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Monday, June 12, 2006

Only Small Things (John 2, Matthew 25, John 11)

Archive: June 12, 2006
Sermon by: Royallen Wiley

In the book of Job we read, “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)

In today’s world of instant communication, trouble flies at us fast and furious: there’s a tsunami in Asia, violence in the Middle East and terrorists seem to be lurking around every corner. At times the troubles of the world can seem overwhelming.

There are troubles in our personal life: “I’m leaving, I want a divorce”, the phone rings in the middle of the night “There’s been a bad wreck”, a close friend confides in us, “the cancer is terminal.”

The weak joke in our family is that the only time we call each other is when there is bad news. The phone rang and it was my Mom. “ I have bad news: Jim Hinsdale was in a bad accident on his farm. He is paralyzed from the neck down. The situation is life threatening and they are air lifting him to Atlanta.”

This was tough news to hear. I immediately began to absorb the shocking news and to reflect on the trouble that had come to Jim Hinsdale and his family. I doubt that there is one person in this entire room who can name the last five Nobel Peace Prize winners but I bet that each and every one of you can name teachers, coaches and mentors who have made a difference in your life. Jim Hinsdale was a mentor to me in those awkward days of transitioning from high school to college to the adult world. He is a person I have admired my entire life.

Always an overachiever, Jim is an accomplished educator and coach. He has written extensively. He is an avid hunter and fisherman. Together we rebuilt antique tractors, built barns from scratch and helped to get a crop in. In short, he is a man’s man. How hard it is to imagine this man not being able to walk.

Jim has made some progress in his rehab since the accident. He now has some movement in his legs and one arm and is learning to walk and all the other movements we take for granted. It may seem like a small thing, but my regular prayer is that God continue to bless Jim’s recovery.

Trouble didn’t come in the middle of the night to the Smith family but came on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June. I doubt that you know them but I’ll disguise their names anyway. Our family did a lot with the Smiths: we attended the same church, same swim club, and did all the things you do when you’re raising young children: cookouts, ballgames and went on vacations together. Then divorce struck both our families at about the same time and as commonly happens we all went down separate paths.

Divorce with children and the crummy things that go with it rocked the foundation of the Smith family. Yet through it all, the one steady rock was Kay and Harvey’s oldest son, Paul. Paul had done well at UNCC and had a landed a plum job in Pennsylvania. It was tough having Paul away from home but he was doing well and was the shining star of the family.

It never dawned on Kay as she returned home from the Harris Teeter that afternoon that the sheriff’s car in her driveway meant trouble. It was upsetting to find out that the trouble had occurred almost 48 hours before. There had been some difficulty communicating between the authorities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Three young men had gone out on the town on a Thursday night. There was a wreck. Two of the young men walked away without a scratch. Kay then heard the devastating news that Paul’s head somehow hit awkwardly and he was now dead.

The news quickly filtered through the community and as I prepared to go over to Kay’s house I could not fathom what I could possibly say. Paul was a fun loving kid that had been a fixture in our life for many years. The Smith family even lived with us for a couple of weeks while they were waiting for a new house to be finished.

As I entered Kay’s house I saw a number of faces of friends and members of the Smith family I had not seen in years. I noticed Kay was sitting of the couch, deep in deep grief with a friend on each side of her holding her hand. Harvey and his Dad had the grim task of going to Pennsylvania to bring home the body.

I proceeded to reintroduce myself to friends and family. I happened to notice that when one friend would leave Kay’s side another would slip in beside her and take her hand. When a spot opened up on one side, I moved next to Kay, took her hand and began to try to babble something comforting. I sat there for some time, mostly silent, when I got up to leave, Kay said, “Thanks for sitting with me and holding my hand.”

The funeral was held just down the road from here at Calvary Church. I couldn’t but notice in the bulletin for the service the Acknowledgements. The very first one was one from Kay, “I want to thank all the people who came to my house and held my hand.”

Not who said the most profound words, sent the biggest floral arrangement or brought the biggest casserole. I want to thank all the people who held my hand. How amazing that such a small thing as holding someone’s hand could have such a large impact.

This morning I’m going to share something important with you and it applies whether you are 8 or 80. I was a teenager around the age of 17 or 18. I remember my Mother returning home one afternoon after attending a funeral for one of our neighbors. As she returned home, Mom entered the kitchen where I was sitting and blurted out “Everybody’s dying!!” and burst into tears.

No son wants to see his mother in tears, I tried to comfort her with logic. C’mon everybody’s not dying. Mr. Raymond lived a good long life. Dying is part of living. What I didn’t realize that day and it took me almost 40 years of my life to figure this out: There is a time for talking and a time for hugging. My Mom didn’t need words, what she needed that day was a comforting hug or someone to hold her hand.

Luckily I learned this truth before I volunteered to serve as a counselor at the Billy Graham Crusade in Charlotte. It’s hard to believe that was almost 10 years ago, isn’t it? I was very hesitant to volunteer to be a counselor but I was assured there would be good training. Along with some of you, off we went to Central Church for the training sessions. That’s where I learned the most valuable evangelical tool I’ve ever seen. If you’ve ever been in a SS class I’ve taught, you’ve seen the drawing of Sin on one side and God on the other separated by a deep chasm. The bridge from Sin to God is the cross of Jesus. If you don’t know what I’m talking about I’ll be glad to share it later.

I was impressed with how detailed and structured the training was. The first thing you are instructed to get ready for the altar call is to put a breath mint in your mouth. How long do you think it took the BGEA to figure that bad breath could a hindrance to converting people. “I’d love to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior but friend, could you do something about that breath!

Each counselor had a booklet that gave you scripture and prayer to share with those who came forward. Then you ask specific questions about committing their life to Christ. There were a number of “head counselors.” Their job was to match up those who came forward with appropriate counselors and keep an eye out for any problems.

The first night of the crusade I remember being quite nervous as I popped the breath mint in my mouth and headed down to the floor of the stadium. I was matched up with a young man and woman from Huntersville, they had come forward to rededicate their lives. I went through the script and we prayed together.

The next couple of nights of the crusade were uneventful and I began feeling a bit cocky that I had this counselor thing down pat. It was the final night of the crusade and I was secretly happy about how well things had gone. I had no idea what was in store for me as I popped yet another breath mint into my mouth.

As I waited on the floor of the stadium to be matched up with someone, I saw out of the corner of my eye a young man coming forward. He was maybe early 20s, stocky and African American. I share that only so you can visualize the scene. There are various stages of crying: sniffling, weeping and sobbing. This young man surpassed all those descriptions. I sensed trouble and great pain.

My reaction was similar to what you may experience when driving in Charlotte traffic. “I don’t see you so I can’t let you in.” I glanced that way again and caught the eye of the head counselor. He motioned to me and I responded. I tossed away the book and gripped the young man in a big bear hug.

Streaming behind the young man were about 5 or 6 women who I took to be maybe the young mans mom, aunts and sisters. They all latched on too and we looked like the “Group Hug” scene in the last MTM show.

I don’t know what I said. This was a time for hugging and not for talking. I know we prayed. I tried to contact the young man later via letter and phone without success. I prayed for him for some time and prayed that whatever his trouble might be that it would no longer plague him.

When trouble comes, we may wish we had a magic wand that can cure cancer, halt tsunamis or stop terrorist in their tracks. But instead of concentrating, on the larger, troubling issues of the world perhaps we can focus on smaller things. Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” Can you imagine? Here is a woman who won a Nobel Peace Prize, yet she says we can do no great things, only small things with great love.

Jesus is the exception to those profound words. Jesus could do small things and great things. Couldn’t He? It’s interesting the things you learn in SS class. This year in our class we studied the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels. You might find it interesting to know that Matthew records 20 miracles in his Gospel, Mark 18, Luke 20 and John 7.

We read in the last verse of the Gospel of St. John these intriguing words: “if all the other events in Jesus’ life were written, the whole world could hardly contain the books.” What?
there’s more? Were there more miracles or more small things?

John 2:7-8
As was just read in our Scripture reading this morning, Jesus’ conducted His first public miracle at the wedding in Cana. His mother came to him with a potentially embarrassing problem: the wine supply was about to run out during the middle of the festivities. Jesus just doesn’t wave his hands and say “Abacadabra” and turn the water into wine. Rather, He addresses the problem His own unique way. For example, he asks the servants there to be a part of this miracle. They have to do the small thing of filling the jugs with water, then taking it t He?dn'to the headwaiter (after Jesus did the miracle). This is a great illustration of the interesting dynamics in what God does and how He often employs our hands to do them... for our part we must listen, be obedient, and trust that God is using us in some way. In much the same way during the feeding of the 5000, Jesus did not just wave his arms and “Poof”: everyone had a meal in front of them. A young child was willing to share his food. Someone had to help organize the distribution of the meal. Helping hands were used to distribute the loaves and fishes. Small things were done to accomplish a great miracle.

Matthew 25:31-46
There is much we can learn from the parable of the sheep and the goats. In verse 35, Jesus names the little things that are important to God: caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the imprisoned. In verse 37 Jesus seems to imply that those that did these small things were not even aware of doing them. In this story Jesus seems to be talking about what our reaction will be in an unguarded moment. We don’t know during the course of a day what situations we may run across. We are not asked to be perfect but to look for opportunities to minister to others. In the words of Jesus "To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me."

John 11:11-44
Story of Lazarus. Too long to go through all of this miracle. Main thing is to incorporate the reaction of Jesus recorded in verse 35. Jesus already knew well in advance of reaching the scene what happened. Even though he had plenty of time to absorb the news of Lazarus’ death. The reaction Jesus had to Mary’s grieve was not one of logically explaining that “we all die someday” etc. it was a simple emotional reaction “Jesus wept.” Jesus understood how to respond when trouble and despair come to us and to the lives of others.

Trouble came to my life in a way I never wanted in the way of divorce. A lot of time and energy was been spent in counseling, arguing and rationalizing how to delay what soon became inevitable. Ten years ago it seemed so important to know who was right and who was wrong. Time gives the luxury of seeing how unimportant that was. The sad thing is that a marriage that once seemed so special ended up becoming just another statistic tossed on the dust heap of failed marriages in America.

Eventually, the reality of separation and divorce sinks in. The moment of reality for me occurred during the middle of a church service on a Sunday A.M. in January here at GSPC. I was sitting about where Ted and Shirley sit every week as it so happened I was lay assistant that Sunday. Jordan was seated on one side of me and Leigh on the other. I was already greatly distressed knowing that the following weekend the moving van was coming and the day all our family had dreaded for months was imminent.

On that particular Sunday our associate pastor at that time, Doug Vinez, delivered a sermon on the topic of Grieving and Mourning. The reaction to his words that morning were what you might expect. Not a lot of smiles. His words were like a catalyst for my own situation. Our service was a lot more formal then and after the sermon we typically stood and sang a hymn. It was the words Doug said or the weight of the future ahead of me but I was soon dissolved into tears much like the young man I described earlier. As most in our congregation did not know about the impending separation, it might have been easy to think that this was just a bit of an over reaction to the sermon.

I was crying so hard that I couldn’t muster the strength to stand for the hymn plus I was worried about the reaction of my kids to seeing a distraught parent. Their world was already getting crazy enough. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I knew who it was as you know who is around you from the greeting time. It was my understanding that this person was not my biggest fan and if that was true that made the gesture all the more meaningful. She kept her hand on my shoulder until I could compose myself and stand and finish the service.

She has not been a member of this congregation for many years now, but a year or so ago she attended a service here and I practically ran up to her to share something that was long overdue. I shared this story and her reaction was exactly as I expected. She had no memory of it. “I’m a touchy, feely person and if you were upset I’m sure I reacted as I would have with anyone.” I then told her those long overdue words, that her hand on my shoulder was one of the most meaningful gestures that anyone has ever extended to me in my entire life. Her small thing with great love touched me in a way I will never forget.

Small things with great love are done all the time in this church family: some known and some unknown. It may be through prayer, a kind word at worship service or a phone call during the week.

What are the small things of great love going on in your life? Do you know someone facing physical challenges like Jim Hinsdale who needs prayer and encouragement? Do you know a family that is experiencing tragedy like the Smith Family? Or perhaps, you have come across a complete stranger where you sense pain and trouble like I did at the BG crusade. It could be the cashier at the Food Lion, a co-worker or someone you pass on the street.

Our church can be known for many things: for a great pre-school, for a terrific music program and marvelous youth and mission programs. But just think how wonderful it would be if someone was driving down Rea Road with a friend and pointed out, “What’s that brown and stone building over there that looks like it is hiding behind a bunker?” And the reply was, “Oh, that’s Good Shepherd Church. That’s the place where they put their hand on your shoulder.”