“The Holy Habit of Serving”

Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
25 October, 2020
First in The Holy Habit of Serving series
Matthew 25:31-46
Luke 22:24-27

According to Matthew, Jesus described a Judgement Day scene with the memorable image of the Son of Man, and all the angels with him, sorting people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  Sheep to his right, goats to the left.  The sheep-ish side is warmly welcomed and congratulated because they are inheriting the kingdom prepared for humankind from the foundation of the world.  The ghastly goats are “accursed”; banished to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  The only difference between them was that the sheep had fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, ministered to the sick and imprisoned.  In fact, both sheep and goats ask the same question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison?”  None of them was aware, neither goats nor sheep.  The point being, every single one of them had the opportunity to serve another; each one had encountered others who were vulnerable.  Yet only some of them responded in the way human beings are created and intended to behave toward one another.  Only some were willing to sacrifice, to risk giving something of themselves, possibly even to suffer a little, so that another child of God might suffer a little less.

What Jesus didn’t explicitly point out in this story, but what those who followed him knew or learned, is that the sheep of the story—those who lived according to God’s design for this world, as he did—didn’t just experience blessing in an afterlife.  They already experienced blessing in this life when they cared for the vulnerable, for those who were suffering or needed something they could help to provide.  Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is already here, among us, and that’s what he meant: that the world as God intended and yearns for it to be does exist here and now.  In answer to the Lord’s prayer, God’s kingdom is come, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, whenever we live according to the divine design and order.

Any of you who have ever gladly served another person, who have sacrificed for the sake of another, who have even suffered in some way in order for another person’s suffering to be relieved—you already know the blessed, rewarding feeling that accompanies such living.  A taste of heaven.  And that’s why, for some people, serving others is what characterizes their entire life: because they’ve discovered it delivers joy, meaning, purpose—fulfillment, despite the fact it entails personal sacrifice and goes against the grain of a self-centered world.

Our world adores its heroes, and tends to shun anything that smacks too much of vulnerability.  But Jesus demonstrates the sacredness of humbly allowing others to serve him.   In his prophetic parable, the Son of Man responds to the question, “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, cold, a stranger, vulnerable, imprisoned, needy…?” with the answer, “When you cared (or didn’t care) for the least of these.”  If the Creator of the Universe, the King of kings and Lord of Life itself can vulnerably accept the ministry and service of others, then why are we so afraid to accept such grace and service ourselves?

Jesus makes a distinction in type, however.  Because there are some who are all too eager to be served—not as an acknowledgment of their need or vulnerability, but rather to demonstrate their power.  They are the types that Luke remembered Jesus referring to, observing that “powerful rulers call themselves everyone’s friends” before adding, “But don’t be like them.”  He was calling out the shallow and impoverished spirits of such self-serving power-driven types.  “This world thinks the greatest person is one who is served, right?” Jesus says.  (That’s surely why everyone in Matthew’s story was confused; surely the King of kings would be waited on hand and foot, just as the world’s kings and power-brokers are, wouldn’t they?)  “But,” says the One whose life they are drawn to because it manifests what their own lives are lacking, “I have been with you as a servant.”[1]

As I said in the Introduction to the Theme, we are going to spend the next month reflecting on the Holy Habit of Serving.  We’ve explored the Holy Habits of Worship, Prayer, Fellowship, Biblical Teaching, Gladness and Generosity.  And of all the Holy Habits, Serving is one of the most visible to the rest of the world; this is one of the habits where our true convictions about the life and gospel of Jesus Christ meeting the needs of the world are most visibly lived out.

For example, today, the global health crisis and its impact right on down to our local community, has created a real window of opportunity to share our confidence in Christ’s Good News.  So many—including many of us—are living in fear these days.  Fear for loved ones, and for our own health.  Fear over the complete loss of control.  A fearful sense of being overwhelmed, because we have serious concerns—about health and money, about the growing divide and polarization of our nation … and that just scratches the surface.

We need to remember (and remind each other!) that we are not in this alone.  Although we’ve been unable to gather in the ways we’re used to, and may even prefer, our church community has nonetheless come together; we have changed and adapted, and are being changed this year in ways none of us could ever have imagined.

The Jewish faithful have a concept called Tikkun Olam, which is any activity that improves the world; anything that brings us closer to the harmonious state for which our world was created.  Tikkun Olam operates with the assumption that each of us has a part to play in restoring order and justice where they are lacking, especially insofar as we care for the most vulnerable among us: the poor, the unsheltered, the hungry, the sick, the unborn child as well as the child born into perilous circumstances, the at-risk adolescent and desperate or destitute adult, as much as every refugee and asylum-seeker, the trafficked, the unjustly imprisoned, and the list goes on and on.

Jesus demonstrated the ways that Tikkun Olam is embodied and lived out, and calls us to do the same.  The needs are great—but/and the gifts to meet the needs are provided through those of us who respond in good faith by serving others with all that’s been entrusted to us to manage and share with the world.  Christ calls each of us to be His hands, feet and voice in caring for those around us, and not letting our differences get in the way of Christian friendship, or doing what is right and good as followers of Jesus Christ—as those striving to serve the least, the lost, and every beloved child of God.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk whose daily devotional I subscribe to, published a poem this past week that he’d written back in March.  He titled it based on his suspicion about “What the Pandemic Is Saying to the World.”  Here’s the message he invites us to consider receiving from the force of this pandemic:

“Humanity, you are all One.
You are one beloved community,
and you are one global sickness.
You are all contagious—and always have been,
unconsciously infecting and yet able to also bless one another.

There are no higher and lower in this world.
There is no smart or stupid; no totally right or totally wrong.
The only meaningful division is between those who serve
and those who allow themselves to be served.
All the rest is temporary posturing.

Many to whom you look for power and leadership
have shown themselves to have empty hands, minds, and hearts.
We are bereft of all satisfying explanations,
all ledgers of deserving and undeserving.
There are no perfect answers or absolute heroes.
We must all wear a mask to protect the other from “me.”

Don’t play the victim!
Victimhood is always a waste of time—God’s time and yours.
Instead, try to learn the important lessons.
We are all in the same elementary school now.
Here, we must learn to stand in two different places
and to change places often.
The served must also be the servants,
and the servants must also be the served.

Just stay in the eternal circle of the Suffering and the Servants.
Christians call it the Body of Christ.
We are not the first or the last generation
that gets to suffer and to serve on this earth.”[2]

In the coming weeks, as we pray to become better servants, to be attentive ministers recognizing our God-given call to repair our broken world; as we strive to further develop our Holy Habit of Serving, may we be guided by this prayer, which has been attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now but yours.  No hands, no feet on earth but yours.  Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks Compassion on this world.  Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses all the world.  Yours are the hands.  Yours are the feet.  Yours are the eyes.  You are Christ’s body.  Amen.

[1] Luke 22:26-27.

[2] In his Center for Action and Contemplation Newsletter, 20 October, 2020.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC