Thank you for allowing the board of deacons to serve the worship service for our congregation during the month of July while Reverend Mark enjoys a much needed sabbatical. We really gain an appreciation for what Mark does every week, preparing a worship service that is thoughtful and engaging including a great sermon. The ability to deliver that “great” sermon, week after week, is amazing. I have had months to prepare this sermon and it pales in comparison to one of Mark’s. Still, here we are, so here goes:
Our times are filled with uncertainty. Lately, we seem to feel a general sense that the world is a violent place. Unrest is rampant domestically and internationally everywhere and some act of terrorism somewhere seems to be a daily occurrence. Faith in our government is low and political discourse is fractured. For most of us, there is a pervasive feeling of helplessness; that we are bystanders watching it happen. The reality of it is, none of us as individuals can make sweeping changes. But we can, in our own small part and in our own sphere of influence make a difference.
Most of us are familiar with the acronym WWJD; What Would Jesus Do? We’ve seen the colored wrist bands that were very popular in the mid 1990’s, yet I was surprised to learn that the origins of WWJD actually occurred about a century earlier. Charles Sheldon, an American novelist, wrote “In His Steps”, a story about a congregation who accepted the challenge of their pastor, Reverend Henry Maxwell. The congregation pledged “for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking “What would Jesus do“? Sheldon’s 1896 novel chronicles the decisions and changes made by members of First Church, in a mid-western railroad town called Raymond. Although no specific state or locale is mentioned in the book, Raymond was thought to be the fictitious name of an actual suburb of Chicago. By some estimates “In His Steps” was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, Sheldon’s book eventually sold over 30 million copies. The recent resurgence of WWJD seems to indicate that people are thinking again about approaching life’s decisions in a Christ-like manner.
If the Ten Commandments give us the basic blueprint for life, Christ’s teachings in the New Testament refine it further, telling us repeatedly to follow the example of Jesus. Our scripture reading, John’s first letter, Chapter 2, sums it up nicely: “If we say we are His, we must follow the example of Christ”.
So, how do we emulate Jesus? He lived, after all, in very different times. Although the disciples, at times, behaved like dependents, Jesus did not have the responsibility of feeding, clothing, and educating a family. Jesus was not responsible for keeping a business alive and making payroll every week. Jesus never had to deal with downsizing, outsourcing, inflation, unemployment, under employment, an illicit drug culture, in-laws, or global security. We can try to dismiss Jesus’ teachings as a bit quaint and archaic, not really applicable to the trials of our modern world and our feeling that day-to-day survival is enough for us to face. Or, there are those who will argue that Jesus is, after all, the son of God; empowered with the ability to raise the dead, heal the sick, cast out demons, and make food appear out of nowhere! How, as mere mortals, could we compete, let alone try to imitate Jesus? It’s just too overwhelming a challenge. And, perhaps most importantly, there is simply a lot we don’t know about Jesus; the first 30 years of his life are really a mystery. He kept no known journal, so we don’t have a record of his daily activities and interactions. Although foretold by prophets and more recently heralded by John the
Baptist, he burst on the scene as a relative unknown. What is written in the New Testament focuses on his teachings and his miracles; his message to the masses. Would Jesus have been a good listener?
Perhaps we are overthinking WWJD. It IS overwhelming to think about trying to make every move and every decision in our lives as we imagine Jesus would have. Maybe we are missing the subtleties of the message. Jesus knows, better than ourselves, the flaws and contradictions in human behavior. How about if we start small? A sort of gradual easing into WWJD.
William Blake was a British poet, artist and author in the late 1700’s. His poem “Jerusalem” is sometimes considered a national anthem for England. Blake’s quotes are many and profound. Some are famous. One of my favorites is: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer”.
Consider, for a moment, that term: “Minute Particulars”. I imagine it meaning small, but very defined and focused decisions to do good. Minute Particulars are actions that address an immediate need and are accomplished completely. Blake’s follow up second sentence is revealing as well. “General good”, as he explains it, seems to be what cannot realistically be achieved. We can talk about it, promise it even, but in the end it’s too much, too broad, and we fall short. When he specifically uses terms like scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, I think of most politicians, who promise all good things, (the general good), but deliver on very few of those promises. Extremely spiritual by nature, Blake had a very low opinion of politicians and the ruling class of the time in England.
So, to do our part in making the world a little better, let’s say we make a conscious decision to gradually ease into the WWJD mode, accepting the challenge of WWJD in Minute Particulars? We need to establish our goals:
The primary goal is modest: We resolve that every day or every week we will make a decision, perform a task, or take an action in the manner that Jesus would do it.
We want to be better Christians
We want to truly live our faith, as apostles of Christ
We want to (hopefully) make a difference, not in someone’s life necessarily, but to at least attempt to make their day a little better.
Then we need opportunity. As we consciously observe our day-to-day interactions with individuals, groups, and situations, the spirit will guide us to where we can implement WWJD in minute particulars. Opportunity will most likely take two forms. There is the opportunity that we know of; an issue, problem, or situation where we feel we can help. The second is an opportunity that just comes our way. An interaction that occurs spontaneously, where we can offer some hope, compassion, assistance, or maybe just provide a sympathetic ear and listen.
Now we face the difficult part: STARTING! Again, where do we start? Here are a few ideas. None of these are really new, we’re all aware of them on some level. We just need to commit to try our new approach. Our sort of WWJD approach in Minute Particulars.
FORGIVE AND FORGET: The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4, verses 31 and 32: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you”. Do you have a longstanding disagreement with someone, maybe a family member over an inherited item, a neighbor over where a shed was placed? Perhaps some deep-seated animosity toward a coworker for a perceived slight or lack of recognition? Make a conscious decision to let it go; forgive them. I’ve done this recently and it really does lift a burden from your shoulders. More importantly, it allows you resume or start anew with the person you’ve forgiven. Hopefully, they might follow your example and forgive someone else.
PAY IT FORWARD: When you stop and think about it, most of us are blessed with a reasonably good life. We have our ups and downs, but mostly, here in South Windsor, we have it okay. Share your good fortune. A month or so ago, I stopped in a Dunkin Donuts to get my usual medium coffee. When I got to the window, the server told me that the previous guest had paid an extra dollar toward my order. Apparently, someone had started paying it earlier that morning and she excitedly told me that it had continued uninterrupted for the last hour and a half! I gave her an extra dollar and drove out feeling better than when I drove in, wondering how long the chain would last. Later that week, at a different DD, sensing an enthusiastic server at the window, I started the same dollar pay ahead.
SPEND SOME TIME LISTENING: Often we have a neighbor, co-worker, acquaintance, or even a close friend that we know or suspect is having some issues. Even when we know there is really nothing that we can personally do to remedy the issue, we can listen. Many times, all someone needs is to air their thoughts and feelings to someone with a sympathetic ear.
PRAY FOR OTHERS: Prayer is one of the most powerful tools we have as Christians. We have an excellent means of communication among our church community with the prayers of the people at worship and with our prayer chain emails. Do the same for others in your life; have a one on one conversation with Jesus. Ask him to intercede on their behalf.
GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY: The need for help in our community is constant. We know from our friends at MACC that food pantries need to be filled year round, families are always being displaced, and social services are being cut back all the time. A monetary contribution or a few non-perishable groceries that we pick up on our weekly shop are Minute Particulars that will really make a difference.
SPEND SOME EXTRA TIME AT CHURCH: Our church volunteers are the people who make WCC the wonderful place that it is. There is always a need for help. Keeping in mind Minute Particulars, what if every member volunteered just once to help out. No long term commitments, no tedious boards or committee work required. No public speaking. Host a coffee hour. Help out once with mowing the lawn. Help out once in church school. Volunteer on a church work day. Try your hand at being an usher.
DONATE A BIT MORE TO OUR CHURCH: Here’s a quick, shameless plug for the Stewardship folks. Can we loosen up our pockets and put a little extra in the collection basket? I’m reminded of a story: There were several wealthy individuals who chartered a large boat for a fishing trip.
A fire broke out on the boat, forcing them to abandon ship and climb into a life raft. They had gone quite a distance from the mainland, and with no communication, had no way of notifying anyone of their predicament. In the manner of Gilligan’s Island, they ended up on a deserted beach. These were powerful titans of industry and commerce, and they began to despair at their situation, fearing that all of their hard work and success was for naught if they perished on this island. All except for one man. While the others cursed, wept, or broke down, he remained quite placid and unperturbed. Finally one of them asked the man: “We may die here! How can you be so unconcerned?” The man calmly stared at the rest and said. “I make $50,000 a week and I am a Christian. In my church we tithe 10% of our weekly income. I have absolutely no doubt that before this day has ended my pastor and the church elders will find me”
Paul writes again in his letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 3-5: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ”
The majority of the problems that we face in the world happen because of want, because someone feels marginalized, because a helping hand isn’t there, or because no one is listening. On a grand scale these problems become epic and overwhelming. On a small scale, all of us can make a difference if we are willing to get a little out of our comfort zone and risk a little bit. I believe that living as true Christians, trying to be Christ-like in these Minute Particulars will have a tremendous impact if we all do it collectively. Imagine the change that will happen if everybody, once a day, once a week, or even just once in a while, consciously tries to make a simple choice to change something for the good, as Jesus taught us. It’s not a lot to ask, Jesus sacrificed his life for us, and all we have to do is pay attention to scripture, then take a little time and use a little thought.