The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

DO I MATTER?

Delivered 10/17/99
Text: Psalm 8
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Interesting news this week. According to the population clock at the United Nations, there are now six-billion of us on this whirling planet.(1) Someone decided that a baby boy born to refugee parents in Sarajevo, a region returning to life after a decade of death and destruction and war, would be the perfect symbol for the push toward our next billion or so. According to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, the birth of little Adnan Nevic "should light a path of tolerance and understanding for all people." We can certainly hope.

UN demographers had determined that the population would hit the six-billion number this past Tuesday, which means that we have had a doubling of the Earth's inhabitants in less than 40 years. The population clock in the visitors' lobby at UN headquarters was racing so fast Tuesday morning that it skipped from 5,999,999,998 to 6,000,000,001. One of the officials standing there watching joked, "Somebody had triplets."

Of course, there were tens of thousands of children born on the day of the six-billionth. They are far more likely to face lives of poverty and illiteracy than tolerance and understanding, especially in developing countries. One-third will not even live beyond age five. The challenge facing the world, Anan said, is to find "the will" to feed, clothe and house every inhabitant of Earth. Amen.

News like this lends itself to lots of theologizing. As the Secretary-General suggests, questions about poverty and wealth and our responsibility to those in dire need. Questions about population: are there limits to God's instruction in Genesis to "be fruitful and multiply?" But the question that jumped out at me in the midst of this news is simply, "Do I matter?" Here I am and here you are, one six-billionth of the world's population, not even a microscopic blip on the cosmic radar screen. Talk about insignificant!!! 1/6,000,000,000. Do I matter?

Add to that what we know of astronomy. Scientists say that our sun is one of about 500-billion stars in the Milky Way, which is a medium-sized galaxy among 200-billion others, all swarming with stars, most so far away that it will take millions of years for the light from one of them to show up in our Carolina sky some night. Wow! The old Psalmist, even without the benefit of modern science was equally mesmerized: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"

O Lord, my God, When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made;
I see the stars; I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.(2)

So here we sit, 1/6,000,000,000 of the population on a minuscule planet in an obscure, out-of-the-way galaxy. Do I Matter? Really?

If you think about it, that question can be understood in two ways. One has to do with the contribution we make to this world - does it make any difference whether I have lived? For some folks through history, the answer is ABSOLUTELY. Last Sunday and Monday nights, the A&E cable channel ran a special called "Biography of the Millennium." The four-hour two-parter, based on a survey of scholars, journalists, and political leaders, identified the 100 most important people in shaping the world of the past 1,000 years. We could argue about the choices (who is in, who is out) but we could all name some - Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Hitler, Martin Luther, Thomas Edison, perhaps even Bill Gates - we could have fun with the process, and in the end, we would have a list of people who, for good or ill, made a difference. They mattered.

In many ways, whether or not we matter to the world, what we accomplish, is up to us. In Robert Fulghum's best-seller with that wonderful title, It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It(3), he recounts a conversation with a colleague who was complaining that he had the same stuff in his lunch sack day after day. "So who makes your lunch?" Fulghum asked. "I do," said the friend. Uh-huh. UP TO US!

Do I Matter? You have heard that old philosophical conundrum - if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear, does it make a sound? What about this one? If a person lives and dies and no one notices, if the world continues as it was, was that person ever really alive? I do not worry about whether I am one of the 100 most important people in the millennium; most of the time I doubt that I am one of the 100 most important in my neighborhood. If I matter at all, it is in the lives of a precious few. For the most part, though, that will be up to me.

But there is a second way of understanding the question which is NOT up to me. Not do I matter to the world, but do I matter to God? One of six-billion? The answer I want to hear is ABSOLUTELY! YES! OF COURSE! But is there any evidence for that? I think there is, and we find it in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

In not many weeks, we will again celebrate Jesus' birth. A story will be told, as it has so often before, to illustrate why he was born. It is the tale of a man who looked upon Christmas as a lot of humbug. He was not a Scrooge. He was a kind and decent person, generous to his family, upright in all his dealings. But he did not believe all that stuff about incarnation - God becoming human - which churches proclaim at Christmas. And he was too honest to pretend that he did.

On Christmas Eve, his wife and children went to church for the midnight service. He declined to accompany them. "I would feel like a hypocrite," he explained. "I'd rather stay at home. But I will wait up for you."

Shortly after his family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window and watched the flurries getting heavier and heavier. "If we must have Christmas," he thought, "it is nice to have a white one." He went back to his chair by the fireside and began to read his newspaper.

A few minutes later, he was startled by a thudding sound. It was followed quickly by another, then another. He thought that someone must be throwing snowballs at his living room window. When he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm, and in a desperate search for shelter had tried to fly through his window.

"I cannot let these poor creatures lie there and freeze," he thought. "But how can I help them?" Then he remembered the barn where the children's pony was stabled. Warm shelter. He put on his coat and galoshes and tramped through the deepening snow. He opened the barn door wide and turned on a light. But the birds did not come in.

"Food. That will bring them in," he thought. So he hurried back to the house for bread crumbs which he sprinkled on the snow to make a trail into the barn. To his dismay, the birds ignored the crumbs and continued to flop around helplessly.

He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around and waving his arms. They scattered in every direction...except into the warm, lighted barn.

"I am a strange and terrifying creature to them," he said to himself, "and I cannot think of any way to let them know they can trust me. If only I could be a bird myself for a few minutes, perhaps I could lead them to safety."

Just at that moment, the church bells began to ring. He stood silently for a while, listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. Then he sank to his knees in the snow. "Now I understand," he whispered. "Now I see why you did it."(4)

As that divine baby became a man, he tried to explain how incredibly important each one of us is. He said God is like a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep inside the fold to hunt frantically for one stray, like a father who cannot stop thinking about his rebellious, ungrateful prodigal of a son even though he has another who is respectful and obedient, like a rich host who opens the doors of the banquet hall to a menagerie of bag ladies and bums. God loves people not merely as a race or species, but rather just as you and I love them: one at a time.(5) Once, Jesus let us in on a secret - God knows us individually so intimately that even the hairs on our head are numbered(6)...and as some of us are aware, that number changes all the time. Do I matter? Do you? One of six-billion? We must.

And Jesus did more than talk about it - he showed it. He went out of his way to embrace the unloved and unworthy, the folks who could ask "Do I matter?" with an urgency that none of us could muster. Lepers who were not allowed to live inside the city wall were touched by Jesus, even as his disciples shrank back in disgust. The handicapped beggers by the wayside whom the world loves to ignore were not ignored by Jesus - they were healed and given new life. A woman, too shy and full of shame to approach Jesus face to face, grabbed his robe, hoping he would not notice. He noticed. She learned, like so many other "nobodies," that you cannot easily escape Jesus' gaze. Why? They mattered. Then do I matter? Do you matter? We must.

The old Psalmist once again: "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor." We matter.

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

It was Sam Shoemaker, one of the great preachers in the first half of this century who confessed that during his seminary days, as he studied and reflected on God and creation, that he found it difficult to imagine how the Lord could even THINK about these little specks of life called human beings. How could God have time for us when there was so much more to demand the divine attention? Shoemaker explained his thoughts to one of his professors, an eminently wise man. "Mr. Shoemaker," the teacher said, "your problem is that your God is too small. God takes care of the sun, the moon, and the stars with just a word. Now, he has all the time in the world just for you and me." Fifteen hundred years before Sam Shoemaker, Augustine said it wonderfully: "God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love."(7)

Do we understand it? Of course not. It joins a long list of other things in our lives that we do not understand. We do not understand how brown cows eat green grass and give white milk, but we still pour it on our cereal. We do not understand a mother's love or a father's patience, but we count on them and cherish them. We do not understand how pain can help us grow, but we know that it does. Yes, there is much we do not understand, and this is just one more thing.

Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee;
How great Thou art; How great Thou art.

Do I matter? Do you matter? 1/6,000,000,000? Yes. And does THAT matter? That we matter? I think the answer is YES to that as well. At the beginning of all this I said that the question "Do I matter?" can be understood two ways: "Do I matter to the world?" and "Do I matter to God?" The two are very much interrelated, because if I am convinced that I DO matter to God, I WILL matter to the world. Self-image makes all the difference.

Somewhere I read the story of Victor Serbriakov. Growing up, Victor acted a little differently from other students in school because he was bored. But an insensitive teacher gave him the nickname "Dummy," and it stuck. Victor was placed in a class for slow learners which gave him such a bad sense of himself that he dropped out of school at age sixteen. What else could a "dummy" do? Victor drifted from job to job because he knew he could not really amount to much. But when Victor was 32 years old, something marvelous happened - he applied for a job that demanded that all applicants take an IQ test. Needless to say, Victor was terrified. "Dummy." Well, he took the test and scored 162...genius. Immediately, people began to say, "Victor, you are brilliant!" And Victor came to believe it. Victor Serbriakov became a very successful businessman and the president of Mensa, the club for people of particularly high intelligence. It is amazing what a change of self-image can do.

Do I matter? Do you? One of six-billion now? Absolutely. Listen to Augustine once more: "God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love."

And again: "God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love."

And once more all together: "God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love."

Amen!


1. Edith M. Lederer, "World Population Hits 6 Billion," Associated Press, 10/12/99

2. Stewart K. Hine, "How Great Thou Art," © 1953. Assigned to Manna Music, Inc. © 1955, renewed 1981

3. New York: Villard Books, 1990, p. 6

4. Lewis Cassells, United Press International

5. Philip Yancey, "Do I Matter? Does God Care?" Christianity Today, 11/22/93, pp. 20-24

6. Matthew 10:29-30, Luke 12:6-7

7. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

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