What Is Service?

This is the message for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 2 November 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Ruth 1: 1 – 18; Hebrews 9: 11 – 14; and Mark 12: 28 – 34.


The decades of the eighties and nineties brought us many memorable things. Unfortunately, much of what will be remembered as memorable will be viewed in terms of greed and avarice. But that doesn’t mean that nothing good was developed during that time. It’s just that the desires of a limited few and their greed took center stage in the events of the day and are still remembered today.

I think that the one positive thing that came out of that time was a definition of excellence as it applied to corporations and organizations. Much was written about how to find excellence in an organization and how organizations could develop excellence. But, since the decades of the 80’s will forever be known as the "Me" decade, working together in an organizational setting and seeing that one’s success is tied to the success of others will never receive the glory and honor that it should.

One idea that came out of that period that needs to be repeated today is that innovation very rarely comes from the top of an organization but rather from the people at the bottom of the organizational chart. Time and time again, major innovations or modifications that result in new products come from someone working alone in the lab or tinkering on the production line.

The one product that I always like to mention, if for no other reason that it has ties to church choirs, is "Post-it notes." In 1974, Art Fry worked for the 3M company in product development. On Sundays he sang in the choir of the North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul, MN. He marked his choir book in the time-honored way of scraps torn from the bulletin. But sometimes the scraps of paper fell from the book and he lost his place. In describing the moment that began the development process, he remembered an adhesive that had been developed a number of years before.

The only problem with the adhesive was that it was not very sticky. And you want adhesives to be sticky. But if the goal was something that would stick for only a few moments, this was a perfect adhesive. It took him a year and a half but he finally had a workable idea that could be marketed. (From Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, Royston M. Roberts., pg. 224 – 225)  The important thing about this development was that it involved an idea that the 3M corporation had basically shelved since it did not work and it involved Art Fry working on his own. But 3M is a company that encourages creativity and allows its employees to develop ideas that might work. In an environment where ideas are generated from the top down or where strict rules of conduct are employed, this would never have happened.

Even though we recognize that innovation and creativity come from below more times than from above, we still are a society that favors a top-down approach. We trust our leaders, even when our leaders betray our trust. We crave the power that a top-down approach gives to us; we relish the idea that we can tell someone below us what to do and criticize them or complain when they fail to do the job. In a top-down management system, we favor rules that determine our daily conduct. And woe to those individuals who challenge those rules or even the basic concept of the rules.

The scribe comes to Jesus asking which of the commandments is the greatest. He is not speaking of the Ten Commandments but rather the 613 individual statues that comprise the laws of Jewish society. Scholars of the law, of which this particular scribe may have been one, divided this collection into "heavy" or "great" commandments and "light" or "little" commandments. So, instead of asking about the relationship between individuals, the scribe was simply engaged in a minor philosophical debate.

Jesus answers first with what has become known as the Shema, after the first word of Deuteronomy 6: 4. In Hebrew, this word means "hear." The Shema became the Jewish confession of faith, recited by pious Jews every morning and evening. To this day, every synagogue service begins with the Shema.

But Jesus did not stop there. He followed with the commandment from Leviticus 19: 18 that everyone should love their neighbor. It is a logical and natural development that one’s love for their neighbors is like one’s love for God.

The Gospel passage from Mark for today ends with the comment that after that day no one approached Jesus with any questions. Up until that time, the Pharisees and scribes had been testing Jesus, seeking to find some way to discredit his teachings. But He had answered every question truthfully and in a way consistent with God’s law, if not always consistent with society’s laws. In doing so, Jesus reminded the leaders that society was more than not necessarily hierarchical. You cannot love your neighbor less than you love God. And you cannot declare your love for God without declaring your love for your neighbor.

By now, you know that Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia, fascinates me. One day he got tired of his daughter, Jan, being hassled and ostracized. One particular boy in the school called her names and repeatedly threw her books down. After a few weeks, Clarence Jordan decided that he had head enough of this harassment and that he was going to ask Jesus to excuse him for fifteen minutes while he taught this young man a lesson. But his daughter pointed out that one could not be excused from being a Christian for any length of time. And his daughter was not willing to accept the alternative that her father proposed.

As the story is told, two weeks passed and no words were spoken about the young man. When Clarence asked his daughter what had happened, she replied that the boy no longer bothered her. As she said, "I got to figuring that I’m a little taller than Bob and I could see him coming before he could see me. When I’d see him, I’d begin smiling and waving and gushing at him like I was just head over heels in love with him . . . like I was going to eat him up. The other kids got to teasing him about me having a crush on him, and now, the only time I see him is when he peeps around the corner to see if I’m coming. If I am, he goes all the way round the outside."(From the Misfits chapter of Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)  When we apply God’s love to our situations, things work out a whole lot better than when we apply society’s rules.

Jesus sought a society where equality was the standard, where everyone had an equal chance. This meant that He had to give up some of his power. In most organizations, nothing can be done unless someone gives their permission for it to be done. Many times, an individual with no control or input into the problem demand that all items be brought before a committee before any meaningful decision is made. And committee meetings, as we all know, are the best way to kill a wonderful idea. How many times have we heard that it is better to seek forgiveness than ask permission?

In a top-down model, those in power don’t want to give away their power. They don’t want others to do things that would dilute their power. They are unwilling to share or teach others how to do their job. They are unwilling to let others do their job because the new kid on the block may do it better.

Jesus gave His disciples and followers the authority to act in His name, even when they did not think that they were ready to do so. One can only imagine Jesus pacing along the shores of the Sea of Galilee waiting for them to come back. Were Jesus a "normal" leader, He surely must have been worried about the damage that the disciples and followers did in the countryside. But we know that they came back, telling tales of great success and wonderful miracles accomplished in the name of Jesus. Yes, some did come back reporting failure and showing that they still didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to do. You get that when people are brought up expecting to follow orders and not think on their own. And though he was not like us, his expression often times showed that human side of his life, "Oh, faithless and perverse generation, how long must I suffer thee?" (Matthew 18: 17 – 18)

Even though he may have been exasperated, Jesus still gave them the authority and eventually the disciples got the knack of carrying out the mission. By delegating to individuals the authority to act in His name, Jesus was delegating power. There was much work to do and Jesus gave to those who followed him the authority to act in his name. "The fields are ripe for harvest, but the workers are few" (Matthew 9: 36 – 37), he said. It was not a haphazard delegation of authority though.

When Henry II cried out, "Who will rid me of this man?" he was not asking for someone to kill Thomas á Becket. Thomas á Becket was not a threat to the king but simply was against the way the king wanted to run the English government. But with no explicit orders, and with no more authority than that, four of the king’s knights went out and did just that.

Jesus’ delegation of authority was very specific. When he sent them out on that memorable mission, he told them what to do, what to wear, and whom to talk to.

Delegation of authority requires a tremendous amount of trust. Those in leadership roles must trust those to whom they give authority to act. If leaders act or micromanage everything done, they cannot delegate. If they cannot delegate, people working for them become nothing more than "yes-men" and nothing gets done.

Leaders must share information and the authority that comes with that information. In this way, they are able to empower others to do the right things in ways that offer fulfillment, not only on an individual level but overall as well. (Adapted from "He Gave Them Authority" in Jesus CEO – Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones.)

Jesus not only gave people authority; he held them accountable. Accountability had nothing to do with blame. It has everything to do with individual and corporate growth. Accomplished tasks breed self-confidence. Self-confidence breeds success. And success breeds more success. We have to have accountability because it is the cornerstone of empowerment and personal growth. If no one is accountable for a project, no one gets to grow through the experience of it.

Holding people accountable allows them the opportunity to sign their name on a portrait of success, no matter how small that portrait might be. It gives them their next growth challenge in a defined and measurable form. To treat them as equals is to hold them accountable.

When groups show that accountable is to be worn like a medal of success rather than as an albatross of failure, a decision by the way that is generated at the top of the organizational structure, then people are more eager to wear it. In saying that "whatever you ask for, will be done. Whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven. Whatever you bind up, will be bound." (Matthew 18: 18) Jesus held people accountable. (Adapted from "He Held People Accountable" in Jesus CEO – Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones.)

I bring this all up because today is the day we honor all those who have gone before us, the saints of whom we sang in the opening hymn. We celebrate their work because it is by their work that we are able to do ours.

We can study the history of our faith and proudly say that we are where we are today because our ancestors in the faith raised their voices, made bold decisions and prayed and taught the faith. We are where we are today because our ancestors were willing to go to jail, to be thrown to the lions and be burned at the stake. We are here today because our ancestors fought for religious freedom, braved and explored a new world to establish churches in America and spread the Gospel. They did all these things because they loved Jesus. They did also because they loved us, their descendants whom they would never know. They loved us so much that they wanted to make sure the Gospel was here for us. We are who we are today because of their faith, their devotion, and their bravery.

But those are not our only saints. It is also true that we are here today, we are who we are, and in the condition we find ourselves because we also had biological and spiritual ancestors who sat on their hands, who cared only for themselves, who thought little about the impact of the actions on future generations. We are also the products of those who were apathetic in their witness. We are the descendants of those who advocated a racially segregated society. We are related to those who opposed women being ordained. And we may have to admit that some in our heritage just shrugged their shoulders in the face of oppression and greed. We are products both of those ancestors who fought for the faith and of those who fought against the faith. We are the descendants of both sets of grandparents. We have saints in our blood and skeletons in our closet.

We are the spiritual grandchildren of all wonderful stewards who gave their all, and of the generations of curmudgeons who threw water on the Spirit’s fire every chance they got. What types of ancestor do we, who by baptism are part of the community of saints to come, hope to be?

We are the potential saints for future generations. We are the shoulders on which others will stand. Will we be the ancestors who sat on their hands or ancestors who raised their hands? Sometimes we forget that we aren’t just living our busy lives; we are also laying a foundation, molding a future, and establishing a legacy. (From "Saints and Sinners" by Mary W. Anderson in The Christian Century (October 18, 2003)

What shall our legacy be in the years to come? Those we admire, as witnesses to Christ are the ones we believe are the best examples of living the simple commands of Jesus to love God with our whole selves and our neighbors as ourselves. It is a love that has been the center portion of the Bible.

Naomi was worried about the future for her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. The laws of the time said that the brothers of their late husbands were obligated to take care of them but their husbands had no brothers. So there was no way to insure the future for either woman. The options for either woman are not that promising. Hence, Naomi’s exclamation that both Orpah and Ruth return to their homelands, for only there will they be able to find a future.

But Ruth, in verse 16, gives what is considered a classic expression of love and loyalty, "Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried." (Ruth 1: 16 – 17) The love that Ruth expresses for Naomi is a reflection of God’s love for each of us, no matter who we are or where we are from. We will see in the story of Ruth that God’s love is unconditional and that he will provide. After all, if God does not provide in some way or another, then Ruth will not meet Boaz and their descendants will not give us the house of David.

The story of redemption found in Ruth is a reminder of what our lives should be. Ours is a community founded on the express belief that God loves us, so much so that he would provide for our future. Ours is a community founded on a simple expression that the love we have for God is expressed by our love for others. Methodism grew out of John Wesley’s conviction that there was more to the Gospel than praying that the poor find comfort in their world.

The hallmark of organizations during the eighties and nineties was service. If organizations could provide good service in some way, then success was possible. The success of this organization will be measured by the love that others find when they come to this place.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice was for us and that nothing we do will ever match it. Placing our faith and confidence in what has already served its purpose and passed away, things like the rituals encompassed in the Mosaic Law, cannot help us. We cannot expect a new system of service and love to be handled in the old ways of management.

Jesus brought to us a new system and called for us to see a new way of service. On a day when we think of the service of the Saints, we are again reminded that being a saint means living in hope and not in despair. It means forgiving, not judging; loving, not despising; lifting up, not tearing down. We are challenged to strengthen our own shoulders, so that through our service and devotion today, the ancestors of tomorrow will be able to sing the praises of the saints as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.