Serving with Power

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on November 11, 2018.

Last Sunday I talked about being thankful for what you have, being grateful for the small things it would be easy to miss. But if someone preached that sermon to me today, I’d be annoyed! Because I’m feeling restless with how things are, with all that’s messed up, and these days I’m feeling grateful for this who call us, who lead us, from here to where we ought to be. And I’m grateful for those who walk their talk.

On this Veterans Day, I’m grateful for those who serve. Not only in the military; I’m grateful for everyone who is working to make ours a better world. As we just sang,

Thanks be for these, who question why,
who noble motives do obey;
those who know how to live and die;
comrades who share this holy way.

Here’s some questions I hope you will ask yourself, today and in the days to come: “How does the call to serve, to be of use, inform my life? What is my understanding of service? Is it what I live for, or what I try to get out of? And why do I do what I do? Do I see service as an opportunity, or an obligation? As something that diminishes my self, or enhances it?

I think of my mom, who told us, from an early age, “Those to whom much is given, much is required.” This comes from the Bible, from the gospel according to Luke, but I learned the other day that John F. Kennedy was fond of saying this passage, which explains why my mom liked saying it too: “those to whom much is given, much is required.” I grew up in a family where service was assumed; you were expected to do things to make the world better. I saw my grandparents and my parents doing this, without any expectation of acknowledgement or reward, and this shaped me.

Marian Wright Edelman, who founded and has led the Children’s Defense Fund for many years, she must have grown up with this too; she says it plainly, in words I put at the top of the order of service today: “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”

In this understanding of service, it’s a duty, an obligation, a requirement. And a part of me mourns the fact that this perspective of duty to one’s country and to one’s fellow citizens seems to be less prevalent and less respected than it was a generation or two ago. “Look out for yourself” has become the norm, I fear, and service is seen as an extra, the crumbs you give if anything’s left over after you’ve met your own needs. I include myself in this, but I find it discouraging that so often we are too busy, or too tired, or too distracted, or too self-absorbed to show up and be of use.

Sometimes I think we would be better off if we still had some of that old-fashioned ethic of duty and obligation. I wonder if our country ought to have some kind of compulsory service for young adults, like some other countries do. Even with its issues, the military is one of the places where service is still practiced and honored. What could we learn from that culture, where not everything is optional and open for negotiation?

That said, I understand how duty and obligation can become oppressive. That serving because someone is making you, or because you feel guilty, has its own problems. Guilt is not a particularly good motivator, and I’m glad we don’t do guilt here. Though sometimes I do have second thoughts about that… What I want to lift up today is a higher and even better kind of service—service that brings joy and a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, service that frees us and brings us into deeper communion with our true selves and with our comrades on this holy way called life.

We heard this in each of our readings this morning; Paul’s exhortation to the early church in Rome (Romans 12:1-9), and Marge Piercy’s call “To Be of Use.” The invitation to jump into the work that is ours to do; to receive the strength and the joy that comes from not holding back, but diving in. Listening to how these two great passages call us on, urge us, in their own ways, to get on with it, I thought it could work to do a mash up of the two":

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows 

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 
love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 

who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

We are here on this earth to spend ourselves, to give and to receive and be part of that flow of effort and energy and Spirit, to do work that is hard and good and real. To serve something larger than our selves; to build the common good, and in doing so, make our own days glad.

But too often, I’m afraid service gets equated with weakness, with powerlessness, with subservience. Certainly that’s true in a world where power is often seen as something you have to fight for, and climb over other people to get. Because of this, some of us have become uneasy with power, because too often we have seen power as unhealthy, as abusive and oppressive. As power over. And we don’t want to be part of that. 

But our world needs people of faith and good will to use all the power we have, for good. Power isn’t necessarily corrupting or oppressive. There’s power that’s used responsibly and well, power with rather than power over. Back in the times of apartheid in South Africa, one of the freedom songs people sang in the streets said, “Power, O Lord, give us power,” because they needed all the strength and power they could muster. The trusted that God was on their side, and it was this faith that helped them to persevere and, in time, gain their freedom.

Yesterday morning I had the honor of giving the prayer at the rededication of Haverhill’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This project was led by our own Ralph Basiliere, who clearly did a great job pulling people together to get it done. It was moving to be with so many people who have devoted themselves to serving. And then last night, a small number of us attended the Merrimack Vally Project awards dinner in Lowell, where we gathered to honor people for their service in community activism. It was a reminder that here is so much good work we could be part of! 

Sometimes I hear you say, “We should be doing this, we should be part of that.” And I need to get better at asking, “Who exactly is this we you are speaking of?” I want to challenge you: when you find yourself saying, “We should be doing this,” to change the pronoun and say, “I want to be part of this. Who’s with me?

Our world needs all the cooperation and power and spirit we can muster these days. And how do we get it? By rolling up our sleeves and by getting our hands dirty. Not by standing back, but but by wading in. Embracing the call to serve, joining hands with others to do the work that needs to be done.

Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

I borrowed my sermon title from a book by Kortright Davis called Serving with Power. He writes about changing our relationship with power. Rather than being “attracted to the service of power,” he says, we need to be “transformed by the power of service.” One of the key themes of the gospel is that Jesus’ disciples don’t get it—they don’t understand his ministry. They think he is going to become king and that life is going to be easy for them once he does. But Jesus describes what is called the Way of the Cross—doing what is right, standing with those at the margins, despite what it is going to cost. Risking persecution and suffering for what is right and good and true. And finding freedom and real power in the process. 

In our troubled and broken and violent world, it could be tempting to pull back into a defensive posture, to insulate ourselves, as best we can, to seek protection from all that we fear. But that’s no way to live. Our calling is to be people of faith and hope and love, opening up and reaching out. Trusting in the good news that that we are not alone in our struggles; that we are all part of a great Love. And that when we know this, and live lives rooted in service, there is a power that goes with us, that gives us courage and keeps us company, that brings us joy and keeps calling us on!

This was the faith of the great progressive Protestant preacher and pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick. May the words of his great hymn be our prayer:

God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power;
Crown thine ancient church’s story; bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour…

Strength and courage and power, my friends, for the facing of this hour, and for the living of these days.