Phillipians 3:4b-14; Matthew 20:17-28
What comes to mind when you hear the word “servant” or “slave”? Most of us imagine a person who is not free to do what he pleases, one who lacks the power or freedom or resources to direct his own life, one who must work to fulfill the desires of another. We think of a servant or slave as powerless in relation to his superior. His station in life demands that he constantly set aside his own desires to fulfill the desire of his master. For most of us, it is not an enviable position. How many of us would willingly sacrifice our independence and autonomy to become the slave of another person?
And yet this is what Jesus asks of his disciples, that they imitate him as one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (v.28).
In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, St Paul writes, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (I Cor. 4:1,2) “Think of us in this way,” says Paul, “as servants of Christ.” He says this with pride, not shame. He is not embarrassed that he has been reduced to the role of a servant; he does not regret that he is no longer free to do his own will and is compelled to do the bidding of another. Nor is there any suggestion that he has been forced to become a servant – in fact, the opposite is true: Paul has voluntarily chosen to take up this role. He sees it as a glorious privilege to be considered a servant of Christ. He sees it as a blessing to live no longer for himself, but for Christ. He is honored to have been entrusted with divine mysteries, and feels both an obligation and a desire to be found trustworthy in this responsibility.
There is a great difference between one who has been forced into a position of servitude and one who has freely chosen to serve. It is LOVE that inspires in us the desire to serve. Only love can make such a choice. How different it is to serve another for love’s sake than it is to serve out of obligation or duty!
Jesus comes into the world not to be served, but to serve. He comes not to do his own will, but the will of the One who sent him. He “empties himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.” He does this for love.
Similarly, as our first reading from the Letter to the Philippians reminds us, Paul sets aside his place of privilege in society, his reputation, his accomplishments and the honors he has earned – everything he has – to be counted as Christ’s servant. He does this for love. When we love we want to serve. We long to be given some task that will contribute to the good purposes of the one we love. A mother longs to serve her children – out of love. A husband longs to please his wife – out of love. We willingly set aside our own desires and preferences, we lay down our lives, for the sake of those whom we love. The greatest hope of those who have chosen to serve as the expression of love is that they may be found trustworthy; they can imagine no greater joy than to do what pleases the other.
Tonight I want to tell you a story that illustrates what this call to service is all about. The story is from Robert Coles, the well-known Harvard psychologist and teacher, and is recorded in his book, The Call of Service.
In 1961, Robert Coles traveled to New Orleans to meet and to study the six-year-old girls who were the first to integrate the New Orleans public schools. He was fascinated by them, by their strength and stoic courage in the face of tremendous pressure and opposition. He wondered what made it possible for them, day after day, to walk past angry, shouting mobs who hurled insults and threats at them, in order to enter their new school. The girls had to be accompanied to school by U.S. marshals because local and state police refused to protect them. He tells us about Tessie, a first-grader at the McDonough School.
One morning, when Coles was visiting Tessie’s home, he witnessed a conversation between the girl and her grandmother, Martha. For the very first time, Tessie was hinting that she might like to stay home from school that day. Coles writes,
On that day, Tessie was not so much reluctant to go to school as tired and weary. She was recovering from a bout of the flu; she had slipped and fallen while playing in a nearby back yard; and she didn’t like her substitute teacher. The grandmother, privy as always to the child’s worries, doubts and difficulties, knew full well her granddaughter’s state of mind that early morning. Tessie had suggested (over breakfast) that perhaps, for the first time, she would stay home from school… The grandmother said yes, that would be fine if Tessie truly wasn’t well. But if she was more discouraged than sick, that was quite another matter…
“It’s no picnic, child – I know that, Tessie – going to that school. Lord Almighty, if I could just go with you and stop there in front of that building and call all those people to my side, and read to them from the Bible, and tell them, remind them, that He’s up there, Jesus, watching over all of us – it don’t matter who you are or what your skin color is. But I stay here, and you go – and your momma and your daddy, they have to leave the house so early in the morning that it’s only Saturdays and Sundays that they see you before the sun hits the middle of its traveling for the day. So I’m not the one to tell you that you should go, because here I am, and I’ll be watching television and eating or cleaning things up while you’re walking by those folks. But I’ll tell you, you’re doing them a great favor; you’re doing them a service, a big service.”
She stopped briefly to pick up a fly swatter and go after a bee that had noisily appeared in the kitchen. She hit it and watched it fall to the floor, then plucked a tissue from a box on the counter, picked up the bee, still alive, and took it outside, where it flew off. I was surprised; I’d expected her to kill the bee and put its remains in the wastebasket. She resumed speaking, and again to my surprise, connected her rescue of the bee to what she had started to say.
“You see, my child, you have to help the good Lord with His world! He puts us here – and He calls us to help Him out. That bee doesn’t belong here; it belongs out there. You belong in the McDonogh School, and there will be a day when everybody knows that, even these poor folks – Lord, I pray for them! – these poor, poor folks out there shouting their heads off at you. You’re one of His people; He’s put His hand on you. He’s given a call to you, a call to service – in His name! There’s all those people, scared out of their minds, and by the time you’re ready to leave the McDonogh School they’ll be all calmed down, and they won’t be paying you no mind at all, child, and I’ll guarantee you, that’s how it will be!”
As she was speaking, Tessie finished her breakfast, marched confidently to the sink with her dishes, put them in a neat pile, and went to get her raincoat and empty lunch pail from her room – all without saying a word. She was going to school…
The gift that Martha is giving to Tessie is the gift of vocation. She is instilling in her a sense that her purpose for being in the world is related to the purposes of God. She is teaching her the way of service. “You’re doing them a great favor,”she says, “you’re doing them a service, a big service.”
Martha helps Tessie to hear and to respond to God’s call. “You’re one of His people,”she tells her, “He’s put His hand on you. He’s given a call to you, a call to service – in His name!” And that is all the reassurance that Tessie needs. She knows that she belongs to God, that she has been chosen by God and “put here” for a specific purpose. She has been called “to help the Good Lord with his world” by loving and serving others – even her enemies – for Christ’s sake.
Are you a servant of Christ? Have you freely, willingly, and with great generosity relinquished your own desires and purposes to align yourself with his? Do you long to be given some task to please and help him? Do you want nothing more than to be found trustworthy in his service, to be one who can be counted on to be faithful, honest, and good? Do you count it an honor and privilege to be a servant of Christ?
Only love can make this choice.
Coles, Robert. The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism; (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993); pp.3,4.
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