What Can One Person Do?
What Can One Person Do?
Introduction: What now?
For five weeks we have been teaching ourselves to see what Jesus sees and feel what Jesus feels, as we make our way through our days. I've found that it has opened my eyes and my heart to people in some powerful and sometimes disturbing ways.
One night a couple weeks ago I stopped at local convenience store to pick up some milk. Normally, I'm not sure I would have noticed the guy behind the counter, but this series has me noticing people I might not otherwise notice and paying more attention to them. My first thought was to feel bad for anyone who had to work the night shift in a convenience store, stuck behind a counter by yourself all night with nothing to look at but lottery tickets, chewing tobacco, and beef jerky. He looked to be in his thirties and that those years had been pretty rough on him. For some reason, his scanner wasn't reading the barcode of the milk, and he was having a hard time ringing up the sale. I asked if he wanted me to get another, but he gruffly said "No," even though he was getting more and more frustrated. I tried to engage him in a bit of conversation, just to lighten the mood, but he wasn't responding. When the sale finally went through, I smiled and said "Thanks," but he never even looked at me.
As I drove home in the dark, I couldn't get him out of my mind. I know that man is loved and valued by God, but does he know that? I know there's a community of believers here that would warmly welcome and love him, but does he know that? I know that God has important work for him to do, that he was put on this earth for a reason, that he can glorify God in a way no other human being can, but does he know that? I don't think so.
But what am I supposed to do? Reach over the counter, grab him by the collar, make him look me in the eye, and tell him that God loves him and has a wonderful plan for his life? Would he hear me? Would he believe me? Personally, I think doing something like that would be as scary for him as it would be for me!
So what do I do? How do I love? I'm finding out that seeing what Jesus sees and feeling what Jesus feels can really wreck your night!
And that was just one person. What about the sarcastic co-worker, the acting out teenager, the elderly neighbor? What about the people we talked about a couple weeks ago? The 1.2 billion who have no clean water? The millions who go to bed hungry every night? What about the orphans and widows and sick and imprisoned? What can one person do? What can one church do? It's easy to get overwhelmed by people's needs—to be paralyzed by the magnitude of the world's problems. And my guess is that's exactly what the disciples were dealing with as the sun set over the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus pointed to the hungry crowd and said, "You feed them."
As we begin to move toward the conclusion of our "Doing Good" series, we'd like to focus more deliberately on putting into practice the things we've been learning. As Tom put it in his message last week, we're hoping to ignite a grassroots revolution of goodness. We're praying that this commitment will transform the way we live as God's people in the world, and that it will change the way Christianity is perceived by so many in our culture today.
In our planning meetings here at church, we have jokingly referred to this coming week as "The Week of Doing Good." Certainly, we want to do good for more than a week—even more than a year. We hope that doing good will become a way of life for us. But you have to start somewhere, sometime, so we'd like to help you do that this week. Today we're going to offer you some practical help in doing good and then release you to do good all over greater Boston. But first let's take a closer look at this story from Mark 6 and see what we can learn about doing good in Jesus' name, wherever we are, with no strings attached.
Sheep without a shepherd
"The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not have a chance to eat, he said to them, 'Come away with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'" (Mark 6:30-31).
This event took place as the disciples were returning from a short-term mission trip. Jesus had sent them out two-by-two to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the Good News of the kingdom. Apparently, it had been a successful and exhausting trip. In fact, it had been so successful that the people kept coming; they wanted more. Jesus knew how tired and hungry his disciples were, so he hustled them into the boat, and they attempted to escape the madding crowd.
But the crowd would not be denied. They followed the boat along the shoreline, spreading the news as they pass through towns and villages, so that when Jesus and the 12 disciples finally landed, the crowd was already there waiting for them—5,000 men, along with women and children. The disciples' hearts must have sunk when they stepped out of the boat. But Jesus' heart did something else. Verse 34 tells us, "When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."
Turns out that sheep without a shepherd are a pathetic sight. They are literally lost. They don't know where to find water or green pasture. They don't when to stay put or when to move on. They can't defend themselves. Sheep without a shepherd are helpless and vulnerable. It's a curious and unsettling word picture that Jesus uses here.
A flock of sheep without a shepherd would be as odd as a bus full of people without a driver; a football team without a quarterback; a third grade classroom without a teacher. Seeing sheep without a shepherd would be as distressing as seeing a village without clean water; AIDS orphans without parents; a hospital without medicine; a nursing home with no visitors; teenagers with no role models; a convenience store clerk who doesn't know he matters.
The sight was so unsettling to Jesus that he was moved with compassion; literally, his insides went out to them. The disciples, on the other hand, had a very different reaction.
Someone should do something.
"By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. 'This is a remote place,' they said, 'and it's already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat'" (Mark 6:35-36).
The disciples were looking at the very same crowd of people Jesus was looking at, but where Jesus saw a flock of lost sheep, the disciples saw a flock of hungry vultures. They seem to have a serious case of "compassion fatigue." They had been on the road for days or weeks, giving themselves in ministry to people, and they had nothing left to give.
We know what that feels like. Life is hard. Sometimes it takes all we have just to get through the day, to meet our own needs and to care for the people we're responsible for. We know how it feels to be worn out, tapped out, burnt-out. We know how it feels to have nothing left.
The disciples knew there was a problem, but as far as they were concerned, it wasn't their problem. Someone needed to do something, but wasn't going to be them. That's when Jesus decided to wreck their day.
"You give them something to eat" (Mark 6:37). This wasn't just an unexpected and unreasonable demand. It was impossible. It couldn't be done. They didn't have enough time. It was too late in the day to go off in search of food. And even if they had the time, they didn't have the money. It would take nearly a year's salary to feed all those people. And even if they had the time and the money, it wasn't going to solve anything. The people would only want more the next day. These people needed to take responsibility for themselves, the disciples believed. Someone needed to teach them there's no such thing as a free lunch!
Then Jesus asked a game-changing question: "How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." Now Jesus knew they don't have much. He was the one who told them to "Take nothing for your journey—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts." But he also knew that if they looked, they would find they had something. And whatever that was, it would be enough.
What do you have?
Jesus asks the most penetrating questions, doesn't he? "What do you have?" We tend to focus on what we don't have. We don't have time. We don't have money. We don't have training. We don't have the gift of mercy. We don't have an outgoing personality. We're like a bunch of first graders, who, when the teacher asks, "How many of you brought your lunch today?" raise their hands and say, "Not me!" Jesus isn't interested in what we don't have. All he asks of us is what we have.
He's not asking if you have 40 hours a week to serve people, or 20 hours, or even 10. He's just asking if you have an evening to invite a neighbor over for dinner; or an hour to visit someone in the hospital; or a few minutes to call someone who might be feeling lonely.
He's not asking if you have thousands of dollars to give to the poor and needy. He's asking if you could skip going out to eat once or twice a month and support an orphan overseas. He's asking if you have enough money to pay for the car behind you at the drive-thru, or to drop off some groceries for someone.
He's not asking if you've been to seminary or if you have a degree in counseling. He's simply asking if you can offer someone a listening ear; or sit on the floor and play with children in a shelter; or read the Bible to someone in the nursing home or hospital.
Jesus isn't asking us to give what we don't have. He's simply asking us look again and see what we do have, and then do something good with it. He'll take it from there.
More than enough
Look what happens to the disciples. They think they have nothing, but when they look again, they discover they have five loaves and two fish. It's the ancient equivalent of a bologna sandwich and a bag of chips, a ridiculously small amount in the face of such a need. But when they place it in Jesus' hands, something remarkable happens: "Taking the five loaves and two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken bread and fish" (Mark 6:41-43).
There have been all kinds of attempts to explain away this miracle. Some have suggested that Jesus had a secret stash of food he had hidden away in advance. Another suggestion is that some wealthy women had packed up some super-sized picnic baskets and sent them out to Jesus. The most common explanation is that when the disciples brought out the five loaves and two fish, it inspired everyone else to bring out the food they had been keeping for themselves.
The problem with these explanations is that everything about this story testifies to its authenticity. The vivid details are evidence of an eyewitness account. The unflattering portrayal of the disciples means none of them would have made this story up. The fact that it appears in all four gospels makes it one of the best-attested of all Jesus' miracles. And the fact that there were at least 5,000 eyewitnesses would have made it pretty hard to pull off a hoax.
The only explanation for what happened that day is that Jesus worked a miracle—the same kind of miracle he can work with whatever we have to bring him. If we bring what we have, and do what we can, Jesus will take it from there. That's our big idea for this morning: doing good means doing what you can, with what you have, and leaving the results to him.
Why this miracle?
Whenever you come to a miracle story in the gospels, it's always helpful to ask Why? We know that Jesus never wasted words or actions. He was deliberate and purposeful at every turn. Why did Jesus perform this miracle?
First of all, Jesus performed this miracle to bless people. Keep in mind that these people weren't starving. They all had homes to go to. Most of them probably had money in their pockets. There was plenty of food in nearby towns and fields. It wasn't a life or death situation; Jesus just wanted to bless these people. They were peasants, most of them. Their lives were very ordinary and sometimes quite hard. He wanted them to know that they mattered—to him and to his heavenly Father. So he decided to do something good for them.
Now, did they all understand it? Did they turn to him repentance and faith? No. But Jesus was okay with that. He just wanted to bless them—to give them a taste of God's goodness and a glimpse into the kingdom of heaven. You've got to believe they went home that day wondering who that miracle man was and what else he had to say.
And that's why Jesus asks us to do good—to bless people with acts of kindness and beauty and grace. He wants us to interrupt the normal flow of their lives, to let them know they matter to someone, and that there's a better way to live. When you do something good for someone—something unexpected, something undeserved—you stop them in their tracks for just a moment, and they have to ask themselves why someone would do such a thing. In that moment, in that asking, God is able to speak into their lives and draw them a little bit closer to him.
One day a couple of church members were out distributing loaves of bread in a low-income housing complex. They came to an apartment where they heard arguing through the door, but they decided to knock anyway. A man opened the door and asked what they wanted. One of the visitors said, "We don't want anything. We just wondered if you know anyone who could use some loaves of bread?" "Why are you doing that?" the man asked. "Just to let people know that God loves them." "What did you just say?" the man asked, rather anxiously. "We're just handing out loaves of bread to let people know that God loves them." The man stared and said, "I can't believe this. We just buried our three-week-old son yesterday, and now here you are at our door." The visitors offered to pray with them, and the couple accepted their offer. As they were leaving, and the door was being closed, they heard the husband say to his wife, "See, honey? I told you God cares. We thought he wasn't paying attention to us, but he sent those people here to make sure we knew."
A couple loaves of bread. A random act of kindness. That's all God needs to break into someone's life, to let them know that he's there and that he cares. That's why Jesus blessed people, and that's why he asks us to do the same.
But there's a second reason Jesus performed this miracle. There's something else going on. Jesus isn't just concerned about the crowd. He's also concerned for his disciples. He wants them to grow through this experience. That's the second reason he performs this miracle: to grow his disciples. Think about it for a minute. Did Jesus really need the disciples help here? Did he say to himself, I'd love to feed this hungry mob. If only I had a few loaves and fishes to work with! Of course not! Jesus was perfectly capable of feeding the multitude without the feeble help the disciples had to offer.
Jesus performed this miracle and asked these 12 to help so that he could grow them as disciples. He wanted to soften their hearts so they would begin to see people as he did. He wanted to increase their faith so they would learn to trust him, even when it seemed unreasonable. He wanted to empower them for ministry—to show them what he could do through them if they would simply make themselves available to him.
That's what those 12 baskets were about. Notice that there was a basket for each of them—a personal reminder that when we bring what we have to Jesus, no matter how little it seems, he can do more with it than anything we could ever ask or imagine.
Jesus asks us to do good to grow us as disciples, too. This whole emphasis on "doing good" isn't just about blessing people and the world around us. It's a means by which we will be transformed more fully into Christ-like people, and into a church that will be his hands and feet in greater Boston and the world. Spiritual formation isn't just a matter of prayer and study and worship; it's also a matter of service, charity, and good works. Doing good is exciting not only for the impact it will have on the people around us, but also for the impact it will have on us and our church!
So with those ends in mind—to bless others and to grow in Christ-likeness—we'd like to launch a week of doing good. Some of you have already gotten your feet wet with the things we've been talking about, but this week I'd like to challenge each and all of us to open our eyes to the people around us and to do something good in Jesus' name. To help you do that, we'd like to offer you a little tool we think can be very helpful and powerful: little business-size cards that say, "Just a reminder that you really matter." When you do something good for someone, slip them this card as well. The web address on the back of it will direct them to our church.
So what we'd like you to do is sit down this afternoon and think about some things you might do this week. Talk it over as a family or with your small group. As you make your way through the week, see what Jesus sees, and feel what Jesus feels, then do something good, and leave a card that can bless people in some powerful ways.
And if you're feeling a little uncomfortable with all this, remember those disciples on the hillside in Galilee. Like them, we could come up with all kinds of reasons why we can't do this: we don't have time; we don't have money; we don't have that kind of personality; we don't go to drive-thru restaurants. Jesus isn't interested in what you don't have, and what you can't do. He simply asks you to do what you can, with what you have, and leave the rest to him.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.