The Joy of Serving

Have you ever had moments in your life when you really needed help and help was there? I can think of a half dozen experiences, right off the top of my head—the time someone broadsided me on a my way to work a couple of years ago, the afternoon I broke my collarbone, a time I was badly lost, blew a tire, the night part of my roof was torn off in a tornado—and the neighbor who just happened to be driving home in the storm saw it happen, pulled over in his truck, and put a tarp up over the hole in a matter of minutes—amazing and so kind! Probably the biggest and most touching moment of help in my life so far was back when I was a young, self-employed single mom, fretting about finances much of the time, and a friend showed up in my kitchen one afternoon with groceries for the rest of the week. She put them on the counter, walked over and hugged me, and I was speechless, and a bit embarrassed, and so deeply grateful.

In what I think of as God’s economy, the way God works everything out over time, what we have and what we need are forever in flux. This one has more than enough, so she shares with one who’s struggling. He has an abundance of strength and knowledge, that he can share with those who need it. They live with hope in a time when hope it dipping low, and so they can encourage the world around them. The point, I think, is that everything we need is here, among us, if we’ll use what God has blessed us with for the betterment of all. That’s what God has asked us to do. That’s what Jesus taught us to do. That’s what the Old Testament prophets said that God loves and rewards. Caring for those among us, giving what we can. Raising our voices for the voiceless. Sharing to fill the gaps of unmet need.

The verse we heard as our Old Testament reading for today is one of my favorite verses from the book of Micah. Micah was a prophet around the time of Isaiah’s day. He at God’s prompting spoke against the self-serving rulers, the corrupt judges, the exploitation and oppression of the poor. He—like so many other prophets of the time—was trying to provide help that was badly needed, help that could rebalance the blessing in life and make things better for everyone, turning them back to God. And even though few were listening and those in power didn’t want to share their gain, Micah gives the people a clear picture of all that’s needed for a righteous life, a life in tune with God:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Powerful, simple, and clear. Care about justice. Practice kindness in the small moments of life. Walk humbly with our God. A prescription for a peaceful, fulfilling, life that doesn’t stuff our blessings in our pockets but passes it along that those lives touched by ours might also be blessed. It is the heart of service, the joy and the willingness—and the blessing of peace that comes after—when we are willing to share.

In the New Testament story we heard today—the moment when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet—it is a picture of almost shocking humility, that one so great, so good, so wise would kneel and wash the feet of those who were following him. It was such a powerful, personal, and intentional moment in Jesus’s life and experience, and he did it I think to say something important to us. This is your model, your example, his actions showed. This is how God’s economy works; None above, none below, just love filling all the gaps, with kindness and mercy.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus knows that his time is short. He has been teaching and performing miracles with increasing intensity, and the crowds coming to see him have gotten larger and larger. The Pharisees are growing more aggressive and now plotting for his death.  In fact, Judas, in the room with them, had already promised to betray him for a few pieces of silver. Not long before this story, one Pharisee had said to another, when he saw the huge crowds that were coming to hear Jesus, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

So well aware of this pressure building all around him, Jesus got up from the table where they would share their last supper together, and he took off his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist. He poured water into a basin and took it over to one of the disciples. He placed the basin on the floor and knelt down and washed the disciple’s feet and dried them with the towel. And then he moved on to the next disciple. They must have all been in shock, witnessing this, having traveled with him for so long and having seen firsthand the depth and greatness of his spirit and his love. If ever there had been a great human on the earth, it was this man, now kneeling down before them.

When he set the basin down beside Peter, Peter balked. You may remember that Peter was always the strong one, the loud one, the earnest one, exuberant in his love and devotion to Jesus but sometimes more talk and emotion than follow-through. You remember how he sank into the waves when he tried to walk across the water to Jesus. And as Jesus was being crucified, Peter denied knowing him, just as Jesus said he would. A flawed and imperfect servant of the Lord, doing his best, just like the rest of us.

But now, as Jesus came to him with the basin, Peter felt uncomfortable with whatever this was that was happening. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” he asked Jesus, probably in disbelief. And Jesus told him, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter responded, “You will never wash my feet.”

I wonder how many of us might identify with Peter’s feeling in that moment. It would have been slightly mortifying, wouldn’t it, if we had been the one sitting in that chair? How uncomfortable to see Jesus himself walking toward you, basin in hand, ready to kneel down and wash your feet. We might try to get out of it, like Peter did at first. I’m the one who should be washing your feet,we would think. Who am I that you would serve someone like me in such a way?

But Jesus understood—and probably anticipated Peter’s response, because he knew Peter so well. He said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And so instead of resisting further, Peter, true to form, says wholeheartedly, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus tells him that won’t be necessary because through his own regular washing—which we might think of in a spiritual way as daily prayer or the reading of scripture, the washing of our souls for God—he was already mostly clean. Only the part of us which gathers residue from the day needs to be refreshed at day’s end.

When he finished, Jesus put his robe on and went back to his place at the table. He explained the meaning behind his actions, saying that even though they rightly call him Teacher and Lord, he washed their feet in an act of loving service. And he tells them that they need to do the same.

“Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Passing the blessing along in acts of kindness and mercy is an important part of what we do each day as members of the family of God. That is how the gaps get filled, how people are comforted, how the way opens in the difficult circumstance of another. You may remember this powerful quote from St. Teresa—and I apologize, I also mentioned it a few weeks ago, but it fits here–it is all about the flow of love in God’s economy in this world,

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

As Jesus did for us, we do for one another and for whomever God brings into our lives each day. We all can serve in some way, passing along whatever blessing God has given to us. The interesting thing is that according to the thinking of this world, when you give something to someone else—money, time, help, material things—it means you’re willing to lose it yourself. Their gain is your loss. But that’s not how it works in God’s domain. All who give and receive are blessed in the giving. The love, the connection, the willingness—the humility—is the key, not the groceries provided or the check written or the effort expended. The presence of God in the moment of love and service is what matters most. And we can feel that, clearly, indelibly, if we’re paying attention. When we serve, we can feel God smile.

Last year scientists compiled a study of more than 200 research projects done on the topic of what they call prosocial service—acts done kindly, cooperatively, and with compassion—and they found there are many positive benefits for those who serve others. Here are just a few of the findings:

  • Serving others adds meaning to our lives and helps us feel we’re doing something to make the world a better place
  • For older and retired people, serving others gives a boost to their physical health outcomes and the overall sense of well-being; For younger people, the boost is more emotional than physical, but it is still significant.
  • Serving others helps us physically by strengthening our immune systems, improving our heart function, and increasing longevity by as much as 24 percent.
  • Men and women tend to help in different ways. Men are more likely to help when the situation calls for quick and decisive action or the need is dire; and women are more likely to help when someone is in need of nurturance, empathy, or support longer-term. You can just see God’s pattern of care in that, can’t you? We each are called to different things.
  • For older adults, volunteering is shown to reduce depression, improve health, and enhance a feeling of connection with others, which boosts hope and optimism and general well-being.

But in spite of all this upside researchers found, few of us would want to serve others simply because it somehow benefits us personally. The real gain from being a helpful presence is that we can feel God’s love shining through us into the life of another. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and a great and hopeful light. We really can feel deeply that we are in touch with the greater harmony God is unfolding gradually through the hearts of those willing to serve.

In hospice one of the things patients tell me they miss most is the ability to do things for others. Often by the time they sign up for hospice care, their health has become such a challenge it is hard to do the things they used to enjoy. One sweet lady told me recently how much she missed simply getting up and going to the kitchen and making homemade noodles for her grandkids. A man whose work had been designing houses lamented that he couldn’t help his son pour the new concrete driveway he was putting in that weekend. Another lady wished she could still tend her roses in the beautiful garden she’d kept for 40 years. Each of these examples are about ways they shared their love—simple acts of service they could no longer do. That’s what they missed most. Not the big things, but the tiny, love-filled ones.

We are made to serve, because we’re God’s and that’s what God does—that’s how God loves the world through us. We are not the recipients of God’s blessing but simply it’s steward; we’re intended to pass it on, in ways large and small, all the ways we can think of, with kindness and justice and humility.
I’d like to close with a little parable you may have heard before, called “The Starfish Story.’ It’s been adapted and modernized from the original writing of Loren Eiseley:
A man is walking along the beach when he sees a boy by the water’s edge, scooping things up and throwing them into the water. As he walks closer, he asks, ‘What are you doing?” The boy said, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“Son,” the man said, “Don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You can’t make any difference.”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”

In our weary, hurting world, we are all aware that the needs around us are great, and we may be tempted to give up trying to do anything about it. What we can, one tiny person, do in the face of tragedy on such a grand scale? It’s normal and human to feel powerless, helpless, hopeless in the face of it all.

But thankfully there is another and more hopeful way to understand how God can meet the needs of his beloved children the whole world over. We can pass along the blessings we receive so that God reaches other hearts through ours. It’s a person-by-person thing, but the shine of the light—the blessing to all involved—is exponential. We may be few, but we’re mighty because we’re in tune with God’s hope for us all. And every single heart—in every single place—that loves justice, that practices kindness, that walks humbly with God—that is a heart that can bless the world.

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