Another week, another mass shooting.
It’s gotten so commonplace that something as shocking as the death of 26 people this week at a church service in Sutherland Springs seems almost normal. Hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Houston, and Florida; earthquakes in Mexico; wildfires in Santa Rosa; violence in Charlottesville; and another mass shooting in Las Vegas. And that’s only in the past 3 months. Tragedy upon tragedy seems to be piling up like a bad traffic jam on the 405 freeway – just one thing after another making us frustrated, angry and filled with bitterness. It’s enough to make you turn away from God figuring that any world where God allows this to happen must not have a God. I mean why doesn’t He DO something?! Then the other day as I was looking for songs to share in worship I literally stumbled upon one by Matthew West called “Do Something” where he says in song the answer to that question. Matt sings about all of these horrible things going on in the world, he raises his fist to Heaven and shouts to God, “Why don’t you do something?” and God responds, “I did. I created YOU.”
We can’t prevent every tragedy in the world.
But shouldn’t we try? If you have a Bible or Bible app on your phone, please find 1 John 3:16-18. We have to do more than simply offer our thoughts and prayers in response to a crisis. While thoughts and prayers are vitally important and part of what we SHOULD do as Christians, the Bible teaches us clearly that words without actions are hollow. I’m not saying that you have to be a first responder, or fly down to Puerto Rico carrying a bag of food, or go to Santa Rosa and rebuild a house. If you do, that’s awesome! But what I’m saying is if all we do is offer “thoughts and prayers” and do nothing else, we’re wasting the gifts God has given us. It’s like in the Parable of the Talents where Jesus tells the story of these three servants. Each one is given some money to be in charge of while their Master is away and two of them go out and double the amount they were given while the last just buried it in the sand and did nothing. And we hear in that story how God is disappointed and angry at the guy who did nothing with the gift he was given. Maybe he didn’t use it unwisely, but the problem was he didn’t use it at all. And God teaches us that when we fail to use our gifts he considers that a waste. The apostle John, in this first letter of his sums it up nicely.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
Each of us has the ability to make the world a better place, but it requires effort.
Thoughts and prayers are great, but they are not enough, not if we can do something about it. Sometimes, thoughts and prayers are all we can offer. But thoughts and prayers coupled with action are powerful indeed. When someone is in the hospital, we should lift up thoughts and prayers, but if our presence would be of help then maybe we should go visit. When we are far away and someone we know is going through a rough time, thoughts and prayers are important, but so is a phone call or a letter or a small gift. When natural disasters occur, thoughts and prayers go a long way, but so does a donation for relief and assistance, making a disaster bucket for UMCOR, or donating blood. The point that John was trying to make in his letter goes back to that old adage “actions speak louder than words.” If we know there are people who need help and it’s within our ability to do so, we have an obligation to do something. We may not always be able to help and in those situations the best we can do is offer our prayers, but when we CAN we need to step forward and make a difference.
And we don’t have to be service superstars to make a difference either.
We don’t have to make an UMCOR bucket once a week or visit hospitals 24/7. Sometimes we make the biggest impact in the small things we do to serve one another every day. Taking out the trash when it gets full, washing the dishes, picking up the laundry off the floor; these small tasks are often the backbone of a life of service. Richard Foster, author of the book Celebration of Discipline, said that service is often found in the “mundane, the ordinary, and the trivial.” Every act trains us for a life of service. As Foster wrote, “Large tasks require great sacrifice for a moment; small things require constant sacrifice.” The large tasks are the things that garner us attention and praise, but the small tasks, the tasks of everyday service, are what keep us humble and give us a heart for God. That is not to say we should never do big amazing things for others, but that if we are grounded in the everyday, it will become part of who we are and will help us to grow and maintain an attitude of service toward that God is hoping to see in us.
It’s not surprising then that a life of service has its benefits.
Like we’ve been talking about with prayer, coming to church, and giving, service has tangible benefits, too. It’s part of the way God wired us. God created us for a life of service, to Him and to one another. It’s not surprising that when Jesus was asked the greatest commandment he said to love the Lord your God, but then added without being asked, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:39)” When we act in harmony with the kind of people God wants us to be, our lives turn out better because of it. And longer apparently. A 2012 study found that people who volunteered out of the goodness of their heart (and not just to get something out of it) lived longer than those who didn’t. People who volunteered also had lower blood pressure than those who don’t. What’s interesting is that volunteering has bigger benefits the OLDER you are! A study done in Great Britain on mental health and wellbeing found that those who volunteered reported to be healthier than those who didn’t and that the older you were the more of an effect it seemed to have. Volunteering also makes us happier. According to a study done by the London School of Economics, the more people volunteered the happier they were. Those who volunteered monthly were 7% more likely to be “very happy” with their lives while those who volunteered every 2-4 weeks were 12% more likely to be “very happy.” And for those who volunteered weekly? They were 16% more likely to be “very happy” than those who didn’t volunteer. What’s astonishing is that’s the same increase in happiness from people who make $20,000 a year to making $75,000 to $100,000 a year! Who would have guessed that volunteering makes us happier, more mentally fit, more physically fit, and live longer?
The real payoff though is that it brings us closer to God.
And closer to being the people God hopes for us to be. The rest of it are byproducts of living a life we were meant to live. To be Christian means to serve others, to think of others before ourselves. That may seem to some to be a risky way to live, but it’s risky in the best way possible! It’s risky not because people might take advantage of our good will, but risky because it opens us up to possibilities we might never have imagined. James, the brother of Jesus wrote “22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)” James is trying to tell us that ignoring God’s Word is forgetting essentially who we were created to be, but for those that dare to live the life God has planned for us will not only be free from life’s worries and anxieties, but will feel the blessing of God in their life in a way others just cannot.
Every week, sometimes every day, seems filled with tragedy.
It can be overwhelming at times and there are moments when it feels like its never going to get better. But it can! And it starts with us. Imagine a world where we all did the right thing instead of whatever it is we can get out of it. Imagine a world where politicians actually represented the people they were elected to represent instead of the special interests who help get them elected. Imagine a world where companies didn’t do the profitable thing, but the right thing. Companies who didn’t raise the price on life-saving pharmaceuticals by 5000%. Imagine a world where your husband takes out the trash without being asked a dozen times. What if the whole world decided to help each other? We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because we could have confidence that someone else was looking out for us. That world begins with you. How in the world is taking out the trash going to stop these tragedies from occurring? One person at a time. It’s up to us to take care of each other, to look out for our neighbor, and to risk living the life God intended for us to live. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 25th Anniversary Edition, (Harper San Francisco: New York, 1978), 127.
 Richard Donovan from lectionary.org http://www.lectionary.org/EXEG-English/NT/ENT04-John/John%2013.01-17,%2031b-35.htm, 135.
 Note: both Democrats AND Republicans agree on major gun control legislation, but politicians never seem to vote on it despite the majority of Americans from both parties wanting it. http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/02/politics/bipartisan-gun-control-policies-majorities/index.html
 Note: Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of Daraprim used to treat life-threatening infections from $13.50 to $750 overnight according to the New York Times in 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/business/a-huge-overnight-increase-in-a-drugs-price-raises-protests.html