Adventures with God:
Serving Others is Divine
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost • August 4, 2019
Scripture Lesson: The Gospel of John 13:1, 3-5, 12-17
(adapted from The Inclusive Bible)
Pastor Jeff Wells
I have always lived a life of serving others. When I was 12 years old, I got “the call.” I have a very specific memory of standing out in the field looking up at the clouds and experiencing the Spirit give me to help others and make the world a better place. I was strongly influenced in this life practice by the example of my parents, who were quick to offer help to anyone they saw who was in need and later in life spent a lot of time in volunteer and advocacy efforts. Also, I learned to serve from the church where I was confirmed and was active in the youth group. But even more so, I am convinced that my impulse to serve others was inspired by Jesus’ own example, which is portrayed powerfully in the story Sarah read from the Gospel of John.
What I want to share about this morning is how our life of service gets reinforced through our actual experience of God in acts of serving others. I somewhat jokingly titled this message “Serving Others Is Divine!” And it is! By that, I mean that acts of service are Godly and divine things to do. I also mean that we have the wonderful opportunity to experience God profoundly in midst of doing service.
I said that I have always practiced serving others. I always gave a lot of myself for the sake of creating a better world and for helping others. But I did not always experience God in service. For a long time, when I had rejected the church, I was not open to believing that I could experience God’s presence or that God’s presence was even important. Now, of course, God was there, even when I thought God did not exist. Even when I was completely closed off to God, God’s Spirit was there and trying to reach me and guide me.
In the winter of 1999, I made my way back to church. After three months, I joined Christ Church in May. The church was preparing for a mission trip to Puerto Rico to repair a Methodist church damaged in a recent hurricane. The trip was then only three weeks away. That week when I joined, I met with the associate pastor and casually and naively mentioned that I had experience as a carpenter. Immediately, Pastor Viera said excitedly, “You should come with us!” That was my first mission trip! We had about 15 persons from the church. It was a wonderful group and in the course of our work together and meeting, working with, and celebrating with the people of the church in Lago dos Bocas, I definitely experienced God in the midst of serving others. In fact, it was such a powerful experience that it contributed to my openness a year later to hearing a call from God to become a preacher.
I have witnessed that sort of transformation many times. One of the persons to was on the Puerto Rico trip also went on the church’s first mission to West Africa, during which we build houses with the Ghana affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. We worked side by side in mission with many wonderful members of the two village in which the houses were constructed. We worshipped with members of the local Methodist Church and toured the area with their youth group who taught us songs in local languages. We experienced God in them and they experienced God in us and in our work and play together. Each night our team held a time of sharing, processing, and devotions that were equally powerful. We visited two slave forts on the coast where captured Africans were held in cramped, hot dungeons for weeks or months awaiting ships to transport them to the Americas to be slave labor. We cried at the horrible sight of the churches of the European slave traders build right above the dungeons. All of this together was a profound and life-changing experience. Within a year after we returned from Ghana, the women I mentioned who had also gone on the Puerto Rico trip too, left her high paying job as a vice president of a big pharmaceutical company to take a job leading a non-profit working to provide nature immersion experiences for city children. Our acts of service turned out to be truly an adventure with God!
Jesus said to his disciples, “You know how the leaders of the Gentiles push their people around. This is not to happen among you. Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest. Anyone among you who wishes to be first must serve the needs of all…just as the Chosen One came not to be served but to serve.” Well, I am sure you have all met some of those who turned out to be great among us through the ways they have offered themselves in service to others.\
I think of Sarah Capers and Virginia Riker who lead our Ministers of Care and all of the members of that team, who make sacrifices to extend themselves for members of our congregation in need. I thought right away of Minister Anita Adams, who has experienced great suffering, but whose response is to exhibit great love. Anita has spent most of her life going out of her way to help others. She worked with students with disabilities through the Board of Education, always eager to take on the most challenging cases. She turned down other jobs with the Board of Ed that would have been easier on her. She willingly went out day and night to serve people across the city whenever she got a call for help. She sometimes put herself in danger to do so.
I think of my friend, Catherine, who sings and plays piano at the Hope for Our Neighbors in Need food pantry on Tuesdays. She does this only because she loves it and wants to serve. She also plays for free on Sundays for a small congregation in Brooklyn that would otherwise not have a musician. She told me she constantly looks for ways to help other people. She is profoundly grateful for the ministry of HNN and the Church of the Village.
I was just talking with Maurice this morning, when I came into the church, about his work in helping others through GMHC, where he has been a volunteer or many years. GMHC has gone through a lot of change and some turmoil and Maurice had not been very happy there recently, but he said things are getting better and they are offering leadership training for the volunteers and have invited him to participate in that training. Maurice is someone who gives a lot of himself and also has profoundly connected with God through his service.
All of the other individuals I just mentioned – and all of us, actually – have known the feeling of meeting God in the midst of serving others. God is ever-present and fully invested in each of our acts of loving service. And it’s our longing for God that motivates us to serve. When we serve in a spirit of love and compassion, we are giving the gift of ourselves. But our desire to serve others is itself a gift from God. As the apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Ephesians, “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Even before we can give the gift of ourselves, we first receive God’s gift of our abilities and our desire to serve others. These great gifts produces mutual blessing, enrichment, growth, the profound experience of God in our lives. I love the proverb that says, “Whoever brings a blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.”
Service is one of those basic Christian practices that John Wesley called “a means of grace.” It facilitates our openness to the ways God is continually working in our lives and the lives of others. And it is actually fundamental to the way God created us. As Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Loving service can deeply open us to the presence of God both in the moment and in our life in general. Service also inspires joy in us as we see God in ourselves and in those we serve. The poet, Rabindranath Tagore, put it this way:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.
When we serve others, we are not only “helping” someone else, we are blessing ourselves. And the other person is blessing us. When we love and serve another we also love and serve God. Even when the person you are serving is not conscious of serving you, the blessing is always mutual. Service is fundamentally not about the “thing” done to help, but about the relationship built, the connection made, the love shared.
Friends, I suspect that every one of you has experienced God in an act of loving service. What a gift it is that God created us to serve and, in doing so, to bless and be blessed, to give and receive love with another person, and to give and receive love with our God.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.
1] Matthew 20:25-27
2] Ephesians 2:10
3] Proverbs 11:25 (adapted from English Standard Version)