A congregation I once served opened their building monthly for a Narcotics Anonymous group. The relationship was conflict-free until a parishioner discovered a pill on the fellowship hall floor and called the police. An analysis determined it wasn’t an illegal substance, but the congregation harbored concerns: “What if a young child had picked up the pill and it was an illegal drug?”
The congregation council met to determine a course of action. While members acknowledged their long-standing relationship with the group as part of their ministry, the risk of illegal drugs was too great. The council voted to discontinue the relationship. I abstained from voting, but I struggled with the decision.
July’s lectionary texts include the classic story of the good Samaritan. A traditional interpretation of the story invites us to consider which character we should identify with as Christians. But the more relevant question is the one I still ask myself when I consider the decision my former council made years ago: “What is the level of commitment God calls us to make in our ministry?”
In his timeless book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “From time immemorial men have lived by the principle that ‘self-preservation is the first law of life.’ But this is a false assumption. I would say that other-preservation is the first law of life.”
When we make our commitments to ministry, I wonder if we are more concerned about self-preservation or “other-preservation.” The stories of the good Samaritan and the civil rights movement share the same, clear message: ministry is always about other-preservation, and we should spare no expense in how far we go to extend God’s love and grace to those who need it.
Nevertheless, we live in a time when self-preservation is the law that rules not just our society, but also our congregations. A scarcity of resources and the need for boundaries are justifications we use to limit our ministry to others. Yet if we incline our ears, we know many are lying on the side of the road of life, crying out in anguish.
Other-preservation is about sparing no expense to raise another back to life. Like the Samaritan, we risk our reputations, stretch our resources, give time we don’t have, and perhaps even risk our sense of comfort or security to do what is right. We do this because Christ wants us to share in the restoration, liberation and salvation of those whose pain so often goes ignored. Perhaps Christ also leads us here for the sake of our own salvation as well—salvation from our fear, prejudice and complacency.
The summer vacation months are often downtimes in the life and ministry of ELCA congregations. Yet we would do well to reflect on the good Samaritan this month and ask ourselves how committed we are to God’s work of other-preservation.