Teach Us To Care & Not To Care
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 9: 35 – 10:16. Focus on how God cares and doesn’t care and why we need to learn to do the same. Check out Kelly Crandell & Bill Ucker’s solo.
Here’s a question – when do we speak words of compassion and when do we speak words of challenge? If Matthew is calling for laborers to care for God’s people who are harassed and helpless and if we understand ourselves as those whom God is calling to be those laborers then we must understand when it is important to care and when it is not.
Ministry is done at the corner where the ways of men and women and God intersect. Most people seem to show up at this crossroads lost or discouraged, searching or confused. The task of caring is to give direction to people on the way, encourage and exhort them, provide information about Biblical weather and road conditions and serve up refreshments of hope.
Caring lies at the heart of our tradition, Cura animarum, Latin for care of souls, is a combination of the words care and cure: Cure requires that we know what we’re doing; care requires that we be involved in what we are doing. Applied knowledge is necessary but not enough. Empathetic concern is necessary but not enough. We need both – curing and caring.
But getting the word right doesn’t ensure that right practice will follow. All we need to do is listen to radio, the TV, or read newspaper headlines to see that those who are in need of healing for disease and every infirmity and whose who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, are frequently abused, ripped off, exploited, bullied, condescended to because they show up in a weakened condition, and such vulnerability always seems to arouse the killer instinct in a few who abuse there power as shepherds. But there isn’t much we can do about this except to catch it when it occurs and deal with it.
The crisis that concerns me seems to develop out a different condition, not an epidemic of criminal conduct but something more subtle and pervasive, and far more likely to involve the well-intentioned rather than the ill-willed.
The condition is need. A child cries, a woman weeps, a man curses, a teenager acts out, and more often than not someone is there to offer care. But there is another element at work here that is frequently missed, and when missed silently and invisibly squeezes the entire cure out of care. The element is sin. The child with a bruised knee is a sinner, the woman crying is a sinner, the man lamenting his lot in life is a sinner, and the youth stumbling over the hypocrisies in society is a sinner.
We human beings learn quickly to acquire expertise in using our plight, whatever it is, to get those around us to do far more than getting us through or over the conditions that caused the hurt. We learn how to use the condition of need as leverage in getting our own way. This impulse to make oneself the center, to shrewdly or bullying manipulate things and people to the service of self is what our Bible calls sin. Incurvatus se was Augustine’s phrase for it; life curved in upon it self.
Parents of young children are the most likely group in our society to know what this is all about. Parents know that there is nothing less innocent than childhood. After several months of responding unquestioningly to every sign of need, mothers and fathers start getting smart, start filtering the requests, cross-examining the wails. If we don’t, we realize in a few years and with a sense of dismay that it might be too late, that while we were bandaging knees, wiping tears, buying designer jeans and sneakers, we were also feeding pride, nourishing greed, fueling lust and cultivating envy.
Perhaps we have less excuse than others in matters of sin. It’s the only major Christian doctrine that can be verified empirically. But because of this refusal to take sin seriously, a great deal of caring becomes a collaboration in selfishness, in self pity, in self destruction, in self indulgence.
Caring is a complex task. No one person can do it all. An entire community is involved in care. Our task in this community of care is to teach the person in need to pray. To use the wound in the self that is closed in upon itself as an opening through which to listen to God. Every one has a cross Jesus tells us and when we try and remove that cross it seems we end up doing the very last thing Jesus wants us to do. Peter tried to stop Jesus from his cross only to hear Jesus call him Satan.
Teaching people to pray is teaching people that God is the one with whom we have to deal, not just ultimately and not just in general, but now and in detail. Prayer is not something that is complex. It is the simple discipline of asking God to be with us. And a great one to have memorized is the Lord’s prayer, which we say each week.
The reason prayer works is because it opens us up to our limits, which is something we don’t like. So a second aspect to prayer is to know and discern what we can rightful change, what we can’t and the wisdom to know the difference. The reason for this is that the act of caring – responding to a person in need – takes place in an environment already full of life, energy, complexity and vitality.
So the primary assignment in the midst of this reality is to come to worship. Why because of all the good that is done each week by simply getting hundreds of thousands of sinners off the streets for an hour a week and keeping them relatively quiet. Gossip diminishes to a mere trickle, there a fewer traffic accidents, and air and water pollution decreases.
The single most significant feature of worship is that we aren’t doing anything. We aren’t in charge. We aren’t making anything happen. We are not exactly catatonic for we do go through a few motions – we stand, sit, sing, offer, receive – but there are no usefulness to any of it. It has no cash value. Worship is mostly not doing, not-saying. Worship is simply about being intentionally aware of God and how God cares and does not care.
For example, God tells us that when we go into towns and among people to share the good news we are not to force ourselves on anyone and if they refuse to receive us we are to simply move on. Worship invites us into a time of not doing, not saying, not caring on a regular basis so that we can see what God is doing of what our ancestors said about God’s care and keeping.
So our task as we go into the harvest as laborers is to be mindful that what God has done and is doing is far more significant than anything we will ever do. The proper way therefore, to approach caring is in adoration of what God is doing. All caring and curing has its beginning in this sense of wonder. If we don’t begin in adoration and wonder we begin to small. If we begin by formulating a problem, by identifying a need, by tackling a necessary job, by launching a program, we reduce the reality that is before us to what we can do or get others to do. If we measure the world and the people upon it according to our knowledge of it, we leave out most of the data, and the most significant data is the God data.
And so in embarking on our tasks of caring for troubled souls, sick bodies, disordered communities, we must stop and ask God to show us whata is needed in each situation. Do we cast out demons here or do we demand that a person get up and carry there own pallet? So it is our prayer: “Lord, teach us not to care so we can see and hear what you are doing in the harvest, so we might learn the ways of your caring. And Lord, teach us to care so that we do not collaborate in sin, which separates us, one from the other. Teach us to care, and not to care. Teach us to be still and know that you are God.” Amen.