Gracious God, your love is abundant and unending. For this good news, let us be truly grateful. In this time of worship, may you free us from all fear and distraction, so we might tune our hearts to your love and listen for your call to loving service. Amen.
For the last several weeks we have been exploring ways in which we can grow closer to God on our life-long journey of faith. And this really has been an exploration of the central elements of Christian faith and practice. We’ve lifted up the importance of ongoing education and faith formation, of building up relationships and fellowship in community, and last week, the importance of affirming that God’s basic orientation toward humanity (and, in fact, all creation) is an orientation of love and grace. We are all God’s beloved.
And that’s where we begin today, as we consider how serving others brings us closer to God. We begin with love. We begin with the affirmation that God’s love is for all – that God’s love is big enough, broad enough, deep enough to reach the places of deepest need in our world.
And I think that is an important starting place because if we don’t really believe in and trust in the power of love, then it’s pretty hard to share it.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church, they were apparently having a hard time with this. It’s clear that there had been some conflict and competition among the members. They were posturing about who had the greatest spiritual gifts. They also got caught up in who had the most money and resources – and they weren’t always sharing their resources fairly with one another, as Paul had taught them. And these things distracted them from the heart of their ministry.
So Paul wrote them this letter to call them back to the heart of their ministry, to call them back to being the Body of Christ, united in the Holy Spirit, back to being a community centered in love. Love is, after all, the heart of Jesus’ message to humanity – he showed us God’s love. And the great commandment Jesus gave us was to love God and love our neighbors. Every basic practice of the Christian faith ought to be grounded in the affirmation of God’s love and centered in that great commandment to love God and neighbor.
Love is at the heart of it all. And though we often hear 1st Corinthians 13 at weddings (and certainly it is applicable to marriage), it was initially written to a church community that was trying to figure out how to love, serve, and care for each other and their wider communities.
And here we are a couple millennia later still trying to figure this out. Figuring out how to be of loving service to others is an ongoing part of our collective faith journeys.
And service is not secondary to our practice of faith. It can be tempting sometimes to think of faith and spirituality as primarily having to do with our individual relationship with God. That’s important, of course. But that is really only part of it.
Service and how we relate to others is also central to our practice of faith. Jesus didn’t say love God first and then, if you have any time, energy, and resources left, love your neighbor too. Actually, the two are not that separate. Jesus said as much when he said that when we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, we do those things for him.
It’s actually all interconnected. Instead of being something separate or secondary, loving others isone of the best ways to love God. We express our love and devotion to God by loving those whom God loves.
We are called to care about the lives and wellbeing of others not only because it’s the nice thing to do or because someone told us to. We are called to love others because that is where love itself, God’s love, will lead us if we let it. If you want to find God, go where love leads. Let compassion break your heart open – that’s holy, even when it hurts. Let yourself be a little more vulnerable and respond with care to the vulnerability of others – that can be a sacred experience of connection. Serve in a new way, in a new place, with new people – it might be a little scary at first, but that can absolutely become a new experience of God’s presence and love.
How we engage in service to others has many dimensions, of course. It includes the daily care we express and the things we do in love for our family, and friends, and colleagues, and communities. It includes our careers and our life’s work. It includes those impromptu opportunities to serve others that we take on spontaneously when they occur. It includes those intentional volunteer jobs we take on at church or in other organizations.
And it includes organized mission and outreach projects (like monthly meals down at COA and the wonderful opportunities our Missions Commission coordinates for us throughout the year) so we can donate our time, abilities, and resources to those in need.
I know that the Christmas Families project means a lot to us as a congregation because we are (hopefully) able to help out some local families enough so they can afford to keep an apartment, and so the kids can stay in school, and so they can have a better life and a brighter future. I got to deliver to a family this year and the nine-year-old boy and his mom told us that math is his best subject and he’s learning about what it would take to become an engineer one day. I hope and pray that he will fulfill his dream and have what he needs to get there.
Today’s Souper Bowl of Caring is another such opportunity to serve. And you’re going to hear more from Lorena in a little bit about the work of the St. Mary’s CARE Program which will receive this special collection.
Serving others as a church involves working with community partners like the school district, St. Mary’s CARE, or Justin Rudd’s Community Action Team (it’s been amazing to see how many socks have shown up at church in the last few weeks for Justin’s annual sock drive). I encourage you to take a look at the insert in your bulletin that lists the websites for many of our mission partners. And when you have a chance this week, I would invite you to pick out a couple of organizations that you don’t know much about and go to their websites to learn more about their work.
There are also some people out there who think church denominations are passé. But one of the benefits of being a member church of the United Church of Christ and a global ministry partner with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is that we are part of ongoing national and global ministries that we wouldn’t be able to sustain on our own as one local church. But, instead, we get to support those ministries and participate in those ministries in partnership with a whole bunch of other local churches.
All of these different partnerships are key. They help multiply our efforts and help direct our resources to the places and people who need them across the world. And together, we can do a lot of good. And that is part of what being the collective Body of Christ is all about.
Together we can serve with love and make a positive difference in the lives of others. Together we can build up the global community and build up caring relationships between people rather than widening divisions and furthering the isolating forces that keep us from really seeing each other, understanding each other, and caring about each other.
This is vital work of the church in the world. And it’s needed now as much as ever. And this work includes both concrete acts of loving service and care as well as seeking to change the unjust systems of this world. Seeking a more just future for all is the long-term goal that Jesus gave us – that the just and peaceful Kingdom of God would be embodied on earth, as it is in heaven.
This work of loving service also includes engaging in ethical reflection, dialogue, and listening to others to figure out how best to serve. When we really listen and build relationships, and coalitions, and a deeper sense of solidarity and community, we can create more sustainable change for the better. Practicing humility is part of this. When we want to be of service, we would do well to listen to the input and insights of those who we seek to serve. How can we know what they really need unless we ask?
And, in doing all of these things together, I believe that we can build bridges and tear down walls. We don’t need more walls in this world; we need more bridges.
And, I don’t know about you, but when I feel a little down about the problems of the world, I look to the good that people are doing. And there are a lot of people doing a lot of good. Again, that is one of the benefits of finding partners in service – to help us remember we’re not alone and though we have our part to play, it’s not solely up to us.
And, it’s true, we can feel drained or burned out sometimes. It can sometimes feel like we’re always being asked to do something else or give more. And that can get tiring. So, what do we do when service feels burdensome?
One, I think we have to take a step back and care for our own physical, mental, and spiritual health and wellbeing. That alone can help us gain some renewal and perspective.
Two, I think we engage in prayerful discernment about how to best serve. You don’t have to personally do everything. But each of us can do something. What gifts and abilities do you have that you can offer in service to others? How can you best use those gifts and abilities? If you’re not sure, ask God in prayer; ask some folks you trust. They might even see new gifts in you that you didn’t know you had.
Pastor and theologian, Frederick Buechner said, “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
What is your deep gladness? What brings you deep joy and fulfillment? Where is love leading you to serve? It may very well be that there is a deep hunger out there that you can help alleviate.
And don’t be afraid to try something new. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do to find that deep gladness. Sometimes that’s how we discover our gifts and abilities. And sometimes that’s exactly what we need to get reinvigorated and inspired once again.
Sometimes the practice of faith is as simple as just giving it a shot, just giving it a try. Don’t worry about perfection or the possibility of failure. We learn along the way and adjustments can be made.
But if Jesus hadn’t let love lead; if Paul hadn’t let love lead; if the Corinthians hadn’t needed a little help to led love lead… there might not be a church at all.
But here we are. And now it’s our turn.
So, let love lead… and you’ll find God in the journey.