6th Sunday of Easter
Micah 6:6-8, Mark 4:30-32
Pastor Marty Raths
I have a small collection of rocks at home. Rocks like this one which is from the coast of Mexico. I keep them on a desk beside my bed as a reminder of places I have been, experiences I have had, and insights I have gleaned along the way. As we all know, some things in life are worth remembering, and I got to thinking about these rocks as I was working on this sermon for Confirmation Sunday.
It occurred to me that, like all of us, I have picked up some “mental rocks” in my 34 years of pastoral ministry, things that I have picked up along the way of faith and put here in my mind and heart as a way to help to me stay on the way. They have become essentials of the faith for me, sort of like the essentials that Micah gives us in the passage that Donna read. “What does the Lord require of us?” Micah asks, and then he goes on to say that what God wants us to do is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
I cannot improve upon these great requirements, as they are sometimes called, but I would like to supplement them with a few of my own on this Confirmation Sunday. There is a movie based on a novel by Nicolas Evans called The Horse Whisperer. And in the movie a horse is injured in an accident, but even after it heals physically, it remains traumatized. No one can ride it. No one can even come near it.
When the mother of the young girl who owns the horse hears about a horse whisperer, played by Robert Redford, she invites him to come work with the horse. These horse whisperers are people who use a different type of training with horses than the more traditional one which involves breaking them, and they work especially well with troubled horses. Now when the mother first meets this horse whisperer, she says, “I have a horse problem.” To which he replies, “I don’t help people with a horse problem. I help horses with a people problem.”
At the time I read a review of the movie, and in the review a real life horse whisperer was quoted as saying this about his work, “What I try to do is to teach the troubled horse a truer story about itself.” A truer story about itself.
I have never forgotten that statement because it is at the heart of the gospel, the good news that God was in Christ teaching us a truer story about ourselves. Now we are told a lot of stories about ourselves, many of which are not true. And what most of these stories have in common is that they tell us that we should be this or that or the other without any reference to God, to who God is and to who we are in the eyes of God. And the truer story about ourselves that we are given through the life and ministry and the death and resurrection of Jesus is that we are all beloved children of God. Each one of us. Without exception.
Jesus expressed this so movingly in the parable of the prodigal son, when the younger son returns home, and he is so ashamed of what he has done that he asks to come back as a hired hand. But the father tells him a different story, “No,” he says. “That is not who you are. You are my beloved son.” And hearing that truer story about himself marks the beginning of the younger son’s restoration into the good graces of his father. And for most of us this is a story that we need to hear again and again, that we are beloved sons and daughters of God, lest we be tempted to believe like that younger son a different story about ourselves, one that diminishes our worth in the eyes of God.
The pastor and writer John Ortberg tells the story of a friend who made his first trip down south. On his first morning in the south he went into a restaurant to order breakfast, and it seemed to him as if every dish included something called grits. Not being familiar with this southern dish, Ortberg’s friend asked the waitress, “Could you tell me, exactly what is a grit?” Looking down on him with a mixture of compassion and condescension, she said, “Sugar, you can’t get just one grit. They always come together.”’
And the same is true for us as followers of Jesus Christ. We talked about this in confirmation, how being a Christian is like being on a team or in a choir or a band or an orchestra. We cannot be any of these by ourselves, a baseball team of one or a choral ensemble of one. So we need to keep connected to the church and to other faithful followers of Jesus.
This is a part of what Micah means when he tells us to walk humbly with God. The arrogant believe that they have no need for anyone, but the humble in the faith know that we cannot go it alone. We need God of course, but we need each other as well. The way is difficult sometimes, so we need each other’s support, encouragement, and guidance. Jesus was echoing Micah when he said, “Where two or more are gathered, I am with you.” Two or more. He was also echoing that waitress. You see we are like grits. As followers of Jesus, we need to come together.
There is a quote attributed to many that has become a sort of moral North Star for me. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” There is so much that I treasure about this quote, its wise counsel about what we should assume about one another, about how we should err on the side of grace in our relations with one another, about how the golden rule should determine our treatment of one another. But what I treasure most is that its counsel is so doable. You see there are many things that most of cannot be in life. But we can all be kind if we so choose.
Kindness belongs in the category of mustard seed morals, and Jesus gave these seeds a place of prominence in the kingdom. Now acts of kindness can seem small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, making it easy for us to go from so what to why bother in our daily interactions with one another. But in his parable of the mustard seed Jesus is telling us that any act of kindness, however small, is worth doing; and just as the tiniest of mustard seeds can become so much more, so too can our simple acts of kindness.
Tim and Kyle were best friends in high school, though theirs was a somewhat unlikely friendship. Tim was popular, a good student, a star athlete. Kyle was the studious type. They had first met in the fall of freshman year. It was a Friday afternoon, and Kyle was walking home from school, and he was carrying all of his books. Tim saw him and wondered why anyone would take all their books home on a weekend. He had a full weekend planned, and it did not include a whole lot of studying. What a nerd, Tim thought to himself.
Just then, Tim saw some older students starting to make fun of Kyle. They were pointing at him, and making comments about his armful of books. Then one of the students ran towards him, and into him, knocking Kyle to the ground and sending his books flying. Tim hesitated for a few moments, knowing that it would be easier to do nothing. But eventually he made his way over to Kyle. He helped him pick up his books, and he said to him, “Never mind them. They are just jerks.”
And a friendship was born, and they remained best of friends all through high school. Their senior year Kyle won and academic scholarship to Georgetown University and Tim won an athletic scholarship to Duke. Kyle was also valedictorian of the class, so at graduation he gave the student speech. When that time came, he stepped up to the lectern, and he began, “Graduation is a time to thank those who have helped us: parents, teachers, siblings, coaches, but mostly, friends. I’m going to tell you a story,” Kyle went on, “but first I want my friend, Tim, to stand up.”
Nervously Tim stood up, wondering what Kyle was going to say, when Kyle began to tell that story of how they had first met. “Tim has become my best friend,” Kyle said, “He knows most everything about me, except one thing. He doesn’t know why I was carrying all of my books home that day. Well, I was a new kid at school. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any friends. And I was really depressed. And the reason I was carrying all my books home that day was that I was planning on taking my life that weekend. I had cleaned out my locker so my parents would not have to do it afterwards.”
Then Kyle turned towards Tim and he said, “Tim, you saved my life that day. You did what nobody else at school would do. You reached out to me, and I have been waiting 4 years now to thank you.” When Kyle finished, the entire gymnasium was silent.
We do not always know at the time what good will come from even our smallest acts of kindness, like helping to pick up a fellow student’s books, but what we do know is that Jesus has promised that when we do what is the right thing, the just thing, the kind thing we plant the mustard seeds of goodness, and in good time those seeds will bear fruit.
So, and I am saying this to our confirmands especially but to all of us really, remember to be kind. We can all do it. And remember to stay connected to other followers of Jesus. We need each other on the way. All of us. And above all, never, ever forget that we are all beloved sons and daughters of God. Each of us. Without exception. And there is no truer story about us than that because this is the story God tells us in Christ.