Membership Vows: Service/Mission
Minister: Rev. Kerry McCormick
Text: James 2:14-17
Title: To Be A Disciple is To Serve
Theme: As part of the series on Membership Vows for Horizon Stewardship, our engagement with service calls us into deeper relationship with God.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that, as the Scriptures are read and your word proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to serve. By service I mean giving of our time and talents for the transformation of lives. Service in this sense is not intended to secure the status quo; it is not about protecting the familiar patterns. Rather it is intended to reach out to the last, the lost and the least in meaningful – life changing, world altering ways.
In each of our discussions about our commitments to discipleship over the past few weeks, we have felt both blessed – in the ways we are practicing our faith, and challenged – in the ways we have been encouraged to take a step toward deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We have heard a call to be more deeply and consistently in prayer, an invitation to be present at worship and the spiritual need we share to give back to God a portion of all that God gives us through our gifts. In each of these conversations, we are able to look at our lives with hope and optimism. I want to do more. And with God’s help, I can do more.
Our commitment to discipleship is not different. James addresses the difference between a life of lip service and a life of actual service. In our scripture for today, we hear the admonition to do more than say, “God bless you” to those in need. Disciples of Jesus Christ give of their resources and of their time and of their personal talents to ease the suffering of others. Service is about transforming lives, especially our own.
The discipleship commitment of service, though, brings up our defensiveness right away. In reality, there are only so many hours in the day. There’s only so much resource to go around. Even if I sacrificed all that I have, by myself, I couldn’t make a bit of difference. And there is so much suffering in the world. It’s like trying to swallow a blue whale. I feel inadequate to meet the need. And then, in the ‘feel good’ moment on the nightly news, we hear about people who do, and by comparison, our efforts seem anemic, at best. And sometimes we allow these thoughts to be the beginning and the end of our consideration of service.
Agnes Gonxha was born in Albania in 1910. As a young adult, she heard God’s invitation into a life of service and went to Dublin, Ireland for training. Afterwards, she traveled Calcutta, India to teach at a school for girls, and was deeply moved by the suffering, poverty stricken, diseased and dying people in the streets there. Many years later, she wrote about her experiences, “I realized” she said, “that I had the call to take care of the sick and the dying, the hungry, the naked, the homeless – to be God’s love in action to the poorest of the poor.” You perhaps know Agnes Gonxha by another name.
Whenever the topic of service comes into a conversation, it’s been my experience that someone quickly says, “Well, we can’t all be Mother ____________ Teresa.” And that’s true. As you hear her story, though, and her simple call – to be God’s love in action to the poorest of the poor – please remember that it wasn’t her goal to operate 517 missions in more than 100 countries, it was just to love those who were deemed unlovable by society, one person at a time, one child at a time.
For most of us, it’s hard to watch another person suffer. It’s easier to turn away, to let someone who feels more qualified than we do handle the situation. It’s heartbreaking to be confronted with the infomercials this time of year (catching end-of-year-donors who still need a tax break) showing young children bare-foot and shabbily dressed living in intolerable conditions with big eyes and distended, malnourished bellies. Flies buzz around them. We find another channel to distract ourselves from that sinking feeling.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear the historian in Deuteronomy, who writes:
12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. (Deut. 10:12-13)
Facing the problem of suffering in our world, then, is something we do for our own well-being. Echoing Mother Teresa’s phrase, “to be God’s love in action” does not come with a caveat to solve all the world’s problems today. It just means that our Christian discipleship asks us to engage the suffering in the world and to work toward its transformation. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to face the reality of suffering and seek opportunities to serve in ways that offer transformation.
In 1979, Mother Teresa was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her devotion to helping the poor, sick and orphaned in India. When receiving the prize, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” Her response, “Go home and love your family.” A follower of Jesus Christ committed to a life of service begins at home.
You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to reduce suffering in the world. You can be you, right where you are. You can love one other person, meet their real needs, and bless both of you.
Sometimes, though we are called to step beyond our comfort zones and go farther than we thought we could.
“Dot” was 81 when I met her. In January 2006, 4 months after the devastation of hurricanes Rita and Katrina along the gulf coast, I went with a team from Colorado and Wyoming on a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) trip to Ocean Springs, MS. We were tasked with demolition and clean up to remove debris and begin helping homeowners recover from the storm. Each day we worked at a different site. And part of the experience is to meet and speak with the homeowners.
On Thursday of our week, our team was working on removing plaster and lathe walls and ceilings in a couple of rooms while another team was working in a different part of the house cleaning the mold from the 2x4 wall studs so that new dry wall wouldn’t be affected by the water which had stood more than 4 feet deep for about a month.
After several hours of going at a ceiling with a flat bar and sledge hammer, I was ready for a break. I had had enough of the dust and mold and debris raining down on me. As I walked outside, I saw a group of ladies talking in the street, and I went to join them. I was introduced to our homeowner and listened to her story of rescue and recovery since the storm. Her son had waded through chest deep water to pull her out of her home to safety putting his own life at risk.
Also standing in the circle was an older woman, a classic southerner, with a gentle smile and a great laugh. This was Dot. Dorothy is her real name. Dorothy was from a United Methodist Church in Savannah, Georgia. The homeowner asked Dot if she was feeling okay with all the hard work she was doing. Dot smiled and told us how she came to be on this mission trip.
“I heard about a mission team being put together at my church the Sunday after the hurricane happened,” Dot began, “And I thought, ‘How exciting to go there and help those folks.’ And I wanted to go! And then my next thought was a bunch of excuses: I’m too old, I won’t be of any use to anybody, I’d just get in the way. What if I got sick? What if I wasn’t strong enough to do anything? So I put it out of my mind. But every Sunday at church I kept hearing about the plans and preparations our mission team was making. And I began to pray.”
Dot was quiet for a moment as she reflected on her journey to Ocean Springs. She continued, “When I prayed about all the things I feared, I heard God’s answer. God said, ‘Dot, fear isn’t a very Christian response! You get yourself signed up for that trip!’ So I went to church and signed up. I have traveled with my team and every day they have found something for me to do. I have felt great all week long. And I am not afraid!”
Dot’s last sentence has stuck with me ever since.
Too often when we think about our commitment to service, we think we’re going to have to sacrifice too much. Take a week of vacation time? Too much. Sleep in a tent or on a gym floor; shower in semi-trailer; eat church pot luck food for a solid week? Too much. Commit to a volunteer schedule and work our free time around it? Too much. Whenever I hear myself launching into the reasons I can’t sacrifice a little for someone else, I hear Dot’s voice, “I am not afraid!”
I am not afraid. A life of service to others involves a certain amount of sacrifice. Perhaps an 81 year old lady from Savannah, Georgia who had a fabulous time working her tail off to help others recover from a hurricane can be an example of sacrificial service for us.
You don’t have to be Dot and risk so much personal sacrifice to overcome your fears and jump on a bus to go on a mission trip to lead a life of service. You can be you, right where you are. You can determine for yourself what sacrifice you are willing to offer in service to Jesus Christ to meet the needs of a hurting world.
The funny thing about committing to a life of service is that once you experience what is truly involved, you can get hooked on it.
Nicolas Herman grew up in poverty and as a teenager, was forced to join the army to provide for himself, which guaranteed him meals and a small stipend. One wintery morning, Nicolas looked at a barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, and realized it awaited the sure and certain hope of springtime revival and summer abundance. Gazing at the tree, he grasped deeply the extravagance of God’s grace and care for humanity. Like the tree, Nicolas realized he felt spiritually dead but held hope that God had life waiting for him. In that moment, he wrote, that leafless tree ‘first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God’ and a love for God that never ceased.’
An injury forced him to leave the military, and in 1632, feeling like a failure, he offered himself as the lowest servant in a monastery. You might know him by another name, Brother Lawrence. He was assigned to the monastery kitchen where, amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bidding of his brothers and superiors, he develop a deep spirituality about his work.
For Brother Lawrence, even the most mundane or routine tasks could be a medium of God’s love. The sacredness or worldly status of a particular task mattered less than the motivation behind it. He wrote, “[It is not] needful that we should have great things to do…We can do little things for God.”
The idea for Brother Lawrence was to become conscious of God’s presence in every moment. And he felt that having a proper heart about tasks made every detail of his life possess surpassing value. He wrote, “I began to live as if there were no one save God and me in the world.”
He felt he cooked meals, ran errands, scrubbed pots, took out the trash, planted and cared for the kitchen garden all in service to God whose presence was visible to him in every brother who lived in the monastery with him. He never perceived his lowly station in the monastery as a slight to his identity. By serving those around him, he was serving God. There was, for Brother Lawrence, no higher status than that to attain in life.
His book is entitled the Practice of the Presence of God, because it took years to perceive God’s presence all the time. He called his life a ‘practice’ for just this reason. His insights to lead a life of service 24/7, however, still make his words invaluable to the commitment to discipleship we might strive toward.
Now you don’t have to be Brother Lawrence to make a commitment to be a follower of Jesus Christ through constant focus on serving God through every little chore, action or gesture. You can be you, right where you are. You can begin today to recognize that even in the most mundane parts of your day, all your activities are taken on to bless and thank God, and if other people’s needs are met in real ways, so much the better.
While Mother Teresa shows how to face suffering, and Dot shows an example of personal sacrifice, in Brother Lawrence I understand a life saturated in service. It was through my encounters with these witnesses and others that I began to articulate a life of commitment to Jesus Christ as “Active Daily Discipleship” inclusive of our other commitments to prayers, presence, gifts and witness.
If you’re using you bulletin to follow along, let me add some passages in scripture you might also want to consider as you think about your commitment to follow Jesus Christ through service.
Deuteronomy 6:5-8 The Shema
5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. 6 These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. 7 Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol.[b]
5 Just be very careful to carry out the commandment and Instruction that Moses the LORD’s servant commanded you. Love the LORD your God. Walk in all his ways and obey his commandments. Hold on to him and serve him with all your heart and being.”
14 ‘So now, revere the LORD. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the LORD. 15 But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the LORD, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the LORD.’”
10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord!
Both Matthew and Luke talk about not being able to serve both God and money. And I believe you already have a good idea about the division of loyalties as they are expressed through the checkbook.
Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44 Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45 for the Human One[a] didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”
Other folks have offered degrees of their willingness to serve:
Yes, I will give a tithe (10%) of my time. That’s equivalent to 16.8 hours every week.
Yes, I will give my time to serve every day.
Yes, I will give about 5 hours a week.
Yes, I will give about 3 hours a week.
Yes, I will give about 1 hour a week.
Yes, I will take the initiative, searching for opportunities.
Yes, I will give my time, but only when directly asked to do so.
No, I will not give any time to serve God.
In our text for today, we began with a question: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
I pray that you have heard some answers to James’ question. Our actions, or works, are a result of our commitment to discipleship. They are not, and will never be, ways for us to earn favor with God or secure our salvation. Our commitment to discipleship by serving – meeting real needs in the world – is motivated from a starting point of our faith. They go hand in hand: as we believe in Jesus Christ, so we serve others. As we serve others, we grow in faith in Jesus Christ. Are you prepared to go deeper?
O Lord Jesus Christ:
In obedience to your holy claim upon me,
I give myself anew to you this day;
All that I am, all that I have,
To be wholly and unconditionally yours for your using.
Take me away from myself, and use me up
As you will,
When you will,
Where you will,
With whom you will.
(Charles Whiston, The Snowflake Prayer)