(Preached at Alma United Church on October 22, 2017)
The date: the third Tuesday of September, 2002.
For those of you in the know, the third Tuesday of the month back then was always the meeting of presbytery, and I had just started what would end up to be a two-year ministry at Zion/St. Andrew’s Pastoral Charge in Cambridge. I was there, and I found out that night that presbytery meetings can be life-disrupting, if you let them. Especially the announcements.
The Reverend Elizabeth Eberhardt-Moffat rose to speak about a program that Parkminster United Church was running for their youth called “Youth Trip to Central America.” A group of youth and leaders would be heading off in March to Nicaragua in order to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build, as well as to visit some of our Mission and Service partners. Did we know any youth who would like to go?
Now, at that point I was somewhat cautious of the whole “mission trip” idea. Wouldn’t it be best to send money, and employ people down there to build the houses? And what good would it be to send our youth to visit our mission partners? Was it just a ploy to get them to be life-long contributors, or was there a deeper purpose?
However, despite my caution, I did have a seventeen-year-old son who might be interested. His sister, to my way of thinking, was a bit too young—in Canada, you have to be sixteen in order to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build.
However, when Allison found out I was only considering David, she got a bit upset, and made me promise to ask if it was okay for her to go too. Months later, after a number of Saturdays spent at Parkminster learning Spanish, and Nicaraguan history, and how to function as a group, both Allison and David were off to Nicaragua.
Two weeks later, two very different teens got off the plane.
A number of people have wondered, over the years, why my two elder children, of all the young people they grew up with, stayed with the church. And not just stayed with it, but became actively involved, David as an ordained minister, Allison as a Sunday School teacher.
My answer is simple. They’ve been involved in service since they were very small children.
I took them to nursing and retirement homes when I preached, and they played their instruments. They helped pack shoeboxes and hampers. They took part in church dramas and musicals and worship services.
But most of all, they went to Nicaragua.
The ordination rate from that first group of what would eventually become “TCOW” (Two Countries, One World) was somewhere above twenty percent.
Think about that. What would our church be like if twenty percent of all the kids who passed through our Sunday Schools and youth groups felt called to work within the church as paid accountable ministers? What if another twenty percent wanted to become lay teachers and leaders?
It would change their lives, and ours.
But why does service have such an effect? Isn’t learning about poverty and injustice enough?
My answer to that is, not really.
What we miss when we send money, and stay in our little churches and learn, is the personal contact with those not like us. And it isn’t the money and the learning that changes us, it’s the personal contact with other human beings.
I can learn about the injustice we’ve done to our First Nations people. I can send money to be put in the Healing Fund. But nothing beats sitting on the concrete floor of a bus station, listening to a beautiful young man dying of AIDS tell me his story as he sips some kind of alcohol from a discarded Tim Horton’s cup.
I never learned his name, but only that he was from Vancouver and had contracted AIDS after sharing a needle with a woman who had tested clean, and yet was in the three month “window period” before the disease could be detected by the tests.
We can sit here and learn about poverty in Canada. We can donate to the food banks. But we’ll understand more if we sit with the people we’re helping, and ask them what’s going on in their lives, and is there anyway else we can help.
We can work for prison reform, but nothing beats visiting a woman from Nova Scotia in an Ontario women’s prison who’s there, far from family and friends, because there weren’t any federal prisons for women anywhere else. Or of talking to the chaplain, and learning that if she’d been white, or able to afford a better lawyer, she probably wouldn’t even have been convicted. Or of hearing that despite the fact that she had never taken the last name of her abusive ex-husband, the bureaucrats in the system insisted that she be called by that name.
Personally serving—feeding, clothing, housing, visiting—brings us into contact with others in a way that sending money does not.
When I worked at Forest Grove United Church, a woman who volunteered at the Out of the Cold program told me that her husband had been reluctant to participate, but that she had finally convinced him to go with her one day. That evening, while serving the meal, he met a former co-worker, lining up for food.
And that man realized that there but for the grace of God go I.
In the book bullseye, Jamie Holtum and Debbie Johnson separate “service” and “giving generously”. Both are necessary, and Christians who aim to follow Jesus should be growing in both areas, and not assuming that because they give to the food bank or the Mission and Service fund that they can stay home and not get their hands dirty.
Jesus tells the disciples much the same thing. When told that the thousands are hungry, he says to his disciples, “You feed them.” Not “pay someone else to feed them,” or “tell them to share with each other,” or “tell them to go home,” but “You feed them.”
When asked for an example of what it means to be a neighbour, Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan who stopped, bound wounds, transported the victim, and took him to shelter.
We are instructed by Jesus to do. To heal, to comfort, to feed, clothe, and shelter.
We are instructed to get involved in the world and with other people.
We are instructed to get to know our enemies, and our outcasts, and those who are simply different from us. To learn their stories, to understand their points of view.
We are being told that giving money isn’t enough.
We are being asked to give ourselves.
A story is told that during the bombing of a city in World War II, a large statue of Jesus Christ was severely damaged. When the townspeople found the statue among the rubble, they mourned because it had been a beloved symbol of their faith and of God’s presence in their lives.
Experts were able to repair most of the statue, but its hands had been damaged so severely that they could not be restored. Some suggested that they hire a sculptor to make new hands, but others wanted to leave it as it was—a permanent reminder of the tragedy of war. Ultimately, the statue remained without hands. However, the people of the city added on the base of the statue of Jesus Christ a sign with these words: “You are my hands.”
You are the hands of Christ. Go into the world, and use those hands to serve.