My persistent worry with every Vacation Bible School service project, every Thanksgiving spent serving at the soup kitchen, every Habitat build and mission trip was that I was turning “the poor” into an object lesson. Like the brown paper bag children’s sermon or the calligraphy Bible verse, I feared I was compartmentalizing the gospel, reducing it into a platitude or, worse, a way to feel self-righteous.
It is a sentiment repeated after almost every act of service, “I went to give, but I got so much more.” It is said with sincerity, but often with a sense of surprise that verges on condescension. Who knew that “the poor” had something to give to me!? I have so much stuff, but they have so much faith. It is an honest revelation, but if we stop there we are missing the point of Jesus’ call to feed and tend and teach and disciple.
I remember very few sermons, but there is one from a seminary chapel service 20-plus years ago that I do remember. Professor Sib Towner preached on Genesis 4, the harrowing story of Cain and Abel. He told the story and then hovered over verse 9, “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” Dr. Towner said emphatically, “Cain is not his brother’s keeper.” He paused and let the statement hang in the air. An electric silence filled the space. It felt like the Holy Spirit had taken a deep breath and was waiting to exhale. Then, in a steady, measured voice Dr. Towner said: “Cain is his brother’s brother.”
We aren’t each other’s keepers. We are each other’s brothers and sisters — and recognizing that relationship makes all the difference in our attitude and actions. Brothers and sisters have mutuality, shared experiences, the closest DNA of any relation. Keepers come and go with more or less commitment to their charge’s well-being. Siblings are inextricably bound together and how they treat one another has consequences. Keeper implies managing property; brother is about tending a relationship.
Christian mission is about moving beyond being another’s keeper. Christian mission is about recognizing our interconnectedness, our sibling status as divinely created and made in God’s image. It is acting out our unity in Christ through the use of our gifts in conjunction with the gifts of others. It is about living out our mutual God-given belovedness every day. It is about acknowledging our deep need for one another, knowing that when one member suffers, all suffer and when one is honored, all rejoice.
This means that service projects and mission trips, while important, are just a small part of living the gospel. They are often transformative. And, yes, we often get more than we give. We gain needed perspective. We hopefully expand our understanding of the world God loves. But, more than any of these things, service and mission should grow our family and deepen our connections and commitment to our brothers and sisters, not just for a week, but for a lifetime.
But let’s be honest. It is so much easier to serve a meal and go home or take a week off of work and relish the memories of a job well done. Being in an ongoing relationship takes effort and energy. Sibling rivalry is real and the fear of a scarcity of parental love can fuel intense division. Genesis 4 doesn’t gloss over this. Just because we are related doesn’t mean we relate well. The more excellent way is also the more challenging one. So, why bother?
The simple answer is that while tasks and objects are easier, it is only when I am with my sisters and brothers that I become part of the body of Christ in and for the world. And then we are all the people God created us to be.
Grace and peace,