Doing Good

The following is an abridged version of a sermon I preached on Sunday, October 21, 2012 based on Mark 10:35-45 (21st Sunday after Pentecost) at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, Connecticut. 

In the spring of 2007 Robbie Brown was in a van riding back from Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport and met Elizabeth Sholtys from Ithaca, New York. Although both attended Emory University in Atlanta, they had never met each other before. Chatting along the way they discussed where they had been traveling to and from.

An international studies student, Liz had spent the previous year, as a junior, studying in Mumbai, the most populous city in India with 25 million people. While there she fell in love with the street children who lived around the residence hall where all the international students stayed. Liz shared with Robbie the story of her work there, and Robbie didn’t forget. Months later, he was awarded Emory’s McMullan Award – a $20,000 check made payable to the recipient. No questions asked. To be used however the winner chooses. Robbie turned around and gave the $20,000 to Liz. Read an account of this story as reported in the Emory Report from May 2007.

Soon after this story hit the AP News Service, Roger Nishioka, who teaches at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, contacted Robbie and Liz via e-mail. Liz ultimately went back to Mumbai, where she is still involved in her foundation, the Ashraya Initiative for Children.

When Roger asked Robbie, “Why did you endorse a check for $20,000 to a girl you hardly knew?” he responded, “In this day and age we can do well but I think it is more important that we do good.”

Robbie was recognized for his academic success and rewarded with a gift – no strings attached. He did not seek this “reward” although he probably worked very hard to attain the grades and recognition he achieved. With the prize he won, he could have purchased anything he wanted. Front row tickets to a concert of his favorite band, a new car, a great vacation, whatever he might imagine. During his four years at college he had probably sacrificed a bit along the way. Studying instead of partying. Participating in sports instead of sleeping in. But he chose not to cash the check for himself.  Doing good – not doing well.

Today we hear about James and John vying for the best seats in the house with Jesus. Why not? They’ve travelled the dusty roads, they’ve sacrificed and given up their jobs. They’ve probably left wives and children to fen for themselves back home. Don’t they deserve a prize? When is it time to cash in for their devotion and commitment to Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t put up with such nonsense.  To follow Jesus means to be a disciple, the heart of which is not privilege, but service. And the one who does this service does so with no thought that recognition may result. As Jesus tells us today, “The person who is truly great is the one who seeks always to provide for the needs of others and to promote their welfare – the one who is ready to be the slave of all” (v. 44).

The model for this service is Jesus himself, who “came not to be served but to serve” (v. 45a). Moreover, he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45b). In God’s Kingdom, the quest for individual power and status are replaced with humility and service to others. This, indeed, is true greatness.

Discipleship isn’t tidy or neat. When we step out of our comfort zone to help someone else or speak up for an injustice, we put ourselves at risk. It often means giving up a luxury or getting our hands dirty. Our actions today may bear fruit that we’ll never see. But the unpleasantries of servanthood could turn out to be some of the holiest acts we ever perform. When it comes to following Jesus it may be less about what we do than it is about who we are becoming in the process. It may be about doing good, rather than doing well.

There are things we can do. We can tell our stories to others about what gives us joy as a follower of Jesus. We can model for our children what it means to respect the dignity of every human being. We can seriously look at how and where we choose to spend – and pledge – our money.  Being a disciple means jumping fully into following (and sometimes leading) with heart, soul, and possessions. And it involves sacrifice.

This past June the Vestry and members of the Outreach Committee met for a day of retreat to reflect upon who we are as individuals, as a community of followers of Jesus Christ, and how we are in relation to one another and those we serve – the “Other.” The faces we may not see and not seen – here and in our surrounding communities that benefit from our giving and service. Following our retreat, several of us met to construct a statement about St. Matthew’s which has become this:

St. Matthew’s, being a manifestation of the Body of Christ, is a community that respects the dignity of every human being. We worship, learn and serve together as we experience the light and love of God in community. Embraced by God’s grace, we are joyfully sent forth in service and mission, as we each strive to be examples of Christ in the world.

How are we disciples of the Gospel and servants to others? In addition to worship and education, our congregation is very involved in a number of service opportunities. While some involve writing a check, many involve hands-on activities in which we are given the opportunity to see Christ in the face of another through helping build a home, tutoring a child, serving a meal to a homeless person.  Whether we know it or not, we are being a servant to another child of God.

Here at St. Matthew’s, working together we can make a difference. We may not see the results immediately, but that’s not why we are follows of Christ. We are simply (if simple is even the right term), living out our faith and our Baptismal Covenant.  Called to do good – not just do well. 

Margaret Wheatley is a management consultant who studies organizational behavior. She states the following in her book, Focus on Leadership:

The essential truth I’m discovering right now is that when we are together, more becomes possible. When we are together, joy is available. In the midst of a world that is insane, that will continue to surprise us with new outrages . . . in the midst of that future, the gift is each other. [Our culture lives] with a belief system that has not told us that. We have lived with a culture that says, ‘We’re in it for ourselves. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Only the strong survive and you can’t trust anybody.’

As Christians we know better. We have need for each other. Dr Wheatley continues,

“We have a desire for each other, and, more and more, I believe that if the real work is to stay together, then we are not only the best resource to move into this future—we are the only resource . . .”

Each of us is a resource for St. Matthew’s. We have already proven we want to work alongside those who are in need – in body, mind and spirit. Many of us make a commitment in the form of a financial pledge to support the ministries of our parish.  For just as serving together can make a difference, so can giving.

Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and his service was unstintingly given. We humans are often stingy, thinking, “How much will I have left?” As church members, even if we were to empty our pockets, giving out of our abundance to serve those who have less, it is unlikely that we would be without a roof over our heads, food to eat, or clothing to wear. What other losses do we fear? Jesus gave himself completely, without measure, unto death upon the cross. Can we profess to follow Jesus and do less than prayerfully moving towards emptying our pockets to serve the ministries of St. Matthew’s and the neighbors God has given us to love and care for?

I have always found that whatever I give, whether it is my time, my talents, or my money – I always receive so much more in return.  After all, none of it – my time, my skills or my money was ever mine to begin with – all were given to me by God.

What I can do in return is give back.

Greatness is not found in places of honor or position, but in carrying one’s cross, serving others, and following the Lord.

I often wonder if I could put a radioactive tracer on every dollar that passes through my hands or credit card transaction and follow those dollars around for a month. How many lives would those dollars touch? What stories would those dollars tell? Would I like the answers? Would those dollars do good?

As you reflect upon what St. Matthew’s means to you this stewardship season and how you are a servant to others’ in Christ’s name, how might you answer the question: “Are you doing well . . . or are you doing good?”

What stories could your dollars tell?

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