October 14, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
The Good and Beautiful Community
21st Sunday after Pentecost
The Serving Community
In the Good and Beautiful Community, we, as the body of Christ, are to be a serving community. We need to be looking outward to see how we can serve others. But all too often, in our culture today, in the worldly kingdom of the Evil One, we see and hear the following narrative: my needs matter the most. That is a false narrative. It is a worldly narrative.
Not long ago, a young engineer fresh out of MIT was reaching the end of his job interview with the human resources person. The HR person asked the graduate what kind of salary he was looking for. “Somewhere in the neighborhood of $140,000 a year,” he replied, depending on the benefits package.”
The HR person responded, “Well, what would you say to a package of five weeks’ vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50% of salary, and a company car leased every two years…say a red Corvette?”
“Wow! Are you kidding?” the engineer asked. “Yeah,” the HR person replied, “but you started it.” Folks, most people in our world are interested in what they can get out of life, not what they can give. They are more interested in gaining than giving, more interested in being loved than demonstrating love.
But Scripture has a different narrative on this. Scripture says that others’ needs matter most. Paul writes in Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). More about this in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?
During my seminary work at Ashland Theological Seminary a few years back, I took a class called “Leading the Church in the 21st Century.” It was taught by Dr. Terry Wardle, a leading authority in personal and church transformation through the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. One of the tasks we completed was the writing of our personal ministry statement. That statement needed four parts: upward – my relationship with God, inward – my personal growth toward holiness, outward – my relationship with other people, and forward – my Christian purpose as I move into the world. This was no easy task as I played around with words, rewrote, ruminated, and then rewrote the personal ministry statement over a period of a couple of weeks.
Here is what I accomplished, my personal ministry statement from a less than perfect, repentant sinner: I desire a passionate and intimate relationship with God and his Son, Jesus Christ, in which God’s will for my life is manifested through the Holy Spirit that is within and around me (that is the upward). That love relationship will transform me into the likeness of Christ (that is the inward), a godly man capable of loving every human being created in God’s image no matter how unlovable (that is the outward). It is through God’s love and through God’s Holy Word that I serve this frightfully broken and sinful world (that is the forward).
Do you know how hard it is to fulfill that part of my personal ministry statement that deals with the outward? Listen to that part again. I want to be “a godly man capable of loving every human being created in God’s image no matter how unlovable.” That statement continues to haunt me, to convict me, and I wrote it! I could change it, but I need it to remind me of what God has called me to do even though I fall woefully short. There are days I think following it is impossible and yet Paul is telling us today to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
If you read on in that Philippians passage, verse 5 says this: Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. Christ humbled himself in service and loving others even to his death.
No matter how unlovable some people are, God has called us, as the body of Christ, a community of believers, to be a serving community. You see, the good and beautiful community of Jesus finds its life and power in Jesus himself, who is not only our teacher but also our source of strength. James Bryan Smith says that “as Jesus is, so are his followers. Jesus was a servant. He lived for the good of others…His example becomes our example…Being a servant of others is the highest way to live. Wanting and needing to be served by others is not life-producing but soul-destroying…[Jesus] lives to serve. This is because he was and is moved by one thing: love. He told his disciples that the greatest expression of love is to give of yourself for the good of others.”
In fact, the greatest service and act of love you can do for another person, and I am not recommending this, unless you somehow find yourself in that position to do so, would be to offer your life in exchange for the well-being of another. Jesus said in John 15:13: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Jesus taught this, but more importantly for us, he lived this. He gave his life for the good of others, including you and me. If we are to follow Jesus as our teacher, then we need to do the same, to shift our focus away from ourselves and onto others.
A lady said, “I was standing in the grocery line in somewhat of a daze and I noticed the guy being checked out had to put back his Ramen noodles because he didn’t have enough money. It really melted my heart, I guess, because my kids dearly love Ramen noodles. I had a loose quarter so I said, ‘hey, let him have his noodles.'”
“At that point, the lady behind me said she would pay for some of his groceries, too. I hadn’t notice but he had a big pile of groceries that he couldn’t pay for. The lady behind me paid for about $8 worth of groceries. The guy was wiping tears from his eyes and the clerk was too. The clerk said that she hadn’t had that happen before.” The lady continued, “It was neat how the kindness became contagious and everyone in the line was saying sweet things. For a brief moment we weren’t strangers but in service to someone in need.”
What would you have done in that situation? It’s not often that something like that happens, but what would you have done? Instead of helping, most people would have been disgusted because they were in a hurry to get through the line and get home. Paul says, Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
When you and I are living in the kingdom of God our basic needs are met – get this, even if it takes other Christians to provide them. James Bryan Smith, in his book The Good and Beautiful Community writes this: “In the kingdom we are given the material provision we need (even if we do not have shelter, food and clothing, there are organizations that can provide them – they are usually organizations that serve as outposts of the kingdom and are run predominantly by apprentices of Jesus).”
He continues, “In the kingdom of God we are safe and secure. Not even death can separate us from the love of God. In the kingdom of God we discover that we are loved, forever, and without condition. In the kingdom of God we also learn that we are valuable and precious, worth dying for.” As the author Eugene Peterson says, we are “splendid, never-to-be-duplicated stories of grace.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, material possessions come and go, people come and go, churches come and go, but the message of Christ and the kingdom of God is eternal. When we do what we do with God’s kingdom foremost in our minds and on our hearts, then our community becomes an outpost of the kingdom of God, a place where grace is spoken and lived for as long as it is needed. Please remember this: the value of a church is not in its longevity but in its love. The success of a church is not in its size but in its service to the people and the community. Jesus never established a church or built a building or led a finance campaign to build impressive buildings. He just came and served and then died for the good of others. Imagine a mission statement for a church like this: “We exist to serve others and to die, just like our Founder.”
Folks, here is the bottom line to being a serving community, we must treasure our treasures. For example, my children are sacred and wonderful treasurers. Sometimes I forget that and find caring for them a chore. Then I remember them as treasurers and suddenly caring for them is less a duty and more of a privilege. You and I have to change our way of seeing our spouse, our children, our mothers or fathers, our friends and our neighbors. Jesus wants us to see the beauty and worth of a person who was created in the image of God and that will in turn increase our desire to serve. We need to treasure our treasures.
But please remember this; we need to have a balance when it comes to the issue of serving others and taking care of ourselves. Please don’t run the risk of overserving or being too concerned with the needs of others that you neglect your own needs or the needs of your family.
Smith says this: “I encourage balance when it comes to serving others. We need to be aware of the condition of our own souls and bodies, and to take care of that first, without feeling any guilt about it. We can only give when we are grounded and rested.” When you and I consider others better than ourselves, it doesn’t lower our self-esteem but raises both the server and the receiver of your gift to new levels of grace and godliness.
Eugene Peterson wrote our Philippians passage this way in his Message Bible: If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
As I close today, listen to these words of a taxicab driver who was part of God’s serving community: Because I drive the night shift, my cab often becomes a moving confessional. Passengers climb in, sit behind me in total anonymity, and tell me about their lives. I encounter people whose lives amaze me, ennoble me, make me laugh, and sometimes weep. But none touched me more than a woman I picked up late one August night.
Responding to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town, I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partiers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or a worker heading to an early shift at some factory in the industrial part of town.
When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked.
“Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.
The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware. “Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she asked. I took the bag and then turned to assist her. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. “It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.” “Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said.
When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?” “It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly. “Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”
I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening. “I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I don’t have very long.” I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?” I asked.
For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.” We drove in silence to the address she had given me. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were caring and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse. “Nothing,” I said. “You have to make a living,” she answered. “There are other passengers,” I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”
I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. I then drove aimlessly, lost in thought. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.
As the serving community of God, treasuring our treasures is one of our most important jobs. Paul said, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Amen.