A Pile of Good Things

 A Sermon for Sunday August 18, 2013, Galatians 6:6, 9-10 and Ephesians 2:10

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 3.34.32 PMLast month, I finished up a whirlwind of summer youth trips with the High School Mission Trip at Urban Mission Camp in Mobile, AL, and the Middle School Montreat Conference at Maryville College in Maryville, TN.

But in between these two incredible faith-shaping experiences, I managed to squeeze in just enough time to watch an hour-long episode of my new favorite TV series…Doctor Who!

Produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi program in the world and considered to be the most successful sci-fi series of all time.

Doctor Who originally ran from 1963-1989 and then went on hiatus for more than a decade. But in 2005, the series was re-launched, resulting in high ratings and a huge cult following among new generations of viewers (known as Whovians). Even the legendary director Steven Spielberg has said, “The world would be a poorer place without Doctor Who.”[1]

If you’ve never watched the show, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a mysterious humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box but is much bigger on the inside. The Doctor is a thin man with a whimsical grin who is intrigued by every aspect of life and who has a penchant for tweed jackets and bow ties because “they’re cool.”

With the aid of a human friend and his trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor faces a variety of foes while trying to save civilizations, right wrongs, and help various humans and aliens throughout the galaxy and at different periods in history—past, future and present.

In the episode of Doctor Who that I viewed amid the last two youth trips of the summer, the Doctor and his friend Amy Pond travel to the year 1890 to visit the post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, weeks before the artist (known for his frequent bouts with mental illness) commits suicide.

They soon discover that an alien monster that only Van Gogh can see is killing villagers throughout the villages of southeast France.  And after defeating the creature, the Doctor and Amy decide to take Vincent to a modern day museum in Paris so that he can discover his legacy as an artist[2]:

 ……………………………….

[For those who were unable to see the scene shown today in worship, here are some pictures and synopsis, along with key dialogue]

Vincent-and-the-Doctor-doctor-who-12772213-800-675

Upon their arrival at the museum, the Doctor, Amy and Vincent make their way to the Van Gogh exhibit. Vincent’s eyes light up in astonishment as he realizes that the museum visitors are admiring his entire life’s work on the walls.

As Vincent gazes around the room, the Doctor pulls the museum curator aside (but within enough distance for Van Gogh to hear) and asks him:

“Where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?”

 The curator responds passionately:

“To me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world—no-one had ever done it before. Perhaps no-one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

A tear-filled Vincent turns toward the curator, gives him a warm embrace and thanks him for his kind words. Before the curator has time to process what has happened—that he has been embraced by the greatest painter of all time—Vincent has disappeared with the Doctor and Amy.

Upon their return to 19th century Provence, Vincent steps off the TARDIS and exclaims:

“This changes everything! I’ll step out tomorrow with my easel on my back a different man.”

The Doctor thanks the artists for a wonderful adventure, and Vincent replies enthusiastically:

“You’ve turned out to be the first doctor ever actually to make a different to my life.”

The Doctor and Amy say their goodbyes and then board the TARDIS where Amy suggests they immediately return to the museum in Paris.

3amyelevenhug

Amy is convinced that Vincent Van Gogh will not have taken his life and that his newfound hope will have inspired hundreds of new paintings for the world to treasure. But when she arrives at the museum, she realizes that Van Gogh never painted another canvas because the artist, overwrought with his mental illness, fatally shot himself not long after saying goodbye to Amy and the Doctor.

With tears running down her cheeks, Amy says to the Doctor:

“We didn’t make a difference at all.”

The kind Doctor embraces his friend and compassionately says to her:

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

…………………………………

We didn’t make a difference at all—how often do we say to ourselves those exact words uttered by Amy Pond?

We fed the hungry and gave financial resources to the homeless…but they are still starving and sleeping on the streets.

We sent our youth to a conference to hear about God’s love…but at home, they still spend time with teens that have a bad influence on them.

We embody love and mercy in our lives… but there is still violence and bloodshed in our cities and world.

We make policies and establish laws and rules to protect people from harm…but there are still folks who find a way to destroy others’ lives.

“We didn’t make a difference,” it seems.

And that crushing feeling of failure makes us throw our hands in the air and say: Why bother?

Why should I even try doing the good thing when all of these bad things keep on happening in spite of what any of us do?

Why?

It’s the question I’m asked most often in ministry.

Why?

Why do church people go on mission trips in the U.S. and other countries to help the poor and oppressed?

Why do youth want to spend a week at a conference learning about Jesus, the Bible and their faith?

Why do we serve when it doesn’t appear to be effecting the way people treat one another?

Why do we pray for peace when war rages around us?

The poor are still poor.

The hungry are still hungry.

The violent are still killing the innocent.

The oppressors are still stepping on the oppressed.

The broken are still broken.

Nothing is changing, so …

Why?

I imagine the early Christian church of Jews and Gentiles were asking that same question of Why? as they hid from the Roman Empire that wanted them dead for choosing Jesus over the emperor Caesar:

Why do we keep following Christ’s teachings and keeping God’s commandments to love when our neighbors are being dragged from their homes and into the streets to die?

Why do we keep on with the faith of our ancestors when we are being persecuted for our beliefs?

Nothing has changed. We worship, serve and love in the name of God who is sovereign in our lives…but the Roman Empire still comes after us.

We live a life devoted to God but “we didn’t make a difference.”

Why keep on keeping on? Why?

The apostle Paul, who was redeemed by God for his vile acts of persecution toward Jews and Jesus followers, answers the early Church’s Why?  in letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians.

The way Paul sees it, we are what God has made us, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

The reason why we are to do good and to keep on doing good is because that is how God has made us. It is in our design as human beings and beloved creations of the Divine. It is the way of life that God intends for us to have and embody every…single…day.

Paul is not being unrealistic or naïve in making such a statement. The apostle as much as much as anyone recognizes the difficulty of doing good in a world where badness and brokenness reside. So he encourages churches that even in the midst of pain, they must share in all good things:

 Let us not grow weary in doing what is right…So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

The Doctor echoes this truth beautifully when he says to Amy Pond:

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.

Yes, Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t escape his demons.

Yes, the poor continue to look for their next meal or a roof over their heads.

Yes, the oppressed struggle to survive in a system where the powers try to silence their voice.

Yes, people are hurt and killed because of the cruelty and hate of others.

But not a single bad thing or act of brokenness can tarnish the good things or render them insignificant.

As the musician Christine Kane says in her 2004 song “The Good You Do” which will be played for today’s Offertory: “No lost hope, no violent point of view…no fast pace, no jaded attitude…no dark place, no debt and no abuse can erase all the good you do.”

Last week, I emailed Christine Kane to ask her what inspired her to write such a beautiful piece. Through a spokesperson she answered the email by saying:

The song came as I spoke with so many people who were doing good things in the world, but were becoming a little bitter as things did not seem to change. The song is a reminder to keep doing good no matter what. There is the light in every person—it is our choice to share the light and no bad thing can take that light away. You just keep sharing it.

Kane’s reply to me as well as her song reminded me of another message that Paul wrote to the early church in Rome, familiar words that remind us to keep faith and keep doing good:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…What then are we to say about these things? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Each and every one of you has done and is doing good in this church, this community and world…

You’ve gone on youth conferences and youth mission trips to stretch your faith and to nurture the faith of our young people. You’ve built relationships with those who are often ignored like the poor, the underprivileged, the developmentally challenged and the geeky pimple-faced teenager.

You’ve fed the hungry and housed the homeless by volunteering at the Duluth Co-Op, providing a meal through Rainbow Village and by helping out with Family Promise Host Week.

You’ve donated blood to save lives.

You’ve signed up to teach church school or be a youth adviser.

You’ve prepared communion, been an usher or acolyte, collected and counted the offering.

You’ve brought food to put on the Fellowship Table between worship services and you’ve participated in numerous Fellowship  events.

You’ve agreed to be a prayer partner for someone attending the Adult Mission Trip to Honduras.

You’ve comforted a friend who grieves over a broken relationship.

You’ve shown kindness to a neighbor, prepared your children for school, dropped off clothes at the Goodwill.

You’ve planted gardens and cared for your pets and other animals.

You’ve shared your gifts in song to help illumine God’s presence for someone who sits alone in the dark.

You’ve delivered a meal to someone who was ill.

You’ve been patient and respectful with a church member whose opinion was different from yours.

You’ve served as an elder on Session to discern how we are to be the body of Christ within and beyond these walls.

You’ve welcomed the stranger and loved those who are kept on the margins of society.

You’ve added to the pile of good things.

You’ve made a difference.

Well done, good and faithful servants.

Continue to add to the pile of good things.

And never stop doing what you were made to do.

Amen.

2jucZ


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0 Dr. Who celebrates its 50th year in the Fall and is awaiting its 8th season since the 2005 relaunch. If you are interested in watching Dr. Who but don’t have time to view all 7 seasons (currently available on Netflix streaming and DVD) you can start with Season 5 in which Matt Smith became the 11th Doctor and found new companions to explore the universe.

[2] Trailer for the Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and The Doctor” Season 5, 2010, BBC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8PkCEc1Fjo

Doctor and Amy, ‘Pile of Good Things’ quote-clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjUKGfBW74o

The song that plays during the scenes at the museum is “Chances” by the British indie-rock band Athlete, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/athlete/chances.html and youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWayL5NBH80

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3 thoughts on “A Pile of Good Things”

  1. Thanks Andy for a very good sermon. I listened to every word and I’ve just re-read it. It was so well done, one I will remember (at least pieces of it! at my age) for a long long time.

  2. Beautiful, Andy. Vincent has long been with me, and he met me on the way in Cleveland during my recent trip through the Heartland. May we all remind each other more often that nothing can separate us from the love of God and the love that we, inherently, created in the image of God.

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