I remember a number of years ago attending a lecture of a well-known theologian. My seminary classmates and I were looking forward to the excellent intellectual stimulation that surely would be prompted by his speech. No doubt great ideas and provocative insights would fill the evening. In fact, I’m sure that was the case, although that’s not what I remember from the event.
Instead, what I remember is taking a trip to the restroom and crossing paths with our speaker there. Few words were exchanged, but great wisdom was passed on. I witnessed this diminutive-in-stature but large-in-esteem leader pick up the stray paper towels from the floor and put them in the trash can. This small, seemingly insignificant act has stuck with me for several decades now. Witnessing this self-less and common act of service enhanced the credibility of this leader in my eyes. While I already held his theological arguments in high regard, I now held him in regard as well.
One consistent theme throughout our texts this week is that of humble service, the kind of attitude about one’s own position and toward the needs of others that translates into simple acts of service, like cleaning up after less thoughtful people. Servant acts are, we hear, the source of light that breaks forth and healing which springs forth.
There were certainly larger issues than used paper towels at stake when Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” and when God spoke through Isaiah, saying:
“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:5-8)
These are not remarks about the cleanliness of the men’s room. Big needs are addressed here: overcoming oppression, establishing justice, responding to homelessness, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. God’s not impressed by those who put on a show of religion; rather, God is seeking those whose lives have come under the influence of God.
So why was it an image of a public figure picking up trash that came to my mind first when I read these passages, and not some great figure like Mother Theresa or Dan West (the founder of Heifer International)? Perhaps it’s because my Anabaptist upbringing has instilled in me a reading of these texts that insists that big things follow in the way of the smaller things. When we have hearts of service, those hearts trickle over in little things, like picking up a piece of trash, before they pour out in larger, more evident pursuits like addressing systemic hunger, articulating empowering theologies, or caring tirelessly for society’s outcasts.
We know how small the grain of salt is. We know how powerful a spark of light can be in a dark night. And yet it is through these small beginnings that our testimony begins its journey. It is in the small acts that good news is birthed. Through our seemingly inconsequential attention to the simple needs around us we begin to live the Jesus invitation to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
This clip from the movie Surf’s Up shows how one person who had reached stardom, Big Z, let his life shine like a star to the darkened world of surfer wannabe, Cody. Big Z’s small action of seeing and recognizing Cody translated into a something more than Big Z’s own stardom: it served to inspire greatness from Cody.
- God of justice (by Tim Hughes, ©2007 Sparrow)
- You are salt for the earth (by Marty Haugen, ©1986 GIA Publications)
- Will you let me be your servant (by Richard Gillard, ©1977 Scripture in Song)
- Christian, let your burning light (by E.G. Coleman, 1899)
Lord, we may not all be able to do great things for you, but help us to be neither too lazy nor too proud to do the small things. (adapted from Avery Brooke in Plain Prayers in a Complicated World, 1993, Cowley Publications, p. 99)