Sermons That Work

What Works Best?, Epiphany 5 (B) – 2003

February 09, 2003

What works best? Proclaiming the good news of salvation loudly so that as much of the world around one as possible can hear it? Or doing good works in quiet humility and letting one’s deeds speak for themselves? Today, some people take to the airwaves to let others know the good news of Jesus Christ. Others work quietly in soup kitchens, food pantries, or shelters for the homeless. Some do both. So what works best?

“What works best” is a trick question. The truth is that God is made known in all manner of places, by all sorts and conditions of people, doing all kinds of different things. The prophet Elisha heals the Shunammite woman’s son in the privacy of a room in her home, hardly a public venue. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law while in the home of Simon and Peter. The apostle Paul boldly speaks of his commission to preach the good news of Christ—free of charge—to all he encounters so that they may share in the blessings of the Gospel. Who is to say what works best?

As we consider the readings for today, we can conclude that God has no one preference for making known the power of the divine. It makes sense in this season of Epiphany to acknowledge the light of God that animates all of creation. It is the power of this divine light that heals the sick, brings new life where death has occurred, and allows those who walk in the darkness of despair to be bathed in the light of hope. And on this day of worship, when we do “the work of the people” or the liturgy, we can more plainly see how there are many hands that join to make this happen. And such is the case in our everyday lives. In all that we do, God’s power can make a difference. It is not always about great fame, renowned persons, or high profile events.

Milton S. Hershey, of chocolate fame, had an awesome talent for building his business. Interestingly, while alive he did this without spending a single penny on advertising. He did this quietly and without great fanfare. After a couple of failed attempts, J.C. Penney established his retail store and one of the unique touchstones of his successful venture was his decision to make all of the employees “associates” in the business. A man of faith and regular churchgoer, J.C. Penney shared his wealth and was known for his philanthropic generosity. A teacher in the Chicago school system treated the learning challenged students in her class the same as the others and the academic performance of the challenged pupils improved significantly. This notion of “mainstreaming” pupils with learning difficulties is used widely today. A drunken man showed up at the door of the world famous Bowery Mission in New York City: he was welcomed with open arms, given three square meals a day, and successfully participated in their recovery program that addressed his physical, psychological, and spiritual needs. Soon thereafter, he was reunited with his family and returned to his law practice. This mission is quietly supported by the Mennonite community, based in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

None of these persons or groups undertook their work seeking to be famous or even to be fantastically rich. They did and do their work with great humility. And they have made a difference in this world.

It is interesting to read that after Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, the whole city gathered at the door of the home and he healed many who were sick and cast out many demons. Yet, in the quiet of the next morning Jesus went to a lonely spot to pray. When his disciples followed him there, he told them that they would now go to the next towns to preach there also because, in his own words, “that is why I came out.”

Once there was a senior warden in a small parish. When his term ended he announced that he was going to become a member of the Altar Guild. He was already a member of the church choir and served as a lector. And he said he wanted to do something that was as important as reading a lesson or singing hymns and anthems. Much to his own surprise, as well as the surprise of others, he concluded that the Altar Guild provided that opportunity. “You see,” he said at the annual meeting, “as senior warden God gave me the opportunity to witness the importance of ALL of our work.” And he became the first ever male member of the Altar Guild in that parish and, as things like this go, he eventually assumed the role of director of the Altar Guild! He had discovered that it was not all about what one does “up front” but also what one does “behind the scenes.” And this was a blessing for him and for the parish.

Preaching does not always take place from a pulpit on a Sunday morning. Sometimes our actions do speak louder than words. Jesus, Paul, and Elisha all have a message for us today. They are witnesses to the light of God. In public and private deeds, in the spoken word, and in prayer, each of them was called to bear witness to that light. And, like them, so are we.


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Christopher Sikkema


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