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Monday, August 11, 2014

Selfishness to Servanthood

Someone once said that the two most significant days in a person's life are the day that they are born and the day that they discover why.  

Discovering our personal why may come easily to some; for others only after much soul searching and perhaps trial and error.  For the unfortunate, it may never be uncovered.  Without knowing why we are here, it is difficult to know the how and what of life.  It is neither too early nor too late for each of us to answer this question for ourselves.

As we sort through the process of figuring it out, we should be mindful of being influenced by the cultural values of the society in which we live.  American culture is one that is very competitive and in any competitive environment there is a natural desire to want to win—to be the best.  Nothing wrong with making the most of the talents that God has given us but we need to be thoughtful as to how we define success.

What is a successful life?  Is it the accumulation of personal wealth and honors?  Is it wrong to be selfish and look out for #1?    After all, hasn’t our country been successful because everyone is incented to take care of themselves?   

In today’s reading, Matthew 20:20-28, it is clear that Jesus does not encourage us to seek to place ourselves ahead of others.  To recap the story, the mother of the apostles James and John approached Jesus with a request.  Their mom's request was a big one--that Jesus grant her sons the privilege of sitting by his right and left side in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Although their mom started the conversation, both James and John seemed on-board with the request which was essentially to place themselves in a position of honor ahead of everyone else in the Kingdom of Heaven.  That was certainly the way the rest of the Apostles interpreted it as they became quite upset when they learned what was going on. 

Jesus used this as a teaching moment and told the Apostles “…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”  He cited Himself as an example having come to this world not to be served but to serve--serving to the point of sacrificing His life for the benefit of all mankind.

This isn’t the only time that Jesus makes this point.  At the Last Supper he demonstrated his servitude to His followers by washing their feet. 

So why is Servanthood important to Jesus?  Is this a way that He sees for each of us to undergo suffering as a means of punishment for our sins—a soul cleansing penance?  Or is it to function as some kind of test, similar to that endured by Job, to measure the level of our faith? 

I don’t see either of those as being the reason.  While Servanthood may involve sacrifice, it is not punishment, it is not humiliation and it is not an obligation imposed upon us by God for no reason other than to test our faith.  Servanthood does not mean that we need to minimize our sense of self-worth.  Jesus did not think less of Himself because He chose to act in Servanthood for all of mankind.  Servanthood does not mean that we must think less of ourselves.  It means thinking of ourselves less.  There is a big difference.   

I think one reason that Jesus set the example of Servanthood for us to follow is that the outward focus of a servant is far more capable of positively impacting the world around us than someone with an inwardly pointed self-centered frame of mind.  In thinking about the “why” question, we need to ask ourselves if we want to be remembered for how we sought to triumph over our fellow humans or instead, how we tried to put others before us and make our world a little more like heaven.  The good news is that Servanthood is an effective way of making positive changes in the world around us. 

Jesus placed himself in a position of servitude to the Apostles and then empowered them to go forth into the world to serve others and spread His Word.  Using some modern terminology, the Apostles took the gift of Jesus’ servitude and paid it forward.  That process has continued to repeat itself for almost 2000 years and now there are over 2 billion followers today.  It is our responsibility to continue to pay it forward by serving others and spreading the Word for the benefit of those who will follow us.

The greatest achievements that our country has accomplished are a result of individuals placing the good of the country ahead of their own personal interest.  The most vivid examples of this are the millions of our fellow countrymen who have sacrificed their lives to advance the cause of our freedom and self-determination.

Conversely, you can look at our country’s history to see what happens when self-interest overwhelms looking out for the common good.  Arguably, unrestrained greed by so many parties is one of the primary causes of the great recession that came upon us a few years back and from which we are still today trying to shake off the effects.  

In business, over the past forty or so years, our most progressive companies have adopted some element of the philosophy of servant leadership where management seeks to provide support and empower the workforce to develop solutions to business issues in a collaborative fashion.  By helping the employees succeed, the companies as a whole succeed.

The most successful missions of our own church take place when we set aside our own self-interest and seek to work together to serve others.  A great example of this is taking place right now at the State Fair.  Volunteers at our food stand are called upon to work very hard for long hours in often-times challenging weather.  They make this sacrifice for various reasons—to support the continuation of a long-standing tradition, to provide financial resources for the church to use to help people, or to take the opportunity to demonstrate to the patrons of the stand that our congregation does care about people.  Whatever, the reason, the volunteers are placing others ahead of themselves and that is what has allowed that mission to thrive for 65 years.

Here is what you might think of as an odd analogy but it is the way my mind works and I think will illustrate the difference between selfishness and servitude.  In astronomy, a black hole is a mass of incredible density that has a tremendous gravitational field that pulls in all nearby matter which can never escape.  As a consequence of this, a black hole emits no light and is a destructive force to things around it.  Like a black hole, we can choose to act selfishly and draw everything inward to ourselves.  Through selfishness, always taking and never giving.  In doings so, like a black hole, we will emit no light by which others can see and grow. 

Alternatively, we can act like the sun and serve all in our surroundings by projecting out life-giving light and energy.   Selfishness is an inward focused self-contained existence which will drain the environment of all positive energy and is ultimately a dead-end.   Servanthood is focused outward and makes possible growth on the part of the world beyond ourselves.

Servanthood is also the right way to treat people.  Acting as a servant to others is what it means to live the golden rule.  It is the essence of treating others as we would want to be treated.  Servanthood is an act of love.

One thing that we do know is that Jesus thought that love was pretty important.  When the Pharisee lawyer asked Him what the most important commandment was, Jesus told him:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:37-40)

So let’s think about that.  Jesus didn’t just say that it is good to love God and love others or even that it was important to love.  He said that ALL of the Law and the Prophets hang on loving God and loving our neighbors.  In other words, love is THE foundational core principle that God has given us to govern how we live our lives. 

There are numbers of other virtues that God could have chosen as a foundational principle—righteousness, courage, justice, freedom, or honor to name a few.  But God has decided that we should build our lives on love.  There is a stunning level of poetic beauty in that don’t you think?
The Apostle Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Romans as to how Jesus expects us to love each other.  Paul told the Romans (Romans 12:9-13)

 9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

What Paul is telling us is to love God and one another means to place their needs above our own.  In other words-- to serve them.
I think most of us recognize that a good servant will seek to help satisfy another’s physical need if they are sick or hungry or homeless.  But sometimes being a good servant calls for paying attention to needs that are more intangible such as being there for them through the emotional peaks and valleys of life—rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn.

An old Swedish proverb says: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”  I think most people would agree with that.   Whenever we receive good news our first inclination is to tell somebody else about it.  Likewise, when bad news strikes, it is comforting to have the support of others.  Think about why we have weddings and funerals.  The need to share both our highs and our lows with others is ingrained in us by God as human nature.  Being there for others in good times and bad is an act of Servanthood..

To wrap up, Servanthood is not about lowering ourselves; it is about lifting up others.  Servanthood is not a punishment.  It is an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to impact the world in a positive way while fully living the principles that Jesus taught us—to love our God and to love our neighbor.  As such, let us seek out these opportunities to put the needs of others above our own. 
•    Let’s serve others and reject the allure of selfishness.
•    Let’s serve others to alleviate their physical needs by sharing our resources.
•    Let’s serve others to heighten their exhilaration by celebrating their joys.
•    Let’s serve others to lessen their pain by comforting them in illness and grieving their losses.
•    Let’s serve others and help the downtrodden recover their sense of self-worth. 
•    Let’s serve others and seek to radiate out our positive energy setting off a chain reaction of good things which will benefit an ever-widening circle at home, at work, in our church, in our community and beyond.
•    Let’s serve others to help them find the road to eternal salvation by setting an example of what it means to live out the principles that Jesus taught.
If we do these things, we will have used our time here on earth to make it a better place.  That sounds like a pretty good why to me.  Amen

Mike Powers