January 6, 2008

Serving Compassionately
Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Philippians 2:1-4

It snowed nearly 30” in Massachusetts in December, and I was there to experience some of the after-effects. I went out one morning last week to shovel my in-laws’ driveway and sidewalk, and I met up with some of the wettest, heaviest snow imaginable. As I shoveled my way through the slushy mess, a man two doors down the street fired up his John Deere snow blower and went to work. Minutes later, instead of immediately putting the blower back in the garage, this unfamiliar man made his way toward me, introduced himself, and asked, “Can I give you a hand?” As I watched Brian quickly clear off the remaining snow from our driveway, I couldn’t help but appreciate again just how important—how powerful—serving others really is.

Compassionate service has always been a vital part of our identity as Brethren in Christ. A towel and basin appear in our church logo, and we practice foot washing as a symbolic reminder of the kind of people that Christ calls us to be. While various Christian traditions have struggled with and sometimes even separated evangelism from service, we have from the beginning believed that both evangelism and service go hand in hand. So, it is no coincidence that, immediately following our core value concerning witnessing to the world, we find this seventh core value: “Serving compassionately: We value serving others at their point of need, following the example of our Lord Jesus.”

Several ideas are housed in this seventh core value. For one thing, while we might engage in service for any number of reasons—to help others, renew our own souls, or, as outrageous as it may sound, impress people around us—we ultimately see service as an act of obedience to Jesus. We want to be like Jesus and do what he asks of us, and Jesus was passionate about serving others. Jesus, Mark informs us, “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). So like children mimicking their parents or other significant people in their lives, we mimic Jesus when we bow down and serve other people.

I visited with Marti Long and Esther Ebersole a few weeks ago, and they told me that Homer Kraybill had just stopped by to vacuum their carpet. Homer was mimicking Jesus. I called Sandra Jamison recently and offered to stop by to move a sofa for her, but she told me that someone in the church had already beat me to it. That person was mimicking Jesus. Harold Davis, a patriarch in our congregation, died recently, and as I thought about him, I remembered how he traveled into Harrisburg every week—into his 80’s—to help at a soup kitchen there. Harold mimicked Jesus. Every morning for I don’t know how many months, Lynn Brown got up before the sun rose and drove a local man several miles to work because his license had been revoked. She was mimicking Jesus. The stories are endless—think of one or two of your own. When we wash dishes without being asked, mow an elderly person’s lawn, wipe off tables at Paxton Ministries, pick up books that another student dropped, teach someone how to use a computer, or spend part of our vacation helping in disaster relief somewhere, we are not just doing good deeds. We are mimicking Jesus.

But more must be said about compassionate service itself. In his moving depiction of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8, Paul highlights two important aspects of Christ’s ministry that relate directly to compassionate service. Jesus, first of all, modeled a humble inner life: “…though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,…” Jesus, in other words, didn’t cling selfishly to his privileged position—he didn’t look condescendingly upon everyone else or think exclusively about himself and his own interests. Jesus, furthermore, modeled an active outer life: “…he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and became obedient to the point of death….” Clearly, Jesus’ inner and outer lives were in sync, so to speak. His heart was in the right place, and his actions followed suit. Not surprisingly, these same two aspects—a humble inner life and an active outer life—describe the type of service that we are called to as well.

Look with me at our texts in Deuteronomy 24 and Philippians 2. Compassionate service, as I’ve just mentioned, encompasses both our inner lives and our outer lives. The importance of the inner life is clearly expressed twice here in Deuteronomy 24:18 and 22. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there;…” According to these verses, compassionate service begins, not simply with a renewed way of looking at others, but with a transformed way of looking at ourselves. Compassionate service is rooted in a new self-awareness—an awareness of our own neediness and of the grace that God has extended and continues to extend to us personally.

It is easy, not to mention common, to categorize people according to various differences: differences in personality, culture, nationality, language, political or theological views, values and economic status, to name a few. Such categories can be helpful if they enable us to understand how different people think and live and if they lead us to a deeper appreciation of the many people who inhabit this world of ours.

What makes such categories potentially destructive, however, is that they often lead to the type of “Us” vs. “Them” mentality that is so prevalent in our modern world. Much of the world’s foreign policy right now, including our own, is based on such an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality. For that matter, so are a number of mission strategies. In this way of thinking, qualitative values are eventually assigned to the various categories of people—certain people are “civilized” and others are “primitive.” Certain people are “God-fearing” and other people are “heathens.” Worst of all, certain people are “good” and others are “evil.” Just recall the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12 who prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” At some point, an “Us” vs. “Them” mentality gives way to “We are good” and “They are not.”

The Bible, however, wants nothing to do with such a way of looking at and categorizing other people. In fact, the New Testament goes to great lengths to identify and break down any hints of this “Us” vs. “Them” mentality. Of little significance in Jesus’ mind are such previously unalterable distinctions as “Jew” and “Gentile,” “Jew” and “Samaritan,” “Male” and “Female,” and “Rich” and “Poor.” In Jesus’ mind, not to mention Paul’s and others, we humans are in this thing called “life” together, and there is one common denominator that all of us share. We all are slaves to sin and in need of God’s grace and mercy. It makes little difference in this regard if we are rich or poor, American or Iranian, educated or unlearned. Indeed, it makes little difference in God’s eyes if our sin is adultery or arrogance, murder or murmuring, grand larceny or gossiping. This one thing every member of the human race shares in common—we all stand in need of God’s grace. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out….”

Once we recognize this common denominator, we are freed to live the life described by Paul in Philippians 2:1-3. Freed to look beyond ourselves to the needs and concerns of others. Freed to set aside our self-centeredness and begin walking where other people walk. Freed to put to death our overly critical and condescending spirits that lead us at times to think that we are somehow better than everyone else. Freed from the tendency to preserve our own dignity and defend ourselves at all costs and get down in the trenches, so to speak, with the hurting people of the world. Freed to look into the eyes of people who are very different from us and see someone for whom Christ died. When we recognize this common denominator, we realize, as Kent Groff once said to me, that we are only beggars helping other beggars find bread.

With this transformed inner life, this humble inner life, we are freed to live out the compassionate life of service. The compassionate life includes random acts of kindness such as I described earlier. The man living two doors down from my in-laws did not plan to come and help me when he put on his coat and first headed outside. The opportunity presented itself—he saw me battling the wet and heavy snow with a plastic shovel—and he responded. Every day presents us with opportunities to serve, and we need to keep our eyes open for them. A sink full of dirty dishes. A fallen tree in a neighbor’s yard. Heavy bags of groceries in an elderly woman’s cart. Learn to view each day as an opportunity to serve others. Learn, as Paul writes in Philippians 2:4, to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Compassionate service, however, actually involves more than a sensitivity to unanticipated opportunities to assist others. In a real sense, compassionate service involves ongoing strategizing and planning. It requires discernment so that we gain an awareness of the needs of those around us that might otherwise remain unnoticed. Deuteronomy 24:17 and 19-21 reflect such discernment and strategizing, and these verses offer examples of the kinds of needs that we should seek to address. There are those, first of all, who lack influence—people with no voice and no clout. Aliens were foreigners who for one reason or another were forced to move into a strange land, and orphans lacked a father who could defend them in public proceedings. Aliens and orphans were powerless people, outsiders looking in.

We, of course, have people like that all around us today. They might literally be new immigrants into our country who are totally overwhelmed by their new surroundings. There are many such people in our area—Hispanics, Laotians, Vietnamese, and others—and the Grantham Church has sponsored various immigrants over the years. They might be people in our area who don’t know how to manage their way through the system. They feel lost in the bureaucracy, like orphans not knowing how to read the fine print on a contract, find employment or medical coverage, or defend themselves against ridiculous charges or abuse. A young woman called here a month or two ago whose boyfriend had just beaten her up and she didn’t know what to do. She was afraid that he would kill her, but nobody seemed to pay attention to her cries. They might simply be new residents in our communities or new students moving into our schools. For them everything is new and unfamiliar, and an act of compassionate service—a meal or invitation to “hang out and chill”—would make their entire day.

There are those, secondly, who are in some way indebted to us or are directly under our influence. The widow here in Deuteronomy 24 was apparently in debt—her husband had been her primary source of income and support—and her creditor is here instructed not to take her garment as collateral until the debt was repaid. That garment on her back might be virtually all that she owns—she would be left cold and perhaps even naked.

Today, various people find themselves indebted to us or are under our influence. If they are literally indebted to us, we are instructed to deal with them compassionately—don’t extract every last penny. Don’t milk them dry. Don’t insist on the letter of the law at the expense of the person’s health and welfare. But I think we find here a broader reference to others who are under our control or influence. Employees, students, children—the idea here is to be compassionate to those who are in some way dependent upon us and who could therefore be taken advantage of. Instead of ruling over them, bow down and serve them. A man in my church in the Bronx came to me years ago, concerned that his wife was not submissive enough. “The man is the head of the house,” he said. “And how is the man to respond to his wife?” I asked him. “He is to love her as Christ loves the church,” he said. “Enough to wash her feet,” I added. Serve those who are under your influence.

And thirdly, there are those with tangible needs. Aliens, widows and orphans formed a larger group in the Old Testament that was often simply called the “Poor.” They are people without land and other resources, people very much at risk. Israel is to be mindful of the physical needs of the people around them. “Let some grain fall to the ground for the poor to eat. Leave some olives and grapes behind after the harvest.” Serve those who are cold, hungry, homeless, or enslaved to other tangible needs.

Here is a case in point where genuine discernment is needed on our part. We can and should feed the poor and clothe the homeless, and we can do that on our own or through various organizations like Paxton Ministries, Bethesda Mission and New Hope Ministries. The Grantham Church in fact helped begin New Hope Ministries several years ago as a way to seriously address the physical needs of people living in this area. But what other needs are around us? When we step out of our houses or this building after worship and look around, what other needs are festering under the façade of fine homes and fancy cars? What struggles? What addictions? Were we to rewrite these verses from Deuteronomy 24 today, what categories of people would we insert? “When you plan the various ministries of your congregation, be certain to help those addicted to drugs, alcohol and pornography.” “When you sing your praise songs and get together for fellowship meals, don’t forget those who come from broken homes or battle with depression.” “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out.”

There are, no doubt, various old garments for many of us to take off this morning. Garments of self-centeredness, stinginess and pride, to name just a few. We all stand in need of God’s grace. And once we realize that, the world is full of opportunities to step outside of ourselves and serve those in need. Compassionate service was vitally important to Jesus. And it is to us, too. We value serving others at their point of need. We want to mimic Jesus.