October 28, 2018
Servants of the Lord
Genesis 29: 11-30 Deuteronomy 10:18, 24.18-20 & 27:19 and James 1:27
Today is Reformation Sunday. On Reformation Sunday, we recall our Presbyterian Heritage of the Protestant Reformation. In that radical revolution in Europe, church leaders fought to return to biblical roots. One purpose of the Reformation was to reclaim the commitment of the earliest Christians to serve one another in true communal spirit and particularly to help those in need. Early Christians lives as servants of the Lord. In France today, Reformed Christian churches are widely known as the place to go if you are hungry, homeless or struggling with crisis of mental illness. French Reformed Christians are known nation-wide for being servants “of the least of these.” [Mt. 25.40]
Life-long servants were common in the ancient Biblical world. Social and economic strictures shackled servants to their masters (like indentured servants) with no hope of release from servitude. Even today, “servant” generally means being obedient to a boss and banished to repetitive and trivial tasks. Turning that hierarchical social order upside down, Jesus models humble service to others as a way to show God’s care. Jesus lashed out at self-righteous people, challenging them for selfishly serving themselves.
We tend not to think of servitude as desirable. Yet in a lifestyle of service lies liberty to say “NO” to the rat race of promotion, authority and power abuse. An orientation of servitude ignores our society’s “pecking order” mindset. How like chickens we can be! In the chicken pen or the lion pride, there is no peace until it is clear who is the greatest. People “pecking order” is the way we interact most of the time. Even Jesus’ disciples bickered about who was the greatest among them.
Dr. Tony Compolo tells of a time he walked down Chestnut St in Philadelphia. A filthy bum with a beard with rotted food stuck in it mumbled as he walked along holding a paper cup of coffee. He spotted me and said, “Hey mister—you want some of my coffee?” I knew I should take some to be nice, and I did. I said, “Thanks. You’re being pretty generous giving away your coffee. What’s gotten into you that you’re giving up your coffee?” He replied, “Well, the coffee is especially delicious thias morning, and I figure if God gives me something good, it’s a chance to share the goodness.”
Jesus never taught that everyone has equal authority. Rather, he lifted up genuine spiritual authority and aimed to eliminate human power abuse. Jesus lashed out at those who used power to manipulate or control. Authentic authority is earned by action, not social status. Jesus introduced servant leadership: He told his disciples: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant…even as the son of man came not to be served but to serve.” [Mt. 20.27-8] Jesus, the son of man came not to be served but to serve. At the last supper, when his disciples bicker about who is greatest, Jesus stooped and took on one of the lowliest tasks. He washed their feet. As I studied ancient and world religions, I was blown away when I realized that the gods of all other religions demand sacrifices and obeisance. God in whom Christians trust inspires loyalty by giving. Jesus came not to be served but to serve. With divine irony, Jesus inspires our servitude.
Authentic service needs to be distinguished from self-righteous and self-serving service. Self-serving and self-righteous service come from human effort. Self-oriented service usually expends wasteful energy trying to get the most out of any effort. Authentic service is inspired and energized by the leading of God’s spirit. Energy is needed for authentic service, but it is life-enriching energy, not energy zapping effort.
Authentic servants do not choose tasks based on prestige or credit to be gained. True servants take on tasks because there is a need that they are able to address. True service is an openness and a whole lifestyle. True service inspires, heals, and builds unity with those served and in the larger community.
We might think a prerequisite for authentic service is humility. The old quip goes: I used to be prideful but now I am perfect. Humility cannot be put on like a new overcoat. Actually, authentic service is most conducive to humility. When we learn from close interaction with those we serve that we are not better than they are, we learn humility. A deep change occurs in our spirits from being patronizing or frenetic “do-gooders” to being God’s servants. Through God-inspired service activities, humility will slip into our being unawares.
If we want our service activities to be authentic and humble, William Law explained a century ago:
…condescend to tall the weakness and infirmities of your fellow-creatures [I might add: even bugs and dandelions]. Cover their frailties, love the excellencies, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in the prosperities, have compassion for their distress. Receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice. Be a servant of servants and do the lowest jobs on behalf of the lowest of humankind.
If we can open ourselves to be God-inspired authentic servants, God’s grace will burgeon. We will feel fresh zest and enthusiasm. Although the demands and vicissitudes of life are as great as ever, a true servant orientation will give us a deeper sense of the peace that passes all understanding, because we will be enveloped in God’s grace. We do not need to take the burdens of the world on our shoulders. We can be servants of God by following God’s leading.
So, how do we determine whether our doing good deeds are inspired by God or come from our own ego needs? We can do some soul searching—What is motivation here? Am I doing this because I want recognition? Is it a reluctant sense of duty? Is the driving force my need to be needed? Am I bored or lonely and need something constructive to do? Such self-serving motives might be a starting place to being true servants of God. Then, turn the decision making over to God with prayer: Experiment with admitting your needs and then pray for God to lead you to some way that you can set your own neediness aside and serve in a fruitful way today.” Maybe a variation on the prayer about doubt: Lord, I know my motives are self-serving. Help me to turn my desire to serve into service that you would envision for me. And help me give you the praise for helping to bring a bit of grace to this needy world. Amen.
There’s a poem by Will Allen Dromgoole that captures the spirit of Servants of the Lord:
The Bridge Builder
An old man, going a lone highway, Came, at the evening, cold and gray, To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide, Through which was flowing a sullen tide. The old man crossed in the twilight dim; The sullen stream had no fear for him; But he turned, when safe on the other side, And built a bridge to span the tide. "Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near, "You are wasting strength with building here; Your journey will end with the ending day; You never again will pass this way; You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide-Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?" The builder lifted his old gray head: "Good friend, in the path I have come," he said, "There follows after me today, A youth, whose feet must pass this way. This chasm, that has been naught to me, To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be. He, too, must cross in the twilight dim; Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."
Credits: Richard Foster, Celebration of Disciplines
Jesus as role model Mark 1:29-39
“for that is what I came out to do…” to proclaim and teach about the kingdom of God. But
Jesus wasn’t just about the sermon and lecture. There was the practical outreach along the
way of serving and healing. And, of course, there was always prayer for renewal. The keys are
turned over to the disciples—and to us—“...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing
them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to
obey everything I have commanded you” The way to accomplish this clear from Jesus.
Example: proclaim, teach, serve, heal, and pray.
Sustainer God, be with us and guide us each day as we seek to proclaim, teach, serve and
heal in your name. Strengthen us, always, for the task. Amen.