A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 22, 2011
Galatians 6:9-10 NRSV
Several years ago, our son tried to get me to buy stock in a new company that was just going public. It was one of those relatively unheard-of technology businesses related to the Internet. The Internet itself was still rather new at that time. I barely knew how to send an e-mail. And on top of that, the company that our son wanted me to invest in had a really funny name that gave the impression that it was a come-and-go sort of venture. Always being the cautious one, I did not invest, of course. Many times since then our son has said to me, “I told you so; I tried to get you to invest.” You may have heard of the company. It was Yahoo. A missed opportunity my son probably will never let me forget.
Perhaps you have heard of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of the Apple Computer Company. But you likely have not heard of Ron Wayne, Apple’s other founder. Wayne decided to bail out of the business after only 12 days because he was afraid of losing his shirt in the risky venture. “I left Apple for reasons that seemed sound to me at the time,” Wayne said. His original 10% stake in the company would be worth more than $22 billion today—had he held onto it. At the age of 76, Ron Wayne is living off Social Security checks and earnings from the sale of stamps and coins.1 Another missed opportunity.
Allow me to share with you one more similar story. Several years ago, a good friend of ours—someone who used to be connected to this church, in fact—was approached by a man who had the idea of starting a new chain of hamburger joints. This unheard-of entrepreneur spoke personally with our friend, trying to persuade him to put up some capital and become a stockholder in the new venture. Our friend’s response was, Why would America need another hamburger chain? So he refused to invest. The name of the man with the idea was Dave—Dave Thomas that is, the founder of Wendy’s. Yet another missed opportunity. You get the idea.
Most of us could tell a story about a missed opportunity of some sort at some point in our lives. Probably not as life-changing as an Apple Computer or Wendy’s Hamburgers opportunity, but an opportunity we let slip by none-the-less, and we may look back on such with regret.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, speaks of an opportunity of another sort. That is the encouragement to look for opportunities to do something good for another whenever we can do so. “Whenever we have the opportunity, let us work for the good of all,” Paul wrote (6:10). Maybe Paul is suggesting that we set out each day to look for opportunities to make a positive difference in someone else’s life by doing some act of kindness or service. Perhaps a worthy prayer to start each day might be, “Open my eyes to opportunities to be of service or help to someone else today.” I heard a few years ago about someone who went around the city looking for expired parking meters. Every time the good Samaritan would come upon a car parked in a spot where the meter had expired, he or she would put a quarter in the meter so the owner would not get a parking ticket.
I was also reminded this week of something that happened to me several years ago. A retired couple began attending the fledgling new church that we had started a few years earlier. One morning, after this couple had attended two or three Sundays, I collected the mail from the church’s mailbox. In that stack of mail was an envelope from this retired couple. When I opened it, I found a check made out to me personally in the amount of $3,000 and signed by Bob, the husband. Now, this was 17 years ago, and $3,000 looked pretty good to us at the time. But I also found it quite unsettling. My first thought was the man was in the early stages of dementia and was not aware of what he was doing. Bob had sort of an eccentric personality. So I called their house and gently tried to do some fishing with his wife just to make sure she was aware of the gift and it was okay to accept it. And she said to me, “Oh, Bob does that sort of thing all the time. He enjoys going to places like the Dollar General Store and finding people who seem to be in need and surprising them by handing them a big bill.” You might be familiar with where Bob used to work. It was a place called Silicon Valley. He had made quite a fortune for himself there before moving to Tennessee and enjoyed going about looking for opportunities to brighten someone’s day.
Well, very few of us can go about handing out cash or checks. But there are dozens of other ways that we can take the opportunity to do good for others, if we look for them. For instance, a next-door neighbor has been in the hospital, and we notice his lawn is getting quite shaggy, so we go over and mow it for him. A friend had surgery and can’t stand on her feet to cook, so we prepare a few meals she can warm up the next few days. A shopper in a wheelchair in the grocery store parking lot is having difficulty getting his bags of groceries in the car, so we go over and assist. The list of opportunities to do good to others is endless. The key, I believe, is to have our eyes and ears open so that we don’t let the opportunities for doing good to others pass by unnoticed. The Buddhists, you know, refer to it as “mindfulness”—learning to live in the moment; being mindful of the current moment and the opportunities that each moment affords us. Sometimes the opportunity may just be lending a listening ear to someone who needs someone to talk to get a burden off his or her chest.
A well-known minister tells the story of how a former President of the United States one day said to him, “Could you ride back to the White House with me? I’d like to see you for a minute.”
The minister was not feeling well that day, and thinking he had some type of flu said, “Mr. President, I’ve got a fever. Not only am I weak, but I don’t want to give you this thing. Couldn’t we wait and talk some other time?” It was a cold, snowy day, and the minister was freezing as he stood there without an overcoat.
“Of course,” the President said graciously.
The minister laments his hesitation at the car door, and the President’s request haunts him to this day. What was on the President’s mind that he wanted to talk about? Should the minister have gone with him in spite of his fever? It was an irrecoverable moment. The two never did have the opportunity to have that conversation. It was the last time they were together in that manner. The minister? Dr. Billy Graham. The year? 1963. The President? John F. Kennedy.2 Some opportunities in life don’t come around again.
Sometimes I feel like we here at the United Church have been given a window of opportunity to do something good, to make a difference in the future of this congregation. You know, sometimes wide windows of opportunity are opened before us. And at other times those windows close. We were given two significant financial gifts last year, some of which at least might be used to do some things that would contribute to the growth and future development of this congregation, especially as it involves our children and youth. We would do well to be alert and open to such opportunities that might come our way. It would be sad if 2, 3, 5, or 10 years down the road we would have to look back in regret and bemoan the opportunities that we let slip through our fingers.
And finally, as our minds are on graduation, our hope and prayer for our graduates who are members of our church or in our families is that they will be able to see and act on the many good opportunities that come their way. Not just investment opportunities or opportunities to better themselves, but also opportunities to make a positive difference in the lives of others and the world at large.
As I stated earlier, rarely will our lost opportunities be as big as investing in Yahoo, Apple Computers, or Wendy’s, or as important as failing to talk with the President of the United States. But every day, perhaps, each of us is presented with opportunities to do something good, or make life better for another, or make a positive difference in our world. May this be our prayer and our goal, to recognize and act upon windows of opportunity when they present themselves to us. Amen.
1quoted in the Christian Century, July 13, 2010.
2Told by Billy Graham in Just As I Am, pp. 472-473.