October 17, 2021 / 21st Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Isaiah 53:4-12 / Second Reading Hebrews 5:1-10 / Gospel Mark 10:35-45
The Strongest Stuff in the World
One of the joys of being a pastor is the opportunity it provides to witness the lives of faithful servants in action. Jesus taught his disciples that the way to be great in the eyes of God is to be a servant. In forty plus years of ministry, it has been my privilege to be acquainted with a wide variety of faithful servants. At every congregation where I have served there have been many members who conducted their lives steadily and faithfully – never seeking attention or recognition – yet dedicated to being of service. The commitment, kindness and humility of such individuals is inspiring – and a sure sign that the Holy Spirit continues to be present and active in the community of believers. Pastors preach and teach about following Christ and living the gospel. It is most encouraging to see parishioners take this message to heart by leading lives that take time to be of service to others.
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Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” After two years in seminary I served my intern year at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Quincy, Illinois. One of my responsibilities was to make visits to members who were in the hospital. Forty years ago people tended to be hospitalized for a few days rather than just overnight – or just in and out for an outpatient procedure. So most every week there were visits to be made at the two hospitals in town. Over the first couple months there were several occasions when I saw a member of our congregation in the hallways of the hospital. I asked my pastor/supervisor: “Hey, what is Ralph doing at the hospital?” He explained to me that Ralph spent several days a week visiting patients at the hospitals – not just Lutherans but anyone who welcomed his company. Ralph was a widower in his 70’s, a man of small stature, always impeccably dressed. He still worked part-time at a local men’s clothing store, just to keep busy. He helped me to pick out a three-piece suit. But his main activity was spending time with patients at the hospital. Ralph functioned like a lay chaplain. He had lived in Quincy his whole life and so he knew many people. As he walked the halls he would stop and visit with anyone who wanted some company. He would pray with them and then move on to another room. Ralph took this on as a personal mission. He wasn’t paid, nor did he have any official status. He had simply found an answer to what Dr. King called life’s most persistent and urgent question.
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In her now famous diary the teenaged Anne Frank made this observation: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” My first call was as Assistant Pastor at First Lutheran Church in Geneseo, Illinois – a farming community outside the Quad Cities. A portion of that congregation were farm families who had been working the land for several generations. Roger had a large farm with fields of corn and soybeans along with a lot of hogs. Roger’s dad still worked along with him even though he was in his 70’s. I became well acquainted with the family because they were in church every Sunday, and I had their kids in Youth Group. Managing a large farm is an endless task – seven days a week, year-round. Nevertheless, Roger found time to serve on the church council, including a year as president. In addition Roger served as president of the local school board. As they say, if you want to get something done, ask a busy man. One summer there was a severe hailstorm that pretty much wiped out Roger’s entire corn crop. The senior pastor later informed me that Roger went to the bank and took out a loan to pay his pledge to the church in full. Roger explained his decision by saying: “I borrow from the bank every year to plant my crops. Why wouldn’t I do the same to give what I’ve promised to God?” Servants are motivated by the joy of giving, whether it’s their time or their money.
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Charles Dickens wrote: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another.” Before coming to St. James I served for 19 years as the pastor at St. Barnabas in Cary, Illinois. Every summer we had Vacation Bible School. One year Jean brought her son, Jason, to participate in Bible School. Their family was unchurched – lapsed Catholics. Jason had a great week and convinced his mom to come to worship the following Sunday to hear the kids sing the songs they had learned. That fall Jason came to Sunday School – and Jean started coming to worship. The following year, when the call went out for Sunday School teachers, Jean volunteered. After several years of teaching, Jean became a member of the Christian Education Committee. Eventually she became the chairperson of that committee. When the congregation decided to hire a part-time Volunteer Coordinator you won’t be surprised who got the job. Who was better suited than one who made herself invaluable by volunteering time and again? Jean continued to serve and help others find joy in serving for a long time after I moved on.
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Charles Gill offers this interesting observation: “There are many wonderful things that will never be done if you don’t do them.” Think about that. Many of you had the pleasure of knowing a longtime member of St. James: Glady Babich. Glady was warmhearted and devoted to her church. She rarely missed a Sunday and was also a regular participant in the weekly Faith Forum that met in the church library. What you may not know is that each Tuesday morning, Glady would arrive early, before the class began. She would go to the sanctuary and proceed to straighten and tidy things up. She made sure all the hymnals were in place. She picked up anything that had been left on the chairs or the floor. She kept at it until perfect order was restored. Glady would be the first to tell you her efforts were no big deal. I will tell you it was a wonderful thing that would never have been done if Glady had not chosen to do it.
Surprisingly, there is real freedom to be found in serving others: Such service is not required or compelled, it is freely chosen. It may seem that one is losing time and money by giving and doing for others. Instead, losing a life that’s all about you leads to finding the freedom of living abundantly like Jesus.
There is also joy in serving. Some of my most enjoyable days have been spent on Habitat for Humanity trips: Working hard all day building a house for someone else. Working together with fellow members to make the world a better place, one house at a time. Working alongside the persons who will be living in that house – sharing their enthusiasm and joy.
People have been asking what I plan to do in retirement. I don’t have any fixed plans as yet. I will appreciate more time for family visits, for travel, for sailing and golf and reading and gardening. Yet I do know this: I will be missing something vital if I do not find some meaningful ways to be of service. I will need an answer to Dr. King’s persistent and urgent question about what I’m doing for others.
Each and every one of us has the ability and the opportunity to serve. For your own good, and for the good of the world, take time to be of service. The last word goes to Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor:
“Our God-given capacity for service is the strongest stuff in the world. Serving is how we will change the world – not from the top down, but from the bottom up.”
Thanks be to God.