Sunday, March 31, 2019
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 & Luke 15:1-10, 31-32
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Since becoming a pastor, I have been a part of many service projects with my congregations. Sometimes they have been local projects where we would gather at someone’s home that needed our help, and we’d spend the day doing some minor construction. Sometimes we would gather a handful of us to cook for those who needed dinner, sticking around long enough to meet our dinner guests and to know them a bit more personally. Sometimes we’d board a plane for a more distant place like Belize or Jamaica. What I’ve always appreciated about the short-term mission trip is that it provides an incredible amount of focus. Gone are the distractions of everyday life – the phones, the schedules, and the basic demands of modern life. On those trips, there is only the present moment. There is only the person or task in front of you. Life becomes focused and simple. They are a great way of shifting your perspective and of seeing life in a new way.

At the end of these trips, we would spend a final evening as a service team together. We’d share communion. We’d speak about the highlights and challenges of the trip. Without exception, all would share the sentiment that their life had been changed by the experience, whether they were a teen on their first trip or they were a chaperone who took a week off of work to serve with us. Their attitudes about the world had shifted. Their response to poverty and justice had changed.  I would find myself wrapping up our time on the trip reminding everyone that service in Jamaica or Belize is really no different than the kind of service they could do at home. It was all a matter of perspective. You see, serving in a foreign context peeled back all the layers of life, stripping it to its barest essentials. This type of service brought things to their basics. When we’re home, it’s the kind of work that we’d typically grumble about, but when we’re focused on serving?  It’s a joy to make cement by hand, to help with a harvest, or to build a pigpen on a Jamaican hillside. I’m a believer in this kind of ministry. Yes, it’s costly to fly somewhere else, but it’s one of the few ways we have at our disposal that can cut through all the complexities of our lives and speak directly into our hearts about how we, as Christians, are to live differently.

Today we are focusing on the spiritual discipline of service. Like the other external disciplines, this one begins on the inside of a person. There is a difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. Choosing to serve is an action first that may have some residual effects on the heart of the person. It is external. Choosing to be a servant begins on the inside and moves outside. It is internal first. It is an internal attitude that is shaped by external actions. Put another way, “Service is not a list of things that we do, though in it we discover things to do. It is not a code of ethics but a way of living. To do specific acts of service is not the same thing as living in the Discipline of service. Just as there is more to the game of basketball than the rule book, there is more to service than specific acts of serving. It is one thing to act like a servant; it is quite another to be a servant. As in all the Disciplines, it is possible to master the mechanics of service without experiencing the Discipline.”[1]

I think this is a huge challenge for how churches approach mission and service. We promote the activities of mission – serving at Supper House, helping with the food truck, volunteering at a nonprofit – but I fear that we are not doing enough to develop the heart of the servant among us. We get it backwards. Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely want our church to be one that serves. I want us out in the community loving through action. But I don’t want us to skip the step of spiritual development that deepens our attitudes about service as we step out in faithful action.

I think that Brother Lawrence gives us a great example of this. Born in what is now eastern France and named Nicolas Herman, he grew up poor. He joined the army during the Thirty Years War in the early 17th century. He became permanently injured in battle, and after his discharge from the military, he took up religious orders and lived out his days as a monk. He spent the remaining decades of his life primarily serving in the kitchen. Brother Lawrence had an inward attitude that made his service not only possible but also joyful. “The Lord walks among the pots and pans,” he would say. He had chosen to be a servant. His legacy is passed down to us in the spiritual classic, Practicing the Presence of God.  “No matter where he was assigned,” the book recalls, “the thing that brought him joy was to do little things for the love of God….All other spiritual practices serve only to bring us into union with God through love. After thinking a great deal about spiritual practices, he found that it is even shorter to go straight to this union through a continual practice of love, by doing all things for the love of God.”[2]  Brother Lawrence was content to serve God by cooking. In him was such inner peace, that we are here almost 500 years later still thinking about him half a world away. His attitude shaped his actions.

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul hits on this same theme. “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view….So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us”           II Corinthians  5:16, 20).  Brother Lawrence did not view the ordinariness of the kitchen as a boring task to be completed but as a way to practice God’s presence in the ordinary. So we too are to approach life from a new perspective. Our lives, both inner attitudes and external actions, are to reflect God’s love. We are Christ’s ambassadors. What does this mean? An ambassador does not reflect his or her own interests, but those of the one they represent.  Imagine if the American ambassador to Germany decided to go rogue and do whatever he wanted, declaring that U.S. policy in Germany was going to do a 180.  He would not be an ambassador for long, right? As Christ’s ambassadors, we are not our own. We bear Christ in the world wherever we are – in the most mundane places (like a kitchen) or in the most high pressure places (like a corporate board room). To do this, our interior lives must so be shaped by God that our actions of natural course reflect the kingdom of God in our service.

Our text from Luke 15 touches on this in a different way. It’s a chapter devoted to lost things – a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. What do we see in this chapter?  We see God’s heart for the small things that leads to God’s actions on behalf of the lost.  God’s inward character shapes God’s actions.  In the parables, the shepherd doesn’t think, “Well, I still have ninety-nine other sheep. Too bad I lost one!”  The woman doesn’t give up and say, “Well, shoot, I still have 90% of my money. I’ll be OK.” No, in both cases, they leave everything to seek out the small thing, and when they find it, they throw a party that surely was worth more than the value of the sheep or the coin they recovered.  God pays attention to the small things, and it is how we treat the smallest or most insignificant parts of our daily lives that reveals more about us than any grand gesture we may make. Are we aware that the Lord walks among the pots and pans, or do we only seek the Lord here in worship or in the grand gesture? Do we serve because we are servants, or do we serve because it looks good on the outside or makes us feel better about ourselves?

The parable of the prodigal son is such a rich one, but I only want to focus on one feature of it: the extravagant love of the father, who is a parallel for God. When the lost son returns from squandering his life and his father’s resources, he only hopes that he can return to the household as less than a family member . Perhaps he can join the workforce at home and at least have a place to sleep and food to eat.  He’s prepared a whole speech about how terrible he is and about how sorry he is. Yet look at the character of the father. Before the lost son has a chance to speak, the father throws his arms around the boy, clothes him in his finest, and throws a party. The inner nature of the father is so strong that the external circumstances cannot dictate his love for his son. This is who the father is at his core – loving, welcoming, and joyful.  This is who God is at the core – wanting all who would come to know this extravagant love that calls us to a new way of life – a way of life that finds peace and fulfillment in choosing to be a servant.

So, now that I’ve spent so much time trying to point out the importance of the way we must be shaped inwardly so that the way we serve comes from the inside out, let me offer just a couple ways we can live out the discipline of service. Service is volunteering somewhere. It is going on a short-term mission trip. It is helping a neighbor. It is all those things, but it is so much more. Service is all-encompassing because it can happen at any moment on any day. It can happen in your work. It can happen in your home life. It can happen when you plan it. It can happen when you had no idea it was happening.  So, here are a couple of ways we can live out the discipline of service.

First, there is the service of small things. Richard Foster shares a story from his own life. When he was busy finishing his doctoral work, a friend called him needing his help. He needed Foster to drive him on a handful of errands. Foster looked at his important doctoral studies, saw his friend needing his help, and begrudgingly agreed. On his way out the door he grabbed a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together, which is a book about how Christians can live faithfully together. Stop after stop, Foster felt bitterness creeping into his heart.  “I have important work to do, and I’m not getting any one of it done!  How many more places do I have to stop?”  Finally, their last stop was the grocery store.  Foster stayed in the car while his friend ran inside.  Foster picked up Bonhoeffer’s book and had these words cut straight into his heart.  “The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of 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.  One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”[3] Foster was caught. We’ve all been there before, haven’t we? We don’t make time to help, or if we do, our internal clock is running, ticking off all the more important things we could be doing other than helping this other person. “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”  Whether Mother Teresa actually said these words or not, the point is true. Do we have enough space in our lives to serve others in the small things?  Or have we so filled our time and lives up that there isn’t even the space to see how God works through us in the small things; like the ride to the doctor for someone who can’t drive matters, the meal you bring to someone who is stressed out matters.  Serve even in the small things.

There is a second attitude we need to address. Not only must we be ready to serve, but we also must be willing to be served. If we cannot be served by others, then we are not in the place to serve others. The character of our hearts, regarding service, must seek after the heart of Christ in service, and Christ is a servant. This is the lesson Jesus teaches when He washes His disciples’ feet. The Lord of the universe is in the role of the servant and Peter did not want him to do it.  If we are not willing to receive service from others, then we are putting ourselves in a position above others.  Now, most of us have no designs on being the greatest, but I would guess that few of us desire to be the least. Yet when Jesus’ disciples are arguing about greatness, He shares with them and with us, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all” (Mark 10:43-44). It is grace to learn how to receive from others, so if we want to serve, we must learn how to receive too.

Learning to serve and to be served starts on the inside, as we submit ourselves to God’s way in the world.  It is from there that we become capable of sustainably serving others and of seeing others through the loving eyes of God.

[1] Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (p. 134). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Practicing the Presence of God, 38-39.

[3] Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (p. 135). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.