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Something That Matters

November 21, 2011

“Something That Matters” Matthew 25:31-46 Christ the King A © 11/23/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I don’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget what he said. We were talking during a break at a college conference, and this student from Tennessee observed that what he and others his age wanted from life was something worthwhile to which to give their time and energy. I guess his words struck me and stuck with me so because the theme of my life has also been that I want to do something that matters.

To do something, to be someone, that matters. Isn’t that what we all want? A worker on a commercial for GE says that it feels good when he finds out a cancer patient was helped by a machine he helped build. He likes knowing he made a difference.

And Tom Long, the renowned preacher, observes that “some churchgoers are satisfied with feel-good Christianity, but…many Christians…yearn for a more costly, demanding, life-changing discipleship.” We want to be involved in a cause that matters, to be called to sacrifice and discipline, to be challenged to give deeply of ourselves.

That may be our desire, but in a world where so much is wrong, and things are getting worse, it’s easy to believe that nothing we do can make any difference. What effect can one person have, how can even a committed community of folk change the world for good when there is so much evil and so much need all around us?

When such discouragement and despair grip us, we only have to recall what our Lord said: “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” And his words will lift us up.

Quite a few years ago, in 1975, I was a summer seminary intern in South Carolina. My duties were the usual ones students have—some preaching, visiting the hospital, youth work, getting to know the families in the church. On my last Sunday in the congregation before returning to seminary, I was saying my goodbyes. A young woman came up to me and handed me an envelope. I knew her only slightly from visits with her family, and we had never had a serious conversation. In the envelope was a twenty-dollar bill and a note which said “Thank you for helping me straighten out my life.” (This was when $20 meant something.) Never had I known of any special problem nor had I made a particular effort to help her deal with it. Yet somehow my ministry had an impact more than I knew. It had to be the Spirit at work, since at 22 I was totally clueless.

Anytime we serve those who for whatever reason are hurting, marginalized or traumatized, we matter, whether we know it or not. And it’s the little things that count. Suppose someone is sick, confined to a hospital bed, anticipating a rather extended stay. She is in unfamiliar surroundings, one day blends into another, nerves are on edge. The drugs that help ease the pain have unwanted side effects. Medical professionals can and do act to relieve the physical symptoms and provide other appropriate care. But what of the rest of us? Is there anything we can do? Certainly there is. A brief and timely visit can bring healing of another sort, namely, the cure of the soul. Our coming may be the real presence of Christ.

Or what about that person who seems consistently left out? The kid at school that’s a little different, who’s made fun of or bullied, in person or online. The co-worker others seem to avoid. That man or woman, boy or girl we have all encountered who is emotionally needy, clingy, anxious, won’t shut up, does nutty things, is socially inept, annoying. And nobody wants to be around them. They might be Jesus in disguise.

Or maybe there’s somebody who has plenty of food and drink, but they’re hungry and thirsty for hope, for fairness, for righteousness to be done in their lives. Or they just want somebody to care about them or care about something, anything in this apathetic, me-first age. Some little thing that lifts the spirits of such as these matters, taking the time to turn aside from our busy days and our preoccupation with so much that we believe is important to that which truly matters in the grand scheme.

By the same token, neglect can also take its toll. Regret over our failure to act can haunt us for the rest of our lives. Or even longer, indeed, forever, if this morning’s gospel story is true. That phone call you or I meant to make, but couldn’t seem to squeeze in. The letter or email we never sent, apologizing for some old hurt, seeking to renew a friendship. The promise to be more sensitive to the plight of the poor or the prisoner or the very earth itself, a vow that still goes unfulfilled. The visit we intended to pay to a shut-in or a new neighbor, which other concerns crowded from the calendar. A word of love left unspoken to an aging and ill parent or a rebellious and angry teen. ”Inasmuch as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The ones who heard harsh words of condemnation from the sovereign judge were not evil people. Probably they were good people with the best of intentions, just like you and me. It is not what they did that brought the unfavorable word from the king. It was what they failed to do when they had a chance. It was the opportunity missed, the door unopened, the presence of Christ unrecognized. And they were surprised to find that their neglect mattered so much.

On the other hand, those who heard words of welcome from the ruler were also surprised at how important their deeds had been. They had no idea that what they did would bring such a reward. Their actions were so quiet, so unspectacular. A cup of water. A kind word. An old coat. An earnest prayer at a bedside or while holding the hand of a grieving one. “Nothing special,” they might have said.

And that is where they would have been wrong—gloriously, wonderfully wrong. Those little things we can’t imagine amounting to much in the big picture mean everything, not because of what we did, but because of for whom we did it. It wasn’t the mighty or powerful that were the recipients of care, but the people nobody considered important, nobody believed counted, nobody paid a second thought. The folks who found themselves in a tight spot. The man who needed a friend. The woman who sought bread and safe shelter for her children. The grief-stricken neighbor whose tear-filled tale nobody wants to hear anymore. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these….”

Small, random acts of kindness have a ripple effect. There’s a commercial currently running on TV. I don’t recall the product or the company. But its theme is similar to the movie Pay It Forward. By the way, if somehow you missed that film back when, it’s well worth your renting or streaming from whatever service you use. In the TV spot, a businessman is buying his morning coffee at Starbuck’s or somewhere, but he has forgotten his wallet. A young guy comes in right behind him, sees his distress, and pays the bill. In the next scene, the businessman helps a woman in his building who has had a pile of papers knocked out of her arms by a rude, thoughtless passerby in a hurry. He stoops to pick up the documents, and presumably speaks a friendly word to the frazzled worker. Finally, the woman sits down on a bench at a bus stop after her long day. But when she sees a mom with two or three kids in tow come along, she gives up her seat and decides to stand. None of these things seem like much in themselves. But they changed someone’s world, if only for a few moments, and brought encouragement and hope and help.

A number of you know that Susan and I are fostering a seven year-old dachshund named “Missy” for our county humane society. Missy is a special needs dog. Her owner had to surrender her because the nursing home to which the lady was going didn’t accept pets. So Missy had severe separation anxiety. She was also morbidly obese for her breed, having been fed bacon and eggs every day. She’s lost a little bit, but she has a long way to go. She’s also heartworm positive, a condition that is being successfully, but slowly, treated. All of these concerns need attention before anyone will seriously consider adopting her. Susan and I wanted to do something to help dogs like Missy that are sweet and loving, but might not get a chance to have a home, through no fault of their own. We know we can’t rescue them all, but at least we can make a difference to one. The Humane Society tells us they feel confident they can find Missy a permanent home.

One tale that guided us in our decision to take Missy in is old story about a man walking along a beach. He discovers another man picking up and throwing back starfish that had been washed in with the tide. He scoffs at such a futile effort. “Don’t you know you can’t rescue them all, that what you’re doing won’t matter?” Holding up a starfish in his hand, the second man replies: “It matters to this one!” And he kept on with his mission.

“It matters to this one.” I think it was Mother Teresa who said: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” And in the movie You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character says she lives a “small, but valuable, life.” Small things make a huge difference. Know that you matter to someone today. What you do and who you are is important. And so it is for me as well. Jesus says: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

My late sister had an original song I have shared with you before, but because it’s based on the text, I’d like you to hear its lyrics again. “You don’t know what a little word might do/Some little word of love./And you don’t know what a little deed might do/To point someone to the Lord. The way is hard and the road is often long/This old cliché seems so true/But maybe somehow we can lighten up the load/By showing his tenderness and love. Just do what you do to the glory of the Lord/Even give some water to a child./For our Lord said if you show love this way/ You will not lose your reward” (© Carol Ann Walker, “Some Little Word of Love”).

You and I are doing something that matters. And, whoever else we’re doing it with or for, in the end we’re doing it for Jesus.


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