September 19, 2021
"Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant?"
Rev. Scott Landis
The hymn Cameron just led us in singing is often sung at ordinations and installations of clergy of all denominations. It is one of my favorites. But the song has broader implications. “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant” is also a fitting piece for ALL disciples – that includes each one of us who claim the Christian Church as our spiritual home. Yet we often fail to live up to the challenging lyrics that this hymn describes. Let’s take a closer look.
I invite you to keep today’s gospel lesson in mind as we explore the ways the message of this song can play an important role in our faith lives. My focus today will be on the hymn because – as is often the case – we tend to learn our theology much more readily through words we sing than in the words we read in scripture. As we sing something over and over it becomes a part of us [Think commercial jingles]— and in the case of hymns - informs our faith. This one is a perfect example.
It begins with an essential aspect of discipleship – that is, knowing when to give – AND when to receive. I want to spend some time thinking about how this often plays out in our daily lives.
You may find yourself resonating with the opening words, “Won’t you let me be your servant? Let me be as Christ to you.”
Most of us are pretty good at giving. We talk a great deal about giving our “time, talent, and treasure” as part of our offering to and through the church. Offering these gifts are as natural to us as breathing. We almost can’t help ourselves. Where we see need, we naturally want to contribute – in order to improve situations or persons’ lives. And so, we may give gifts of money when we know there is a need. Or, we may offer food to someone who is unhoused – OR to someone going through a challenging time in their life – like after a hospitalization or loss of a loved one.
Perhaps we offer someone in need of a ride, a place to stay temporarily, or clothing when they lose everything in a fire or natural disaster. The possibilities of giving are infinite. It feels good to help out, to give, and it’s important to do so. It flows naturally from our ethos of Christian charity and our desire to provide much needed hospitality.
But there’s also a dark side to giving. Unless it’s done in the right spirit, it can leave us feeling slightly superior, in a position of power. “I have — she does not.” Or with unspoken thoughts of “Glad I’m not as bad off as that guy.” It’s also hard for most of us to be on the receiving end.
Listen to the second half of that verse, “Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.”
It’s not all about giving – actually that’s the easy part. We must also learn the “grace” to receive. That can be a real challenge for many of us. Especially, if we are hard-wired to give – as most of us are. Once again, think control issues. When we’re doing the giving – “WE” are in control. When we receive – well, control is the gift we lack. It was a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
I had been serving my San Diego congregation for two years. We had hit stride – taking in dozens of new members, embarking on a visioning process for the church to guide our future mission and ministry, talk of a capital campaign to raise a million dollars to completely renovate the physical plant and set aside a tenth of all donations for a youth-based mission endeavor. I was at the top of my game – [Pause] – when my partner died very suddenly of acute leukemia.
It came out of nowhere. We had no inclination of his illness nor did we have time to prepare. With only hours between his diagnosis and death – my life was turned upside down and I had no idea what to do. I called some parishioners to come pick me up at the hospital, went back to my condo, and felt paralyzed. Word spread quickly and within hours the church did what it does best – it cares for those in its `ohana. And I began doing what I do the worst, I had to simply receive their grace, their love, their care, their gifts. It’s a lesson I shall never forget.
I had to learn the grace to let them be my servant too – it was a role I was not used to nor one I felt very comfortable being in – but I simply had no choice. Not to do so would rob others of their need to give. In retrospect, I now understand what a blessing that was even though the situation was so tragic.
The succeeding verses of the hymn speak so beautifully to this vulnerability and I offer them to you for deeper reflection, because they talk about the critical nature of human relationship – of the mutuality necessary in giving and receiving:
We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road;
We are here to help each other, go the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ light for you, in the shadow of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow, till we’ve seen this journey through.
When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony,
Born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.
Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you,
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.
[Pause] “When you were walking on the road,” Jesus asked his disciples – after he had told them (once again) that he would soon be handed over to the authorities, and be put to death, “what were you discussing?”
They were quite embarrassed. They were not talking about how they might be servant of all or how they might bear one another’s burdens – how to feed the hungry or be advocates for justice. No. They were arguing about who was greatest among them. They were debating who would be in charge once Jesus was gone? And Jesus knew it.
He responded, “Whoever wants to be first, must be last and servant of all.”
Then he took a child – a being in that day that had no voice, no status, no power whatsoever – and gave her center stage.
We have trouble understanding how scandalous that gesture would have been given the status of children in our culture. We practically revere children.
Just the other day, I was on FaceTime with my almost 4-year-old grandson. Whenever Jonah is on the screen – he is definitely the center of attention – he practically demands it. “Pap,” he said, “do I have things to tell you.” There is no cutting into the conversation. Jonah was front and center and he things he wanted me to hear. Not so in Jesus’ day. Children were the lowest on the social ladder, and that’s why what he did was so radical.
He placed a child in the middle of their gathering and embraced her and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name – welcomes me.”
It’s a powerful lesson in servanthood. We must learn to embrace vulnerability – like that of a child. We have to become increasingly comfortable with relinquishing control - status and positions of power. We have to learn to receive the gifts of others just as gracefully as when we give them.
When we do that – Jesus said, “we welcome him.” And not only him – “but the one who sent him.” In essence, when we receive the gifts of others, we receive the very presence of God.” And we freely admit – we are ultimately NOT in charge.
“Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.”
May it be so.