November 22, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
Many years ago, I led a work trip with the youth group of the First Congregational Church of Western Springs. This trip took us to Atlanta, Georgia. We did a lot of things in Atlanta. We served food in a soup kitchen and sorted food at the food bank. We re-surfaced trails in a forest preserve and worked in a community garden. We even spent a morning at a residence for senior citizens.
The reason we went was to make a difference. How much difference can a bunch of high school kids make in a big city? More than you might think. More, even, that the agencies we worked with expected, since they ran out of work for us to do! We went for other reasons of course. We went to build fellowship in our own group. We went because it’s fun. And we went because we were called by God.
Now, God doesn’t speak to us in thunder from the clouds and say, “Go to Atlanta with some teenagers and help out at the food bank.” Being called by God is never that straightforward. Discerning what God wants from us, what God wants us to do and be in the world, is the work of a lifetime. It may come in a flash of insight. It may come when you’re pondering what to do with a bunch of kids with too much energy and not enough to do. Often, it comes through listening to the needs of the world, knowing that God loves the world, and saying, “I’ll go. Send me.”
In this passage from Matthew, Jesus gives us some specific things we can do to meet the needs of the world. You, yes you, give food to the hungry, bring healing to the sick, give drink to the thirsty. The least of my people need your help. By helping them, you help me. And there’s more.
Jesus suggests that those who do all these things will be blessed, but as the list of tasks is recited there is something left out. A mission leader in the Reformed Church of America named Noel Becchetti wrote about what is missing from this passage:
Do you notice what he leaves out in his charge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to the sick? He says nothing about what results are supposed to be achieved through these actions. There's no talk about ending hunger, defeating poverty, or seeing the prisoner go straight. He says simply to Do It, because when we do, we're somehow ministering directly to Our Lord.
He goes on to say:
Jesus gives us the freedom to go into our mission and service trips with the goal of just plain ministering. We don't have to achieve certain "results" to justify our investment. Frankly, we might not recognize some of God's divine results when we see them! But as we can remove our cultural blinders, discard the limitations we place on God's definition of ministry, and "leave the driving" to Him, we can begin to understand what it means to be Jesus' hands and feet to a hurting world.
When we work in the service of others, we know that the work we will be doing is not likely to bring an end to poverty. The youth group from Western Springs didn’t end hunger and homelessness in Atlanta. Even with all of the energy, commitment, and love we shared, there are still hungry people.
Susan and I helped give out boxes of food to hungry families on Wednesday over at the Lutheran church. But those families will probably go hungry again in the future. We did our best, but we didn’t fix their problems.
But that is not really the point of us doing the work. For us, the point of going out to a work project is that we get to touch people’s lives. We get to serve, to minister to and with people who are similar to - or very different from - us. We get to touch with the hands of God. We get to be touched by the hands of God. We get to see how God is working in the world, everywhere we go, and we get to leave behind a little bit of God’s love when we return.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta once talked about our role, our task in the world, as if we were electronic instruments. There are all these parts inside: wires, plastic, resistors, transistors, diodes. But they don’t do anything until the current is connected. She said:
Each one of us is merely a small instrument… Until the current passes through them there will be no light. That wire is you and me. The current is God. We have the power to let the current pass through us, use us, produce the light of the world. Or we can refuse to be used and allow darkness to spread.
There is a part of the scripture passage that I don’t like. The part about the ones who have not done anything for the least of these bothers me. I don’t think threats of punishment are the best way to motivate people. When I do a good deed, it’s because I genuinely care, not because I’m afraid that if I don’t God will be angry with me. As a leader, I want to inspire your empathy, not your desire to look good in front of others. Also, I don’t believe in eternal punishment, at least not as it is described here. The God of love, forgiveness, and grace just doesn’t mesh with the God of eternal fire.
So, I choose to focus on the blessing, the gift that we have been given to be the hands of God, the chance to go out there and make a difference because we really care. As Mother Teresa said: “May we never forget that in the service to the poor we are offered a magnificent opportunity to do something beautiful for God. In fact, when we give ourselves with all our hearts to the poor, it is Christ whom we are serving in their disfigured faces. For He Himself said, ‘You did it for me.’”
We can make a difference. All of us can. You don’t have to be in a youth group, or go to Atlanta. The youngest of us and the oldest of us can make a difference, right here and wherever we go.
Finally, I turn once more to the words of Mother Teresa: “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” Amen.
 The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Noel Becchetti, Former President, Center for Student Missions, article online: http://inspirationsmv.com/why-short-term-fixes-are-a-waste-of-time/ retrieved 11/18/2020.
 Mother Teresa, No Greater Love, Becky Benenate and Joseph Durepos editors (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1997), 67-68.
 Teresa, 73.
 Saint Therese of Lisieux, in Teresa, 75.