A sermon on servanthood preached by Mark Ward on 25th February, at Lyndhurst
Being a servant isn’t as common now as it used to be. When my father was young, just about 100 years ago, being in service was common, whether it be at a big house or as the person who “did” for the doctor or some other local professional or business person. One of my aunts was a housekeeper for a doctor in a small seaside town called Sutton-on-Sea in Lincolnshire, and because of that I have been a part of a Scripture Union beach mission since I was eleven. One of my uncles was a butler and in the second war he became the personal valet to a general, neither ever leaving the U.K, and it appears from his postcards to his mother, they spent much time roughing it in the castles of Scotland.
But being “in service” is much less usual now although there are still people who have enough wealth to employ housekeepers and gardeners. Being a servant implies that you are not free – perhaps the situation isn’t quite as bad as being a slave but the servant’s time is very much dictated by their employer. Both Hudson and Carson of Upstairs, Downstairs and of Downton fame, may have been master of all those below stairs but both still had to jump even when the lowliest member of upstairs told them to.
But notice in the reading that Jesus refers to all of his true followers as servants – “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it”. He might mean the actual loss of life but I think he also means giving up living your life for your own benefit – become my servant, live your life according to my wishes and you will prosper, you will be more satisfied and fulfilled.
What do we think about that? How do you live your life – do you live it for yourself or for Jesus? When I was in my teens Margaret Thatcher came to power. I was living in the town which had been her home – Grantham, and my mother-in-law went to school with Margaret Roberts, as she was then. My mother-in-law, Mary, seldom has a harsh word about anyone but she reserved a few for Margaret Roberts, who clearly she didn’t take to. Mrs Thatcher and her lieutenants were very keen to make us all responsible for ourselves, “get on your bike” as Mr Tebbit once put it – their philosophy, it seemed to me, was all about “me, me, me” and not society or community.
I’m reading a book about rural ministry at the moment and the book suggests that many people who attend church are more likely to volunteer elsewhere in society than those who do not have a faith. That’s not to say volunteers only come from Christian or faith backgrounds, but it is a more prevalent activity amongst people of faith than of the whole population. Is that surprising to us then if we are already servants of God?
Of course it’s easy to sign up to as long as it doesn’t affect your life unduly. We might get some satisfaction out of cooking for the luncheon club or volunteering at the food bank but just suppose a real change is brought to bear – what then?
I’m preaching at evensong in St Mary’s Fordingbridge this evening, a sermon I wrote before I was asked if I could come to be with you today and it’s about faith and believing. In it I have said this – do you believe that Gary our vicar is a person of faith – I’m guessing you do. So suppose next week he stands here and says, “I’ve had a message from God – we are all to sell everything and we as a congregation are to move to Middlesbrough and start a new mission church.” In the congregation are two more clergy who volunteer to work in our patch and they stand up and say “I had that message too”. My question to my congregation tonight is – what are you going to do? Will you go home and accept that God has spoken and that you are servants of his and sell up, or will you come up with a million reasons why you can’t do it a bit like the excuses Jesus encountered from some of those he asked to follow him?
I guess most people would accept your reasons for not going as being perfectly valid but if that really is the test of being a true follower, carrying your own cross – could you – could I really do it?
It doesn’t surprise me that our numbers have dwindled over recent decades, because the Church hasn’t seemed very relevant to wider society, the church hasn’t engaged. I generalise of course. In some inner cities the Church is the one place that has cared for the least and the lost but even then it doesn’t often result in a full church on Sunday. But in recent years things have changed. Take the rise of the foodbank for example. I should declare here and now that until 2 weeks ago I was the interim CEO of the Trussell Trust which supports 430 foodbanks across the UK. Every one of that 430 was started by a group of churches – it was a response from the Christian community to the poverty of so many of our fellow citizens. To be fair the momentum came from the free churches first and especially the majority black churches but gradually even we, the good old CofE caught up. Is the need for foodbanks a good thing – clearly not, but the fact is they are needed and the bigger fact is, it was the Christian population of this country which stood up and did something about it, in service to those who needed that help, free, without charge, without any form of response. That’s why we have a health service and an education system because it was all started by people of faith who understood the need to serve others.
So like or hate foodbanks – the Christian community is now relevant to society at large again – we aren’t just preachers, we are doers and many who volunteer in such places feel a real sense of worth as a result.
Which brings me to one of my favourite passages from the bible in the book of James, chapter two. The writer says – if you go to church every week, even every day, and praise God, and then you walk out of here, see someone in trouble and simply wish them well and walk on, then you might just as well have not been to church at all. He is clear that whilst we must worship God, we must also serve him and we do so by serving those around us – let me finish with another passage from Matthew – so Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, naked or in prison – and the Lord replied, whatever you did for one of these sisters and brothers you did for me.
“If anyone wants to come with me”, he told them, “he must forget self, carry his cross, and follow me”. Amen.