Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 22, 2009

2009.03.22 “PoWeRSuRGe: “S” is for ‘Serve’”

Central United Methodist Church

“PoWeRSuRGe: “S” is for ‘Serve’”

Pastor David L. Haley

The 4th Sunday in Lent

March 22nd, 2009

       “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’– Matthew 25: 34 – 36, NRSV


With the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States, we have been summoned to a new call to service.  Long before he was elected, the future President said:

“I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.” (Barack Obama, Speech in Mt. Vernon, IA, December 5, 2007)

        Since his inauguration, the details of this call to service have begun to unfold. For example, Obama’s administration seeks:

        – to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000.

– to expand programs that connect retired persons to volunteer opportunities.

– to double the Peace Corps to 16,000 by 2011.

– to integrate service into learning in schools, setting a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year, and establishing a new tax Credit  for those in college, worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service per year.  

Better yet, there is evidence this call to service is being answered. Besides, who knew that the economy would give too many people more time than they knew to engage in volunteer (as opposed to paid) work.  In an article this week in the NY Times, entitled, “From Ranks of Jobless, a Flood of Volunteers,” stories of such people were told.  Eryka Teisch, for example, (picture) is job-hunting but volunteering 20 hours a week. 

“Until November, Lisa Traina had a classic New York glamour job: organizing private parties in the Art Deco opulence of the Rainbow Room. Now she spends 10-hour shifts walking down gritty sidewalks trying to persuade homeless people to go to the Bowery Mission for food and shelter. “I worked at the top of the world,” she said. “And the next day you’re working down on Broadway and saying to somebody, ‘Let me show you where you can get a bowl of soup for the night.’ ”

The article reported that the website — last month had 30 percent more visitors than in February 2008. In Philadelphia, Big Brothers Big Sisters has seen a 25 percent increase in inquiries from potential mentors over this time last year. And the Taproot Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that places skilled professionals in volunteer positions, had more people sign up on one day earlier this year than in an entire month a year ago.  (“From Ranks of Jobless, a Flood of Volunteers,” by Julie Bosman, the New York Times, March 16, 2009.)

        Military recruitment is also up, again, again reflecting the economy.  When you can’t find a job or health insurance for your family, the military is a place to get it, and serve your country at the same time.

        Beyond public programs and military service, President Obama has called upon all Americans to engage in some form of public service: volunteer at the local food pantry or at the Senior Center (Bethany Terrace, specifically) or for Earth Day projects or in extending hospitality to military personnel; really, the opportunities are endless.

As refreshing as it may be to hear of call and response to serve, this call to service should not be new to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  In fact, it is my argument today that the call to serve is the fourth of six essential spiritual disciplines for growth in spirituality and discipleship. 

This is the fourth sermon in my PoWeRSuRGe series, a series developed by Pastor Michael Foss of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, in Burnsville, MN.  PoWeRSuRGe stands for: Prayer, Worship, Read the Bible, Serving, Relationships, and Giving; six essential disciplines for growth in spirituality and discipleship. While the concept came from Pastor Foss; the content is mine.  Throughout, my emphasis is more practical than theological.  

There are three things about service as an essential Christian discipline that I want to emphasize today:  first of all, that, for Christians, service is obligatory; secondly, it is so fulfilling because it is personally transformative, and thirdly, because of the impact it can have in other people’s lives.

If you have done at all what I asked of you last week, which is to “Read Your Bible”, God’s call to service will not be new.  From Genesis, chapter 11, when God calls Abram to “go forth from your country and kindred, to a land that I will show you,” it is not only that Abram might be blessed, but that he might be a blessing to others, including generations yet to come.

From there on, all through the Bible, God calls people to do God’s work. And not just special people, but ordinary people:  shepherds and fishermen, childless women and the elderly, even youth.

In the Gospels, when Jesus calls disciples, he doesn’t say, “You guys stand over there and don’t say or do anything.” What Jesus says is “Follow me” as he wades into the ocean of human need, preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons through the cities and town of Galilee.  Pretty soon he’s sending them out on their own mission, as an extension of his.  “As the Father has sent me, so send I you,” he says in John’s Gospel.  And so it has been every since.

So important was this work of service to Jesus, that in his parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, the criterion of judgment is not what one believes, not what one professes, but what one actually does, in deeds of justice and mercy. Indeed, perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that in this passage Jesus goes so far as to say, that in what we do to others, in effect, we do for Jesus:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

For us Methodists, service to others has been a very important part of our tradition. Long time Methodists will have heard the founder of Methodism, John Wesley’s quote (displayed in our Educational Building):

“Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.”

From the beginning, Methodist Christians visited jails, fed the poor, organized orphanages and schools for children, and clinics for medical care.  That tradition continued here in America:  think of all the schools and hospitals here in Chicago founded by Christians (Northwestern, North Park, Swedish Covenant, etc.)

Through the centuries, however, a diabolic shift has occurred, back and forth, within the church. Simply put, the church has always been at its most vital when the people of the church do the ministry of the church; and likewise, at its worst, and most anemic, when they relegate it to staff, specifically clergy. 

        Relegating the church’s ministry to the clergy does two things: first, it places on clergy an impossible burden, and sets us up to fail. There is no way one person, or even several persons, can adequately even care for all of everyone, not to mention all the others ministries of the church. Secondly, it deprives you, the people, of your obligatory, most important, and most fulfilling ministry: the ministry of the church, in service to others.  It is a monstrous perversion of the mission of Jesus and the work of Christ’s church to tell you that the only role for you, the people of the church, is to run the flower committee or serve on a committee or as an usher and to keep the bills paid and the buildings maintained. 

That’s right:  the work of worship and outreach and nurture and mission is your work, your privilege and responsibility. You are the ministers of the church.  My job is to help you to do your job.

It’s no wonder that as young people come back to church reflecting the ideals of service I shared at the beginning of the sermon, they feel displaced: they don’t want to be on the flower committee; they want to build houses for the homeless and engage in mission and service!

Which brings me to my second point, the reason that they and we want to do this, in fact the reason service is not just obligatory for Christians but an essential spiritual discipline, is because it is personally transformative and immensely fulfilling.  It takes us out of comfort zones, it pushes us, it stretches us; but, ironically, at the same time it is wonderfully fulfilling. The Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore summarized it this way:

“I awoke and saw that life was service.

I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Time would fail to share all the ways I have personally learned this, not in church offices, not in meetings, but the same way you have learned it: by “hands on” doing it.  Almost two decades now of being a Fire Chaplain, a firefighter/paramedic.  By working, in my former church, in a PADS shelter, with the homeless.  By being a volunteer in mission with UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief), going to then Zaire (now the Congo), following the Rwandan crisis in 1995.

You can guess how transformative it was, to be in the back of a Land Cruiser, driving through fields, as far as the eye can see, of blue tents full of refugees. Most of them were black; I was white (a Muzungu). Of walking through a refugee camp with about six kids holding on to each arm. Of visiting a camp of orphaned children, where the only thing they had left were the clothes on their back: their parents either lost or dead.  After experiences like that, a life of endless meetings loses its attraction.

My brothers and sisters, I challenge every one of you to find a place and a way where you can serve:  something “hands on”, tangible, concrete, reaching out to help another person. You will find it uncomfortable, but personally transformative and immensely fulfilling.

Third and final point, is that some form of service for each one of us, as a spiritual discipline and essential aspect of Christian discipleship is important not only because it’s obligatory, not only because it’s personally transformative and fulfilling, but because of the impact it can have on another person’s life, the one whom you serve.  Even by the smallest deeds of love and service.

This final point I want to make not by words, but by video. The following video has been produced specifically of military ministry, but it powerfully makes the point, that you never know the impact your work of service – even in the smallest of ways – may have.  Take a look. The video may be seen here:

What deeds of service are we doing, that will be remembered to the ends of people’s lives?



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