Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 2, 2017 (Proper 8A)

A Reading from How The Grinch Stole Christmas:

“And the Grinch grabbed the tree, and he started to shove, When he heard a small sound How_the_Grinch_Stole_Christmas_coverlike the coo of a dove. He turned around fast, and he saw a small Who! Little Cindy-Lou Who, who was not more than two. The Grinch had been caught by this tiny Who daughter, Who’d got out of bed for a cup of cold water. She stared at the Grinch and said, ‘Santy Claus, why,’ ‘Why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?’ But, you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick! ‘Why, my sweet little tot,’ the fake Santy Claus lied, ‘There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.’ And his fib fooled the child. Then he patted her head, And he got her a drink and he sent her to bed. And when Cindy-Lou Who went to bed with her cup, HE went to the chimney and stuffed the tree up!”

Don’t worry, I have not completely lost my mind. We’re not celebrating Christmas in July here at St. John’s. But whenever I hear about Cindy Lou Who and her search for a cup of cold water on that fateful Christmas Eve in Whoville, I’m always reminded of Jesus who says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones” will be rewarded.

In the great pantheon of random acts of kindness, giving someone a cup of water is hardly the greatest act of service you can offer. Well, it depends on the circumstances, I guess. I mean if you encounter someone crawling through the desert, like in one of those comic strip tropes, it could actually be a heroic, life-saving act. But I think the point here is that even the smallest act of kindness matters. And not only does it matter, it is as if you are serving Jesus himself. It’s hard not to hear these words in Matthew’s gospel without connecting them to Jesus’ later statement in Matthew 25: “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

Seeing Christ in one another is a hallmark of our faith. It’s not a great leap from hearing that we are made in God’s image to striving to see the face of Jesus in others. But it’s not enough just to see Christ in other people and move on — as if we’re staring at them through a tank at the aquarium. No, we’re also called to seek and serve Christ in all persons. To dive in and engage with others in tangible ways — both great and small.

And I think the smallest acts get short shrift. We like to focus on grand gestures; on people who are celebrated in the national media for changing the world; we like to be inspired by larger-than-life spiritual heroes. Like Gandhi or Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama or Malala.

And we need that. But Jesus reminds us time and time again that small things are just as important. It’s why he tells us faith the size of the tiny mustard seed can move mountains. And praises the lone leper who returned, after being healed, to say ‘thank you.’ It’s why Jesus himself often did the seemingly smallest and most menial tasks. Like washing feet and cooking breakfast and interacting with children. Small gestures point to a big heart. They are windows into our very souls.

In his words and in his actions, Jesus is reminding us to engage in such small acts. That they matter. That they make a difference. That even if you think something is just a drop in the bucket, it is important. These small acts are marks of a faithful life well lived.

It’s often said that if you want to see someone’s true character, watch how they treat people when no one’s watching. How they interact with people who can do nothing for them. Look at the superstar player after the game. How does he treat the guy picking up dirty laundry in the locker room? With respect and dignity? With contempt? Or does he fail to even notice him at all?

You may not be a superstar, but how do you treat people in the shadow economy? The busboy in the restaurant, the maid in the hotel, the landscaper working in your neighbor’s yard, the nanny waiting at the bus stop. Do you look for the face of Jesus in these fellow children of God or are they invisible to you? Recognizing them, acknowledging them, is the first step to leading an integrated life; one that meshes our actions with what we proclaim on Sunday morning.

It’s hard to imagine Jesus telling a big crowd of people to love your neighbor as yourself one moment, and then chewing out the disciples for overcooking his dinner the next. That’s not practicing what you preach and it leads to living an inauthentic life of disharmony. Which is the exact opposite of how Jesus lived in this world and how he invites us to live.

The juxtaposition of the Grinch’s cup of cold water with the one Jesus is talking about does force us to confront the intentions of our hearts. The Grinch did, in fact, give Cindy Lou Who a cup of cold water. He satisfied her physical need. And he even comforted her by patting her on the head. But this wasn’t a genuine act of concern. He was just doing it to get her to go away quietly so he could get back to the business of stealing Christmas.

When you do something nice for someone, it is important to examine your own intentions. Is it to get something in return? Is it to get on someone’s good side? Or is it out of genuine love and concern. Sure, a lot of good gets done with mixed intentions. The corporation that has their employees clean up the harbor is doing a good thing even as they have their PR person make sure it gets covered in the local paper.

Even here at church, when we engage in outreach ministries financially and in hands-on ways, is it all completely pure? Is it all because Jesus tells us to do this or is it at least a little bit to assuage our own guilt or to make us feel good or because we think it looks good in the community? These are hard questions of motive.

In the end, though, I think our motives are secondary. Do good. That’s the key. God knows the intentions of our hearts. Good intentions are nice but actions are what matter. And so we can instead ask ourselves in what ways do we offer others a cup of cold water? In other words, what is your version of a cup of cold water? How do you welcome those who need welcoming or reach out to those in need? It could be the giving of your time in a volunteer setting or praying for those in harm’s way or offering a word of encouragement to someone who is feeling broken and vulnerable.

Whatever that metaphorical cup of cold water is for you on any given day, just offer it. There are so many small ways in which to sow kindness in the world. And know that you are indeed doing God’s most holy work. Because these acts bind us one to another and they bind us to Jesus Christ. They build up the community that is the church and they build up our relationship with God.

You know, the Grinch eventually does have a conversion experience. And by the end of the book he’s sitting at that table carving the roast beast with Cindy Lou Who sitting at his right hand. He begins to live his life in harmony; the small acts take on greater meaning. And we are encouraged to go and do likewise.

© The Tim Schenck 2017

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