Sunday, March 25, 2012

Serving One Another

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, and John 12:20-33.

Every once in a while I’ll meet someone who is curious about our church.  Sometimes they’re just being polite and other times, I think they’re serious when they ask, “What time is your service?”  They mean what time do we worship.  But whenever I’m asked that question, I’m tempted to answer it in a way that might sound sarcastic or flippant, but would nonetheless be true.  “What time is our service?”  “Right now,” I would want to say.  This could be said because no matter when someone asks me that question, some member of our congregation, some part of the Body of Christ that gathers under the name “All Souls” is actively engaged in service.  They’re praying.  Or they’re feeding.  Or they’re giving.  Or they’re planning.  And through our service, the church becomes the Body of Christ in the world, whether people fill this room or not.

Though we do it all the time, I don’t know that we often really think about service or its blessings.  It’s just a part of what we do.  It’s a part of our public discourse, so that there are service days and service hours that have to be fulfilled.  The scriptures today invite us to encounter God in our service.

In our Gospel, we enter the story as there’s a lot of excitement in Jerusalem.  People are pouring into the city for Passover. (Watching the crowds coming into Washington for the Cherry Blossom Festival, we can get a sense of how suddenly, there are just more people everywhere.) As people pour into Jerusalem, some of the foreigners ask to see Jesus.
Word has spread, and they want to know how they, too, can come to know God, how they, too, can be a part of this Jesus movement that seems to be healing and helping and giving people hope.
When they meet him, Jesus lays it all out.  He says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” Jesus promises.  There is blessing, but it’s going to get rough along the way.  He goes on to say, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And he explains a simple rule of nature, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.”
Jesus is talking about his own sacrifice, the sacrifice for us that makes for our salvation. But he’s also talking about the little sacrifices, the perhaps even-minute sacrifices we can make, we are called to make, on behalf of one another.

There are a lot of different ways for us to serve. Many of you volunteer. You sing in the choir, and work with the garden guild, or teach Sunday school, or cook breakfast, or serve on Vestry or some other committee. And that’s just within the church. Others of you serve the community, your buildings, schools, and neighborhoods. Some of you serve our country. But there are times when we forget the power that is let loose through service.

You may be familiar with the modern spiritual classic called The Celebration of Discipline (first published in 1978). In it, the Quaker author Richard Foster talks about the spiritual disciplines we have either practices or heard of: such things as give the season of Lent its substance sometimes, disciplines like fasting, prayer, meditation, confession, … and service.  I don’t often think of service as a discipline—that is, something to be developed, to be practiced, something that we can get better at, and grow into. But Foster does, and he also names particular kinds of service.

One kind, he calls “hidden service.” It’s the kind of service toward another person in which the other person is the only other one to know—except for God, that is. Over time, there will grow within you a quality that others will begin to sense, a quality of a deeper love, a new compassion, almost a slight aura. People will notice that you are different.

Richard Foster tells a story through which he says he learned a whole new aspect of service. He explains that he was in the final, most hectic week of finishing his doctoral dissertation. The phone rang, and it was a friend who needed a ride in order to run some errand. Foster didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t see how he might possible spare the time. But reluctantly, he agreed (inwardly worrying about the precious time he was losing by helping this friend.) The friend needed a ride to several places, it turned out, and so, while the friend was in the grocery store, Foster waited in the car, pulling out a book that he had brought along.
It was Dietrich Bonheoffer’s little book, “Life Together.” Foster opened the book to where he had stopped reading before, and he read these words, “The . . . service one should perform for another in a Christian community is active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. [And] One who worries about the loss of time . . . is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.” Ouch. 
In other words, the service in small ways matters.

Foster suggests our trying other forms of service, trying them on as disciplines.  Some might sound surprising. He mentions the service of “guarding the reputation of others.” This is what some have called simply “charity.” It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he says, “speak evil of no one.” It’s what the 9th Commandment means by “not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.” What a service that would be, if we could hold our tongues more often, if we could truly guard the reputation of others.

Another is the service of being served, of being gracious, of living out thanks. When Jesus began to wash the feet of his disciples, Peter objected. He couldn’t understand it, but Jesus was invited them to be served, so that they could pass that gift on to others.
There’s the service of common courtesy. The service of hospitality. The service of listening. And finally, there’s the service illustrated by Philip and Andrew in today’s Gospel: the service of sharing the Word of Life, the love of Christ with others.

Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.” If we offer ourselves to one another in ordinary, mundane, and everyday ways—as well as in the more public ways, much fruit comes of it.

We talk about service in the context of religion. That word, “religion,” comes from the Latin word, religare, which means “to tie, or to bind” If we are religious at all, we are tied to God, bound to God; but also tied to one another, bound together, connected. “Anyone who serves me, God will honor,” Jesus says. We become connected to God through service. Being a servant of someone means that there is a bond, we are tied to that person in some way. Being a servant of Christ means being tied to him.

As we continue to grow into a religious community, a community in which we share ties that bind in love, I pray that we (all of us) might deepen our own sense of service. Service to All Souls, service to this community and the world, service to one another, and through it all—service to God.

In the words of the prayer sometimes used after Communion, may God grant us “strength and courage to love and serve . . . with gladness and singleness of heart.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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