No Small Gestures

WaterImage by evanzxcv licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Dear Working Preacher,

What do you make of this week’s Gospel passage? I have to say that on my first read, I came up rather empty. With last week’s predictions of suffering and persecution in mind, I at first wondered whether this was just the counterpoint — the promise of distant glory in contrast to last week’s declaration of imminent struggle. Kind of a risk and reward assessment for discipleship.

It’s more than that, of course, as Jesus is also talking about how the disciples — then and now — are drawn into relationship with God through their/our testimony, struggle, and the acts of mercy we perform and are performed on our behalf. All well and good, but still a little vague.

And then this one line jumped out at me, the last line of this brief passage: “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

What a little thing, don’t you think, to give a cup of cold water? Jesus emphasizes the same by his use of the word “even.” We often imagine discipleship as requiring huge sacrifice or entailing great feats, and sometimes that is exactly what discipleship comes to. But at other times, Jesus seems to say, it’s nothing more than giving a cup of cold water to one in need. Or offering a hug to someone who is grieving. Or a listening ear to someone in need of a friend. Or offering a ride to someone without a car. Or volunteering at the local foodbank. Or making a donation to an agency like Luther World Relief or Kiva. Or…you get the idea.

Discipleship doesn’t have to be heroic. Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much.

You probably know as well as I do Loren Eiseley’s story of “the star thrower” — the one about the guy tossing starfish after starfish into the sea. When asked why, he replies that if they don’t get back in the water soon, they’ll dry out and die. Looking at a beach strewn with thousands of starfish, his interlocutor responds that he can’t possibly hope to make any difference. To which he says — and this is famous closing line — “To the ones I throw back, it makes all the difference in the world.”

Exactly. Because Jesus has promised to come in time to redeem all in love, to fix all damage, heal all hurts, and wipe the tears from every eye, we can in the meantime devote ourselves to acts of mercy and deeds of compassion small and large, not trying to save the world — Jesus has promised to do that! — but simply trying to care for the little corner of the world in which we have been placed. And so even a cup of cold water can make a huge and unexpected difference to those to whom we give it and, according to Jesus, such acts have eternal and cosmic consequences.

Can you imagine that, Working Preacher? That each and every act of mercy rings through the eons and across the universe imbued with Christ’s love for the world, a love we can share anytime and anywhere with gestures that may seem small in the eyes of the world but loom large in the life of those who witness them? If you can, then tell your people that they are already doing this. They are already, that is, in countless and myriad ways making this world God loves so much a little better, a little more trustworthy, a little more joyful through their gestures of love, mercy, and compassion. There is no small gesture, Working Preacher, and through their cups of cold water, hugs, helping hands, and listening ears they are caring for the world God loves so much.

Tell them Working Preacher, and then thank them as well.

I have received countless notes from you over the years, and in almost every one of them there was mention of my recognizing your efforts and thanking you for your labor at the end of these letters. Very early on, I realized that this was something both easy and important for me to do because I know how few people recognize the significant effort that goes into our preaching. But I know, and so I wanted to let you know that I see what you do and appreciate it. So this Sunday is your chance to do the same with your people. You know these folks, Working Preacher, better than anyone else, and so you can name the acts of mercy and grace you’ve seen at their schools and places of work and homes and beyond. You’ve seen the cups of cold water being passed and you can acknowledge them, lift them to God in thanksgiving, and let your people know that even their smallest acts of compassion make the world a better place and gladden the heart of God. Trust me, though this is an easy thing for you to do, it will not feel like a small gesture to your people.

You’ve been a fantastic partner, Working Preacher. Thank you again for your good work. We need people to point us to God’s activity in the world and I am so grateful for your commitment to do that with clarity, boldness, and grace. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you. 

In Christ,

P.S.: Dear Working Preacher, this will be my last letter to you at this site. Because is a Luther Seminary product, the school believes the author of this column must be a current Luther Seminary faculty member and I respect their decision. Please know that I have enjoyed this weekly discipline of writing both with you and for you as much as anything I’ve done in my career, and it has become central to my own sense of vocation. For this reason, I will continue to write in a similar vein but post these letters to my personal blog “…in the Meantime” ( starting next Monday. (I haven’t yet thought of a catchy name — suggestions welcome! 🙂 ). Thank you so much for your faithful readership and, even more, for your faithful and bold proclamation of the Word.

Finally, from the beginning of our work, we’ve put this site together with your needs in mind, and we all believe that we can only gain by learning from your experience. So if you have any thoughts or insights about the direction of, you can direct them to Dr. Karoline Lewis ( who is the person in charge of managing this transition. Thank you.