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We come an go pretty quickly these days. That population clock estimates that an American is born every 7 seconds, one dies every 13 seconds and the nation gains an immigrant from abroad every 31 seconds. The United States is now one of three countries with more than 300-million people, ranking behind only China and India. In contrast to most other industrialized nations, America has a population, propelled by immigration and higher fertility rates, that is still growing.(1)
News like this lends itself to some theologizing, particularly on a day that many churches across the land are commemorating as Children's Sabbath. There are questions about poverty and wealth and our responsibility to those born into dire need. Questions about population: are there limits to God's instruction in Genesis to "be fruitful and multiply?" But the question that jumps out at me in the midst of this news is simply, "Do I matter?" Here I am and here you are, one-300-millionth of America's population, not to mention 1/6-and-a-half-billionth of the world's number, not even a microscopic blip on the cosmic radar screen. Talk about insignificant!!! 1/6-and-a-half-billionth. Do I matter?
Add to that what we know of our world. 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 Pennsylvania sky some night. Wow! The old Psalmist, even without the benefit of modern science was equally mesmerized: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?"
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, 1/300,000,000th of the population in one of many nations 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. 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 after day after day. Fulghum asked who made his lunch. "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?
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? 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.
Jesus taught us that God is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine 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.(4) Once, Jesus let us in on a secret - God knows us individually so intimately that even the hairs on our head are numbered...and as some of us are aware, that number changes all the time. Do I matter? Do you? One of 300-million? 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 is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor." We matter.
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 the last 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 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, God 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 were only one of us to love."(5)
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.
How great Thou art; How great Thou art.
Do I matter? Do you matter? 1/300,000,000? Yes. Absolutely. Listen to Augustine once more: "God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love."
And again: "God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love."
And once more all together: "God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love."
1. Sam Roberts, "A 300 Millionth American. Don't Ask Who," New York Times, 10/18/06
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. Philip Yancey, "Do I Matter? Does God Care?" Christianity Today, 11/22/93, pp. 20-24
5. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press