when we look upon the poor and those in need, we see intruders, foreigners, strangers, and worse. We have become accustomed to the idea that the poor and those in need are the domain of the government and not our own personal concerns or our church concerns. The fact is that the situation today is vastly different than one hundred years ago and even more different than several hundred years ago. The change in the landscape of those who provide compassionate service to those in need has moved more and more to the government and farther and farther away from the domain of Christian service and the work of the Church.
Evidence the near absence of any church owned and operated hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, clinics, etc. in the US. The goal of providing medical care to the people of our nation has become a corporate goal and a governmental goal (whether to provide the right to this access to all despite ability to pay or to provide a nationalized plan and providers for such medical care). Even thirty years ago when I was a young Pastor there were numerous Lutheran hospitals and medical centers across the nation. I think of Lutheran Hospital in Ft. Wayne where I first learned the pastoral care of the sick or the mighty Lutheran Hospital in St. Louis or the Lutheran Medical Center of Brooklyn (NY). But these are no more. They may retain the name but they are no longer agencies or institutions of the Church. Maybe this is due to the tremendous cost of operating and the insurance mess, I do not know. But I do lament the way the demise of these noble institutions of care and compassion have helped us shift the burden for those in need to others instead of ourselves.
I remain very impressed by the work done in LCMS World Relief and Human Care, by the Rev. Matt Harrison and his wonderful staff. They have expanded the good work of this department at a time when it has been easy to make others responsible for the poor, the sick, the victims of disaster, and the needy. I am also impressed with the good work of Lutheran World Relief and its global reach into places where disaster and death have come -- and they have remained at work here long after the headlines have shifted to other disasters and other news items.
Our own congregation operates an emergency food pantry that sees upwards of a dozen families a week. This is operated as a place of last resort when people in need have no where else to go. We sponsor twelve step and grief programs for the community (programs which operate within the distinct domain of Christian faith and hope and unashamedly so). We support the local cash assistance agency which provides money for bills (after ascertaining the legitimacy of the need). We support the local Pastoral Counseling Center so that people with family and individual problems might find Christian counseling from certified and licensed counselors who view faith as a help and not a hindrance to the emotional and family problems they face. And I could go on... but it is not enough.
The face of Christ to the community is largely the face of the Church and Christians. If we want the face of Christ to bear upon the needs of the poor and those with troubles of every kind, we must carry the face of Christ to them through the ministries of care and compassion, mercy and hope, that address both the physical and spiritual needs of these people. It does work to bid people the peace of the Lord and leave them hungry or hurting - if there is something we can do for them. And there usually is. Speaking the Gospel is the domain of both words of witness and actions of compassion both of which speak the same message of the cross.
The Church is both the caring community of Christ among His people and the caring community of Christ to the world through His people. Until we learn this and reclaim this area of our witness and outreach, it will be easier and easier for the Church to live for her own sake and for her people to define the faith with only themselves in mind. When we learn to expand our hearts to unfold others as Christ has done for us we lose nothing and gain by great measure the realization and blessing of the Love that bears all things and endures all things for us and our salvation...