SCRIPTURE – Matthew 6:1-4
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Plastic Jesus sermon series
#5 – Service: Volunteer of the Year
Sept. 11, 2011
I have a new business concept that I want to share with you. I think this is a real winner and I want you to consider becoming an investor in it. The idea is for a gas station, but it’s not like any gas station you’ve ever seen. When you pull up to the pump, instead of getting out of your car, a person comes from inside the gas station, asks you how much gas you want, and – get this! – pumps your gas for you. I think I’ll call them “attendants.” Not only will they pump your gas, but they’ll also wash your windshield and even check your oil if you want, all while you wait inside the comfort of your vehicle. Isn’t that a novel concept?
Of course it’s not. Once upon a time, all gas stations operated that way. I can still remember pulling into gas stations in my hometown and choosing between the two islands: full-service and self-service. When’s the last time you saw a full-service gas station? Nowadays, everything is self-service, from gas stations to banks to grocery stores. The term “self-service” implies we don’t need no stinkin’ attendants; we can do it ourselves!
But when held up to the biblical understanding of how we are to relate to each other, the concept of self-service is an oxymoron. In the Bible, “to serve” automatically implies an outward orientation toward another person. As we continue our Plastic Jesus sermon series today, we’re going to look at how we serve can either be a method of self-promotion or a pathway to a deeper spirituality. That’s a challenge in spiritual suburbia, where all of our service tends to benefit us, even when it appears to be oriented to someone else. You could argue that much of the service we engage in today is self-service.
Here’s an example. My last church used to have something called the Cross-Eyed Owl award, which could have easily won the award for World’s Ugliest Award. This award was given each year to a person in the congregation who had gone above and beyond the call of duty in serving the church. Each year someone was singled out for their contribution to the church and awarded the Cross-Eyed Owl statue, which I’m sure was prominently displayed in their coat closet.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think I’m questioning the worthiness of the work or the worker. The more we can have people helping, the better. And people like to feel appreciated for the work they do. I’m not saying that Cross-Eyed Owl winners only served for the award, just as none of us serve others only so we can check something off our get-into-Heaven to-do list. But in spiritual suburbia, where making a name for yourself and image management are valued as worthwhile pursuits, we have to be vigilant in guarding against these impulses.
Why do we serve? That question first assumes that we do serve. I would like to think that is true of all Christians, but I can’t tell you how many people have told me they enjoy going to bigger churches because they can be anonymous, just sit in the pews without being asked to do anything. That seems to contradict Jesus, who said he came not to be served but to serve, but I wonder if at times we don’t come to church with just the opposite way of thinking.
For those of us who do serve, many of us would answer the question “Why do you serve?” by saying it’s out of desire to make a difference. That’s one of the main reasons why I got into ministry. We want our lives to have meaning and one of the best ways we can do that is to be a positive influence on someone else’s life. We serve so that we have a purpose, so that we feel like we’re doing something to give back and help out.
Is there anything wrong with that? Yes and no. No, because we all want to feel like our lives mean something. That’s human nature. But what’s potentially wrong with that approach to serving is that if we are serving in order to feel better about ourselves, then we are engaging in self-service, and the people being helped are just a means to the end of our own self-fulfillment.
In his book “Death by Suburb,” David Goetz tells about how he volunteered for a ministry program that helped inmates transition back into the world after their incarceration. He was paired with a prisoner named Pete, who approaching his parole. Goetz met repeatedly with Pete, working with him to help smooth the difficult transition from prison to a local halfway house. Goetz said he had big dreams for Pete that included Pete marrying his girlfriend, buying a house, and settling down in the suburbs.
So imagine Goetz’s anger when he found out that Pete had been arrested again after only a few months out of jail. Goetz said he was furious, because Pete had jeopardized all of Goetz’s plans for him. Goetz was using Pete in his pursuit of significance. He wanted to help a poor person become a suburbanite just like him. Forget that maybe that’s not what Pete wanted or needed.
In our performance-oriented culture, we expect results from everything, even our service. If we’re going to put in the time or the money, we expect change. A few years on a New Orleans a group of us spent a week in 95-degree heat, cleaning out a house and gutting it down to the studs so that it would be ready for rebuilding and remodeling. The next year we visited the house we had worked on. I expected to walk up a flower-lined path, through a neatly mowed yard, to knock on a freshly painted door and be greeted by a smiling, grateful woman with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. But when we arrived, we realized the last people to work on the house was our group from a year ago. It hadn’t been touched in all that time. I was furious! How could we put in all that time and effort, only to have the house look exactly the same? Never mind that there were thousands of other houses that had never been worked on. I wanted my house to be different. What’s the point in helping others if we’re not going to get the results we want?
But service can be messy, and doesn’t always end the way we want. That’s why Goetz says we often find ourselves serving in safe or comfortable programs, where we won’t get dirty or risk forming a relationship with someone in deep need. There are people who need friends, who need money, who need a listening ear or a chunk of our time because they are in such deep poverty or despair. But why get involved in that if there’s no upside for us?
If we can’t get results from our service, then at least we should get some recognition. I think we often are tempted to confuse prominence with significance. We think the more prominent a service is, the more important it must be. How can our lives make a difference if no one sees us making a difference? I don’t think we consciously scream “Look at me!” when we’re serving, but its human nature to want to be appreciated, to be rewarded with a Cross-Eyed Owl statue for our service.
Leonard Bernstein, the conductor, was once asked, “What’s the hardest instrument to play?” Without hesitating, he said, “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists. But to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn, or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet, if no one plays second, we have no harmony.” The harmony we seek to model in the body of Christ comes from all of us sharing our gifts together in community, regardless of whether we’re playing first fiddle, second fiddle, or 22nd fiddle.
What helps us move beyond this desire for recognition is the remembering our motivation, remembering why we are serving. The challenge for us in spiritual suburbia is to make the move from self-service to full-service, where our focus is on serving others, and then to God-service, where our reason for serving is not prominence or even importance, but obedience. Goetz says, “Finding our purpose comes not from the results of service but the act of obedience. No matter what the call…inner freedom comes as I pursue truth, justice, and righteousness without needing to be seen as right or needing to see the results I want.” In other words we serve because we have been served, and are called to do the same.
Pastor David Shirey tells a story he heard about the building of the National Cathedral in Washington DC. One of the foremen on the construction crew noticed that a certain stonemason was spending a lot of time on one of the gargoyles that would adorn the very top of the cathedral. Knowing they were falling behind schedule, the foreman said to the stonemason, “Why are you spending so much time on this gargoyle? Don’t you know that it’s going to be so high up that it won’t even be visible to the people below?” And the stonemason replied, “I’m not doing this for the people below.”
What we are called to do may benefit the people here below – the kids in Sunday School, the homeless coming to Room in the Inn, our neighbors and friends – but our ultimate motivation isn’t to do it for the people below – including ourselves – but in response to God’s gift of Jesus Christ and the call to share that gift.
It all comes back to that relationship. Eric Sandras says that many of us are lured into being busy for God, while sacrificing true relationship with Him. A week full of service opportunities will never take the place of an hour spent with God. It is that hour, that time, that relationship that helps us understand why we do everything else we do. Not for ourselves. Not even for others. But for God. We are here not to be served, but to serve.