For some reason, the term do-gooder has become a means to insult or demean a person’s desire to help others. It is usually used to describe someone that we would call a meddler, someone who interferes with other people’s business, usually in a condescending manner. When I was first exploring my calling and the time came to share it with other people I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by most people’s reactions. The sole exception being a member of my extended family who after listening to me talking earnestly, in the most heartfelt way, about God calling me to help others, to build community, to bring people together, to spend my days in the service of others. All she did was roll her eyes and utter the words, “Not another do-gooder”.
And the reason that I am talking to you about do-gooders, is because there is no way round the fact that it is one of the most fitting ways in which we remember William Wilberforce. A man who because of his faith, felt called to emulate Jesus and help people, to liberate others. He used the gifts that he had to ensure that God’s justice was served, there was and still is a value in what he did, in what he stood for. That is why 187 years after his death, we still talk about him and the instrumental role he had in ending our reliance on the slave trade.
We believe that God’s justice and His mercy are at the heart of Christ’s ministry. It is imbued through everything that he did. Even in today’s reading, a reading that is so familiar to us and that on the surface seems to be so simple that we would be forgiven for not really engaging with it. The feeding of the five thousand. This reading comes at a time when Jesus was trying to get away from all the attention that he was getting, but the crowds just wouldn’t leave him alone. John the Baptist had just been killed, our Lord and Saviour had lost his cousin and colleague in a way that would have been the starkest of warnings to him of what lay in store if he continued upsetting the powers that be. And in the midst of all the upset and the turmoil that he must have been going through, his first concern was not for himself, but for others, the people who were following him, chasing him. Christ translated the sorrow he must have felt for himself, the sorrow that he must have felt for John into sorrow for his fellow man.
What happened was that before the outward and visible works of power that he showed us came the inward and invisible work of power where Jesus transformed his own feelings into love for those who needed it most.
The more I think about it the more startling it becomes and just as extraordinary is the way in which he did it. He told the disciples, “give them something to eat”. His tone is that if you really care for these people, then help. It is what he says to us all, as Christians, if you really care for them, then help. Give your gifts, no matter how small, offer your loaves and your fishes, no matter what they are and then the small idea of that paltry amount of food, becomes something wonderful. Something that seems to be impossible is transformed by him and all of a sudden - BOOM, what seemed an impossibility has become a reality. It is truly astonishing. We blunder in with our ideas. We offer what little we have and then Jesus takes those ideas, those loaves and fishes and transforms them. He shows us that we are instruments of God’s justice, that even though the odds are sometimes stacked against us we can make a difference. From very little Christ creates an abundance.
William Wilberforce made a difference to countless other people. Not just to the people who were being trafficked but also to the others that were involved in the trade, his role is recognised as being key to the events that led to the abolition of slavery. A trade that transported an estimated 11 million Africans from their homes across the ocean to work in the most brutal and barbaric conditions in the Americas. Wilberforce did this through religious conviction, his faith taught him the innate worth of a human life, a life that is precious to God and, as such, should be precious to us. It gave him the conviction to do something about it, to transform things. Just as it tells us in the Gospel, Jesus took William Wilberforce’s offerings and then transformed them into something much greater, He held them in front of the Father with prayer and blessing and gave them back to us and to those who needed it the most.
It is what Christ wants to do with us all, to be agents of change, to make things better, to care, to build community. And that is a much better description of a do-gooder.
Rev’d Mark Nelson
Assistant Curate in the Benefice of Winslow, Great Horwood and Addington