What Is Service & Why Does It Matter?

Malachi 4:1-2a

4See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

Psalm 98 1O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

2The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.

3He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

4Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

5Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

6With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

7Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

8Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy

9at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19 5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Lord, as we are following the lives of the saints this Advent season, we thank you, heavenly Father, for the witness of your Apostle and evangelist Matthew to the Gospel of thy Son our Saviour; and we pray that, after his example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever, Amen.

In the Christian faith, we find ourselves often talking about living the life of a servant, and of being in service to God and our neighbour. So it’s easy to think that we would know all about what service means – but the reality is we often do not.  We find ourselves confusing being a good rule follower with the good caretaking of others. I came across an article on the Patheos Christian website that was discussing the faith of Benjamin Franklin. In lifting up his autobiography, the author, Vance Morgan writes:

[Franklin] doesn’t say a lot about organized religion other than to express his distaste for and rejection of it, turning his back on the Presbyterianism of his youth because the ministers’ sermons were primarily “explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect,” clearly designed to create good Presbyterians rather than good citizens.

Oof – that hurts a bit, doesn’t it? Do we, who are faithful church goers, look to be good followers of Christ or good Lutherans? Likewise, do we who have US citizenship seek to follow the doctrine of the law or its intent? As we look at the lessons for today and the life of St. Matthew – we are hearing the question asked of us – how will we follow Christ? Will we look for the reasonable, quiet, law-abiding route that allows for no personal thought or individual discernment? Or will we trust in the Spirit of God to lead us even when we are asked to lay aside the rules of church and state?

This Advent we are exploring the idea of Christian Minimalism, particularly as lifted up by the author Becca Erlich, in her book of the same name. She is less focused on laying down the stuff of our lives than on the outdated beliefs, prejudices and unconscious agendas we carry around that often prevent us from seeing where our service truly lies. Like Franklin’s pastor, we can get caught up in hard and rigid doctrines that actually come to interfere with how we called to live our faith. In Thessalonia, it seems that some of the believers were so caught up in the doctrine of the endtimes and so filled with certainty that this life would end tomorrow, that they were filling their days with foolishness. But Paul reminds them that nothing is more important than service and love to our neighbour. And that if they can’t let go of that foolishness, they will miss giving the needed service.  

When Matthew is called to be a follower of Christ, we are told he doesn’t hesitate – he lays everything aside in order to become the man that Jesus needs him to be. Now a lot is often said about this immediate response, and how it seemed to be equally dramatic for all the original followers of the Lord. But what are the practicals of such a response? What happens when you make such a radical change? Let’s take some time at the start of this 2022 Advent to think about what we are asked to let go of so that we might make this journey to the manager, not with empty hands, but with hands that are carrying only the things that are needed for the journey.

In Buddhist tradition, the story is shared of a young man who wanted to become a monk so he studied everything he could get his hands on and then journeyed to the monastery to meet with the Master. They sat down to tea and the young man went on and on about how much he had learned and how good a student he would be. The Master listened, nodded and poured the tea. And kept pouring til the cup filled and overflowed onto the table. The young man stopped him finally and said “Master! The cup is full!” The Master smiled and said, “And so are you; come back when you are empty.”

Somehow, part of being filled with faith is knowing there will be things we have empty out of our lives. We don’t learn many of the details of the apostles’ lives in Scripture, but we do get hints of fathers, mothers, and for Peter, even a mother-in-law. So we know there were in fact lives, filled with their own set of expectations and obligations, that they were living before encountering Jesus. But that encounter with the Divine changed everything. Those who followed Jesus were willing to lay aside anything that would hold them back from that journey. So all the laws, expectations and obligations they carried were emptied so they could serve love and follow the Lord.

And we know that the Bible going back to Genesis is filled with that odd balance of being law abiding and love driven. Yet at every turn, the love of neighbour is the bottom line. If your obedience to the law seems to be in conflict with service toward your neighbour – go with the service. Always. No matter the laws of the world say. Again and again, the faithful servants are told – when you live this love, you are going to be at odds with a world that has shifted its worship from loving to lawful obedience. When Matthew is called, the lawful leaders scoff that Jesus could dare to use such a seemingly inappropriate person. But Matthew is one who let go of his past allegiances to wealth and personal power so that he could follow love. The lawful leaders of Jesus’ time refused to let go of their allegiances, to let go of anything, clutching tighter and tighter to a rigid code they thought would save them rather than embrace the living Lord right in front of them. But we all know they were wrong, (pause) don’t we?

Returning to that article by Morgan, he quotes Christian Wiman who writes in My Bright Abyss:

Dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual [sermons] so common in mainstream American churches. … The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse . . . The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, [God] is gone.

Serving God does not mean that we are in an exclusive secret club with exclusive secret knowledge – the whole point of Jesus is that he comes to ALL. And he comes not from our lawful obedience but from God’s love. Another apostle, John, writes “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Law condemns us, tells us the boundaries and shows us where we screw up – and in that it serves a purpose, since it shows us all that we can NOT do to save ourselves. We have to empty ourselves of trying to fulfil the impossible law and turn instead to grace filled love and service.

This past week, we celebrated Veterans’ Day and many folks said to those who served, “thank you for your service.” And I can tell you that every person who has served knows that sometimes service is making sure the right thing happens despite the rules. Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coastie knows that service to the mission may mean throwing the rules out the window. Listen to an illustration what that dedication to service means.

When the attack on Pearl Harbor began, Doris “Dorie” Miller was working laundry duty on the USS West Virginia….the Navy was segregated at the time, so Miller, as an African-American….[and all Black folk] weren’t allowed to serve in combat positions. Instead, they worked as cooks, stewards, cabin boys, and mess attendants. They received no weapons training and were prohibited from firing guns.

As the first torpedoes fell, Dorie Miller had an impossible choice: follow the rules or help defend the ship? For Miller, the choice was obvious.…In the heat of the aerial attack, Miller saw an abandoned Browning .50 calibre anti-aircraft machine gun on deck and immediately decided to fly in the face of segregation and military rules to help defend his ship and country. Though he had no training, he manned the weapon and shot at the enemy aircraft until his gun ran out of ammunition, potentially downing as many as six Japanese planes. …Original newspaper reports heralded a hero “Negro messman” at Pearl Harbour, but no one knew who Miller was. The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American paper in wide circulation, sent a reporter to track down and identify the brave sailor, but it took months of digging to uncover the messman’s identity. Eventually, Miller was identified. He was called a hero by Americans of all stripes and colours. …In March 1942,… he became the first African-American sailor to receive the Navy Cross.

On Nov. 24, 1943, during Operation Galvanic, a Japanese torpedo struck the Liscome Bay, sinking the ship. 644 men were presumed dead. 272 survived. Miller did not. On Dec. 7, 1943, two years after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Millers’ parents received word of their son’s death. Doris “Dorie” Miller gave his life for a country that didn’t always love him back.

The poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote lines that ask what we as United States citizens carry and what we need to lay down in light of Miller’s service. Speaking in his voice, she wrote;

Naturally, the important thing is, I helped to save them,
them and a part of their democracy,
Even if I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to do that for them.
And I am feeling well and settled in myself because I believe it was a good job,
Despite this possible horror: that they might prefer the
Preservation of their law in all its sick dignity and their knives
To the continuation of their creed
And their lives.

Just as the poet lifts up in her verse, Jesus also knew that we have a sin-filled tendency to follow law before love – and he spent his entire ministry telling us to choose love. In the journey to the manger, as well as the journey to the cross, the world will fill our arms with laws and demand obedience to them above all else. But Jesus tells us that if we are too weighted down with that law, those human creeds and dead wood filled doctrine – if we haven’t made space in our hearts for all that God wants to fill us with – we are going to miss the love story of the manger entirely. So today – we need to ask ourselves at the beginning of this walk; what will we let go of, what will we lay down, to arrive at the manger ready to receive the love that Jesus wants to give us?