Friday, March 27, 2015

A Servant

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 12:20-26:

Today we conclude our series looking at the spiritual disciplines by looking at the discipline of service.  I’ve opened up the other sermons in this series with a joke, but I’m not doing that today not because I think this topic is more serious, but instead for the simple reality that I couldn’t find a good joke to use, as all the jokes I could find had to do with worship services, but that’s not the service we’re talking about here.  The service we are talking about is about reaching out to others, and yet it’s about so much more than that as well.  As part of today’s service we are going to be receiving new members into the church, and that involves vowing to support the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  None of those things are independent of each other, and all of them go back of course to the earliest days of Methodism.
Methodism began at Oxford University when Charles Wesley, who was a student there, asked his brother John, who was an Anglican priest and also an Oxford Don, which is a fancy English word for professor, to come and help he and his friends deepen their faith lives and spiritual practices.  And so together they formed what came to be known as the holiness club, and they gathered together several times a day to pray and read scripture, and they fasted twice a day, and they asked each other how it was with their soul to have mutual accountability for their lives and what they were doing.  But one of the members, William Morgan, said this wasn’t enough, and persuaded John and Charles to visit one of the prisons in London, which they did, and continued to do so, and so a faith lived out became one of the key characteristics of Methodism.  Indeed, John Wesley was always much more concerned about orthopraxy, that is right action, over that of orthodoxy, right belief, a tradition which carries on today, with some of the most famous organizations helping people in need, like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, originating in the Methodist church.

Of course Wesley didn’t create this idea, as we see it throughout scripture and most especially in the teachings of Jesus.  We see Jesus’ reaching out and being in service to others.  In Matthew Jesus says that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and then in Matthew 25 we find the famous sorting of the sheep and the goats in which we are told that the judgement is made based upon how people responded to those who were in need in the world, the hungry, the sick, the naked, the thirsty, the imprisoned.  That is the example that is set for us.  But Jesus in the gospel of John takes a little farther.

It is in John that we hear Jesus say that he has one commandment for us and that is to love each other as he has loved us, which also means that we are called to serve, as Jesus gives this injunction just after he has washed the feet of the disciples.  When we hear love in a modern context we think of romantic love, of Valentine’s Day and Hallmark, or weddings and anniversaries.  I get called on to quote from Paul’s famous passage from the 13th chapter of Corinthians for weddings which is that faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.  Many argue because of our modern understanding of love, that we should change it to a better translation of charity, because love in this sense is not a feeling, but a way of being in the world, of reaching out and helping others, so that we will be known by the fruits of our labors.

Because that is how we are told that we will be judged, and how people can know if we are truly picking up our cross, is by our fruits.  And Jesus has something incredibly important to say about how we get those fruits.  This is a pumpkin seed, and of course there are several things that you can do with pumpkin seeds.  The first is that we can do nothing with it, and it in return will do nothing.  The second thing is that before you carve your pumpkin to look like John Wesley, you take the seeds out and you can roast them and salt them and eat them.  That’s a good alternative to doing nothing, but in neither of those scenarios is anything really going to come of the seeds.  It might abate your hunger for a little bit, but that’s about it.  Your third option is then to take that seed and plant it, and then care for it a little bit, and then you will be rewarded with not just one more seed, but with hundreds or thousands of seeds that will come from the fruit that is generated from that one seed.  But if you go to the plant and pull it up, will you find that seed?  No.  It is totally transformed and changed by the experience.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus says, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  In order for a seed to be a seed, in order for it to be what it is supposed to be, it must die to what it was in order to be made something new.  If it just stays a seed it is not becoming what it is called to be.  A seed by itself is pretty useless.  It does have potential, but that’s it.  But by changing from what it was, by dying, so that it can be transformed into something else, becoming fruit, it is given new life, but not just any life, but abundant life because this one seed is multiplied into many other things.  It produces multiples of itself to continue to generate new life.  That’s what serving does for us as well, if we practice service in the right way.  We serve not for our sake, not for our own egos, not for praise and glory, not so that we can feel better about ourselves, not so we can go back to our lives so we don’t have to feel guilty about how others live, we serve so that we can be of service and so that we can be transformed, and might in turn be transformative.  That our seeds of service might produce fruit, and that we will become the disciples, the followers that Christ has called us to be.

But Jesus also gives this strange little caveat at the end, he says that whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also.  And I wonder if we can’t also reverse some of those things.  That we can also day, that whoever follows me, serves me, and that wherever the servant is, that Jesus is there as well.  That is that when we choose to follow we have to serve, and when we have to serve we are also therefore followers, and wherever we are serving that Jesus us also present, and as he says in Matthew 25, “As you do to the least of these, so you do to me.”

Dr. M. Scott Peck tells the story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left: the abbot and four others, all over seventy.  In the woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. It occurred to the abbot that they might visit the rabbi and see if he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. They read scripture, and prayed and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years," the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"

"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Of course none of them thought it could be them, and so they began to look at the other monks differently, and more important they began to live together differently.  As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

As people occasionally came out to visit the monastery, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently and they began to bring their friends, and their friends brought their friends. And some of the young men began to join, and soon the monastery was no longer dying, but was instead a place vibrant with energy and the power of God, all because of how the monks began to serve one another.

When we think of serving, we usually think of the big ones, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, clothing the naked, and those are all important and need to be done, and they should all be done by us.  Thinking back to the fall when we talked about the five practices of fruitful living, they also need to be risk-taking, or things that allow us to be transformed and be transformative.  But let me also broaden out our understanding of what it means to be in service in ways that we can be doing every single day.

First, since March Madness has begun, let me just say that screaming at the television can be a form of service, first because the players can actually hear you on the other side of the TV and second because it actually does help.  But more seriously, the first two come from the letter to Titus where we are told “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.”  So one service is protecting reputations.  That is not participating in gossiping or backbiting or slandering, and when you hear such things taking place, stopping it, which may be as simple as turning a television off, or as difficult as telling someone else to stop.  And the second is showing common courtesy.  Saying thank you and you’re welcome.  Holding doors open, when you see someone at work who’s having a bad day, thank them for their work, write thank you notes, acknowledge others and affirm their worth.

The next two come from Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens.”  So that leads to the service of listening.  Sometimes simply listening, not talking, not trying to solve problems, not trying to provide answers, and definitely not saying how things could be worse, and how much worse you have experienced, but simply listening to another person say what is going on in their life can be the most important service that can be offered.  And that is one way we help carry the burdens of another person.  But this can also entail crying with those who are crying, giving relief to a new mother who is overwhelmed with everything that has to be done, or relief for a caretaker who is taking care of someone who has difficulty caring for themselves.  And sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I’m praying for you,” or even better “Can I pray for you right now,” so that they know that they are not alone.

And finally, and this might seem like a strange one, but that is the service of allowing someone else to serve us.  When Jesus wants to wash the disciples’ feet, the task left to the lowest of the servants, Peter says he won’t allow him to do it.  We might say that this is out of humility, but I think it’s actually said out of vanity because if Peter were in the same position of power, he wouldn’t kneel down and wash someone’s feet, and so he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for Jesus to be doing it.  But there is an act of service, and of subservience, to allow others to serve us, because it’s also recognition that we can’t do everything ourselves, and that others can do things just as well as we can and sometimes even better.  I’ll be honest and say that this is an area where I struggle myself.  I don’t like letting others do work for me, and so I have to work on letting others do work, and be open to allowing others to do that, and perhaps that’s true with you as well.  And if so, recognize what you are doing by letting go, and also in allowing other people to serve, because by refusing it you are stopping others from being able to plant a seed.

We are called to be in service to the world because in reality we have all first been served, because Christ first served us and gave his life so that we might gain life.  We are called to give ourselves, to be transformed, to die to our old lives, our old way of being, so that we can multiply what has been given to us and bear much fruit.  Sometimes that service is huge and public, and sometimes it’s small and anonymous, and sometimes that is even more important and vital to transforming the world.  So I have a challenge and an opportunity for you this week, and that to seek at least one chance to be of service to at least one person this week.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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