I was one proud pastor as I sat in the auditorium at Creekview High School last Tuesday. Five HERITAGE members—Connie Denney, Cathy Lacy, Bob Smith, Mary Elizabeth Smith and Kathy Summerford—accepted a Partner of the Year award from the Cherokee County School District for their work at Hasty Elementary School.
Every week during the school year they lead a backpack ministry that sends weekend meals and snacks home with children who are at risk of going hungry without their help. That adds up to seven full meals plus a few snacks for as many as 40 students each weekend. What a ministry!
At the awards ceremony on Tuesday each school in Cherokee County recognized both a partner organization and an individual volunteer of the year. A few other churches—all Baptist, I’m proud to say—were similarly recognized for their work at other schools.
But, for the most part, the organizations honored weren’t faith-based. They were corporations and small businesses and civic clubs. Many of the leaders of those organizations and businesses, no doubt, are Christians and committed church members who would cite their faith as a motivating factor in their service. But, many of them, no doubt, are not.
It got me thinking. What does it say about the impulse toward good works that only three churches were scattered among the nearly forty businesses and organizations being recognized on Tuesday? When we are reminded that atheists and agnostics and people of other faiths can be just as motivated toward good works as Christians are--when we remember that being a Christian isn't a pre-requisite to being a good person--it forces us to re-examine what it is exactly that sets Christians apart.
So as I sat at Creekview High School I was reminded of a few things. Here are three.
1. I’m proud to be a resident of Cherokee County.
We’re good people here. Every principal of every school in Cherokee County was in the auditorium on Tuesday. The school superintendent, Brian Hightower, was there to shake every volunteer’s hand. The logistical accomplishment of having every leader of every school available and present at one time shouldn’t be overlooked. It speaks to the importance the school district places on recognizing and supporting their volunteer partners.
And the chance to see the individuals who volunteer their time to support public education in Cherokee County was by itself worth the trip. The people recognized on Tuesday take time out of their lives to improve the lives of every child in our county, and in some cases they make impacts on impressionable minds that last a lifetime. The people recognized on Tuesday are a wonderful representation of what makes Cherokee County such a good place to live.
2. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a good person.
From where I sit, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the work of our church and our church partners that I overlook the good work being done beyond the faith community. But you don’t have to be a Christian to be a good person. Many people are out there every day doing the work to which Christ calls the world, with no understanding that they are doing Christ’s work—that through their work they are making our community look more like God’s kingdom. But they are.
As Christians, we should be more intentional about both recognizing and applauding the work done by those who don’t even know that they are doing the work of Christ. It could be as simple as writing a note that says, “I don’t know if the good work you do is motivated by your faith, but I know it strengthens mine.” So to those who are building God's kingdom through their service to our community, whether they recognize it or not, I say, "Thank you."
3. The defining characteristic of Christians isn’t the good work that we do. It's the free acceptance of God's grace that sets us apart.
While we are called to good works and work done to advance the cause of Christ—like the Hasty Backpack Ministry—ought to be celebrated, it isn’t the work that makes us Christians. It’s the grace of God freely given in Jesus Christ and freely accepted that makes us Christians.
Christ reminds us that none but God is good. And Paul reminds us that if we boast, we should boast in our weakness so that the strength of God may be revealed. The good that we do in the world—as magnificent as some of it is—is just a pale reflection of the goodness to which we are heirs through the faithfulness of Christ, our Lord.
So, as Christians, when we celebrate good works, we have reason to be doubly grateful. In the work of Connie Denney, Cathy Lacy, Bob Smith, Mary Elizabeth Smith and Kathy Summerford—and everyone else recognized last Tuesday—I am reminded of the work of Christ as a grateful recipient of God's grace. And, I am emboldened and encouraged toward good work myself, praying always that in my work I might decrease so that Christ may increase until it is no longer me, but Christ who lives in me, that does the work.
See you Sunday.