January 19, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FAITH PRACTICES: SERVING
Matthew 20:26-28 I Corinthians 12:14-18, 27
The second in a series of five.
Mattie Stepanek only lived to be 13. He had a rare form of muscular dystrophy. But in his short life, he published six books of poetry and one book of essays on peace, all bestsellers. He said he wanted to be remembered as “a poet, a peacemaker, and a philosopher who played.” (I guess most philosophers are too serious to take time to play!) He was one of Oprah Winfrey’s most popular guests. President Carter eulogized him as the most extraordinary person he ever met. He has even been mentioned as a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church.
One of his biggest fans is Glen Hogin who introduced him to me. Mattie said many things that were so wise and so beautiful, it makes you think it had to be God speaking through him. When Glen quoted this one from memory, I knew I had to use it in this morning’s sermon.
If you want to be happy for an hour, go watch television.
If you want to be happy for a week, go to Disneyland.
If you want to be happy for a lifetime, go out and serve others.
We’re in a series on faith practices. Today, with Mattie Stepanek as our inspiration, we are going to talk about serving others.
Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). Serving others was one of the faith practices Jesus taught his disciples. If we are serious about following Jesus, we’re going to have to let him teach us, too. We’re going to have to learn to be servants. Servants of the Servant. Who “came not to be served, but to serve” (20:28).
Last time in this series, our faith practice was spiritual gifts, one of which is the gift of serving. So you might say: “I took the Spiritual Gifts Inventory. All 255 questions. And I didn’t score very high in ‘serving.’ So I think I’m going to leave serving to the servants. My spiritual gift is a little bit higher on the list than that.”
You didn’t say that. I did. Because if you did, it would mean you missed the point entirely. For one thing, there is no “higher” or “lower” when it comes to spiritual gifts. Every one of the 16 we talked about is essential for the body of Christ (which is the church) to be whole. For another thing, every one of them is a form of serving.
If your gift is serving, that is a form of serving. If your gift is helps, that is another form of serving. If your gift is hospitality or shepherding or encouragement or administration or leadership or evangelism or prophecy or mercy or knowledge or faith or teaching or intercession or giving or wisdom, these are all forms of serving. They are all parts of Christ’s body. For the body to be complete and healthy and active, we need every single one.
So we read today:
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body (I Corinthians 12:15-16).
So which of these four body parts would you be willing to give up? Which would you consider nice but not essential? You don’t really need your hands, do you? Captain Hook got along just fine. Or what about your feet? Your ears? Your eyes? Some people don’t have all these. We know that. They make the most of what they do have. But for the human body to function optimally, these four body parts and many others in addition to these four are incredibly important.
Hands, feet, eyes, and ears are also incredibly complicated. There are doctors who specialize in each of these, who never fully understand exactly how they function and how best to help people who need help. And of course we don’t even like to think about any of these separated from the rest of the body. I’m sorry I even planted that thought into your head. It is morbid in the extreme.
So I wonder why the thought of Christians cut off from the body of Christ, doing our own thing all by ourselves, does not make us cringe? It should. We are the hands and the feet and the eyes and the ears of Jesus. Not each of individually, but all of us together.
There was a bombing raid on a French village during World War II. A beloved statue of Jesus was destroyed. The villagers painstakingly sifted through the rubble and they were actually able to rebuild this statue. Except they could never find the hands. They searched and searched and finally gave up. So it was a statue of Jesus with no hands. Then someone had an idea. A plaque was created for the base of the statue. It had on it these words: “I have no hands but yours.”
We are the hands and the feet, the eyes and the ears of Jesus. Whatever your spiritual gift might be, we need it. It is valuable. It is unique. And when you put it to work, it helps other people. It also helps you. Whenever we are doing what we were born to do, it makes us more alive than we were before.
This church has many “Servants of the Servant.” It would be quicker to list those who aren’t than those who are. But I’m going to do neither. I’m just going to thoroughly embarrass one of our many faithful servants by talking about her. Beverly Schippmann serves in many important ways right here in this church. But her passion is going on mission trips to help people recover from disasters. Here is part of the video they made on their last mission trip to Middletown, California last November.
I figured I’d wait and play that about half way through the sermon, just when you were starting to feel drowsy, because the music would wake you up! Didn’t it look like they were having fun? By the way, Beverly is going on another one of these mission trips in two months. The dates are March 21-28 and the place is Slidell, Louisiana. She would love to have others from our church going with her.
That Spiritual Gift Inventory from a couple weeks ago helped you identify what you are good at. But it’s not just what you are good at. It is also what you enjoy doing. When you are operating in the area of your spiritual gift, you feel joy, you feel passion, you come alive, you might even have that song on the video playing in your head!
This is one of the great things about serving. You are serving others, obviously. You are helping them. That’s the point. But you are also in the process helping yourself. It makes you feel good when you do good for others.
There’s a book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People. The title is a takeoff on the famous Harold Kushner book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book tells of a study involving 137 people with multiple sclerosis. The researchers were interested in how they could best be helped. So some of these 137 saw a medical professional once a week and some of them just got a phone call once a week from someone else who had MS. They wanted to find out which helped more. Turned out it was the phone calls, not the professionals. But there was a finding even more unexpected. The five MS patients who had been trained to make these encouraging phone calls reported a dramatic improvement in their own symptoms. By helping others, they were helping themselves. When we are doing good, goodness comes back to us.
The Mayo Clinic has done work on the benefits of volunteering. Here is a summary of their findings:
Those who volunteer on a regular basis report decreased levels of depression. They are more physically and mentally fit. They have reduced levels of stress, which contribute to a longer life span.
There’s another study, documented in the book Paradox of Generosity that tracked 2,000 people over a span of five years. They were filling out surveys and providing information throughout this time. One of the findings was that those out of all these people who reported being “very happy” volunteered an average of 5.8 hours a month.
There is something about blessing others that blesses us. Which is exactly what we would expect if that’s the way we were made by God. We were made, not to be served, but to serve.
Jesus taught that. Jesus modeled that. He was not too big or too important to be a servant.
John Wooden may have been the greatest basketball coach who ever lived. He exemplified what Jesus said. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” I was reading the other day about his humble beginnings at UCLA. They didn’t always practice in modern, state-of-the-art facilities. In his early years, before they won the first of their ten national championships, they practiced on the third floor of the old men’s gymnasium. They used the same floor as the gymnastics team and the wrestling team. Sometimes they were on that floor at the same time. There was hardly any ventilation. So they called the gym “B.O. Barn”. Before practice, who would be there early, pushing a broom, making sure that creaky old floor was as clean as it possibly could be? Coach Wooden.
When we serve others, sometimes it’s something we schedule into our day. More often, it’s something that interrupts whatever it was we had scheduled into our day. “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.” And that’s true of so many of the service opportunities God sends our way.
Jesus told a parable about this. The Parable of the Good Samaritans. There is one man who has been beaten and robbed and desperately needs help. And there are three men who could help him. But the first two of the three had other plans. They were actually religious professionals who had busy schedules doing God’s work. They could not be interrupted. So they barely glanced over at the man who needed their help and they kept on walking. The third man, the Samaritan, stopped and helped. It wasn’t a planned thing at all. He didn’t wake up that morning and decide he was going to help someone who needed his help along the side of the road. But maybe he did decide that he would be open to whatever opportunity for service God would send him that day.
It’s a good prayer to start each day. “God, don’t let me miss the opportunities for service you are going to send my way this day.”
We study the four gospels, trying to understand the life of Jesus, and we might easily miss something that should be obvious. Very little of the ministry of Jesus was planned out in advance. Almost all of it happened when he was interrupted.
I don’t like interruptions. I prefer to plan my work and work my plan. But I also want to follow Jesus. So if he was open to divine interruptions in the course of his day, I’d better be, too.
Most of you are far better at this than I am. I don’t want to hold myself up as an example. This is such a simple thing. Just a phone call on the church phone last week while I was working alone. I was busy. I had a deadline. I did not want to be interrupted. But I did answer the phone. It was not one of you. It was someone I have never met and may never meet. But it was someone who wanted to talk to a pastor.
You can probably guess that the vast majority of calls like this end up with a request for financial assistance. I was expecting this call to fit that pattern, but it didn’t. This was someone who was in the middle of a life crisis and was feeling overwhelmed and confused and afraid. She did most of the talking. I mainly listened. But when the call ended she told me how much I had helped her. I have no idea what I did that helped, except that I answered the phone. I was not too busy for someone God had sent my way.
Sometimes our service in the name of Jesus is big. Building that house for children in Mozambique that Wayne Lavender talked about last week, for example. Sometimes it is small, like answering the telephone. Or like smiling at someone who walks by.
There are very few people who have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and lived to tell about it. One of that very small group is a man named Kevin Hines. When he decided to take his own life, he was not 100% certain he wanted to do this. So he told himself that on his walk to the middle of the bridge, if even one person smiled at him, he wouldn’t do it. He passed dozens of people on that long walk. Not one of them looked at him. And so he jumped.
Smiling at someone is such a small thing. But your smile could save a life. Or at least it will brighten a day.
How many opportunities do you have in the course of every single day to serve others? Way more than you realize. It might be something big. It might be something small. All it takes is for you to be willing to stop what you are doing and be kind.
I love the Dalai Lama quote: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
And here is the great thing about being part of a church. We can serve together. You might be a hand. I might be a foot. Someone else might be an eye or an ear. But together we are the body of Christ. That means that together we can do so much more than we could ever do separately. The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Remember Mattie Stepanek? He gets the last word:
I feel that God has given me a very special opportunity that I should not let go to waste. I use the gift he has given me.
God, thank you for trusting us to be your church. And thank you, God that this is a church that needs everyone of us. Make us more like Jesus – more interested in serving others than being served ourselves. And together may your work be done and may your people be blessed. In Jesus’ name, Amen.