written and delivered by Shirley Benson
April 15, 2012 Psalm 107: 1-22, Matthew 25: 31-45
April 15—do you all know that besides tax day, this is the opening day of the fishing season? And today we are answering God’s call to be fishers of men—answering God’s call to feed the hungry. I will not be enriching your soul today with pearls of ecclesiastical wisdom, but I do hope to pique your interest in how we can all be open to life changing insights. Perhaps with these understandings, we can look forward to tomorrow’s promises of hope and joy. Once we can begin to understand and accept our own unique scars, once we can begin to understand and learn from the brokenness in others, we can move on and our healing actions can offer the hope of a better tomorrow for others less fortunate than we.
As many of you know, I have a great passion for Outreach, and so today’s Gospel reading that Michael shared with us from the book of Matthew, is very relevant to me. Most of you have heard my story and subsequent sermon about my experience in a bookstore atCape Cod the summer after the death of my husband. An epiphany? Could be.
In any event, I can identify with today’s reading because of that experience. I stood there naked in my grief, and He clothed me. I was in a jail of depression, and He visited me, I was hungry for healing and He fed me. And then I opened the door to my heart which I had locked and He entered.
We have all had these epiphanies at some point in our lives. And it’s not that we don’t recognize them, it’s that we continue to seek selfishly for something more. We wonder if this is all there is. For me, it was a time to consider my role on this earth as a new widow. I did not want Bruce’s death to define who I was. And so it was a time to ask, might my life be joyful again if I were to consider being less selfish and more selfless? And indeed it has been!
Where am I going with this? Well, my belief is that in Outreach, when we feel more connected to people then we feel more connected to God. It feels good to move outside of our own self interests and become involved in service to those who are hurting. And, I know— the argument always is—
“but we’re a small church, what can we do? We can’t save the world!” Yes we can—one person at a time. If you have ever prayed for a miracle and were upset because it didn’t happen, just remember that you might just be the miracle for somebody else.
But, as we take on these challenges, we need to always ask ourselves, “Am I doing this Outreach program for me, so that I can pat myself on the back, or am I doing this because that’s what God would have me do?” If we do mission out of duty, then it becomes a burden.
But, if we do it because it brings joy to someone, then in their joy we find our own. What better way to be reminded of the lesson “to give is to receive.”
You have heard me say so many times through the years, that in order for a church to grow, it has to grow its mission. It’s easy to come to this church that we love—we come together to pray and to sing. We take great comfort in the sermon, we pay our pledge, we have some refreshments and visit and then we leave until next Sunday. And slowly the church dies—oh, we still attend, but it becomes—only a building.
But being passionately involved in mission grabs you by the shirt tail, and you have to run to keep up with all the ripples you create.
When called upon to list all the missions we do in this church, we can come up with quite an impressive list. And good for us! Many of us do somewhat impersonal missions—donate some rather worthy bucks for a cause, and trust me when I tell you, that’s extremely necessary and very worthwhile, but—when a member sponsors a Jazz Concert to raise money for Outreach because she was inspired by a particular program, or you get an e-mail from the Boomerang Invalid Society in St. Petersburg, Russia saying they were impressed by Our Berkshire’s Bounty so they started it there and how much it has helped their people, or when you buy a painting from a man in
St. Petersburg who was able to procure paints through Boomerang so he could get back into business, or you send a van to the Peniel Shepard Ministry in Accra, Ghana and receive a thank you because now they can carry the Gospel into the countryside, or—you knit a prayer shawl and wrap it around some hurting soul, while giving them a hug in Lenox, Massachusetts, is to truly understand the ripple effect of Outreach! The gift of money is very much needed— but the hands-on touch is essential!
We pride ourselves in this church on being open and affirming, friendly and welcoming. Will that ensure our growth? Will that increase our giving? Will that keep our doors open? Has that made us grow? A little. Has that increased our giving? Somewhat. Has that kept our doors open?
We are comfortable keeping our traditions, continuing the same old ways of raising money, doing the same old missions. I believe we do need sameness but to grow we also need change. Enthusiasm grows even if we do the same old thing but in a different way. So how do we bring about a change?
We have to get rid of the notion, “We can’t possibly do that—we’ve never done that before.” Did David think he could beat Goliath with a sling shot? Did Moses consider that he could really part the Red Sea?
This church is small, and we’re busy! But, are we all busy enough? How many of us bring in food for the food pantry baskets? How many of us buy Christmas gifts for the children in the Angel Tree Project? How many of us volunteer for Habitat? How many of us offer to serve on boards or committees? How many of us offer to help with fund raising? How many of us visit the home bound and/or the lonely and hurting? How many of us do refreshments or flowers? Like many other small churches, we have our problems. For the most part, we feel pretty good about the way we’ve been able to solve most of them. But do we learn from them? Do we really see them? Do we answer the challenge to try something new? Are we thriving—or are we just surviving? I’m a graying member of this church. I’ve been here a long time and I too have done it all. I too have been tired. I too have been burned out, but except for a few things, no is not part of my vocabulary, because I am a doer, and I have to believe that just maybe I can make a difference. And—I need to believe that I’m standing in my church, not just a building so I try to always be willing to go that one more step that builds my enthusiasm. I think others are feeling that way too, for I detect lately, and I’m sure you do too, a new energy, an increased desire to thrive. Many of us, including our newer members, want to become part of making this church a vital living organism not a cocoon.
I’m going to take time out here to share a story with you about my friend Hattie whom I have known for a few years. When I thought about this, it is a story about resurrection—timely for this season! She’s the twelve year old from Cambodia that came to church with her Mom Pam, her sister, and me back in January. The family has no church affiliation, and Hattie has no Sunday School background. She has loved nature her entire life.
When she was four, her grandmother was dying.
Hattie would lie on the bed and talk softly and read to her mostly unresponsive Gramma. When the Gramma slipped into a coma, Pam told her that her Gramma was very tired and couldn’t hear or answer her anymore. Hattie bent her ear to her Gramma’s mouth and said, “She talked to me, you just don’t know how to hear her.” Pam wondered what Hattie really understood about death—what she was feeling and how she would handle her Gramma’s passing.
So that afternoon, Pam took her for a walk and asked her if she knew her Gramma was going to die and what did she think that meant? After a minute or two of complete silence, little four year old Hattie looked up at her Mom and said, “Well, Mommy, right now, I think Gramma is like a caterpillar in a cocoon, and we watch her just sitting there, but when she dies she’s going to turn into a beautiful butterfly.
The conclusion to that story—when the Gramma died, they put her favorite fluffy aqua, blue, yellow and white scarf around her neck and shoulders. When Hattie visited the casket, she pointed to her Gramma and shouted for all the world to hear, “See Mommy, I told you Gramma was going to turn into a beautiful butterfly! Now we won’t need to miss her!”
Are you a caterpillar, just sitting there, or are you a beautiful butterfly?
There are many butterflies in this church now. Our Outreach Ministry is filled with them! We suddenly have many more people attending, and we are very busy! Of course, give the Devil his due—we used to meet for a rather dull hour without many new accomplishments. Now we have two hours of social time, which we interrupt for one hour of business and we are coming up with many new ideas! Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration—but not really!
Seriously, people come to church because they want to grow spiritually, and we grow spiritually by worship, prayer, reading the Bible, music, fellowship, and service to others.
This new, enthusiastic commitment to be of service is very stimulating. It can provide fertile ground for new ideas, and those new ideas will increase our enthusiasm.
My hope is that this enthusiasm continues to be contagious, that we will scatter many seeds. My hope is that this enthusiasm will attract more people to join our church and they will find ways to share their own creative ideas.
How exciting to imagine a church filled with busy beautiful butterflies! How exciting to have our church be a vital outward reaching connection between us and those less fortunate, not just that other building that we own. How exciting to think of all the new ways we might find to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the poor, and give shelter to the homeless.
How exciting to not just survive, but to thrive! Amen