The Discipline of Service

HelpingA sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 31:31-34Psalm 51:1-13Hebrews 5:5-10, and John 12:20-33

[This week’s sermon did not record because of technical difficulties.]

Not long ago I was in a church that had a sign over the door, just as one is leaving the worship space. The sign said simply, “Worship is over, the service begins.” While I might argue that worship is never quite “over,” and that worship and service are linked, I do like that reminder that what we do “in here” leads to what we do “out there.” The prayers, the music, the scriptures, the fellowship—all of it prepares us to be the Body of Christ in the world.

In our Gospel, Jesus puts it clearly: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” Jesus promises. There is blessing, but also tells us that it’s going to get rough along the way. He goes on to say, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And he explains a simple rule of nature, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus is talking about his own sacrifice, the sacrifice for us that makes for our salvation. But he’s also talking about the little sacrifices, the perhaps even-minute sacrifices we can make, we are called to make, on behalf of one another.

There are a lot of different ways for us to serve. Many of you volunteer. You sing in the choir, usher, read, serve on vestry or other committees, help with HTNC, and do all kinds of things in other areas. And that’s just within the church. Others of you serve the community, your buildings, schools, and neighborhoods. Some serve our country.

We use that term, “service” very freely, but I think we sometimes underestimate its power. Just this week I was talking with a parishioner about the great little book, The Celebration of Discipline (first published in 1978). In it, the Quaker author Richard Foster talks about the spiritual disciplines we have either practiced or heard of: such things as give the season of Lent its substance sometimes: disciplines like fasting, prayer, meditation, and confession. But Foster also talks about service as a spiritual discipline.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of service in that way. I think of discipline as something to be developed, to be practiced, something that we can get better at, and grow into. But this is exactly the way Foster frames “service,” and then he goes on to name particular kinds of service.

One kind, he calls “hidden service.” It’s the kind of service toward another person in which the other person is the only other one who knows of the service—except for God, that is. If you’re someone who gives what Foster calls “hidden service,” he says that, over time, there will grow within you a quality that others will begin to sense, a quality of a deeper love, a new compassion, almost a slight aura. People will notice that you are different.

Richard Foster tells a great story about this kind of service. He remembers that he was in the final, most hectic week of finishing his doctoral dissertation. The phone rang, and it was a friend who needed a ride in order to run some errand. Foster didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t see how he might possible spare the time. But reluctantly, he agreed (inwardly worrying about the precious time he was losing by helping this friend.) The friend needed a ride to several places, it turned out, and so, while the friend was in the grocery store, Foster waited in the car, pulling out a book that he had brought along.

It turned out that the book he had was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, “Life Together.” Foster opened the book to where he had stopped reading before, and he read these words, “The . . . service one should perform for another in a Christian community is active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. [And] One who worries about the loss of time . . . is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”  In other words, service in small ways matters.

Foster suggests our trying other forms of service, trying them on as disciplines. Some might sound surprising. He mentions the service of “guarding the reputation of others.” This is what some have called simply “charity.” It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he says, “speak evil of no one.” It’s what the 9th Commandment means by “not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.” What a service that would be, if we could hold our tongues more often, if we could truly guard the reputation of others.

Another is the service of being served, of being gracious, of living out thanks. When Jesus began to wash the feet of his disciples, Peter objected. He couldn’t understand it, but Jesus invited them to be served, so that they could pass that gift on to others.

There’s the service of common courtesy. The service of hospitality. The service of listening. And finally, there’s the service illustrated by Philip and Andrew in today’s Gospel: the service of sharing the Word of Life, the love of Christ with others.

Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.” If we offer ourselves to one another in ordinary, mundane, and everyday ways—as well as in the more public ways, much fruit comes of it.

We can talk about service in the context of religion. That word, “religion,” comes from the Latin word, religare, which means “to tie, or to bind” If we are religious at all, we are tied to God, bound to God; but also tied to one another, bound together, connected. “Anyone who serves me, God will honor,” Jesus says. We become connected to God through service. Being a servant of someone means that there is a bond, we are tied to that person in some way. Being a servant of Christ means being tied to him.

As we continue to grow into a religious community, a community in which we share ties that bind in love, I pray that we (all of us) might deepen our own sense of service. Service to Holy Trinity, service to Yorkville, the Upper East Side, the city, and the world; service to one another, and through it all—service to God.

In the words of the prayer sometimes used after Communion, may God grant us “strength and courage to love and serve . . . with gladness and singleness of heart.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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