A woman walked into our church building during the service this past Sunday morning. I did not see her, but reportedly she was rather rough looking, even intimidating. She was seeking financial assistance, and she was clear and determined in her objective.
The lady from our congregation who got up to greet her would not ordinarily be considered a timid soul. She is seasoned in ministry and has met all kinds of people. But she admitted later to feeling ill at ease with this stranger. Perhaps her discomfort was because of the woman’s gruff exterior and demeanor. Perhaps it was because she remembered that the writer of Hebrews tells us sometimes we entertain angels disguised as the poor. (Hebrews 13.2) But I suspect there may have been other factors at play.
I believe most of us want to be helpful, though we don’t always know how. This may be particularly true when we are dealing with the underprivileged. And I wonder if, because of both the renewed emphasis of the importance of mercy ministry and the proliferation of political exploitation of the poor, some of us are not prone to feel a twinge of guilt on occasions when we are not prepared to address a need.
In my opinion the incident at our church this past weekend was handled appropriately. The woman from our church invited our visitor to join us in worship, and told her that after the service she was sure one of our deacons would be happy to meet with her to discuss her situation. The woman declined and walked out of the building.
Why do I believe it was handled appropriately, when no assistance was given?
1. Those in Need will always be around.
Jesus told us: “You will always have the poor with you”. In other words, no matter how effective we are, individually and collectively, we will not entirely alleviate poverty. We may minimize it but we will not eliminate it.
Some have used this fact as an excuse to do little or nothing to address poverty and minister to the poor. And that is wrong.
But that is not the case for our church.
Our deacons regularly meet with people in need, both members of our church and people from outside it. We have budgeted a fair percentage of church income to be distributed for benevolence. Our deacons give toward needs as they are finanically able. Individual members of our church are known to give to others as they are aware of needs. Our church also partners with and supports other organizations, such as Bristol Faith in Action and Harbor of Light, who minister mercy to people who have had no contact with our church.
We have put structures in place to guide us in our benevolence. These structures and guidelines are not implemented to minimize what we give. They were designed to help us be more effective in our giving. They enable us to truly be more merciful because we are able to meet real needs. We are not just trying to make ourselves feel better by giving, but actually trying to provide help to those in need.
While we still have room to grow, charity and grace are characteristics of the congregation and leaders of Walnut Hill Church.
While we may be inclined to feel bad that we cannot meet all needs, if we are faithful in extending mercy we have no reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed on those occasions we truly are unable or when it would be unwise.
2. This was a Mary moment.
Solomon tells us: “For everything there is a season, and a time for ever matter under heaven.” (See Ecclesiastes 3.1-8)
Jesus adds another application to Solomon’s insight.
During a time when he was visiting his dear friends, Martha and Mary, Martha was acting the busy homemaker while Mary was just visiting with the company. Martha, frustrated by the lack of help her sister was providing, complained to Jesus in an attempt to get him to get Mary to kick in instead of continuing to kick back.
Jesus said to Martha: “Martha, Martha… You are uptight and worried about so many things. But only one thing is worth concerning yourself like that; only one thing is really necessary. Mary has chosen wisely. What she has chosen cannot be taken away from her.” (See Luke 10.38-42)
What Jesus tells us, essentially, is that there is a time to work and a time to worship; a time to serve and a time to enjoy God.
When we are gathered for worship it is not a time to deal with ordinary demands and needs. It is not that those needs are not important. It is just that worship is a priority that ought not be neglected nor interupted, even for important things.
So, in short, while the lady from our congregation may have second guessed herself and felt a little guilty, I don’t think she has any need to feel that way. She acted wisely. Our church is committed to extending compassion and mercy. But when it is time to worship… everything else gets put on the back burners.