The Bible is very clear about what it means by agape love. I John 3:11, 16-18, This is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another...We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
The message is very clear. If anyone has the world's goods, sees someone in need, and does not help, he/she is neither loving God nor loving neighbor. Caring is not a luxury, caring is our calling. Caring is not a choice, it is a commandment. Caring is not an option, it is a requirement. Caring is not necessarily something we say; it is something we do. Caring is not a feeling, it is an act. Caring is an act not necessarily we want to do, but what God calls us to do; sometimes a burning passion, sometimes a gentle nudge, sometimes a guilty conscience, sometimes a bolt out of the blue.
But, there is a funny thing about caring. Have you discovered that when you do something you know is right, something you know God is calling you to do, feeling good is often the result? Feelings follow the act. I doubt if anyone ever began tithing because they felt like it. But, countless Christians have discovered that when they decide to become responsible stewards, responsible managers of all that God has given them, keep 90% for themselves and the government, and give 10% to God's work, they actually feel good. They discover a joy they had never known, a feeling of satisfaction. Mrs. Anonymous, who challenged us with a generous contribution so we might pay our conference apportionments in full this year, said to me, "I never knew giving was so much fun!" Feelings follow actions. By the way, we are very close to paying them in full. I couldn't resist telling Bishop Talbert the other evening. He was overjoyed and said, "When you do, I'll come and help you celebrate." And now, folks, we've got to do it!
A transforming church is a caring church. I've been calling us as a church to the task of transformation. A church with the posture of Jesus, arms open wide, with the world as its agenda, responding to Jesus' call, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations," is a worshiping church as I said last Sunday (a church based in prayer) and, a caring church, a church which ministers to and seeks to transform the community in which it lives. Because we care, we serve this community; not because we feel like it, but because we care.
Last week I called on Winifred Burford who just celebrated her 101st birthday. Her mind is sharp, her interests and concerns are large. She receives the printed copy of sermons and is always ready to challenge me on my theology. The other day she said, "According to your sermon, you see signs that our church is well on its way to become a transforming church with the posture of Jesus." I replied, "Yes." She quickly got to the heart of the matter and asked, "What are they? What are the signs?" Winifred never beats around the bush. I wasn't prepared for that question, but the first answer that popped into my head was, "We help house the homeless."
One month a year we take our turn with other churches and open our Fellowship Hall to the homeless. We provide a simple late night snack. The Urban Ministry, which we help support financially, does an excellent job of screening and supervising. Not too many years ago, I doubt our church along with most would have agreed to house the homeless. We would have worried about wear and tear on the facilities, sanitation, public image, noise, rowdiness, etc. A few months ago, an outside group, concerned about their children who also use Fellowship Hall, urged us to evict the homeless because of the germs they were sure the homeless might be leaving on the floor. I am proud of our Trustees who discounted such a complaint, and supported the Homeless Shelter. If we as a church waited until we all felt good about housing the homeless, we would still be waiting. But, we acted, and now you all can feel good about the result.
Because you care, your church is serving this community, seeking to meet needs and transform it into a closer likeness of God's ideal. Your church offers an excellent day care program for children of working parents. Twelve-step groups, single parent groups, a grief group, meet in our building regularly. Your church ministers to the human spirit through art and music by offering an ambitious concert program and continuing art exhibits. Your church provides a monthly lunch, program and fellowship for senior citizens. Your church cares about individuals and families, and continually issues an invitation to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and become part of our congregation. We serve this community.
In a recent sermon I accused the churches in Ireland of doing too little about the tense and violent situation in Northern Ireland. There are some notable exceptions. We interviewed Sydney Callahagn, a Methodist minister in Belfast who preached in our church a few years ago. He took us on a tour of Belfast into areas where few tourists and few Belfast residents enter. Some 16 years ago he decided to take incarnational theology seriously, and, as God became incarnate in Jesus and entered human history, so Sydney decided to identify with and enter inner city Belfast. Much to the surprise and confusion of his congregation, he asked that he be allowed to move out of their suburban parsonage and into an inner city apartment. He lived there for some years, living with the people, identifying with their struggles. He became a vocal spokesman on their behalf with city officials, and had a large influence on low cost housing projects. Sydney received a commendation from the Queen, and several death threats from the community. Sydney did not choose to serve the community because he felt like it, but because he cared, and caring means action, not just words, but concrete, visible action.
Caring is not a feeling, caring is an act which the feeling of joy usually follows. Caring is not a pastime, caring is not an option for Christians, caring is a mandate from Jesus. Because we care, we serve this community.
© 1990 Douglas I. Norris