This Sunday is the Third Sunday of Advent. My sermon, with which I am still wrestling (the sermon is winning), will deal with the subject of compassion. The text is Matthew 11:2-11, in which John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one who is coming or whether they should look for another. Jesus told John’s disciples to go back and tell him what they witnessed: the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news.
It seems to me that Jesus was saying that such acts of compassion and grace were the signifiers of the presence of the Kingdom of God. In my sermon I will say that acts of compassion in the here and now by the followers of Jesus are signifiers to those around us that the Kingdom of God is among us—and is coming. Somehow such acts, when motivated by the grace and love and presence of God, connect us with God’s great work of salvation that he is accomplishing.
One question with which I am wrestling is this: what makes a Christian’s acts of compassions different than those of a non-Christian? It is foolish to claim that a non-Christian is not capable of the same acts of compassion and even sacrifice as a Christian. It is foolish to claim that a declared allegiance to Christ automatically makes one more compassionate than a non-Christian. Anybody who looks around knows better.
Still, I am convinced that when a person has experienced the grace and love and compassion of Christ, that person will become more and more compassionate and that growing compassion will show itself in consistent acts of compassion.
It is natural, then, that individual Christians and Christian congregations will look for opportunities to exhibit compassion by helping folks who are in need. We seem especially to look for such opportunities at Christmas time.
For the last few years, the First Baptist Church of North Augusta, South Carolina, has conducted a program called Laces 4 Love. Through that program they have provided new shoes for disadvantaged children in the Aiken and Edgefield County school systems. They provide about 12,000 pairs of shoes through this program. It’s a good thing.
This year, though, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has objected to the program. Their objections stem from remarks by Mark Owens, the founder of the ministry, that were reported in North Augusta Today. Owens said that when the volunteers deliver the shoes, they remove the children’s old shoes and wash their feet like Jesus did for his disciples at Passover.
Here are the opening lines from Americans United’s press release on the matter:
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged public school officials in South Carolina to discontinue a church-run program that subjects disadvantaged students to ritual foot-washing as part of a shoe giveaway.
In letters sent Dec. 10 to officials in Aiken and Edgefield Counties, Americans United objects to the “Laces4Love” ministry run by the First Baptist Church of North Augusta. The program provides new shoes to needy children but asks them to participate in the Christian rite of foot-washing.
Americans United said the activity clearly violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The school districts, AU said, should discontinue their involvement in any program that seeks to sponsor proselytism or religious rituals.
Apparently, the “foot-washing” consists of using some wet-wipes to clean the children’s feet before they don their new shoes.
School officials insist that no proselytizing takes place.
Here’s the way that I suspect it works. The good folks at the church want to provide shoes to disadvantaged children. They want to do that because they believe the love of Christ compels them to do so and because they want to help the children. I imagine that both the church and the schools are well aware of the fact that care must be taken that the lines of separation between church and state not be crossed. I further suspect that cleaning the children’s feet is a matter of practicing good sanitation. But, in the hearts of the volunteers, in cleaning the children’s feet they are performing a Christ-like action. I doubt that anyone ever comes right out and says that to a child—and if they do, they shouldn’t.
But, honesty should compel us Christians to admit that we should not, cannot, and will not in our hearts separate such acts of compassion from the fact that we act out of conviction that the Kingdom of God is present in and through us and that what we are doing is part of our living out the principles of that Kingdom. Honestly, we hope that the love of Christ comes through in what we are doing.
Still, we should respect the principle of separation of church and state and thus be careful in how we carry out such ministries.
A story in today’s Augusta Chronicle reported that “a group of North Augusta missionaries Thursday donated shoes to Greendale Elementary School pupils and as school officials had promised, no religious strings appeared to be attached.” The story went on to report that the children were given wet wipes with which they cleaned their own feet.
I am a separation of church and state Baptist. I believe that government sanction of Christianity is the quickest and surest way to quash the genuineness of the faith. But in this case, I believe that Americans United overreacted, made a mountain out of a molehill, and tried to stir up a tempest in a teapot.
We Christians want to help where there is hurt. We also want to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. We understand that there are lines that we must be careful not to cross. We believe that through our acts of kindness the love of Jesus is communicated without any overt effort at evangelization.
We would be lying if we denied any religious motivation.
We would be lying if we said that we did not believe that the Spirit of God is at work in what we are doing.
But our schools and our communities will be greatly impoverished if our churches are ever denied the opportunity to help as and where we can, so long as we follow the rules.