March 6, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Care
For the Weak
Acts 20:25-35

Mother Nature sometimes sends us mixed signals, doesn’t she? Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, for example, informs us that, when a dolphin is harpooned or seriously injured in some other way, the remainder of the school typically deserts the area immediately. Too bad for the suffering dolphin. And in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard rather graphically describes the customary behaviors of the praying mantis. Under certain circumstances, newly hatched mantises eat each other. Female mantises likewise have this nasty habit of devouring their mates—literally. On one occasion, Dillard watched intently as a female mantis laid her eggs. “The male was nowhere in sight,” she commented. “The female had probably eaten him,” Dillard concluded. And it is true. Entomologist J. Henri Fabre has observed that a female mantis will mate with and devour up to seven males, whether she has laid her eggs or not! No doubt speaking for all of us “males” here this morning, I for one am glad that I am not—or was not!—a praying mantis.

Fortunately, not all of the animal world is quite so brutal. In Jean-Jacques Annaud’s wonderful movie entitled simply The Bear, an orphaned bear cub meets up with a giant grizzly. Throughout the remainder of the movie, this fierce grizzly cares for the otherwise hopeless cub, teaching him all of the basics of survival in the wild. Or consider geese for a moment. Gunilla Norris, in her book entitled Journeying in Place, notes the great extent to which geese go to care for each other. They fly together, following the lead goose. When it gets tired, it falls back and another takes its place. Perhaps more impressively, if one of the geese gets sick or is injured in some way, two or three of the others will fall back and either wait with the struggling goose until it feels better or fly at a slower pace with it until it is capable of catching up with the others.

As I said, Mother Nature sends out mixed signals sometimes. Various species abandon their injured colleagues and devour their mates and their young. Other species are quick to protect the endangered and provide for the needy, even when they are not their own. Where along this continuum do we humans fit in? Konrad Lorenz has remarked sarcastically that “latent in all mankind are the terrible drives of a very irascible ape.” Where, I ask again, do we fit in? Where do we at the Grantham Church fit in? How do we respond to the “weak” among us?

Paul, as Acts 20:25-35 makes plain, is himself concerned about this very issue. He is, as I pointed out last week, concluding his third missionary journey and is en route back to Jerusalem. During a stopover in the city of Miletus, Paul spends some intimate moments with the elders of the church in Ephesus, who had come to Miletus at his request. In this so-called farewell address (Acts 20:18-35), Paul has already expressed his passionate desire to continue on his journey, even though he does not know what will happen to him in Jerusalem. Paul, once again, was a risk-taker. While 99% of the people of the world are asleep, Paul was among the 1% who went through life in a constant state of amazement.

In the remainder of his address (vv.25-35), Paul now directly speaks to the elders themselves—I can picture him staring them right in their eyes. He senses that he will never see any of them again, and he realizes the dangers facing the young congregation for which they provide oversight. “I’ve done my job faithfully,” Paul points out again, much as he did at the beginning of the address. “Now it is your turn.” “Guard yourselves,” he instructs them, “and keep watch over the congregation.” “You shepherd a church—a church!—and Paul clearly believes that the church is not one organization among many. The church has been bought by God through the blood of his own Son.

I remember one occasion when another individual and I were called into a church in New York City to mediate a crisis that had developed. The congregation there was genuinely integrated ethnically, and a very delicate balance existed. At this time, one particular board member was causing quite a fuss, so we went to visit him soon after our arrival. Both the board member as well as Jacob, the man who was with me, were of West Indian descent, and it was readily apparent that the board member expected Jacob to readily agree with his actions. After listening to the board member recount his side of the story, Jacob—a rather frail and crippled man—got in his face and said, “This is the church of Jesus Christ that we are talking about here! There are people to care for. Needs to address. Who are you to cause such division for your own ends?” I’ll never forget it. A hush filled the entire room. The board member, by the way, has been a stable force in that congregation ever since. We need to realize that the welfare of the church is more important than our own personal agendas.

Paul feels much the same way here—the church of Jesus Christ is the issue—so he takes some precautionary steps in order to prevent the kind of problems that he knew could easily arise. “People will come along and try to destroy this fledging congregation. Even people within the church will grow sour, distort the truth, and lead people astray.” I’m told that every church has at least a few people like that—praying mantises who seem to devour their own. Paul knew it, too, so he instructs these elders: “Be alert and share the message of grace that is able to build up the congregation.”

It is noteworthy, then, that as Paul encourages these elders to shepherd the flock, he concludes his address with references to the weak within the community (vv. 34-35). He first calls attention to his own example, reminding the elders of his practice of working with his own hands so that he could support others who needed his help. He next uses his example as a way of outlining a principle of compassion that should rule our individual and corporate lives. And finally, Paul concludes his argument by referring to a statement of Jesus that appears nowhere else in the New Testament: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Like geese, we in the church are to support the weak around and, in this case, among us.

It is striking, isn’t it? Paul, so concerned about this young congregation in Ephesus and what might become of it, sets in place as the foundational principle this simple idea—care for the weak. Look out for the needy. Protect the vulnerable. Embrace the marginalized. It is as though Paul assumes that, if the church prayerfully cares for its weakest members—if we act more like geese than praying mantises or dolphins—everything else will fall into place.

Who might the weak be among us? We have, to begin with, people in our community who face financial crises from time to time. It might be easy to assume that, in a church like this, everyone is financially stable. That is not the case. There are people here who don’t know how they are going to pay their bills next month. There are people here who are in financial crisis and need help formulating manageable spending plans. There are people here who either have no medical insurance or are inadequately covered. There are people in the Grantham Church, believe it or not, who need our financial assistance at times. We can’t simply assign the role of “helper” to government agencies. Being the church involves, as Paul himself practiced, working with our hands so that we can help support others.

But Paul, given the overall force of his address here, would certainly not want us to limit our understanding of the weak to those who are financially at risk. Surely he is painting a far broader picture—he speaks of a wide variety of people who are at risk and in need of the support of the strong members of the community. I think of those who are “weak” because of relational catastrophes. There are people here this morning who are in deep pain and are feeling very vulnerable because their lives have seemingly fallen apart. A spouse walked out. A child self-destructed. They are broken—weak. I think of those who are weak because they are new to the faith and lack the type of grounding that some of us take for granted. This lack of grounding leaves them theologically susceptible to various winds of thought, and they long for the teaching of the strong among us who need to care for them. I think of those who are weak for largely developmental reasons. They are young and inexperienced, struggling—sometimes mightily—with the complexities of growing up. I think of those who are weak among us because of previous experiences with the church—either this one or another. Churches, as we all know, can devour people.

Just a few weeks ago a student at the college came to my attention for the first time. She had, as I’ve since discovered, a genuine, life-changing experience with God several years ago. Her home church, however, managed somehow to squelch every last ounce of joy out of her. They so encumbered her with a sense of law and obligation that she now finds it virtually impossible to even talk with a pastor or other religious leader. Her church ate her alive.

Paul does not want that type of thing to occur in the church in Ephesus, and he surely doesn’t want it to occur anywhere else either. Support the weak, he argues. Reach out to the needy. Use this as the foundational principle for all of your individual and corporate interactions: “It is better to give than to receive.” Keep your antennae up. Give your money. Share your time. Offer your learning. Always keep the weak in mind.

I was struck by an article that I read recently from the Catholic Update. The article, entitled “How Should We Think About the Poor?,” contains reflections of Bishop Kenneth E. Untener of Saginaw, Michigan. On March 26, 1991, Bishop Untener himself issued a “decree” requiring all of the churches in his diocese, for a three-month period, to begin all meetings—committees, boards, commissions, task forces, and so on—with the same agenda item: “How shall what we are doing here affect or involve the poor?” For 97 days, the Church of Saginaw talked about the poor at each and every meeting. They intentionally thought about the weak and needy. They began reflecting more and more about the welfare of the whole.

That, I think, is what Paul is talking about here in these closing lines of his farewell address to the elders from Ephesus. He wants to adjust the perspective of the entire community. He wants followers of Jesus increasingly to be mindful of the host of “weak” people who are sitting, not only half-way around the world, but right next to them. He wants us, at all levels of our congregational life, to act like geese rather than mantises, to nurture others rather than devour them.

In a moving song in Isaiah 42, the prophet describes a servant, a servant understood later by Matthew to be Jesus. As Isaiah describes this servant, he writes that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;…” Jesus does not crush fragile reeds or extinguish dimly burning candles. Neither should we. The love of Christ compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to care for the weak.