How Shall We Serve?
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
This morning in your bulletin I’ve provided a copy of chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, so that you can follow along with my sermon, if you like. I do this because we’ve been in this chapter for the last few weeks, and today I want to talk about it as a whole.
This chapter of Matthew is all about service, and it offers four important teachings:
First, the assumption is that all of us are called to serve, to choose this as our basic orientation towards life.
Second, we are to serve with some degree of detachment.
Third, expect conflict as a result of your efforts to help others.
And last, understand that when you serve, you connect the world together in God.
Prior to chapter 10, Jesus had been doing his ministry, with the disciples tagging along as spectators. He was very busy healing the sick, casting out demons, and teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God. The disciples watched all this with amazement. But at this point in the story, beginning in the first verse of chapter 10, Jesus turns to his disciples and says Now that you’ve had some on-the-job training for a couple of years, it’s your turn. I hereby give you authority to go and do what I’ve been doing. Now, go!
All of them were sent out, not just some. Every disciple is asked to heal, to teach, to resist evil, to bring hope to a broken world. It’s not like Jesus said “Judas, you’re going to be handling the money” (which he did), “so I won’t have you help the poor and the sick and the troubled.” They were all sent out to serve, and so are we. It’s not a special vocation reserved for a few; it is the basic Christian orientation towards life.
As disciples, we are asked to cultivate within ourselves the soul of a servant and have this be our primary orientation towards life. We can go through this life seeking all sorts of things: personal advancement, comfort, entertainment…But God wants us to look at the world and ask ourselves in every situation “How can I help? How can I make this world less wretched and divided, happier, freer, healthier, more full of love, humor, and beauty?”
Every morning when we wake up, every time we glimpse pain or anger just barely beneath the surface in someone we talk to, every time we consider a decision at work or where to donate our time or money, we are to ask “How can I serve others and the greater good?” We can cultivate the soul of a servant as our daily spiritual practice.
Next in this chapter - starting at verse 9, for those of you who are following along – Jesus speaks about service being grounded in faith and detachment. He asks them to take nothing with them, to trust in God, and to only hang around where they are welcome.
Sometimes we go into service with a lot of baggage. We carry with us our opinions of how the other got into this mess, and how they can get out of it. We have expectations about how the other should respond to our efforts to help – with gratitude and a quick turn-around. We might even bend over backwards, trying to do for them what they can only do for themselves. When we try to serve the world at large, we get all stirred up and angry about issues and try to force others to agree with us. There’s a violence in this kind of service. It is an aggressive, willful effort to remake the world in our own image.
In verses 9-15, Jesus paints a picture of a servant who is detached from their own baggage and from the results of their efforts. The disciples are to carry no money, no extra clothing, no food, and trust that God will provide. They are also to move on right away if they sense that their help isn’t wanted. Both of these bits of advice are about spiritual detachment. The disciples are to be detached from their own personal baggage and detached from the results of their efforts.
And so we are to go into service with open hearts, not assuming anything, ready to help in whatever way is needed, improvising as we go, looking for what the other really needs. So trust that God is really the healer, the teacher, not you; don’t worry about the outcome. Don’t try to be all things to all people, and don’t chase after those who really don’t want the kind of help you’re able to offer. In trying to serve the wider world, be passionate, but also be open to the possibility that you might be wrong. Don’t get consumed with improving the world; see the beauty of what already is. In short: leave behind your baggage when you go out trying to be of help.
At verse 16, and later at verse 34, Jesus then shifts. Now he warns them about the down side to being a servant. They will encounter resistance, and there will be conflict. Families and friends will divide, some of them will be hated for what they do.
We tend to think that if we take a stance of helping others and trying to bring more love and healing into this world, that we will create a kind of happy, peaceful vibe around ourselves. But this doesn’t always happen.
Service is not only kindness and charity; it is also action to change the conditions that cause suffering, and this always evokes resistance. When we ask ourselves “How can I help?,” and then follow this question past feel-good band-aid projects, we find ourselves in the belly of the beast. I have often quoted Archbishop Dom Helder Camara on this, who said “When I feed the hungry; they call me a saint. When I ask why they are hungry, they call me a communist.” Jesus knew this, and warned his disciples before he sent them out.
When we talk to an alcoholic about their drinking, they sometimes cut us off. When we protect and give aid to illegal immigrants in our community, other members of our church might get upset; we may even get arrested. When we open our mouth at work in the effort to create a healthier environment for all, we raise hackles. If we choose to be a servant, there will be a cost.
But this chapter ends on a magnificent note of hope, beginning at verse 28. Jesus encourages us to have no fear. God loves everyone with the soul of a servant, even if you bumble your way through, making mistakes as you go. When you do your best to take a servant stance towards the world, God will bless you.
But Jesus goes deeper than that. In today’s reading, the end of this chapter, beginning at verse 40 – today’s section of this chapter - he concludes his commissioning of the disciples on a transcendent note. Jesus says that when someone welcomes your efforts to serve, when they receive your love with gratitude, they are welcoming him, they are welcoming God.
In the act of love, there is an intimate connection between the person in need who is being helped, the servant who is helping, Jesus himself, and God. When we love, when we serve, it is as if all the wires are finally connected together and the current of the Spirit flows freely between all. God, servant, and the served are all one. The servant and the person in need are no longer separated as superior subject and inferior object; they are both essential to the flow of the divine current.
Jesus says that no gesture is too small to connect this current. When you give even a little thing – a cup of cold water to a man on a broken-down bicycle looking for yard work in your neighborhood; a vote for justice in the voting booth or a check sent to some environmental cause; a brief conversation and quick prayer with a friend who feels as if they are going under – these small things connect the divine current, and when it connects, we are all one in God.
In that moment, the purpose not only of our individual lives, but the purpose of the universe is fulfilled. All things come alive and are filled with color. Like the dawn of a new day, the earth is suffused with light and is warmed by the sun’s rays. Birds chirp, roosters crow, and we awaken. Life is resurrected. This is your reward for being a servant.
Jesus asks you to be a servant, to be his heart and his hands in the world. Choose to accept this commission, this basic orientation towards life, every day.
As you serve, bring your passion to it, but also be a little detached. You’re not the savior, and the world is already beautiful.
Expect trouble; but don’t be afraid of it.
And remember that this is about far more than being a do-gooder. It is about reconnecting the world to its divine source of love.