Sermon: We have done only what we ought to have done

On a February afternoon in 1960 – 50 years ago now – four college students sat down at a lunch table where they were not allowed to sit. That time seems a piece of history right now – I imagine so even for those of us who were alive then. In an age of seemingly instant action and conversation, when every injustice, perceived or true, is immediately tweeted and every tragic death Facebooked in tribute, it must seem to our youth an awfully small thing to just sit down in a restaurant that doesn’t serve your kind. These four boys were black Americans, and they lived in the South, where segregation was the law, and if you were a certain colour you stood at the snack bar in the back because the seats were for white people.

I was reminded of this story by a piece in The New Yorker this week, and it came back to me as I thought of this morning’s gospel, and the line that stuck with me especially: “We have done only what we ought to have done.”

That’s a powerful line, an instruction for life, a fitting and honorable epitaph for a faith-filled existence. If we go to sleep each night able to say, “I have done only what I ought to have done,” then we are living the gospel. If as a church, we can say this: “We have done only what we ought to have done,” we are worthy of the gospel.

Now, those four college students, we could agree, did more: they did what “somebody”- “anybody” – especially a white person – ought to have done long before they took those forbidden seats. The four of them started something amazing: in days the numbers at the Woolworth’s lunch counter had grown, and students in neighboring towns had staged their own protests, and then in neighboring states. And of course, these acts started the civil rights war, a battle for which many took great risks, to bring equality, or at least an imperfect measure of it, to the Southern US.

Now the point of The New Yorker article was to say that all good deeds are not equal. I’m not much for that – as you know, since I preach it often; change can be made in small steps, and little ways. But the point that the writer was making was that today, North Americans sign petitions freely. We will send out emails to our friends alerting them to a trouble spot or a new cause. Technology has made it easy for us to do good things in small pieces: for instance, as with the Save Darfur Coalition with more than 1.2 million members, who have given, on average, nine cents a piece to the cause. On another Facebook page, the average is 35 cents. Now that’s good; people were educated about the distant problem, and felt called to give. But if we go back to our work, and our families, and do nothing else because we feel we have done enough, that is not good. Then perhaps, technology has made it too easy – too easy for us to say we have done enough. Clicking a mouse is not the same as sitting at a lunch counter, being heckled by a dangerous mob of strangers who would think nothing of lynching you and your friends.

“We have done only what we ought to have done.” We can interpret that line in the gospel two ways: This verse in Luke frames it for us: as deeds that we do because they are right, because God expects them of us. Jesus is telling us not to do good because you expect good to come back to you, but because you ought to do it. But if we switch the emphasis a bit, if we stress one part over the other, we get a different message from the gospel: We have done ONLY what we ought to have done. Then we must also include the act of not doing what is wrong with the act of doing what is right. If we give our 9 cents to Darfur and walk by the injustice at the lunch counter, we have not fulfilled the words of the gospel. Essentially, Jesus is saying: We can never do enough.

Now, as a church, for our anniversary, we have done only what we ought to have done: we have committed ourselves to improving the lives of others – with the simple collection of school kits – in God’s name. And we could easily toast with that beer we’ll be serving at the Oktoberfest party and feel pretty good about that. I hope we do.
But is that enough? Are we done? I hope not. This week, I read another article; this one in The Globe and Mail, about a young man who had died from leukemia after his doctors failed to find him a bone marrow donor on the national donor registry. His dying wish was that he might grow that registry to 2 million people; there are now about 200,000. Becoming a name on the registry is an easy enough thing to do: if you are in good health, between the ages of 17 and 50, you fill out a form online, and Canadian Blood Services sends you a test to take a swab of your saliva which you send back. That’s like giving 9 cents to Darfur – or stocking a school kit. A few minutes of our day.

But it is the next part that requires a lunch counter action: because if you are a match, you have to give up your time to donate your stem cells, and if someone dying needs your bone marrow – that is a painful procedure which can take weeks of recovery. But in the end, the donor has saved a life, and how big a deal is that?

So…those of us who fall within the group have the power to give something that will save a life. And those who choose may, after service, fill out the questionnaire in the office, or be emailed the link. We will all wait for our saliva kits – and wouldn’t it be great, if as a church community, we could send a message to other churches – just as other groups have now been doing – to do the same. Take the first step at today.

Now our youth, the engine of so much of our good work, can’t participate, which is why I have another challenge for them, and they will learn about it in Sunday School. Their challenge is to send 1 million grains of rice to Africa using only the power of their brains. You will get more on both initiatives in an email this week. (Or visit FreeRice in the mean time).

The point is, though, that we should to do more, that we could do more. Jesus would shake our hands, and then he’d say: you are doing only what you ought to do. Keep an eye out for the lunch counters that need our attention, and let’s tell each other about them.

There was a telling scene in that New Yorker article that sticks with me: when the boys, all good friends, were waffling on whether they were ready to go ahead with their protest, one them said: “Are you guys chicken or not?” and pushed them forward. That’s how a truly Lutheran Christian community works when it works well: it pushes, and prods and cajoles individuals and groups forward. We need to be that pushy church to other churches. We need to be pushy with each other. So that, at the end of the day, at the end of all days, we can finally say: We did only what we ought to have done.