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Sunday, June 17, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Blessed to Serve
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The novelist Arnold Bennett once wrote that “any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts,” and this scripture passage shows the disciples beginning to wrestle with how to faithfully order the creative and charismatic movement of the Spirit to adapt to new challenges in their midst. As we’ve read through the early chapters of the Book of Acts these past several weeks, we’ve seen a rapidly growing community—with the text sometimes causally mentioning that the apostles added thousands of believers into their midst when one of them preached—but it almost goes without saying that that sort of growth would lead to an increased level of complexity within the community as more voices, views, and opinions were added into the mix. In this passage today, we witness one of the first debates within this group: widows from the Greek-speaking population of this new community were not receiving equal food to those of the Aramaic-speaking population when the daily collection was taken up.
Now, the practice of collecting food was not just for widows, but for orphans and foreigners as well, and it goes back to our first lesson from Deuteronomy—part of the foundational legal code that formed the bedrock of Israel’s governance. In some ways, this distribution of food to those in need was an early version of a social safety net. Rather than collecting every last sheaf of grain, or every olive from a tree, the Israelites were instructed—in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the law code—to leave aside a portion of their livelihood to help support the most vulnerable people in their midst, regardless of who they were or where they came from. This giving wasn’t obligatory or run through the government, but it was seen as a moral imperative—being observant to the Torah meant that you must give and serve generously—and that practice continued to be vital not just within Jewish circles, but within the early church as well.
When confronted with the inequity in their midst, the apostles were faced with a dilemma that many church leaders face: how involved should they become in this important issue versus trusting members of the community to be a faithful witness in service? In the third and fourth verses of our Acts reading, they make their decision: “Select from among yourselves seven of good standing—full of the Spirit and wisdom—whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” On first reading, it can be easy for this passage to read as though the apostles are trying to weasel their way out of the administrative work of ministry—that they are more interested in the big picture than the details. But as I sat with this passage a bit longer, I began to wonder if something else was going on entirely. Throughout the New Testament, the early church is repeatedly seen as a sort of united body—perhaps expressed best through Paul’s famous twelfth chapter of the 1 Corinthians letter. “God has put this body together,” Paul writes, “and there should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for one another. If one part suffers, all suffer with it. If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” It wasn’t that the apostles weren’t interested in the welfare of widows within their midst—in fact, just last week Rocky preached on a scene a few chapters prior in which Peter and John helped heal a man who was among the most vulnerable in Israelite society. Instead, the apostles saw the work that these seven would do as indistinguishable from the work that they were doing, or that others in the community would do. The work of one is the work of all; all of us are mutually intertwined—something that gets further emphasized when the community gathers for a laying on of hands in prayer.
This ancient practice is something that many of us may have experienced within a church community before—and this act of commissioning and laying on of hands in prayer will take place during 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. worship later on this morning as the students, volunteers, and staff serving on our Youth Mission Trips are formally commissioned for a summer of service. It is important to understand, though, what this laying on of hands represents. Though our youth and leaders are going to serve as individuals, they are doing so as part of a larger church body. They, for this season, will be the church’s arms and feet going out into the world, even as others of us continue to practice other vital ministries within this place—but their work will be our work, just as ours is theirs.
This idea of interconnectedness can be challenging to wrap our minds around coming out of a culture which values individualism and self-sufficiency. But I can think of no better summary than words which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail. “In a real sense all life is inter-related,” King wrote. “All of us are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Far too often we look at the act of service and giving as a one-way relationship, but I truly believe that service is circular—in King’s words, “I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be.” Our service and giving is not just a blessing to others; it is a blessing to us. We cannot truly know what it means to be blessed—to truly experience God’s love—unless we participate in acts of service and giving ourselves. Like many of you, I bristle when I hear “Prosperity Gospel” preachers state that we know God’s blessing from the physical and monetary gifts that we receive. A few weeks ago, a prosperity preacher went so far as to say that he needed a $54 million dollar jet for his ministry and that it would be a blessing from God. That is just plain human greed dressed up as theology and flies in the face of everything that Jesus taught. Instead, Jesus taught over and over that “whoever wishes to be great must be servant of all—for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” That “the first shall be last, and the last first.” That “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Jesus repeats this message over and over, not just because it is counterintuitive to so many of us, but because service is central to the Gospel. We are both blessed to serve and blessed by serving, for in time with our brothers and sisters we discover new capacities for heart and mind within ourselves that we may never have known existed.
As our youth and leaders are commissioned later today, I remember all of the ways in which my identity was shaped by my summer mission trips as a youth—repairing roofs in the Appalachian mountains, working with children and youth with disabilities at Camp Courageous in Iowa, and building apartments for those fleeing domestic violence in Virginia. Each of those experiences, and the relationships that we built both within our group and in the communities where we were staying, were a deep reminder of our shared humanity and that there are no strangers in our midst—only those whom we haven’t yet gotten to know.
Trying to combat this pernicious idea of “us vs. them” has been at the heart of Christianity since the days of the early church—we see it in our passage today as Greek-speaking Christians were being treated differently than Aramaic-speaking Christians, and we see it in our world today as fights break out over isolationist and globalist public policy. But if we believe that service is circular—that we are blessed not by what we receive, but by how and who we serve—then how could we not see that our call as Christians is to be champions of compassion, caring for others in need regardless of their identity, nationality, race, or gender? This view pre-dates Christianity—as our scripture from Deuteronomy reminded us today, “When you reap our harvest in the field and forget a sheaf, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that wheat and grapes are the central imagery here, for in our communion meal each week—in the sharing of one bread and one cup—we express hope in a church family that transcends the divisions that we observe and maintain between one another, and remind ourselves once again that Jesus died not for a select few, but for all. We remind ourselves that all of us are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. That whatever affects one directly, affects all of us indirectly. If suffering exists in our world, it is our responsibility and duty to care; to provide for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in our midst, even if it leads to us asking uncomfortable questions about our own culpability in it all.
This past week brought about some of those difficult questions for me as I lived out Karl Barth’s saying of doing “theology with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” This was particularly jarring as I took time away from reading these biblical texts only to immediately encounter news stories about children being separated from their parents at the border as they sought immigration or asylum. As a new parent I was horrified thinking about what it would be like if I were in their shoes, having my ten-month-old taken away. I was horrified by the callousness of some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, as I read comments online that parents who brought their kids here were asking for it, and horrified that the Bible was used to justify this practice by the head of our Justice Department. As a pastor, parent, and follower of Jesus Christ, I cannot reconcile passages like the ones that we’ve read today, or a litany of others from the Old and New Testament, and come to that conclusion. Instead, I read these biblical texts and hear anew a call to service, a call to compassion, a call to love.
All three of those things—service, compassion, and love—are core to who we are, not just as people of faith, but who we were created to be. Last year, charitable giving topped $400 billion for the first time in history, and that growth in giving has outpaced inflation. To me, that speaks to a deeper truth that is present in our wider world—that we as a people want to give, that we were made to give. That we were made for community, to serve, to lift up, to support, to heal, to grow. That we are increasingly dissatisfied with life being all about what we receive, and are instead increasingly turning to how we can best support our brothers and sisters in need, believing that by blessing others, we are blessed ourselves.
The early church, empowered by the Spirit, understood this as they sought to spread Christ’s gospel not just by word, but by deed. These early communities relied not just on the apostles, but on every member of the community, to play an integral role into bringing God’s transformative love out into the wider world. Some were chosen for preaching, others for teaching; some for serving food to widows, others for visiting the sick; some for travelling out to build new communities, others for staying to build up existing ones. But every person had a vital role to play—and whatever affected one directly, affected all indirectly—something that remains true for us in the church today. We are blessed to serve and blessed by serving. So how might you be a blessing to others today? Amen.