Good morning, please raise your hand if you've NEVER made a mistake? A few weeks ago, this question was posed at the closing luncheon for an adoption conference I attended. I misheard and thought the speaker asked people to raise their hands if they've EVER made a mistake. Needless to say, I was the only one raising my hand as I realized my mistake in that moment.
In fact--beIieve it or not--I make mistakes all the time. On good weeks, I feel like I'm constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. And on bad weeks, it's more like one step forward and THREE steps back. I'm an imperfect person and all of you have just confirmed that you are as well. So this morning, I'd like to talk about imperfect people helping other imperfect people, even when-scratch that-ESPECIALLY when it's hard.
Maybe you're thinking helping is always hard. Maybe not. But there are certainly times when helping is easier or comes more naturally. For instance, if you have kids, you probably help them get ready every day. If you're heading to the grocery store and someone asks you to pick something up, that's no problem. It's not hard to help when you really like the people you're helping, feel appreciated in return and don't really have to go out of your way.
I grew up learning the importance of giving back and helping others from a young age. As most of you know, that's kind of my parents' thing. The year after I graduated high school, I joined City Year, an Americorps program, and spent the next 10 months volunteering at an afterschool center in Chicago. I often say it was one of the best, yet hardest years of my life. It's when I first began to learn that helping isn't always easy and you can't control what happens after you help.
Today's second reading from Luke describes the ease most of us feel when helping those we love or those who are good or kind to us and the difficulty in loving or helping our enemies. But sometimes, the opposite is true.
I often find it easier to help strangers when I only know the details of the need, not the background that led to the state of need. For instance, it can be easier to give money, food or clothing to homeless or drug-addicted people that you don't know than family members who find themselves in a state of homelessness or drug addiction and repeatedly ask for money. I find myself more likely to judge the need based on the actions that I believe resulted in their current state of being. It's hard to help someone you believe put themselves into the position they are in or "dug their own graves." But yet, I will willingly give food or money to panhandlers on the street even though I have no idea what led to them being homeless. Did it happen through no fault of their own? Possibly. Did it happen because of their own choices? Possibly. Is it necessary for me to know the answer in order to respond to God’s nudging to help? No.
This is where we have to remember to help – and forgive - without judgment. Reading from Matthew 18, "then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!"
But why should we help when we have helped in the past and been burned? It's hard to help when you can't control the outcome, the result, of your efforts. When you donate to Red Cross or United Way or any organization, you have to trust that they will do what they say with your money. Similarly, when you help an individual, you have to leave the outcome in God's hands.
I believe we must help with the best intentions and then leave it in God's hands. Doing what's right even if we don't see the outcomes that we hope for or expect. We have to remember that God works in mysterious ways and the outcomes we hope for when we help will not always come to pass. But even when it seems like nothing good came from our efforts, we have to remember that our ultimate reward is not on this earth. Reading from Hebrews 6:10 - God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. God’s desired outcome may be an internal change in someone’s heart. Or it may be something that happens years later, long after your act of helping. You may not even live long enough to see the ultimate result of your efforts – that’s kind of the cool thing about eternity. Also, positive outcomes may come in different ways than you expected.
Your help is never in vain any and every time you put yourself out there and help.
It can often feel so overwhelming and pointless to even try to help when the problems are so big and so many. Every day, we hear stories of war, hunger, persecution, discrimination. We can find ways, even small ways to help, from supporting organizations who fight injustice to attending protests to writing letters to our elected officials to helping individuals or families who are homeless, hungry, facing discrimination or fleeing civil war.
Lastly, it can be hard to help because you may feel like YOU are the one who needs help. Maybe you're a single mother. Maybe you just lost your job. Maybe you are not able bodied or you're dealing with a health setback. Maybe you are living week to week and fighting to keep your head above water. Maybe you feel like you are a flawed person who makes mistakes at every turn and is in no position to help another. It doesn't matter. As I said at the beginning, we're all imperfect. Yet, even in our imperfection, we can help others. We all need each other. Help is a continuous circle. Sometimes we are the ones who receive it and sometimes we are the ones who give it.
Most of you are likely familiar with "First they came ..." a poem written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
God doesn't just ask us to help, he commands it. He wants us to love and support one another in our times of need. Prayer is very important, but prayer must be combined with action. The Bible talks about faith and deeds in the second chapter of James, verses 14-17: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
We must not turn a blind eye to injustice. It's not about donating millions of dollars or getting arrested for 40-day protests. It's about helping in the ways you can in the places you can. Sometimes, it's just speaking up or lending a hand to someone who's fallen down. Helping isn't just something you do every now and then, it's a way of life. You can help others through all aspects of your life. What you say. What you don't say. What you do and don't do. Even by what businesses you support.
Author Luvvie Ajayi wrote in her recent book "I'm Judging You,"
In whatever way you can, do something to lift someone else up. Be an ally, by living in ways that respect others who are marginalized.
You're white? Get some black friends. Know what racism is and how you are a part of it. Denounce the system, and acknowledge your privilege.
You're a man? Treat women like they're equal beings. When they're disrespected and you see it, speak up.
You're straight? Love people, no matter who they choose to love. Don't treat your gay friends as accessories. Don't use or stay silent when someone else uses derogatory language.
You're able? Invite your friends with disabilities to places where they will not struggle to enter or exist.
Teach your children that different isn't synonymous with subpar. Raise kids who have seen you lead by example. Let them know that to be a good person means embracing all people, even those whose normal may be different from others.
Most of the time, helping feels great. There are many studies showing that those who help and give back on a regular basis are happier and live more fulfilled lives than those who don't. But as Christians, helping is not just a nice thing to do to make us feel better about ourselves. It's what we are called to do, because it is pleasing to the Lord. Reading from Hebrews 13, "Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices, God is pleased."
Bottom line: God has your back. He will help you help. Don't lose faith, your help is NEVER in vain. So keep helping, even when it's hard. Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.