Doing Small Things with Great Love
Baptism of Our Lord – January 15, 2017
First Lutheran Church – Winnipeg, MB
The season after Epiphany always begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism.
No, an epiphany means that something has been revealed.
The curtain is drawn back and we glimpse a revelation.
This season between Christmas and Lent invites us to look closely at Jesus and see God.
But, as the religious writer Debie Blue observes, the problem is, to put it bluntly:
How many of us have ever had revealed to us a great shining star in the East?
Or seen the Spirit descend like a dove, like in today’s story?
Or watched water become wine?
Or watched Jesus’ clothes turn blazing white on a mountaintop?
Or hear God’s voice clear as a bell?
Very few of us are overwhelmed with signs and wonders such that we are left in
little doubt as to who Jesus really is.
Most often we experience God in silence – how many of us complain that God talks too much?
Rather, as I once heard a monk say, “Silence is the language God speaks.”
Sometimes we read these stories in the season of Epiphany and find them incredible.
Maybe sometimes even embarrassing.
It’s interesting to know that the early church found today’s story embarrassing too.
But do you know why it was thought embarrassing?
It wasn’t because of the miraculous bits of the story.
It wasn’t because of the divine booming voice from the sky.
It wasn’t because the sky was opened and a magic dove came down from heaven.
No: it wasn’t because of these things the church was scandalized.
Rather, it was because of the very ordinary parts of the story.
It was because Jesus came to submit to John’s baptism –
John, who to all appearances was completely insane – a crazed trouble-maker;
even John thinks it is ridiculous that Jesus should submit to him.
And what about the baptism of repentance that Jesus undergoes?
That Jesus should get in the water with all the other sinners?
And identify himself with them and their needs?
Now that is embarrassing for a Church that proclaimed Jesus is Lord,
Jesus is God in the flesh, Jesus is the Messiah, the King.
But this, of course, is just the kind of Messiah, just the kind of Lord, just the kind of God
that Jesus is and that Jesus reveals.
A God whose love seeks to identify with the least and the lost,
a God whose loves knows no barrier,
a God who is willing to get into the deep, murky water with us,
and stay with us and love us there.
This is what Epiphany reveals to us –
we just have to look at Jesus and look at the story a little more deeply.
Like I said last week I have been thinking about the incarnation a lot this year,
and thinking more and more about what this means for us.
And one of the things I have come to appreciate is that when God joined God’s self
to a human body in Jesus, in some way God bound God’s self closely to all of
When Jesus got in the water, God joined God’s self to the water,
and God joined God’s self to all those in the water.
When we are baptized, God’s very self is joined to us.
And when we are baptized, we are somehow mysteriously joined, like Jesus,
to all the suffering, to all the least and the lost in the world.
And so, Epiphany teaches us, when we look deeply at our neighbour in need,
when we serve the vulnerable, we will see Jesus and we will find God.
Mother Teresa was canonized and declared a saint in September.
Many people saw a God of infinite love shining through her actions.
And many were changed and came to see the world – and themselves –
differently because of her.
When I was in Calcutta many years ago, I visited an orphanage run by her
Missionaries of Charity.
The part of Calcutta I was in was very dirty, very smelly, very noisy and crowded.
But when I entered the orphanage, I found a little island of calm in an ocean of chaos.
I found quietness and peace and happy, well-cared for children.
I discovered the great difference Christians could make in the world when they
treat each person – no matter how small and no matter how vulnerable –
as if that person were Christ.
That changed me and I am grateful for it – for me, that was an epiphany.
But others have had much more profound experiences than I.
I read this week about one such person, a physician from Kansas City named Gary Morsch.
When he was a young graduate from medical school he visited Calcutta too –
and went straight to the Missionaries of Charity in order to do some good.
He found Mother Teresa, told her about himself and how he was a young doctor who
wanted to make a difference, and asked her where he could best be put to use.
She wrote something down on a little piece of paper, folded it, gave it to him,
and told him in her raspy voice to take it to Sister Priscilla.
When he did, sister Priscilla looked at the note and a little smile formed on her face.
She told him to follow her.
She took him to The House of the Dying Destitute.
Perfect, he thought! Here I can make a real difference, and soon its name will be changed to
The House of Hope for the Living!
She led him through the men’s ward where he found cots of men who were weak,
in pain, and who were little more than skeletons with skin.
Excellent, he thought, this is just where a doctor should be – I can relieve some of this suffering.
But Sister Priscilla continued walking, and they entered the women’s ward,
filled with thin emaciated women.
Okay, thought Gary Morsch, this is good too: I can be very useful here.
But they kept walking through the women’s ward.
Then Sister Priscilla led him into the kitchen.
Oh, nice! Thought Doctor Morsch. They want to give me something to eat first!
But they kept on walking through the kitchen.
And they kept on walking right through the back door into the alley.
There, Sister Priscilla pointed to a very large, very revolting pile of garbage,
so revolting it made Morsch gag.
She handed him a shovel and two buckets and said,
“We need you to take this garbage to the dump. It is several blocks down on the right.
You can’t miss it.”
And with that, she left.
Morsch was shocked. Didn’t they realize who he was?
It took him all afternoon to clear the pile of garbage away in the extreme heat of Calcutta.
By the time he was done, he was sweating and a foul stench permeated him.
He walked back through the kitchen, back through the women’s ward,
and back through the men’s ward in order to say goodbye to Sister Priscilla.
And that’s when he saw the sign over the doorway in Mother Teresa’s handwriting:
You can do no great things – only small things with great love.
Of that moment, he says:
My heart melted. It dawned on me that serving others is not about how much I know.
It’s about attitude and availability to do whatever is needed – with love.
I learned that shoveling garbage with love is different from just shovelling garbage.
Jesus looks at the murky water with love and he looks at the lost ones in it with love.
They look ordinary to us but they don’t look ordinary to him – he’s looking at them with love.
This morning Jesus looks at us – and we don’t look ordinary to him either.
He is looking at us with great love.
He gets into the water with us.
The water is fouled with the garbage of our own lives – the stupid things we have done and
the awful things that have been done to us.
And he looks at us in the water and says, I get it. I know what this is like.
But here’s the thing: you can make a difference.
I can make a difference in your love. And you can make a difference in the lives of many.
You can do things. Come on out of the water with me.
You can do no great things – but you can do many small things with great love.
(Dean Nelson, “Encounters with a Saint.” Christian Century, November 23rd, 2016, 10-13)
Epiphany is indeed about looking at Jesus closely and seeing God –
seeing God in the water with us out of a great great love.
It is about looking at others and seeing Jesus – seeing Jesus both in his great need,
and seeing Jesus in his serving.
Epiphany, though, is also about looking at ourselves,
and seeing ourselves as Jesus sees us in the water where he is so close to us:
seeing us in our need, but also seeing us as beloved.
Seeing us as those who can make a difference – by doing small things with great love.
Epiphany is about choosing to see the world and our neighbours with
the same love Jesus has for them.
Epiphany is apparently not about being overwhelmed with signs of God so obvious that
you cannot possibly miss them.
And it is not about that, maybe, because God always leaves us with a choice.
We can see Christ in our neighbour and serve them – or not.
We can see love everywhere – or not.
We can see the world through the lens of hope – or not.
We can do something – or we can do nothing.
But hear this: we are God’s beloved. We are God’s children,
apprentices to God’s task of loving this world and every person in it.
We can make a difference – by doing small things with great love.
So together, let us choose to look deeper, look harder, and see freshly –
Let us choose to do small things with great love.
And together, let us say, “Amen.”
Pastor Michael Kurtz