The Joy of Altruism

Hebrews 6: 10

“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

Today is Outreach Sunday. We celebrate our fifty outreach agencies and their efforts to help others. Kenilworth Union Church dedicates 10% of the collected pledges as benevolences to the agencies. Many people do not realize that fact. On top of that amount, we give a lot more. We give the proceeds from the annual benefit which will be held this Friday night. The silent auctions include old bottles of wine, unique sports paraphernalia and tickets, spa getaways, and other enticing possibilities. You can bid on a gourmet dinner hosted by leaders of the church. The live auction features opportunities to travel. A cruise, a resort week, and a sunny Florida villa will be offered for your bid. Another way we give to outreach is through our rummage sale. Some of you are waiting to donate clothes, furniture, toys, and treasures to the church since you know all of the money collected goes to outreach. Besides the outreach benefit and rummage, the church gives scholarships to seminary students who do urban ministry. You can also donate to help the little Kenilworth Union Church school in Ghana, and help the surrounding African villages have clean water wells.

Those of you who have volunteered in the efforts mentioned above can testify that outreach brings us together as a community of faith. Our outreach committee wants to build our community of faith even more through outreach. Each of the agencies has two church members who serve as liaisons. These liaisons report the agency’s progress to the committee. The committee has improved its system of accountability and communication. One of the fruits of that effort is that each agency will report their volunteer opportunities. Soon it will be even easier for us to find ways we can help others. There will be a dynamic list that we can match to our calendars and find ways to serve. Sometimes we want to help but don’t really know how we can. We want to help the right way and have the best outcome.

This reminds me of the story of a man who was on a train from London to Rosedale one Friday. The conductor came to take his ticket and the man was told that the train doesn’t stop in Rosedale on Friday. “But I’ve got to be in Rosedale today!” the passenger exclaimed. He kept insisting until finally the conductor said that he would ask the engineer if an exception could be made so the train could stop in Rosedale on a Friday. The conductor returned and told the passenger that the engineer would not stop, but he did agree to slow down. “When we get to Rosedale, just jump off and start running alongside the train and you won’t be hurt,” the conductor told him. As they approached Rosedale the conductor readied the passenger who jumped off at the right moment and started running. But a man on the next car back was standing on the outer steps of the train car having a smoke. He saw the passenger jump off and start running, so he reached down and pulled him back into the train. The rescuer said, “You’re lucky I saw you because this train doesn’t stop in Rosedale on Fridays.”

It is difficult to help sometimes! And it is difficult to find the right way to help. Our outreach committee realizes that and is working hard to improve the connection between the church and the agencies so opportunities to serve will be easily accessible. It takes a lot of time, energy, and money to help in the right way, and it isn’t easy, but we know that it is worth it. Being altruistic can break us

out of our shells more than anything else, and the benefits far outweigh the costs. There is no way to quantify the joy helping others can generate. It is beyond measure!

In a world where selfishness has a monopoly on human tendencies, we are challenged to push altruism into the picture of our hearts and minds. We seek to transform each other into people who look out for others and step outside ourselves. Jesus proclaimed a sacrificial service to others, and that is the kind of altruism we are looking to promote. It is more than just helping out. It is helping in a way that changes the helper as well as those helped. When we give up something to help another, we begin a process of self transformation.

Psychologist Kristen Monroe defines altruism in this same vein, as more than just putting another’s interest above your own. Her book, In The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity, defines altruism as “behavior intended to benefit another, even when this risks possible sacrifice to the welfare of the actor.” Monroe’s studies revealed that altruistic people had a special way of thinking about the world and their place in it. She called this a “cognitive orientation,” a perspective, a way of thinking, or rather, feeling a part of a shared humanity.

It would be easy to protect ourselves in an enclave of affluence, but we have never done that here. We see ourselves as members of a shared humanity with a universalistic worldview. We proclaim that our community of faith is part of the human community, and we believe in the inherent goodness of people. We will address the need of the world because we want to be good neighbors, as Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The novel The Fall by Albert Camus includes the flip side of the Good Samaritan story. As a lawyer walks the streets of Amsterdam he hears someone cry for help. He realizes that a woman must have fallen into the canal. Her cries for help are muted by the thoughts that rush into his mind. He wonders if he should really be involved in this situation. Would he be liable in some way if she is hurt as he pulls her out? And what about his suit? Would it be ruined? And would he be hurt trying to help her? Then he realizes that as he thought all of this through, she drowned. It was too late. Camus writes, “He did not answer the cry for help. That is the man he was.” The man defined who he was by that. Usually we are defined by what we do. What a shame if we were ever defined by what we didn’t do. We hope that others will see what we do and be inspired by our example. If each member of our church found a way to help, and then invited a friend to join in, our outreach efforts would increase exponentially. All we have to do is share our stories.

After hearing a mother describe her family’s experience at a Kenilworth Union Church activity day one Saturday at Holy Family downtown, I was inspired. The mother of the family told me that it was one of the most meaningful “church” experiences her family has ever had. She watched her daughter serve sandwiches and play games. They really felt connected in a very human way to each other, to those they helped, and to God. She described it as a very spiritual experience that her whole family enjoyed. “I know other families who want this. Our kids don’t get this kind of experience anywhere on the north shore, and it really shaped my kids’ characters- it shaped their hearts! We can’t wait to do it again, and bring friends!” the mother told me. “I wish I had brought my children to that church event,” I thought silently.

It is easy to find an excuse not to help. The church seeks to make outreach as easy to help as it is to walk on by. People magazine featured an interesting article recently about 18 year old Kevin Hines who saw people walk by when he needed help. He was depressed and decided to commit suicide by jumping off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Deep down he really didn’t want to jump, and he

decided if even one person tried to talk him out of it he wouldn’t do it. But not one person even gave him a second glance. He was about to jump when someone did stop, but it was a tourist wanting him to take a picture. So he jumped 220 feet into the waters below. He miraculously survived the jump. As he recovered he emerged from depression and decided to dedicate his life to encouraging others to help those in need. Even though that story has a happy ending, we shudder at the fact that no one stopped to help him.

The final episode of Seinfeld ended with a similar theme. The main characters watched and videotaped a mugging. They were arrested because they failed to help, a new “good Samaritan law.” The show’s successful run ended with each of the main characters being jailed. The critics did not like this ending because it lacked the comic expectations for the finale of such a funny show. Yet the ending did issue a warning to society. Is our society all talk? Do we miss the need to intervene? What critics denounced as a disappointment turned out to have a very deep message. Instead of an ending that included hilarious situational comedy, the show turned the television into a mirror, and no one liked what they saw.

Kenilworth Union Church seeks to be an example by inviting others into our ministry. So we must be transformed as Martin Niemöller, the protestant pastor who looked into the mirror after World War II. He struggled with those who would not speak out against Hitler, and he struggled with his own silence. He wrote this challenging statement:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Different versions of the quotation exist because Niemöller lectured in a number of settings but the lesson is clear. We are all connected in this world in a shared humanity. We are all challenged to be the kind of good Samaritan that Jesus described in his parable.

The joy of helping others builds the community of faith and unites us in the Spirit of God. I thank the outreach committee for making opportunities to serve available to us. What a comfort to know that there is a way to serve that fits each of us, and what a comfort to know that we can serve together. I encourage you to bring a friend when you serve. I can’t wait to hear how meaningful outreach is to your life.

Let us not be easily discouraged. “How could someone treat me that way? I was trying to help!” we may say when we encounter a bad apple. Yet even in the midst of an ungrateful, mean spirited attitude, we still are called to reach out in love.

I would like to conclude with a poem entitled “Always.”

“People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered, but love them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives, but be kind anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow, but be good anyway. Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable, but be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight, but build anyway. People need help but may attack you if you try to help them, help them anyway. In the final analysis, it’s between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” Amen.