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Preached at First Presbyterian Church, East Aurora, NY, October 28, 2018, by Langdon “Buddy” Hubbard

Enlarging Our Sphere of Influence

I Chronicles 4:9-10; Psalm 34:1-8

Matthew 28:16-20;2 Corinthians 10:12-18

            When I was a little boy in the 60’s I remember a television commercial which was quite simple and quiet.  In it a father and his son were together and everything the father did, his son did. The father skipped a rock on the lake’s surface, and his son did.  The child mimicked everything the father did.  And then the father sat down on the ground, leaning up against a tree, and lit a cigarette. The little boy picked up a stick and put it in his mouth.  And then with simple lettering the commercial concluded, “Be careful what you do.  Your children are watching.”


            Influence.  We parents have a lot of that particularly in the early years, and then later once they figure out we actually are smarter than they thought in their teenage years. 


            We all have the power of influence in other people’s lives.  How we live, the words we say, the actions we take, the values we hold, the jokes we laugh at – people are paying attention.  And if we mean something to them, our influence can be quite powerful and life-forming.


            Think for a moment.  Who has been a big influence on your life?  Please turn to a neighbor and tell them who that person is and simply how they have impacted you.

            One of the people I’m thinking about today is Eugene Peterson, who was a pastor and writer and professor who died this past week.  He was the translator of the Bible into the easy reading version called The Message.  When I was in my first pastorate he wrote an article called, “Why I Am Not a Busy Pastor,” in which he talked about the necessity to figure out what we are called to do in this world and then do it, without trying to do all those other things, even good things, you simply aren’t called to do.  Faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry is what is important, not being busy.  He was the one who introduced Jan and me to taking Monday as our Sabbath Day, and committing my life to prayer.  His many books have inspired my ministry through the years.  And a highlight of his ministry was when he spoke at Jan’s graduation from Princeton.  He was also an avid runner and marathoner.  And he was one of the most gracious and kind human beings you’d ever meet.  I loved that man.  And just sharing his influence on my life brings me much joy.


            Do you sometimes wonder what difference you’ve made in life, what lives you have influenced?  The fact is, we’re not all going to be the Eugene Peterson’s of this world.  Sometimes we just live a simple life, surrounded by a handful of people.  But that doesn’t diminish our influence. 


            One of our church members was sad one day, and lamenting that because of his many illnesses since childhood he was afraid his life hadn’t made much of a difference.  I told him that I was feeling the same way one day many years ago, and then I got to thinking, what is my legacy?  Have I grown a large church?  No.  Have I written books that people buy and read?  No.  Am I rich and famous?  No.  But are those things the things that really matter anyway?  And I came to the conclusion that they weren’t at all.  The real question of the meaning of one’s life is this:  have I loved well?  You see, it doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished in life in material ways.  All those things eventually come to an end and decompose.  But what really matters are the eternal things, the first above all being love.  As I Corinthians 13 says, the Love Chapter read at many weddings, “Love never ends.” But everything else does. 


I told my friend I had come to the conclusion that the only thing that mattered when my life’s work is done is if someone could write on my tombstone, “He loved.”  If my family and friends can say that when I’m gone, then I have lived well.  And my influence will have been great.  And do you know what the wonderful thing about this is?  It doesn’t matter who you are, how rich, who you love, how poor, the color of your skin, the size of your salary or home.  The common denominator is this:  loving God and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is the sign of greatness, and nothing else.


            Paul goes to great lengths in this passage to tell the Corinthian Christians to stop comparing themselves with others.  He says, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves.  But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense.  We, however, will not boast beyond limits, but will keep within the field that God has assigned to us…” (2 Corinthians 10:12-13)  Stay within the field God has assigned to you.  We all have a job to do that no one else can do.  Do it and do it well, and do it with love.  If you are great in the things of this world, you are not necessarily great at all.  But if you are great in love, you are the greatest of all.  Stick to that measurement and let all the other false measurements go.  As Mother Theresa once said, “What matters is not doing great things, but doing ordinary things with great love.”


            In this passage Paul is deeply concerned as well not to step on other people’s toes, or to get in the way of their work by taking credit for the things he has no right to claim.  Love doesn’t do that.  We rejoice in other’s accomplishments.  They don’t take away from us; they only build us all up together for the good of all.


            As a pastor I don’t feel bad when another church has more people.  That’s great.  It means the Christian faith is having an impact, and that’s good for us all.  The only question I have about our church is this:  how are we doing in loving one another and our neighbors.  If we are doing that well, then we are doing well.  Numbers mean nothing without love.  And with love numbers don’t mean anything at all.


            The call of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to influence the world with love, God’s love and our love for the world. To this end Paul hopes that the Corinthians’ faith will increase, and their sphere of influence may be greatly enlarged.  And that is the hope for us as well, that our sphere of influence for the sake of God’s love may be greatly enlarged.


            On that first Reformation, it was Martin Luther who stood up for the true faith in Christ, and it spread.  The students studying in Germany, touched by the re-formation of the world, took that renewed faith with them on their trips home to places like Switzerland and Scotland, and the Reformation spread, until this renewed faith took root and, in part, grew up to become the Presbyterian Church of which we are a part today.


            On this Reformation Day in 2018 I pray for a new re-formation of the church in God’s love.  Our world is desperate for this renewal.  We are tired of angry people sending bombs to assassinate our former presidents and other leaders.  We are sickened by the murder of Jewish worshipers, there to bless a baby with a sacred name. We are done with politicians, including the president, who foment anger to the point of fear and violence.  We refuse to be swayed by lies that desperate, frightened, oppressed people on a pilgrimage together in Central America and Mexico are coming to invade us, when we know if our babies were threatened with death we too would get up and march to find a place of safety and freedom from the violence.  We do not accept this world of violence, fear, and lies.  We choose to build a different kind of world, one based in love, God’s perfect love that casts out fear.


            Yesterday Jan and I drove to Syracuse to meet with a delegation who will be voting on whether or not the UMC will open its doors fully to gay people.  We were invited there so that I could tell our church’s story of opening our doors and discovering through it a major renewal of growth of families with children.  Jan and I were given 25 minutes to make our case that the church should open up for the sake of love.  We felt called to make our church’s influence known.


            How is God calling you?  You too have influence in this world.  You too can make a difference.  What is God calling you to do for the sake of love?  Who will you stand up for?  Who will you stand up to?  What will you stand up against?  Who will you vote?  That too is influence.


In I Chronicles 4:9-10 we find the prayer of Jabez, which was made popular several years ago.  He prayed, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!”  We pray this prayer again today.  We pray that God might enlarge our borders of influence that our love may be so huge it can’t be contained, that we can’t help but love our neighbors, all those who are hurting and in harms way.  We pray that our sphere of influence may be greatly enlarged, so that we may proclaim the good news of God’s love in lands beyond us.


            Today we baptize two precious young children and their mom.  We are called on to influence them for the sake of God’s love that they may grow up to embrace God’s love and share it too.  It starts here in such small ways.  But every time we baptize a child or an adult we set loose another person filled with God’s Spirit to be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in the world.  And so our influence goes and grows.  May it never end until the hatred stops, the violence ends, the angry, irresponsible words cease, and all that is left is love.