Saturday, September 1, 2018

"Serve Others"

            Last Sunday, we began a new sermon series at Christ United Methodist Church entitled, “The Essentials of Discipleship.”  I understand Christian discipleship to be an inter-related  process of following Christ by learning, experiencing, serving and growing in our faith and deepening our relationship with the Divine.  When we first become Christians, we are beginners in the faith.  But, over time, Christ intends for us to grow deeper in our faith.  Christian disciples grow best through a process that combines “education” and “experience”—that is, learning and serving. 

In this sermon series, we will explore the four core principles for growth and service; that is, “the essentials of discipleship.”  They are:  (1)  Seek God; (2) Act Inclusively; (3) Serve others—both human and nonhuman; and (4)  Work for Justice.  Last week, we looked at the principle of acting inclusively.  This Sunday, September 2nd, we will focus on serving others—both human and nonhuman. 

           The principle of serving other persons runs like a red thread throughout the entire Bible.  Again and again the scriptures proclaim the importance of caring for the physical necessities of other persons.  See, for instance, Leviticus 23:22, Proverbs 14:31, 17:5, 19:17, Isaiah 58:7-10, Deuteronomy 15:10-11, Ezekiel 16:49, 1 John 3:17-18, Luke 12:33, Matthew 19:21, Galatians 2:10, and 6:2   Philippians 2:4, James 2:5, 16-17, and Romans 12:13. 

            Perhaps the most important scriptural passage on caring for others is Jesus’ apocalyptic description of God’s final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46.  In the first verses, Jesus sets the scene for the final judgment:  “‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.’” (verses 31-33).  The sheep represent righteous people whom will receive salvation, while the goats represent sinners to be condemned.

           In Jesus’ explanation, those who will be redeemed are those who have served and cared for others who needed resources in order to live and flourish, while the condemned are those have ignored the needs of their fellows.  Jesus explicitly mentions 6 needs which people have:  (1) those who hunger; (2) those who thirst; (3) those who were strangers; (4) those who were naked; (5) those who were sick; and (6) those in prison. However, it seems clear that Christ intends for this list to be suggestive and not comprehensive.  For instance, it seems certain that Jesus would also include the homeless, even though he does not explicitly mention them.  The general thrust of these apocalyptic verses is that we are all responsible for one another’s flourishing and wellbeing.

            In these verses, Jesus places himself in the position of those with needs.  For instance, he says:  “I was hungry…I was thirsty…” etc.  Both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised that they helped, or did not help, Jesus himself.  They say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…thirsty…?” etc.  Jesus responds by saying, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it [or, did not do it, in the case of the goats] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”  The consensus among Bible scholars is that Jesus is making a universal claim, when he refers to “members of my family.”  That is, any person, regardless of nationality, creed, race, etc. is entitled to receive the basic necessities required in order to live a life that is happy, flourishing, and with dignity. 

           In his commentary on Matthew, the New Testament scholar Eugene Boring observes:  “This is the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the NT.  To the reader’s surprise (ancient and modern), the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ.  Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins.  What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people.  Such deeds are not a matter of ‘extra credit,’ but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment…”.[1]

            So, clearly, serving others is an essential principle of Christian discipleship.  Of course, we already knew that.  In the American context, Christ’s call to serve others is understood by nearly everyone—Christian and non-Christian, alike.  At Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, we are probably stronger at serving others than we are at any of the three other essential principles.  Although there is still room for growth, at Christ UMC, we are involved in many “ministries of mercy,” including feeding the hungry, clothing those without sufficient clothing—especially in the cold winter months; other ministries include mentoring children, welcoming and sponsoring refugees, and providing emergency financial assistance.  I suspect that Christ UMC is not unique in this regard.  Most American churches are involved in ministries of mercy to some degree.

             The challenge for the preacher—especially when the text is Matthew 25: 31-46, as it will be on September 2nd—is to identify new perspectives on this very, very familiar text.  To accomplish that this Sunday, I intend to develop two new insights into serving others:

1.      “Serving Others” is not restricted to just “human others,” it includes nonhumans, as well.  Humans have always shaped and modified their environment.  Over the course of history, these manipulations were temporary and more-or-less sustainable.  However, since the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, advances in our technology have given humans a previously unknown potential to transform entire eco-systems radically and permanently.  We have misused this awesome power.  Today, we suffer and struggle with ecological problems such as Global Climate Change and increased chemicals in our air and water.

Last week, in our exploration of acting inclusively, we saw that being created in the image of God carries with it the responsibility to be good stewards of the environment (see Genesis 1:26).  In our sacred scripture, there is another important insight concerning our relationship with the environment, as well. 

In the second Creation Story, in Genesis 2, God creates Adam, the first man.  God is so enamored with the new human that God creates a special garden—the Garden of Eden.  When the Garden is completed, Genesis says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)  The verb which we usually translate as “to till and keep” the Garden is the Hebrew word, “ābad.  This is an odd word choice here.  As with many English words, this Hebrew word has several different meanings.  Although it can mean “to till and keep,” that is a tertiary meaning.  The principal meaning of ābad is to “serve” as when a servant serves the King.  I believe that the writer of Genesis used ābad intentionally and that he intended for us to interpret it as to literally serve nature, in order to underscore our God-give responsibility to care for and serve God’s Creation.  So, we should include serving the environment as part of serving others, and thus it is an essential component of discipleship.

2.      “Serving Others” is a “two-way street”.  Of course, those whom we serve receive benefit.  Yet, when we serve voluntarily, enthusiastically, and faithfully, then we benefit, as well.  Serving others can be transformative.  When we serve others, we grow in our faith and our relationship with God.  Similarly, serving others creates good feeling in ourselves and is fundamental to genuine happiness.  In study after study after study, social scientists researching happiness have found that serving others is absolutely fundamental to living a life filled with genuine happiness and flourishing.  It’s ironic, the more we serve and give, the more we receive back.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, September 2nd, as we explore the second essential principle of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 8, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

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