While we were in Burundi, it was easy to be overwhelmed by the conditions people live in. It was easy to become numbed by the statistics that 90 percent of the people live in poverty on less than $2 a day; that as many as 1 in 16 people have AIDS; that the average life expectancy is just over 50 years. I personally struggled to have compassion on individuals when surrounded by so many who are in need. Why am I telling you this? I want to share with you something that has been on my heart since we neared the end of our time in Burundi. It is this: Jesus made people a priority.
For most of us that is not a shocking concept, but I want us to look at how that translates to our lives. How do we make people a priority as Jesus did? The first step to making people a priority is addressing the biggest obstacle to our seeing the people in front of us, that is classifying everything as an “issue.” We have all kinds of “issues:” social issues, political issues, moral issues. We like to talk about issues, and who wouldn’t? Talking about issues only requires that you have an opinion, and who doesn’t have opinions they like to share? Issues are convenient like that, they give us an outlet for our opinions, but they keep us distant from the people to whom those issues have a daily impact.
What are the biggest issues right now? You can answer (Poverty, Healthcare, Homosexual Marriage, War, Abortion…). Issues we are all prone to have an opinion about, now I am not going to ask your opinion on those issues, but if I did, I think we would find as many differing opinions on those issues as we have people in this room! And some of our opinions may be right, others wrong, but what we do in discussing issues is put people to the side. When we debate issues we not only set aside the people directly affected by those issues, we often also set aside the person with a conflicting opinion--the one that is different from our own.
Issues separate, isolate, and cause us to grasp tightly to our own right-ness. You have seen it, a friendly conversation that turns ugly when one of these issues is brought up. Immediate division, and both parties walk away nursing their pride and each telling themselves that they are the ones in the right.
Issues do something else for us, they allow us to have an opinion without having to take responsibility for taking action. Can you solve the issue of poverty? Can you stop abortion? Can you eradicate war? No, of course not. By choosing to see only issues, insurmountable issues, problems too big for us to tackle as individuals, we give ourselves permission to do nothing. So what is the answer? The answer is to do what Jesus did.
He never addressed only issues, he addressed people. He didn’t react to issues, he reacted to people. He never responded to the enticement offered by religious intellectuals to enter the debates over issues, instead he redirected them to the people in front of them, or even closer to home: he redirected them to their own humanness.
Jesus never addressed the issue of poverty, but he fed the hungry who were before him.
Jesus never addressed the issue of healthcare, but he healed the sick before him.
Jesus never addressed the issue of sexual immorality in culture, but he told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, and the woman at the well that he could give her living water springing up to eternal life.
Jesus never addressed the issue of Roman oppression, but he told the challengers to give to Caesar what bears his image, and give to God what bears His.
At every turn, Jesus points to the people and makes them the priority over issues. He does this in his words, teachings, and actions. The biggest statement of this is in the two greatest commandments that Jesus says sums up the law and prophets, or on which the law and prophets hang: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. He did not say that the two greatest commands were to join the right organizations and have the right opinion on all the pertinent issues. Although sometimes we act as though these are the commands he gave.
Instead of seeing the people around us and responding to their needs, we join organizations that will address the social issues of the world. Sometimes this is even how we see our church membership. Instead of responding to the people affected by AIDS, those torn apart by divorce, those haunted by abortion, we form an opinion on an issue and keep the hurting people at arms length. “But we can’t fix those problems they are too big for us!” You protest. Yea! You got the message. Issues are too big for us, problems are too big for us, but each of us has the ability, in Christ, to reach out to the person next to us and show them love, compassion and grace. And that is what Jesus calls us to do.
In his book, The Star Thrower, author Loren E. Eisley talks of the early morning when he finds himself with "writers block", he decided to take a walk along a sandy beach where hundreds of starfish had been washed up on the shore overnight.
"I awoke early, as I often did, just before sunrise to walk by the ocean's edge and greet the new day. As I moved through the misty dawn, I focused on a faint, far away motion. I saw a youth, bending and reaching and flailing arms, dancing on the beach, no doubt in celebration of the perfect day soon to begin. As I approached, I sadly realized that the youth was not dancing to the bay, but rather bending to sift through the debris left by the night's tide, stopping now and then to pick up a starfish and then standing, to heave it back into the sea. I asked the youth the purpose of the effort. "The tide has washed the starfish onto the beach and they cannot return to the sea by themselves," the youth replied. "When the sun rises, they will die, unless I throw them back to the sea." As the youth explained, I surveyed the vast expanse of beach, strectching in both directions beyond my sight. Starfish littered the shore in numbers beyond calculation. The hopelessness of the youth's plan became clear to me and I countered, "But there are more starfish on this beach than you can ever save before the sun is up. Surely you cannot expect to make a difference." The youth paused briefly to consider my words, bent to pick up a starfish and threw it as far as possible. Turning to me he simply said, "I made a difference to that one." I left the boy and went home, deep in thought of what the boy had said. I returned to the beach and spent the rest of the day helping the boy throw starfish in to the sea."
As individuals, hanging onto issues is a comfortable way to avoid taking action. We have the excuse that the problem is so big there is nothing we can do that will matter. What a relief that Jesus does not call us to solve issues, but to love people. Jesus doesn’t expect us to save the world, but to introduce people to the one who can save their souls and heal their wounds. Living in that kind of love requires us to give up our comfortable place of righteous superiority and to get down in the trenches.
Paul puts it this way in Philippians: Philippians 2:3-8 (NRSV)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
If we are going to do what Jesus did, and live life that impacts those around us, we need an attitude change. Our attitudes have to be the same as Christ before our actions can follow suit. How do we get there? Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, which only comes as we lay our lives down in living sacrifice—our acceptable act of worship before our Holy God. In surrendering ourselves, our pride, our right to feel self-righteous; in allowing God to come in with his Holy Spirit and renew our way of thinking, we can begin to see the people around us. We can begin to see the small part that God calls us to play in the lives of those around us that makes such a huge impact on their lives for eternity. Then, and only then, people become our priority, issues fall to the wayside, and Christ’s Kingdom is built.