"Even Little Deeds Matter"
Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – January 30, 2011
Centenary United Methodist Church
Micah 6: 1-8; Matthew 5: 1-12
Since the very beginning of recorded history, religious people have wanted to please their gods. This thought created the practice of offering various sacrifices on an altar, hoping beyond hope that what they offered was good enough to please the gods they worshipped. Through the centuries, countless traditions, rituals and customs have outcropped reflecting this need within people. Most of us could admit that somewhere in the recesses of our spirits, we feel the need to please God in one form or another.
What I want to talk about this morning is what our need to please others does to us and to our relationships. In one of our lessons for today, Micah shares his thoughts about how God would prefer people to live. His words find fault with every practice that has been part of his people’s religious heritage. These words were written 3,600 years ago.
Micah asks, “What shall I bring to honor the God of Heaven when I come into his presence?” Micah goes on to describe the lavish gifts that people had grown accustomed to bringing for their sacrifices. He listed such commodities as calves, sheep, endless streams of olive oil and, if you can imagine this – even first-born children. Micah continued, “God does not want any of these gifts! What God wants from us is to be just in our dealings with other people, to show constant love for them and to remain in humble fellowship with God.”
No doubt, Micah received his inspiration from an earlier prophet, Amos. Amos was not as kind or generous as Micah. Amos had God say, “I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand them! When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring to me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs! I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.” (Amos 5:21-24)
These two prophets were redefining what honoring God looked like. Each was saying, “Honor God by displaying loving character qualities in your dealings with others, i.e., be just, be loving and be humble before God.”
What is interesting about these words from Micah is that pleasing God was not part of the equation when it came to presuming that God was in need of people’s sacrifices. It is interesting that ancient prophets understood the nature of God.
The Scriptures tell us that God created us in his likeness. Since God is the Creator, we, too, are creators. While we may not think of ourselves in this light, think about it. For example, we create a bond with our children when we establish boundaries for them, when we offer our guidance and when we use various methods to correct their attitudes and behavior.
We create a bond with our employers when we bring high-energy responses to our work-related responsibilities. We create a bond that is warm and friendly in our relationships when we relate to others through our sense of humor, our ability to laugh at our mistakes, and our reaching out to others through an accepting friendship. These are qualities of being—not of pleasing.
Once a friend told me about a radical experiment he did with his son. He noticed that his son’s orientation to life was focused on pleasing mom and dad and pleasing others with whom he had a relationship. His father did not find such a focus particularly helpful. He felt that no one gets anywhere in life by spending his or her energy being a crowd pleaser.
When his son finished his sophomore year at college, Frank asked his son if he would enjoy a challenge. He proposed giving him $500 and a one-way ticket to Austin, Texas. With that amount of money, James had to find a place to live and find a job. He was to fly home at the end of the summer so he could begin his junior year. He said, “If you run into difficulty, call us.” James accepted the challenge. Frank and his skeptical mother took him to the airport and watched as his aircraft disappeared in the distance.
During those early days, James learned the skills of money management and how to negotiate for rent he could afford. He learned the art of interviewing prospective employers and he learned to produce outstanding results for his construction company.
His boss was so pleased with the challenge James’ father gave to him that he said, “James, being challenged never hurt anyone! If you ever need a job following your graduation, give me a call. Here is my card. Any company would be fortunate to hire a person like you.” James returned home with a remarkable set of skills that would serve him for the rest of his life.
This is what God designed each of us to do with our lives. God does not need dependent, needy children who have forgotten how to mature in spirit. We were designed by God to create right where we find ourselves, to bloom where we are planted. God has placed everything we need within us at birth to live very productive lives. All we need to do is access those qualities and use them until they become skills.
I have known people who have stood in those long aisles of cereal in the grocery store asking which one they should buy. Or, people find themselves praying that God will open a parking spot right in front of a department store. If God really had a hand in such things, God would open up a spot at the farthest end of the lot knowing that a good walk never hurt anyone!
When we turn our attention to our lesson in Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus was talking about the various attitudes of being, not attitudes toward God. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. The Good News translation begins every verse with the word, “Happy.” For example, “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor. Happy are those who remain humble. Happy are those who are merciful to others. Happy are those who work for peace.”
Jesus was echoing what was said by Micah – “Be filled with joy as you do the best you can with what God gave you – be fair, loving and remain humble.” While many of us feel that God requires far more from us, think again! What more could we do for God then to remain faithful to such a purpose for the rest of our lives? Jesus understood this.
During the Last Supper, Jesus answered a question from Philip with these words, “The words I have spoken to you do not come from me. They come from God who works through me.” (John 14:10) One of the ways God creates is through what people do.
Many years ago I was the pastor of a church family in West Virginia. While there, a couple living in town invited us to dinner in a Maryland restaurant. They said, “You will never forget this dining experience.”
We drove to the restaurant that was housed in a rundown building. I remember the front window was broken. It looked like a dump. The restaurant was called, “The Spot.” What made this restaurant unique was that customers had to bring their own plates and silverware, drinks, salads and dessert. The restaurant provided only the meat and vegetables.
The parking lot was packed with cars. People knowing the routine sat around with coolers on their tables filled with food. We ordered what meat we wanted and watched the workers in the kitchen. These were women between the ages of 75 and 90. They were frying chicken in those iron skillets and preparing meat the way their mothers had taught them to do years ago.
They brought out 16-ounce steaks and more chicken than anyone could possibly eat. KFC – the only American franchise I have seen so far in Bermuda – could not hold a candle to what those women brought out of that kitchen.
The idea for this restaurant came from an 86-year-old who gathered up some of her friends who had been great cooks and put them back to work. That woman literally gave those women back a life that rediscovered what it was like to be creative, productive and fun.
The words of Micah are easy to remember, and they gave readers a formula for wholesome living. One 86-year-old not only gave her friends back their youth but she also showed a very appreciative clientele what real cooking used to be. Their gravy was the real thing, filled with those crunchies. No bullion cubes ever entered that kitchen.
We have to remember that even the most seemingly insignificant things we do have meaning for a world full of people starving to see more of love’s presence all around them. It is not what we do, but rather the spirit of the doing that can change the lives of everyone who is watching. This is one of the ways God works through us to bless those around us.
I often think of that scene when Jesus was sitting across from the Temple. As people were dropping their offerings into the treasury, Jesus said, “Do you see that woman over there. She has given more than all the others combined. They have given out of their bounty. She has given everything that she has.” Even though she remains nameless, what she did has sensitized people to their gifts from a spirit generosity for thousands of years. Seeing random acts of kindness has a way of transforming our lives.
One afternoon, I was in the midst of a very stressful day, one that was filled with an endless number of chores that were attached to deadlines. As I was driving to a meeting that was 40 miles away, I noticed that two police cars had pulled over a driver. I thought to myself, “Good! Finally, they have caught one of these reckless speeders who has to get somewhere faster than anyone else.”
However, as I drove closer to the three cars, I had been wrong with my hasty conclusion. The two officers were changing the tire on a car belonging to a very pregnant woman. Seeing that “small deed of kindness” reminded me of what most of us can do for others by taking time and giving them a little portion of our day. Seeing that totally transformed the day I had been having. I felt wonderful that kindness was showing its face to me.
Thursday night, Lois and I were watching a television program featuring a woman who talked for one half hour about her life as a Bermudian. Barbara Horton Symonds understood as a child that nothing could stop her from reaching the results she wanted to achieve with her life. She described her skills as a dancer, a singer, a musician, a teacher and a mentor for others. She even found time to complete a Master’s Degree.
As we listened to the array of her accomplishments, I thought that she is the embodiment of everything Micah had written. He practiced justice, exuded joy and love for others and walked in humility with God. She was pointing with her life to what other people could accomplish with theirs. What a gift!
When each of us does that, we help to make God’s spirit visible in the world. This is what Jesus was inviting people in every generation to do when he said, “Follow me.” Now, it is our turn to pass it on.