The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 11, 2021
When Howard Hendricks was learning to preach, he filled a pulpit in a remote part of West Texas. The church was not just in the middle of nowhere, but 25 miles further out from there. And only seven people showed up for worship! But, because he needed the practice (not to mention the honorarium money), Howard wanted to make a good first impression and get invited back. He imagined saying to that teeming throng of seven, “If I give you one tasty potato chip of a sermon, I’ll bet you can’t eat just one!”
After the service, a tall rancher approached Howard and burst his bubble. He said, “In your sermon you said something plain dumb. You said, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. That ain’t true. You can feed the horse salt beforehand.”
Jesus asks His disciples to be the salt of the earth, people who make others thirst for God.
We talk about stewardship of affluence: using our money to help folks connect with God. We should also talk about stewardship of influence: using the weight of our character and conduct to do the same thing.
Each of us must face the fact that we have impact on others. Who we are and what we do almost always has a positive or negative effect on folks, even if it goes unnoticed at first.
In a TED talk John Sutherland, a forensic scientist in London’s police department, pointed out that wherever we go, we leave behind a trace of ourselves, a sign of our having been there: a fingerprint, a dandruff flake, a fiber from our clothes, something. Sutherland added that with whomever we interact, we also leave a trace of ourselves, a lasting impression of what we’re about. Whether with a lifelong friend or a passing stranger, every social contact we have makes an impact on the other person, consciously or unconsciously, for good or for ill. How is that so? By our embodying our values, in some way or another, before them!
Christians value embodying the spirit of Jesus and leaving a trace of Him behind them. We want to give evidence of His presence so as to stimulate a thirst in others to know Him. We can do this without doing anything impressive or dramatic. Just a kind word, a warm smile or a sincere offer can do the trick. Even a small act can have a big impact that is more consequential than we might imagine. Like a single domino tipped over to touch the next one in a line of dominos, one thing can lead to another and something amazing ends up happening. One person tells a friend in passing how great it felt to bring a homemade casserole to an elderly shut-in. That gets the friend to think about all the folks suffering from food insecurity. She in turn shares her thinking at her book club. That prompts its members to talk about doing something together; and soon they’ve got a food pantry going to feed the hungry!
Our impact can travel wide. It can also travel over long stretches of time. Some people at Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, dared to trust God and to allow Him to make a covenant with them; and as a result we who live 3200 years later are engaged in the same covenant. From these ancient, imperfect, inconsistent spiritual ancestors, we inherited a legacy without which we’d be infinitely impoverished. And those ancestors didn’t have a clue as to how far in time and with what size of impact the influence of their choice would extend.
And what is true of them back then is true of us now. We’re impacting folks in subsequent generations as well as in our own. Our choices in the present are setting off a cause-and-effect chain reaction that leads to far-reaching good or ill in the future. The long-lasting repercussions of our choices require careful consideration of the consequences upon those we may have never met. Our bad choices can hurt folks three or four generations down the line by putting into play spiritual and social forces that alter their possibilities and vulnerabilities. Conversely, our good choices can help folks a 1,000 generations down the line – how great that the reach of grace far surpasses that of sin – by opening up ways for God’s love to work its wonders centuries later. Our choices today expand or contract God’s capacity tomorrow to benefit those born into a world that we helped to shape and that they inherited from us.
Today’s scripture should give us a sober sense of responsibility, whether our sphere of influence is relatively narrow and short-term, or quite broad and long-term – like that of Chuck Feeney, a man featured last year in a Forbes magazine article entitled “The Billionaire Who Wanted to Die Broke”. Feeney amassed a fortune as the co-founder of airport retailer Duty Free Shoppers and then resolved to spend that entire fortune, before he died, to make a difference in the world. Over the past four decades, he donated more than $8 billion to charities around the globe. He kept saying “Zero is my hero!” as he used up everything he had to better the world until he had nothing left.
And he’d often add, with a twinkle in his eye, “It’s more fun to give while you live.”
Though we may not have the wherewithal of a Chuck Feeney, we can have just as much fun by maximizing our generational and ecumenical impact. Let us live to give all the grace God’s given us in Christ Jesus!