Becoming Disciples through: Service

The other night my husband and I had finished dinner and I stood up to clear the table and take away our plates.

As he handed me his dish he said, “you know, you don’t have to wait on me, I can take my own plates to the kitchen.”

And without even thinking about it, I responded, “I know – but I do it because I love you.”

How many of you are familiar with Gary Chapman’s book “The Five Love Languages’?

A long time ago, a friend gave me the book, and I immediately thought about those five languages when I made that statement to my husband.

I try to do little things to help out because that is one of the ways that I most naturally express my love for him. Gary Chapman calls that acts of service.

Service? Hey – we’re talking about service today! And we are exploring specifically how we express our love of God through acts of service.

Curiousity got the better of me, and I took another quick look at how our five membership vows match up with these five love languages Chapman examines in his books.

We started out with prayer as a way of discipleship… and talked about how we should aim to pray more deeply. Using the metaphor of breathing, our prayers should not be shallow quick breaths, but deep, filling breaths in and out. In Chapman’s languages of love, quality time is about focusing all of our energy on another person so that the time we spend with one another is not simply hanging out, but is a deep sharing of who you are. In many ways, our prayers are how we spend quality time with God, focusing our attention on God’s will for our lives, rather than our own wishes and desires.

Then we looked at what it means to be present as an expression of our discipleship. While it isn’t an immediate fit, Chapman lists physical intimacy and touch as one of his love languages. In so many ways, our presence with one another, our physical presence with people who are hurting is an expression of our love not only for them, but also for God. We literally become the hands and feet of God who hold and comfort and who smile and are close to one another. Our Lord and Savior became human and lived among us – touching the sick and the young and the old and the forgotten in order to express the love of God to the world, and we respond by doing the same.

Last week we talked about our gifts. We are not only given amazing and beautiful gifts by God, but in response, we share those gifts for God’s work in the world. Easy tie in to Chapman’s love language of giving and receiving gifts. I think something that we can easily learn from his description of giving gifts is that we are not investing money (or time) in these gifts, but through the gift, we are deepening our relationship with God. People who have shared with me that they tithe regularly often talk about what a joy it is and how it really does bring them closer to God.

I’m definitely going to have to remember this book next time this sermon series comes around, because our fifth vow next week also correlates pretty well to one of Chapman’s five languages – words of affirmation. Now, witnessing to our faith is not quite the same thing as offering encouragement to a loved one – but in both cases, we sing their praises as we share with the world what is great about either our loved one or about God. Next week, we not only will be celebrating Pentecost – the coming of the Spirit that helps us to witness, but we will also be confirming some of our youth – and will be encouraging them in the faith as they witness to what they have learned in this past year.

But for today – it’s all about service.

And not only for Chapman, but also in our life of faith, service is about love.

Attitude is everything when it comes to service – and our call to service is a call to act out of love and not obligation, to act not out of resentment or guilt or fear or even duty – but out of the depths of our hearts.

In every way, Memorial Day, is about honoring the service of men and women throughout our nation’s history who have done just that. They showed their love for friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens in such a way that they were willing to give even their lives.

In both of our scriptures today, we are reminded that there is no greater love than to lay down our lives for one another. From our Epistle reading, we are commanded to love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

While accounts may vary, Memorial Day began initially as community celebrations honoring the fallen soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. Their words of equality and love of neighbor were transformed into moral truths and action on behalf of the disenfranchised and they deserved to be honored. But, because initially these acts of memorialization were so closely tied with the fight for emancipation, the Southern states quickly established their own rival “Confederate Memorial Day.”

These community acts of decorating graves were then made official by an order from General John Logan that Memorial Day be on the 30th of May and on the first Memorial Day in 1868, flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery. But in the effort to put the differences of both sides behind us, the recognition that the Civil War had been a moral battle to free black Americans from slavery was lost. It became more of a generic remembrance of all war dead, while at the same time losing the specific passions of truth and justice that characterized its beginnings.

David Blight wrote about this loss in his book “Race and Reunion.” “War commemorations, he makes clear, do not just pay tribute to the war dead.” They should also honor what those men and women died for – the truth and the action that go along with the sacrifice.

I really struggle with talking about national interests in church. Our time of worship should be focused on God and not on our country. We are coming together to worship the one who is Lord over every nation – not just ours. In many ways, when we become Christian we cease to simply be American.

And yet, in many ways, so many of our soldiers have fallen for that reason – to protect and defend and to free the lives of God’s children all over the world from tyrannies of injustice and oppression. They have put their lives on the line not because of duty but because they genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of people across God’s creation.

They choose to serve in that capacity because they believe that it is in the armed forces that they can make the biggest impact.

Do you remember the question that I asked you at the beginning of this sermon series? I shared with you that the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And I asked very pointedly, how many of you thought that was possible. I asked how many of you really felt equipped and empowered by the church to go out and make a difference in the world.

I believe that tomorrow, we should fully honor our fallen brothers and sisters who died because they believed that the world could be different – because they loved other people enough to put their lives on the line.

But today, I believe that we should lament the fact that our church has not shared our story in such a compelling way. I believe that we should lament the fact that we don’t have strong enough convictions in the power of God to change the world. I believe we should lament the fact that we aren’t out there in the world, putting our lives on the line every day in service to others.

Bishop Robert Schnasse has called churches to be fruitful for God’s Kingdom and one of the ways we can do so is through risk-taking mission and service. Just as in our gospel reading from today, we are called and appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, and the root of that fruit is God’s love. Schansse writes that “nothing is more central to faith identity and to the church’s mission than transforming the lives and conditions of people by offering oneself in God’s name. Nearly every page of Scripture shows people serving God by serving others.”

I’m often asked what the difference is between doing community service and serving people through the church. And usually my response has something to do with the fact that God is the reason behind our service when we do it in the church. We have been loved by our Creator and Redeemer and so through God’s power we pour ourselves out to other people.

But as I read a bit more of Schnasse’s book this week, I also realized a big difference comes in the “risk-taking” element. “Risk-taking mission and service takes people into ministries that push them out of their comfort zone, stretching them beyond the circle of relationships and practices that routinely define their faith commitments.” In other words, when God is in charge, we have no idea where we might end up!

This was certainly true for me on my very first international mission trip. I went with youth from my church to Peru and we had this grandiose idea that we could change the world and make a difference! We believed in the power of God to work through us. We definitely had the first part right!

What we never expected was how we ourselves would also be transformed. As we found ourselves in a completely different culture, making friends with people who looked nothing like us, loving people who were unlovable by their society’s standards, we became different people.

Schnasse writes that “the stretch of Christian discipleship is to love those for whom it is not automatic, easy, common or accepted. To love those who do not think like us or live like us, and to express respect, compassion and mercy to those we do not know and who may never be able to repay us – this is the love Christ pulls out of us.”

This is God’s abiding love that gives us the power to respond when we see a brother or sister in need. This is God’s abiding love that gives us the ability to speak truth to power when there are injustices in the world. This is God’s abiding love that leads us to lay down our lives for one another.

Now, the big question is – how do I live this out through the church.

Oftentimes, when I have heard this topic of service mentioned in the church, it comes with one of two demands. 1) we need to get more people to serve on the committees in the church. or 2) we need to get more people involved in mission and outreach.

The truth of the matter is, we need people to serve in all sorts of different places. In order to have people serving on the front lines of God’s Kingdom, we need people serving on the church finance committee who will hold the church accountable for their resources, and we need an administrative board and PPR that will help us to discern and express God’s vision for our church.

But, we also need people who are willing to go wherever God will lead us.

If you are feeling called and led to go and serve God’s children in a malaria ridden village in Africa – and you want to put your whole life into God’s service – we want to support and encourage you and equip you.

If you are feeling called to make sure those who are struggling financially in our community have food on the table every day – and you are willing to put your whole life into God’s service – we want to support and encourage and equip you.

If you are feeling called to listen to the person who disagrees with you across the table in our church office and work together to really make a difference in how we teach our children – and if you are willing to put your whole life into God’s service in that way – then we want to support and encourage and equip you.

The truth of the matter is, if we can’t love and serve the person who sits down the pew from us or across the table in the fellowship hall, then we aren’t ready to be out in the world loving and serving other people. But here is where we practice, here is where we learn. And here is where we are sent out into the world to serve. Amen and Amen.

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