A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 9, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  James 2:14-26
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

At some level I grew up equating addressing hunger with being a Christian.  Wasting food (not cleaning your plate) was verboten.  Some of that was my mother’s Swiss thriftiness (thus it was verboten, not just forbidden).  Some of it was the realization that there were people around the globe who were literally starving and dying and to treat food cavalierly seemed wrong.

I particularly remember an Ethiopian famine in the 70s.  And then, about a decade later, another famine struck Ethiopia.  That was the famine that led to the “Live Aid” concert and the recording of “We Are the World.”[i]  These are the famines that sit in the back of my mind when I think of a future with commonplace climate change-caused droughts leading to famines.

Being a Christian meant doing something about hunger.  Being a Christian meant making a difference, caring for others.  Being a Christian meant service.

Eventually, my ideas about how to address hunger shifted.  In time I realized that there are three ways to address it.  We can give the proverbial “hungry man” a fish.  We can teach him to fish.  And we can challenge the system that allowed him, even forced him to go hungry in the first place.  All three of these are part of my understanding of service, the first spiritual practice we are exploring this Lent.

It was almost 500 years ago that a monk named Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Pope and sparked the Reformation.  You may remember that one of the Vatican’s behaviors that he objected to was the selling in indulgences.  Indulgences were essentially “get out of hell free” cards.  For a price, a person could buy a beloved’s way into heaven.  One might call this, “justification by money.”

In response to this, Luther became very focused on a theology of justification by grace through faith.  Luther found support for this theology in the epistles of Paul.  The epistle of James, he called an epistle of straw.  I’m not exactly sure what the insult means, but it is certainly dismissive of the epistle.

We heard at least some of what Luther objected to in today’s reading.  “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” we read.[ii]  “No, no, no,” Luther would have objected.  “We are justified by grace alone, accessed by our faith.  I would say we are justified by grace.  Full stop.

But I also think James is right in some of what he says.  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[iii]  This is totally on target.  If your faith doesn’t impact your actions, your choices, your behavior, what difference does it make?  Faith without service is dead.

Jesus talks to his disciples about and (perhaps more importantly) demonstrates service throughout the gospels.  A quintessential example is what happened, according to the Gospel of John, at the Last Supper.  “[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”[iv]

Washing feet was the responsibility of the host and a task for servants.  And here, the rabbi, the teacher, washes the disciples’ feet, the students’ feet.  Jesus said to them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”[v]

“In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet.  Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure.  If we forsake all, we even have the chance to glorious martyrdom.  But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves.  Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”[vi]

Yet again and again, Jesus is quoted as saying things like:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me; the first shall be last and the last shall be first; whoever would be great among you must be a servant.

It is very easy for service to feel like a “should” instead of a “can.”  I really should help out that person.  I should be serving on that church committee.  I should …  Service cannot be a spiritual practice when it’s full of “should.”  But when service moves to “can” – I can offer this help, I can serve in this way – a door is opened to service as a spiritual practice.

Likewise, when service is filled with self-righteousness, it won’t be a spiritual practice.  The problem with self-righteous service is that it creates an I-it relationship.  Self-righteous service treats the one being served as “other,” as an object.  Service can become a spiritual practice only when it comes out of a place of humility.

Self-righteous service is concerned about external recognition and rewards.  But service can become a spiritual practice when it finds reward in the service itself.  Self-righteous service is highly concerned with results.  But service can become a spiritual practice when we let got of the service having any particular outcome.  Self-righteous service discriminates about who is being served, often with the hope of ensuring some advantage or reciprocation.  But service can become a spiritual practice when it is done indiscriminately.

In this new book, The Way is Made by Walking, Brian McLaren writes:  “When it comes to giving to the poor, Jesus says, don’t publicize your generosity like the hypocrites do … It’s kind of ironic:  a lot of people do ugly things in secret – they steal, lie, cheat, and so on.  Jesus reverses things, urging us to plot goodness in secret, to do good and beautiful things without getting caught.”[vii]

I may have gotten things a little bit backward when I said that service can become a spiritual practice only when it comes out of a place of humility.  The reality is that humility “is one of those virtues that is never gained by seeking it.  The more we pursue it the more distant it becomes.  To think we have it is sure evidence that we don’t.  Therefore, most of us assume there is nothing we can do to gain this prized Christian virtue, and so we do nothing.  “But there is something we can do …  Of all the classical Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility.  When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits.”[viii]

There is a sort of feedback loop that can occur from practicing this spiritual discipline.  Practicing service – even from a faked humility – can actually help foster the gift of real humility, which in turn allows the practice of service to come from a place of humility, which in turn more deeply fosters the gift of humility, which in turn …  You get the picture.

I have read from people who are far more disciplined in the spiritual practice of service than I am, that the practice changes the world.  Through the practice of service, humility grows, and it does so secretly.  “Though we do not sense its presence, we are aware of a fresh zest and exhilaration with living.  We wonder at the new sense of confidence that marks our activities.  Although the demands of life are as great as ever, we live in a new sense of unhurried peace.  People we once only envied we now view with compassion, for we see not only their position but their pain.  People whom we would have passed over before we now ‘see’ and find to be delightful individuals.  Somehow – we cannot exactly explain how – we feel a new spirit of identification with the outcasts … of the earth.”[ix]

Really, the spiritual practice isn’t just service, it’s servanthood.  And if you’re like me, there’s a part of you that’s resistant to that.  I’m afraid I might be taken advantage of.  So, I’m willing to serve, because that way I’m still in charge.  But if I let go into servanthood, I give up the right to be in charge.  And, the spiritual masters promise, there is great joy in that voluntary servitude.[x]

“Service is not a list of things that we do, though in it we discover things to do.  It is not a code of ethics, but a way of living.  To do specific acts of service is not the same things as living in the Discipline of service.  Just as there is more to the game of basketball than the rulebook, there is more to service than specific acts of serving.  It is one thing to act like a servant; it is quite another to be a servant.”[xi]

That said, I’m going to share a brief list of nine types of service you can do if you want to practice service as a spiritual discipline.[xii]

  • The service of hiddenness – Brian McLaren pointed out how Jesus calls us to this form of service.
  • The service of small things – Simple assistance of another in mundane, external matters is a wonderful form of service.
  • The service of guarding the reputation of others – Promoting love, this is the anti-gossip form of service.
  • The service of allowing others to serve us – It is an act of submission and service to let others serve us.  In the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, Peter resisted and finally relented, allowing Jesus to wash his feet.  He served Jesus by allowing Jesus to serve him.
  • The service of common courtesy toward one another – This form of service affirms the personhood of others.
  • The service of hospitality – This may be a particular charism of our congregation.
  • The service of listening – Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”[xiii]  The most important requirements for the service of listening are compassion and patience.  “We do not have to have the correct answers to listen well.  In fact, often the correct answers are a hindrance to listening, for we become more anxious to give the answer than to hear.”[xiv]
  • The service of bearing each other’s burden – True service builds community.  It draws, binds, builds, and heals.
  • The service of sharing the word of Life to another – Speaking truth in love to those around you.

Jesus calls us to the spiritual practice of service, “the ministry of the towel.  Such a ministry, flowing out of the inner recesses of the heart, is life and joy and peace.”[xv]


[ii] James 2:24.

[iii] James 2:15-17.

[iv] John 13:4-5

[v] John 13:14-15

[vi] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978, 1988), 126-127.

[vii] Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page on 5 March 2014.

[viii] Foster, op. cit., 130.

[ix] Ibid, 131.

[x] Foster points out that there is a vast difference between involuntary servitude and this voluntary servitude.  See pages 132-134.

[xi] Ibid, 134.

[xii] This list is a summary of Foster, pages 134-140.

[xiii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), 52; quoted by Foster, op. cit.. 138.

[xiv] Foster, 138.

[xv] Ibid, 140.

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