Monday, 11 August 2014 00:00

"The Servant Song", August 10, 2014

 “The Servant Song”
Romans 12:9-21
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 10, 2014
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
 
Our hymns have become our scripture.  Think about it. We can sing them, recite them a whole lot better than we can scripture.  That’s why changing words to hymns can be much more controversial than changing scripture translations.  So a song gets into our bones and gnaws at our soul.  It dances in our imaginations and constantly challenges us—pointing us in a better direction.

I think that’s a part of what’s behind the grab bag idea for this Sunday, “I want to hear a sermon on the servant song.”   Now, technically it could be one of the four suffering servant songs from Isaiah which point the way to the Messiah.  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1)  “Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrow…he was wounded for our transgressions.” (Isaiah 52:4-5).

Those songs are not the triumphal ones that point to a military ruler who will overthrow the Roman occupiers and replace it with a righteous Jewish King.  No this suffering servant will be bruised for our iniquities, will suffer at the hands of rulers so that our eyes and hearts will be open to God’s continuing revelation.  This suffering servant will be gentle and wise.  Sounds a lot like Jesus.  Jesus would later say that the one who would be worthy would be the servant of all (Mathew 23:11).

But the Servant Song that I think the writer was talking about actually refers to our closing hymn, “Won’t you let me be your servant”.  The tune name is Servant song.  It’s got great lyrics and they do dance around in our imaginations.  They point us to being a servant of others as the culmination of the Christian life.

It was written in 1976 by Richard Gillard from New Zealand.  He started with the third verse,

I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.

I imagine him writing this perhaps after someone had done that for him.  Can you think of someone who held that light for you in the night time of your fear? Several months later, the rest of the words flowed out and it has become one of the most popular songs of the last 30 years of hymnody.  

1. Brother, sister let me serve you.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

2. We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are travelers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.

3. I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.

4. 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.

5. 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.

It is sung at funerals, at summer camps around a camp fire, on mission trips to remember why we do our work.  

A couple sitting in this very room asked me to have this hymn be sung in their wedding service.  What a great way to start out a marriage.  Being servant to each other, but also servant to the world pointing us all toward a better way.  I often say at a wedding that you are a formidable team when you are together.  And when you are together serving then you are intentionally taking a posture of helping the other and thereby revealing what God has in store for them.

What a great way to start your lives, to live as a servant.  It is at the core of Paul’s injunction

“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.
Don’t lag in zeal.
Be ardent in spirit.
Rejoice in hope.
Be patient in suffering.
Persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints.
Extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you, and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty—but associate with the lowly.

Do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay evil for evil for vengeance is God’s prerogative.
Do what is noble in the sight of everyone and thereby
Live peaceably with one another.”Romans 12:9-18

This song and today’s scripture on which it is based are a challenge to the notion that Christianity is about a vertical relationship between me and God.  It is also about a horizontal relationship between all of us on this planet.  And the way we live our lives in service tells us a whole lot more about who we are as Christians than do the magic words we perhaps said when we were saved.  Living out our salvation so that others might be redeemed and served is what it’s all about. It is about being pilgrims on a journey together.

I was intrigued by the plaintive question that starts the first and last stanza in the New Century Hymnal’s version of this hymn.  Won’t you let me be your servant? Instead of being the servant, the singer is asking another to let us be the servant. We have too many people who want or expect to be served.  Too many of us live with a sense of entitlement. We seldom ask, won’t you let me be your servant? It goes from serve me to let me serve you.  Is there something in us that does not want another to serve us?  Especially someone of a higher class or caste?  It’s a role reversal.  It does not say let me be your slave.  A slave has no choice.  A servant who is asking to be a servant has a choice.  And they honor by serving.

But imagine if someone said, “I don’t want you to be my servant.  I can do it by myself and I can probably do it better.” But sometimes life necessitates a give and take, a humility that comes with letting someone else be your servant because they want to, not because they have to.

I remember when I was younger, I would spend summers working on the family farm.  I painted buildings, cut grass, tended gardens and got the privilege of hanging out with my very cool grandparents.  As they aged, my grandmother became increasingly frail and almost blind.  The cataracts and glaucoma made it very difficult for her to see, especially in the evening or in a darkened room.  She always insisted on doing the dishes.  Being a good grandson I said, “oh I can do that for you grandma”.  But my grandfather barked, at me out of earshot of her, “Don’t take away her therapy.”  It was one thing she could do.   If she had known the hymn and could carry a tune, she might have sung, “won’t you let me be your servant” in the two hours she took to do the dishes for three people, mostly by feel.

We recently received a grant from the denomination to help fund our Loaves and Fishes ministry where we feed the hungry every time a fifth Friday comes around.  We intentionally choose to be servants at least for that afternoon. Steve Lee wrote in his report for the grant that we have served 22,000 meals over the 24 years and put in over 4,500 volunteer hours of service.  We received a note back from the ABC Home Mission Society saying, “Thanks for this great report about your use of the ABCUSA Matthew 25 grant.  And thanks even more for your long history of serving as the hands and feet of Christ to hungry people in your community.”

So let’s look at a few of those verses and see what they reveal.

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are travelers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
    
Many of you know that I just competed in the Senior Games this weekend.  I finished 9th out of nine in my age group in Friday’s 5k.  But in yesterday’s swimming events, I came away with two golds, a silver and two 4th place finishes.  It helps that there are only one or two or four people in your age group.  I enjoyed having my kids see me swim competitively for the first time.  But as seniors, it’s not about getting your best time.  At most it’s about getting a less slow time.  People were laughing about only being 40 seconds off their best time.  But we all were in this together, walking or swimming the mile and we were all cheering for each other.

I will hold the Christ light to you
in the nighttime of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.

There have been times when we have been in the nighttime of fear.  In that time, we can’t see light.  We can only imagine desolation.  There is no use.  Everything goes from bad to worse.  Like old Job, we are stuck in the ash heap of despair.  But then someone holds out a light.  They remind us that this nighttime does not last forever. They remind us that others experience this same fear-induced paralysis.  But that is not the whole story.  A servant holds our hand and leads us out of the darkness to the light.  It’s not a bright light always, sometimes it’s just a crack in the doorway that illumines the dark night of the soul and helps us imagine light on the other side of the storm.  

This morning’s Star Tribune ran a front page story on moral injury. It’s the disconnect that veterans feel in the aftermath of war. Their psyches are damaged because of the need to kill people. Chaplains, nurses and therapists in the VA are there to hold their hands in the nighttime of their fear, speaking the peace they long to hear.

I had the experience of going through a maze with my nieces at the San Francisco discovery museum years ago.  It was one of those dark mazes where you had to make your way completely by feel. Even though it was just an exercise, the environment was claustrophobic and spooky.  As fear set in, I remember holding the hand of my niece Olivia who led me through the maze.  Sometimes, that’s what we need, someone to hold out a hand in the dark.  And sometimes we need to be that hand.  

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.

It brings to mind Ruth’s vow to Naomi which is the basis of many wedding vows:

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die, there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”(Ruth 1:16-17)

This is the true value of friendship.  When they do not approach your sorrow with judgment, but approach it as one who weeps with you.  They share your joy laughing with you.  And they see us on our journey.  Think of your closest friends.  They are the ones with whom you can weep and laugh.  Who will be with us in darkness and in light. Servants with each other.

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.
    
I love how this verse affirms that we will sing in harmony.  I love how we sing in harmony together.  But this harmony is not just about singing the notes on the page.  It’s about having the story of Christ in our hearts and minds.  In our very souls.  It’s about us trying to be servants to one another as a devotional way to be faithful Christians.

So, let us be servants in the way the song tells us.  Let us be bold in our caring.  Let us be audacious in our compassion. Let us be zealous for our faith so much that we allow for the gentle leading of Christ’s message of love. Let us be courageous within our community so that we might be renewed and live into the community to which God calls us.

And let us sing the Servant Song not just with our mouths and voices, but with our actions, our devotion, our commitment to be the servants God calls us to be. And when one asks, won’t you let me be your servant in the nighttime of our fear” may we have the humility to take the gift of presence another is offering as a sign of the living, breathing action of God—the miracle of the body of Christ that lives on and accompanies such pilgrims on the journey as us.

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are travelers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.