A Very Small Thing

As we hear our gospel reading today I can’t help but think about this past Wednesday night. I was with our youth group at Roanoke College for Kairos, which a week-long event for high schoolers who are interested in talking about life, wrestling with Scripture, and asking God to guide us in faithfulness.

On Wednesday, 175 of us were gathered in the college’s chapel to worship together using a service called “Prayer around the Cross.”

For the service, a huge wooden cross of rough planks is put down on the floor of the chapel, and part of our worship includes a freeform time to share the peace, receive individual absolution, and we are invited for a time to kneel at the cross and either confess one’s sins, pray for a particular person, or offer personal prayer petitions by writing with markers directly onto the cross. It’s a powerful service and there is a lot of emotion involved.

Before I tell this story, I want to tell you, “Anna is okay.”

So, we are worshipping and after we had this time around the cross, and as the service is closing, we are singing and worshipping but something begins to feel VERY STRANGE. I am in front trying to figure out what is happening, trying to keep my mind on what I’m doing leading the service, but there is a weird energy in the room and I realize people are milling around in the back. Finally, as people file out of the chapel to go to “junk food city” and open mic night, I realize there’s a young girl named Anna, on the floor of the chapel; EMT are around her, and the flashing lights of several ambulances is filling the room through the chapel door that’s been propped open.

Anna was carried out on a stretcher and taken to the hospital. She had passed out and fainted. It was pretty scary BUT she was taken care of by adult leaders and doctors at the hospital and she was back with us and in her room, in her own bed by 1:30am, and she had a great rest of the week.

In the end, the doctor said it was nothing serious. She was dehydrated. She just needed a glass of water.

You better believe, the next day, we put big orange Gatorade jugs of water out everywhere he kids were hanging out!

A cup of cold water seems like a simple thing. A small thing. Of little value, perhaps. It comes out of our tap without much thought and costs a couple cents.

Jesus knows it’s a small thing too.

He says, “and whoever gives EVEN a cup of cold water (nothing more than a mundane, little old cup of water) to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

A cup of water does seem like a small thing, but to the one who is thirsty it means everything. To Anna it meant regaining her health and safe passage through what was a very scary situation. We must have it to live.

Today, after 3 weeks of reading the 10th chapter of the gospel according to Matthew together, we come to Jesus’ words: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.”

We remember again that this whole chapter is about being sent out into the world to tell and live the love of Jesus. We are reminded again that we may not be received well. We may be judged, or heckled, or maybe even hated. Some people will not welcome us. Some who are parched may not want to share drink; some who are thirsty may push us away, but some may welcome us and share a cup of cold water, and for those who do welcome us, they will receive God’s reward (which is a reward we have already received) – they will hear and know that Christ is the water of life, that replenishes our body and soul.

He calls us to follow him, but he says our discipleship can be small.

It doesn’t have to be heroic. It can be as simple as offering a cup of cold water, smiling at a person who is a stranger, sitting with someone who is sitting alone rather than ignoring them, stopping by the store to pick up toothbrushes to share, writing your congressperson, being there for your family, texting a word of encouragement to a friend, picking up trash to take care of God’s creation, thanking a police officer, firefighter, or military serviceperson.

Discipleship can be small, but it could also be costly. It could be visiting someone in jail, tutoring at an after-school program, answering a call to a new vocation in a different city, giving incredibly generously as a congregation to the ForwardingFaith campaign, becoming a missionary, stepping into a violent situation to bring peace…

Our discipleship can take the form of small acts, EVEN a cup of cold water, or costly acts, leaving home behind as the first followers of Jesus did. Or it might cost you everything… and some in our world are killed for sharing their faith in Jesus.

Our call is to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and ask him to lead us to the work he has for us, trusting that we’re not saved or made right with God by how much work we do or the kind of work we do, but that we are saved by his grace and mercy.

The Spirit delights to lead us. Our call is to learn to listen.

Each day this past week the youth had an opportunity, if they wanted to take it for silent prayer. I thought I better talk about this on Monday before that allotted time arrived and say something about reflective prayer, about listening to God, and discerning his will.

So, I took two jugs of water from a creek behind Blue Ridge Dorm where the guys were staying. I let them both sit overnight and showed them to the group to talk about silent prayer. I showed them the jugs of clear water with sediment at the bottom. Then I shook one as I talked about how our worry, anxiety, fears, and many competing thoughts can cloud our ability to see clearly in life.

One jug is now clear and the other muddy. And I talked about how sitting with God quietly, perhaps for 20-30 minutes can bring palpable clarity to one’s life. About even imaging the water within oneself clearing as distracting thoughts fall away.

I have to admit I was very surprised when Connor came up to me a couple days later and said, “Pastor, remember your water jug thing? Claire, Ryan, Maddie, Brice, and I shared silent prayer together on the banks of the creek! It was awesome!”

Jesus will lead us and help us discern how we might serve as his disciples. And the consequences couldn’t be more urgent. It is a matter of life and death.

The Apostle Paul says in his letter to the church in Rome: “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, because in baptism we have died to sin and our old self and raised up with Christ.”

This past week at Kairos, there was a young girl named Whitney who is in the 11th grade and who was at her first Virginia Synod youth event. She came to me with her congregation’s adult leader on Tuesday of this past week and said that she wasn’t baptized, but that she wanted to be. The songs of faith, the conversations in her small group, the encouragement from her friends had moved her to want to receive the gift of life in Christ.

She said that she had heard God’s call on her life and surrounded by the love and acceptance of the Virginia Synod youth she was ready to be baptized. She wanted to receive the gift of the water of life, knowing that it meant she would be assured of God’s mark on her life forever.

So I asked her pastor and I asked out bishop if that would be alright and they said, Yes, it would. Her father drove to Roanoke to be there and on Thursday night, when I asked “Who presents Whitney for baptism?” The entire Kairos community yelled in a deafening roar, “WE DO!”

And Whitney was baptized into Christ. She has joined us in dying in Christ and rising in Christ and she joins us in the mission we share – giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

At the afterparty, at “junk food city” that night there was an extra sugary treat – a huge sheet cake in celebration of Whitney’s baptism. Who ordered it and picked it up I don’t know but written in large green script, the cake was emblazoned with the words, “Whitney, baptized child of God and there’s not a damn thing anybody can do about it.”

Because we are baptized, we know that, with Whitney, we can trust there’s nothing anyone or any force in the world can do about it! There’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We have received the reward of life with God forever. And he sends us to share the reward and witness with joy. We go confidently, trusting that he will guide us, give us strength, and help us share the water of life.

 

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A Dead Mule and a Good Horse

There is old story that is told in my Dad’s family about an Uncle Ira and an Uncle Bill, who lived several generations ago now in a place called Bailey’s Camp, North Carolina.

These two old farmers, who everybody called Uncle Ira and Uncle Bill, were brothers, and their farms were right next to one another.

One April, Uncle Ira decided he was going to plant some corn in his field. He had a nice big field, a good plow, and one good, strong horse. The only problem was that his only other work animal was an old, lazy mule.

But he had no other choice. He put the one good, strong horse in a team with the old lazy mule and yoked the two of them together in front of his plow and set out into the field to till up the ground so he could plant his corn.

Uncle Ira’s brother Bill was watching all this, and delighting in his brother’s misfortune. All morning Bill would just shake his head and laugh at Uncle Ira, because Ira was having a terrible time. The old mule wouldn’t pull, so the horse was doing all the work; the rows were coming out crooked, and Ira was fit-to-be-tied.

Well, late in the morning, that lazy mule stepped in a rusty old bucket that had been left lying out in the field and he took off.

Bill looks up and over the hill comes this rag-tag team pulling that plow – the good, strong horse and the lazy ole mule with a bucket on one foot, running right together in time, plowing a straight row; Uncle Ira’s close behind with a huge grin on his face, trying his best to keep up.

As the team goes by in front of Uncle Bill, he yells out, “Looking good, Uncle Ira!”

Uncle Ira yells back, “Yes, Uncle Bill. And I’ll be done plowing this field by dinner time if you’ll run get me three more rusty buckets!”

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Jesus, the good and strong, has shared the yoke with humanity, in all our mule-headedness and mule-heartedness. He has shared the burden with us and known what it’s like to pull beside us – to be disappointed, to feel frustrated, to get angry, to experience feeling alone, and to feel, at times, unloved.

Jesus, the kind and gentle, is glad to share the yoke with us, to go through life with us by our side, and continue to bear our burdens.

Here at the end of monument avenue we gather under the sign of the cross, which is God’s word to the world that forgiveness is freely given in Jesus Christ, but there are many people in the world who have not yet understood the meaning of the cross or heard the invitation from Jesus to share life together, side by side.

On Monument Avenue, down the street, there is another statue that captures how many people in the world feel. It sits at the corner of Monument and Belmont. The statue is of the Earth, being held up by several women and men who are caught in a terrible thunderstorm that is raging all around the foundations of the enormous globe. Waves are swirling and crashing all around these men and women, a boat is capsizing, and people are being pulled under by the waves.

Officially, it is a monument erected to Matthew Maurey, the famous oceanographer and native son of Virginia, but as you look at the enigmatic features of the globe and the storm and waves, it could just as easily be a monument of what life sometimes feels like.

Life can feel like men and women, like you and me, caught in a storm while we try to hold the world up and keep it from coming down with a crash. That’s how it feels sometimes to carry our burdens of worry, anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm, or addiction, or to live through the experience of loving someone who struggles with these thoughts and feelings. And this is how it feels sometimes to struggle with chronic illness, or to love someone who is sick.

Sometimes, we feel like we’re carrying the weight of world…or we’re trying to, while the waves try to bury us. We feel like everything is up to us. We feel like we have to figure out a way to fix things, or appear normal, or to stop the storm, or to keep everything from falling apart. We may have someone to talk to about these things or we may just keep it all hidden away, deep inside and hoping no one will notice.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

These are words that we need to hear, because so often our burdens feel heavy, enormous, even crushing and we feel worn out and weary from trying to carrying them on our own.

Jesus invites us to share a yoke with him and to let him bear the burden with us, but the lazy old mule in us wants to do life alone, on our own terms.

We know we need help, but we want things our own way, and accepting God’s help would mean accepting God into our decision-making process and letting go of what we want.

The Apostle Paul knows what this is like. Listen to what he writes:

I don’t understand my own actions! For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Sometimes I feel like nothing good dwells within me, because I can know what is right, but I can’t do it. And as much as I know what is the good and right thing to do, I find myself doing the opposite!

I could have written that in my journal…You could have written these words.

Paul continues: Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God (because my salvation from this mess can only come) through Jesus Christ our Lord!

And that is it: thanks be to God for Jesus Christ who steps into the world to save us and forgive us. Who comes to walk by our side and to help us when we can’t go on alone.

 

Last week at Kairos an 18-year-old girl gave her faith testimony. The event has a tradition that each rising senior gets a chance to give a 3-5 minute talk to the whole community about how God has been present to them in their lives. This young woman shared about some terribly difficult struggles in her life, and about having times of questioning God, and she said, “I’d like to close with a poem”…(a poem I had heard so many times I had forgotten it)…a poem she read with tears in her eyes. She read these words:

One night I dreamed a dream. As I was walking along the beach with my Lord. Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. “Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, You’d walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you Never, ever, during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.”

In our baptism, we are yoked to Christ forever.

We know that swirling and crashing waters are all around us, but the waters of the storm don’t have ultimate power over us–

The waters that ultimately have power in our life are baptismal waters that have claimed us and joined us to the One who has power over the storm – the one who made the flood subside, the one who walked on water, and the one who stilled the storm.

In our baptism, the lazy old mule in us dies and we take on the life of our crucified and Living Lord, so that he might live in and through us for the sake of a world that feels burdened, and weary, and in need of rest.

He will help us pull our row straight. He will help us do the work to which we’ve been called…telling and showing the world the meaning of the cross and extending the invitation from Jesus to come share life together…

Jesus invites us to learn from him what it means to pull a load that isn’t our own.

Jesus can help us learn to ask: What does it mean to take the burden of a neighbor?

May you feel his strength, his goodness, his gentleness, and his kindness helping to shoulder your load, and may you hear his invitation to share the work of bearing the burdens of the people in your path who are weary and in need of help.