Nov. 11, 2018
“Ask Not What Your Church Can Do for You”
Many of us recall John Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, which rings down through history. Whether you are republican, democrat, independent, libertarian. It still has relevance. And it is suitable to revisit it briefly here not to enter the political discourse and debate of post midterm America. But to remind ourselves of our place in this great society. Democracy is not a passive system. It requires our ongoing participation. In this speech Kennedy addresses the country and world. I want to share a few words for us to meditate on, as we remember veterans and our love of country. Because we now more than ever need to do our part in keeping democracy strong. I’m just taking two snippets from the middle and end.
“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belabouring those, problems, which divide us.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
A powerful idea that stirs emotions and thoughts about our great country. It is an appeal to the common connection we all share.
And the idea of a “shared fate” is nowhere more important, nowhere more evident than in our faith. In his message to the disciples in Matthew 25, Jesus talks about sheep and goats as a metaphor for those who he wants to hang with in heaven.
It’s clear from this passage that he doesn’t want to hang out with those who are incapable of feeling empathy. He doesn’t want to hang out with the self-absorbed. He doesn’t want to hang out with selfish people.
He does want to hang out with people who see themselves in others and recognize that we are all connected. He wants to hang out with people who are thinking about the needs of others – the suffering, the poor, the needy, the sick, those who are vulnerable. It is worth noting that when he says “to the least of these” he is talking about all people, not just family members.
And we get that. It’s right here in our scripture, telling us where we need to have our heads and hearts as persons and as a church. That can lead us into some very interesting territory. It can lead us into big challenges and a new way of being in the world.
It’s easy enough for us to think about but when it comes to being in the presence of those in need, it can be a very different story. Mandy and I were talking about struggles facing the homeless and she said, when she sees a homeless person, she feels “sad for them and it can make her feel uncomfortable.” You and I probably share those feelings for a number of reasons:
· It makes it difficult to ignore the fact that we live in a broken world where many things are not as they should be.
· Often times it's overwhelming because we cannot possibly fathom what it's like to actually live in the conditions that homeless people live in, so we freeze up instead of acting out of the warmth of our hearts.
· Who wouldn't be uncomfortable in the face of unimaginable suffering?
So we usually walk past homeless people and try not to notice them, because if we notice them it creates tension and disrupts our relatively secure and comfortable lives.
But scripture suggests that Jesus was not uncomfortable around such people. In fact, he identified with them. He lived on the street much of the time and lived on the generosity of others. Or when necessary, he created an abundance. Matthew 8:20 quotes Jesus as saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the son of humankind has nowhere to lay his head.”
I have had many encounters with homeless people over my career. When I could, I tried to help them. I remember one fellow from my last appointment in southeastern Colorado. It was thanksgiving eve and I was going to the grocery store to take my rotation for the Salvation Army at the Safeway. It is a special time for many people. Families are coming together for the meal, traveling from who knows where. Holiday music is playing and the decorations are all around.
I noticed a rough looking man in the parking lot. He had a tricycle loaded with all his belongings. On the back of his bike was a hand written sign, “Jesus is Lord.” I continued on and worked my shift. It was getting dark as I headed for my car. The man was still there, sitting beside his bike.
I decided to walk over and strike up a conversation. He told me about his life. “Terri” was from Topeka, Kansas where he was married and working. His wife kicked him out and filed for divorce as a result of his drinking. He stayed with friends for a time and decided to travel. He bought his bike and started off toward Colorado where he had a cousin living in Pueblo. I asked him about his sign and he said he made that and put it on his bike because Jesus miraculously freed him from alcohol addiction. He said he prayed a desperate prayer for help one morning and that night, he had no cravings. He said it changed his life.
I noticed wear on both of his back tires and offered to replace them if Wal-Mart had the size. He thanked me and I went and bought two new tires and a tube of the goo-ee stuff that helps keep them from being punctured. I brought them back and watched him change them out. Then I asked if I could help with some food and he agreed. We went to Safeway and purchased groceries. He never once asked me for anything.
On the way back to his bike I mentioned the community meal for those in need on Thanksgiving. I asked him where he was going to spend them night and he said he had scouted a location between a couple of buildings out of the way and wind. I said I was thankful to meet him and asked if I could pray with him.
We had a prayer and I said I was thankful to have met him. He said, he would be thankful just not to freeze to death that night. I got into my comfortable car, waved and drove home. Never saw him again. There was no happy ending to his holiday story.
After a good hour, I was on to the rest of my day. Terri was now just a passing memory. There was no way I would finish the tasks I had planned. The scripture doesn’t say, “when you pittied those in need or feel sorry for the needy.” He says when you gave to, or helped or served one of these. When you entered into relationship with another human being in a state of compassion and empathy. Jesus did this with everyone who came his way. He was accustomed to sorrow and suffering.
There are about two million homeless people in the US, half of them are children. The biggest cause is they can’t afford the rent.
Can we enter into that idea of compassion for those in need as we approach another thanksgiving? Can you drop everything and spend time with a total stranger? Can we as a church open our hearts in a new way and work together to make a difference for those in need? You have done it so many times before. You have asked not what the church could do for you but what you could do for the church and in turn, our Lord. We want to stretch out our arms again and hug humanity.
For this holiday time I would like us to focus on one simple, modest mission effort. I would like to make helping our local food pantry our 2018 holiday mission. I’m told they do not have enough food for those who come to them. We can help.
Let us bring non-perishable food items to our food basket every Sunday and fill it to the brim. In doing so we are showing the smallest of gestures that we care and that we can act on that concern. I will assist in delivering the basket on a regular basis and we will give you reports from the pantry.
And we will join our Lord, at his right hand.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
May the Lord bless your heart with the spirit of giving in this thanksgiving time of year.