A Future With Hope: Service

First United Presbyterian Church
“A Future with Hope: Service”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 15, 2017
Listen to sermon audio

Jeremiah 29:11
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Matthew 20:25-34
25 But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,
 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;
 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
 29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.
 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!"
 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, "Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!"
 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, "What do you want me to do for you?"
 33 They said to him, "Lord, let our eyes be opened."
 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

When I lived in New York, I waited tables for a while in a couple of upscale restaurants. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were regulars at one of them, along with Peter Jennings and Robert Redford. The second restaurant was the famous Sardis Restaurant near Times Square, the one with all the caricatures of famous people hanging on the walls. Famous Broadway actors would dine there – Kathleen Turner when she was in The Graduate, and Carol Channing when she was in Hello, Dolly!

Most of the famous people I waited on were nice enough, a few were kind of awful. But not once did any of them jump up from their table and start waiting on me. I mean, James Lipton gave me tickets to Inside the Actors’ Studio once, but Kathleen Turner never brought me a martini and Paul Newman never asked if he could get my coat. That would have been extremely awkward, of course, and unreasonable.

But that’s the picture Jesus paints of his mission on earth. Jesus – King of kings and Lord of lords, The Anointed One, The Messiah, the everlasting Word of God – this rock star Jesus explains to his disciples that he came “not to be served but to serve.” The word he uses in Greek refers specifically to a table server, a waiter. It’s the word from which we get Deacons, a ministry founded by the apostles to wait on the tables of those in need. Sorry, Deacons, if you thought this was a more glorious calling, but the ministry of deacons in the Bible originates when the apostles think they’re too busy and important to wait tables. But Jesus Christ, who is becoming so famous that he will soon enter Jerusalem surrounded by a flash mob of hosannas and palm leaves, says his mission on earth is to jump up from the table and wait on others.

Now, a lot of what Jesus said employed metaphor, and many of his actions were symbolic. But in this, Jesus was apparently speaking literally. Because we see him on the night of his arrest literally becoming a slave to his disciples, washing their feet. He literally becomes their servant, a deacon, a waiter, as he serves them bread and wine.

But lest we think spiritual, or even physical, nourishment is all this waiter has on the menu, Jesus shows his disciples, and the crowds following them, that service extends even beyond the table. For Jesus, service means fulfilling that mission statement he lays out in Luke’s gospel as he reads from the scroll of Isaiah: he has come "to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And, conveniently enough, as Jesus and his disciples leave Jericho on their way to Jerusalem, along come two men who are blind. Over the din of the crowd, these men shout for the server. They shout for mercy. The crowd tells them to hush. They are interrupting their service. But they shout even more insistently.

And when Jesus finally arrives at their table, white napkin folded over his forearm, he asks them, “What can I do for you?”

This would, at first, seem to be the most ridiculous question in all of scripture. These men are blind. Obviously, what they want is to not be blind!

But Jesus doesn’t make these kinds of assumptions. The men don’t ask for sight. They cry out for mercy. And Jesus knows that mercy wears a lot of different hats. He knows that people have spiritual and emotional longings that outweigh any physical condition. He knows that personal agency is essential to healing. And he knows that some people prefer the darkness. So he asks the men, “What do you want me to do for you?”

This question is fundamental if we want to serve like Jesus. As a waiter, I might think you need to eat a salad, but if you order the prime rib, that’s what I’m bringing you. Listening for the longings and desires of others, providing what they want, and not what we think they need, is how we serve in the manner of Jesus.

If someone is homeless, their greatest need, or at least what they need from us, might be a home. But it might be prayer, or someone to talk to. They might ask for food or bus fare.

If someone is ill, we might assume they want healing. But that might not be what they want from me, particularly since I have exactly no medical training. But they may want me to help them listen to the doctor or discern what course of treatment is in line with their values. They may want me to help communicate with their family or do some household tasks or fill out paperwork.

I once visited a man who had just had part of his tongue removed because of cancer. I talked with his wife, and tried to include him in the conversation with questions he could answer in nodding his head “yes” or “no.” When it came time for me to leave, I asked if I could pray for him. He nodded “yes,” but then stopped me, motioning for paper and pencil. He wrote one word. “Silently.” “You want us to pray silently?” I asked. He nodded emphatically, “yes.” He didn’t want my words of comfort and promise. My wordy prayers for healing and hope. He wanted to participate in this prayer in the only way he could: silently. And he wanted us all to participate that way. I was so humbled by that. Instead of “do you want me to pray for you?” I should have been asking him, “what do you want me to do for you?” Pray. Silently.

On my dad’s first trip to Haiti with the Colorado Haiti Project, he learned how crucial this question, “what do you want me to do for you?” can be to serving others. As he paused in his work for a quick snack, he encountered a young woman who looked very pregnant. As she pointed to her belly and pleaded with him for help, he tried to explain he wasn’t a doctor and couldn’t help with her pregnancy. The woman finally walked away in despair, and it was only later that my dad learned she was not asking for help with a pregnancy. She was starving, and asking for his food. He is haunted by his inability to ask her, “what do you want me to do for you?” Our eyes don’t always answer that question. That question opens our eyes to see the true needs of those around us.

In response to Jesus’s question, the men who are blind ask Jesus to open their eyes. This, of course, is a way of asking to regain their sight, which Jesus, moved by compassion, grants them.

But in the larger context of the gospel, this request to have their eyes opened takes on greater significance beyond the healing of a physical condition.

Jesus has encountered so much spiritual blindness in his ministry to this point. He has called the Pharisees “blind guides of the blind.” His own disciples have failed to see who he is. He has tried to show them what the reign of God looks like, but they have been so blind to it that two of his disciples come asking if they can have positions of privilege when he finally comes to power. And the crowd surrounding Jesus is blind to the need of the two men asking Jesus for help, for mercy.

And so, in the midst of all this spiritual blindness, Jesus’ heart breaks for these two men experiencing physical blindness, asking to have their eyes opened.

Throughout the gospels, when people’s “eyes are opened,” they see Jesus for who he is and they respond. They spread the good news. Or, as in this case, they follow him. Opening someone’s eyes is never a neutral or complacent activity. No one says, “hey, thanks!” and goes along their way. The physical healing is always accompanied by spiritual transformation.

When Jesus serves people, those people are not just helped; they are changed.

Olga Duvall, who runs the Salvation Army direct services operation here in Loveland, shared a story last week about a woman who came into the office, not to ask for help, but to make a donation. She had been served by the Salvation Army several years prior, receiving rent assistance and help finding affordable housing. Now that she was back on her feet, she wanted to help others. She wasn’t just helped; she was changed.

For several years, I’ve been working with a mission in Mexico to build a school in the Yucatan Peninsula. We work alongside Mexican tradesmen who teach us and, often, repair our work. In talking with one of our Mexican friends one day, I asked him how he came to work with the mission. He said he had worked with another mission team to build a church in his village. His wife had been served by the mission’s medical clinic. Now, in addition to his work as a mason, he was training to become a pastor. And he was glad to help build this school, where children could get a better education and lift their families out of poverty. She wasn’t just helped; she was changed.

On another trip to Haiti, my parents encountered a young man who was receiving help from the mission. They followed his progress as he managed to attend school and graduate. In Haiti, if you are able to get an education, it is your ticket out of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. With an education, you can possibly even go to America, escaping the disease and devastation that is everywhere in Haiti. But this young man did not leave; he did not escape. He was not just helped by the mission. He was changed. And so he chose to stay and to help others.

Here at 1st on 4th, we value service, not because we are in the best position to know what people need, and not because it makes us feel good about ourselves. We don’t serve simply because it makes the world a better place or because we have guilt about our own privilege. We serve because we follow Jesus, who got up from the table, who set aside his power and divinity, to serve others. With the power of God and the frailty of humanity, Jesus asked, “what do you want me to do for you?” And, in serving, he opened people’s eyes – to the inbreaking of God’s reign, to the needs of others, and to the good news of a future with hope. His service didn’t just help people. It changed people.

So as we serve our neighbors outside our doors and around the world, we will keep asking this question: “What do you want me to do for you?” We won’t make assumptions about who is needy and who is not. And we won’t make assumptions about what folks need. We’ll ask ALL our neighbors, “What do you want me to do for you?” We’ll ask those who are blind and those who have sight; those who seek the reign of God all around us and those who are missing it.

Following Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we will serve in a way that doesn’t just help people; it changes people, so that those with new insight will illuminate others. Those who catch glimpses of God in action will point it out to others. Those whose basic needs are met will turn around and help someone else get back on their feet. Those who are healed will bring hope and healing to others.

That is what service means at 1st on 4th. With the gifts of time, talent, and treasure we all share, with the grace of God, the compassion of Jesus, and the guidance of the Spirit, we will serve, and we will change lives. To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.


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