Last week we talked about the love of God, and said that it is easier to love God when everything is going our way. The author of Psalm 16 wrote, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.” This is the confession of a young man who has yet to know too much disappointment, pain, or loss. It is harder to love God when things are not going our way, especially if we are strapped for cash, racked with pain, or facing down a terrible grief. People who love God in the face of adversity are the heroes of faith. Like the author of the 4th Psalm, they are wont to confess, “(O Lord) You have put more joy in my heart than some people have when their grain and wine abound.”
Just this week I spoke by phone with a former member of this congregation who recently lost her husband—a man I greatly admired. I asked her how she was coping. She said that she had learned the truth of a little poem she has always kept in her Bible. It reads:
I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.”
It was C.S. Lewis who said that God uses our suffering like a (loudspeaker) to get our attention. And William Barclay wrote, “It takes a world with trouble in it to make us into the kind of people that God wants us to be.” Or, as Paul said in Romans 5:
We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our suffering because produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
We worship the God of the cross because he first loved us. We ultimately love the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ because he makes it possible.
Today we are talking about the second love, loving our neighbor, which, of course, is a component of loving God. As we read in 1st John 4:16, “No one can love God whom they have not seen, if they do not love their sisters and brothers whom they have seen.”
It was a Baptist deacon who taught Jimmy Carter the importance, and difficulty of loving our neighbor. Deacon Cruz said, “It is easy to love faceless, nameless humanity. It is much harder to love the person who sits or stands across from us.” Loving individuals is, at the very least, complicated.
One day this week I was in Greensboro, leaving a coffee shop when I saw an elderly woman sitting beside the road on her push scooter–the kind people use for balance. Ordinarily, I don’t give money to people begging beside of the road. I see the tags that confirms they are registered with the city, and I know that many of them have turned begging into a career. I much prefer to have a real conversation with these people. Sometimes they are revealing. One woman we tried to help at New Philadelphia was 62 years old and had never paid into social security. When we tried to help her come up with a better strategy for her life before it was too late, she told us she had no desire to change, and she quit coming to us help. Likewise, I had a friend, an attorney,, who was living in a rooming house while his new apartment was being renovated. He told me that eight or nine people lived in that house—and all but him were professional beggars. The woman outside the coffee shop looked different. There was genuine pathos in her face. Before I could help myself, I pulled out a five dollar bill, and gave it to her. She thanked me and we exchanged a greeting of “God bless you.” The light changed, and I pulled away. As I did, I asked myself why I hadn’t given her a twenty instead of a five. I had several. I pondered that question all the way back home. It would not let me go. On Friday, at lunch, I drove back to Greensboro to seek her out. She was not there; but her face is still here, in my mind, and as I think of her, I remember how Oswald Chambers said that we ought never to delay a charitable impulse, less the impulse fades and dies. He said, “We seldom get a second opportunity to do a pressing good.”
By contrast, sometimes we get many chances to help the same person. When I was on my first tour of service at Fries back in the early 1980’s, a young man came to me who had recently graduated from R.J. Reynolds High School. It was not his name, but let’s call him, “Joe.” Joe had lost his parents, did not have a job, and was living in a tent in the woods. With cash provided by my benevolence fund and approved by the board, I went to the late Lewis Hubbard for help. Lewis gave us a deal on an apartment for Joe, and I paid for a month in advance. Unfortunately, Joe lasted less than a week before moving back into his tent. Over the next three decades he came to me every couple of years. He never asked for anything more than food, or a puptent, or a bicycle. About a decade ago, I passed Joe over to a pastoral assistant with the knowledge to help him. This woman had worked for more than two decades with the homeless, first in South Bend, Indiana, then, in Winston-Salem, where she served as development director at Bethesda Center for the Homeless. This woman had the knowledge and skill to get Joe into public housing. He took one look at it, said, “I don’t want this,” and went back to his tent. After that, I did not see him for several years, then he came back begging for help. Joe told me that every tooth in his head had rotted down below the gumline and he was constantly ill. He was afraid he was going to die. I went to the Church board, and they budgeted almost $4,000.00 to get him dental surgery and a set of false teeth. We helped him make all the necessary appointments, but, rather than keep them, he headed for Florida for the winter. I saw him just once more—and he was already a dying man. Not long after I attended his funeral. Some people need far more than three hot meals and a place to stay.
This man and his tragic fate will always haunt me. I cannot begin to tell you how to show love to the person in need who stands before you. It goes without saying that most of us will respond differently to a family member or friend than we will to a stranger. Likewise, we will respond differently to the very young and the very old than we do to the healthy man or woman we see, week after week, standing by the side of the road, begging, within a stone’s throw of several fast food restaurants, all advertising for help. When I see those folks by the side of the road, my mind invariably becomes a cacophony of opposing voices. First I hear Jesus say things like, “When you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.” And, “When you have done it not….etc.” And, “Give and it will be given to you!” And, “When you give a banquet, invite those who cannot repay you.” And at other times I remember how St. Paul wrote to the churches in Thessalonica saying, “If someone will not work, let them not eat.” Of course, St. Paul himself took up a collection among the Gentile Churches in order to provide some relief for the members of the church in Jerusalem.
Today, a similar needs exist all around us. Twelve percent of Americans, more than 38 millions of us, are living below the poverty line. During the average month, if everything goes right, many of these folks can pay their own way—and they are proud of that. But if their children need something for school, or the car they need for work fails inspection, or they have a medical emergency, they do not have enough money in reserve to tide them over. They often go hungry, or skip picking up an important prescription, just to get by.
Organizations like Sunnyside Ministry and Crisis Control Ministry—both of which we support, exist to serve the people who are in a financial crisis. But they consistently refuse to help those who have a shortfall each and every month. They know that people these people need more than a temporary infusion of cash. They need to learn how to pay-off or write-off bad debts, manage their money, and, when it is restored, use credit wisely.. Often, they need to pursue a GED, retrain for better jobs, or learn how to present themselves for jobs, write resumes etc. Of course, there are lots of jobs available today, but not always the kind of jobs we want.
Of course, when it comes to loving and serving others, financial need is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the course of my ministry people have walked into my office with almost any problem you have seen on television. They have suffered addiction, and abuse, and they fear for their lives. I have had a man call me out at night only to tell me when I arrived that he was being hunted by people who sold him drugs, and wanted him to make pornographic movies. He asked, “What should I do?” I said, “Right now, you don’t need a preacher as much as you need the police.”
On another occasion a woman came to me who was regularly beaten by her husband. She came to me because her preacher had insisted that marriage was for a lifetime, and she could not leave her husband. I told her not to go home—but go straight to the police, and lodge a complaint. She did not ask me twice. On other occasions I have heard the confession of a WWII vet who murdered a Nazi prisoner in his charge, and a highly decorated Vietnam vet who was, at the least, an accessory after the fact of a fragging of one of his own officers.
I am not much of a counselor. I have not been trained for it. I have done a lot of crisis intervention. I try to live by five rules—which are an abbreviation of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Annonymous. I will speak in the first person, for they are good rules for all of us.
1. We have to admit we have a problem. Diagnosis is the first step toward cure.
2. We invite God into our lives and seek God’s help through prayer, study, in the community of the church. We have lots of resources in the church.
3. We immediately start taking small steps in the direction opposite the one that got us into trouble. This is repentance and conversion in a nutshell. So, too, small steps, taken consistently, take us a long way, and the longest journey begins with a single step.
4. We need to know that we can either “feel our way into a new way of acting”—which can be tragic, and the mistake of a lifetime. Or we can “act our way into a new way of feeling.” This gives us sanity, hope, and another chance at living.
5. We must never give up, never give up, never give us. Remember it is only when we have reached the end of our own resources that we reach “God room,” which is the place where only God can work. Remember, too, that God may work through anyone, a friend, a neighbor, or, even me and you. We have to be willing to help ourselves. As the ancient Jewish proverb declares, “No prayer is genuine if the one who prays it is not willing to be a part of the solution.”
I do not believe that every pastor needs to be a skilled counselor. A pastor needs to care for the welfare of the total congregation, and this means recognizing those who have greater gifts for counseling than he or she possesses. I have also been blest to serve churches, including this one, where loving and helping people is a task for the whole church. According to Ephesians 4, when Christ ascended on high, he gave us gifts, that begin with postles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers, to equip the rest of us for the work of ministry. In 1st Corinthians we are told that the Holy Spirit gives us many gifts, to include not only prophesy, and other tongues, but gifts like administration, helps, and healing, which is not just healing of the body, but healing of the mind and emotions, too. Above all, we must remember that the ultimate Counselor is the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit works through each of us and all of us. We are stronger together. We are strongest when each part of the body is doing what they have been called to do. All of us have received some gift for the good of the whole body of Christ, the church.
I am pretty sure that every one of you have gifts that can supply the help that someone needs. Still some will protest that your gifts are limited. Well, at the very least, you know God’s love, and you have a kind heart. You care about people, and if you cannot help them personally, you can share your treasure with those organizations that excel at helping others, organizations like the Moravian Friends of Prison Ministry, Crisis Control, Sunnyside Ministry, the Moravian Mission Society, the Provincial Women’s Desk—and many others besides.
There is a great big world out there, filled with individuals needing to be loved. It is easy to talk about loving faceless, nameless individuals. It is harder when someone sits or stands before us, and asks for our love. Sometimes we have to be tender and forgiving and encouraging, at other times, we have to exercise a tougher love. Different situations require different approaches. Thank-God, we are all in it together!
Now, that is all I have time to say about helping individuals. In the next sermon in this series, we are going to speak of a different kind of help, a help that is much more universal. We are going to talk about love and justice, for the two go hand in hand.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.