Message 43, Christmas Eve 2010, “Holiday Perspectives: Through the Eyes of a Servant”, 12-24-10
© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
George Matthew Adams, a well known newspaper columnist of the early 20th century once said, “Let us remember that the Christmas heart is a giving heart, a wide open heart that thinks of others first. The birth of the baby Jesus stands as the most significant event in all history, because it has meant the pouring into a sick world the healing medicine of love which has transformed all manner of hearts for almost two thousand years… Underneath all the bulging bundles is this beating Christmas heart.”
And so, as we just sang, I hope we gather here tonight as a faithful people. On this eve of Christmas which both brings so much joy…….and so much angst in our lives, perhaps we can once again contemplate its higher meaning. Yes, we love the gifts, the parties, the beautiful music and the good food, but we could think of other reasons to so celebrate.
Here at the Gathering we’ve looked at a few different holiday perspectives over the past few weeks – through the eyes of the skeptic, through the eyes of those who suffer at this time of year and through the eyes of women and a re-imagined Virgin Mary. Ultimately, though, the holiday comes down to commemorating the birth of a man whom we cannot even say for sure ever lived. As much as our faith calls us to heed certain teachings in the Bible, it is most definitely NOT a history book. But along with the sacred scriptures of other world religions, the Bible contains profound pieces of wisdom and insight.
I believe the power and beauty of Christmas is that one such piece of insight for us is symbolically represented in the Bible through the birth of the Jesus child. Whatever our beliefs about whether the Christmas story is fact or myth, we find that the birth of a weak and homeless child, perhaps conceived out of wedlock, fully represents the ethic of Jesus’ teachings. Born not to wealth and power but to an impoverished teenage girl, housed not in a mansion but in a small barn, leading a life of an itinerant rabbi and condemned to die a criminal’s death, Jesus was and is the most unlikely of heroes.
It is an ironic twist, but the power of Jesus and his birthday story come not from the sword or a lofty position of status or a bulging bank account, but from the example and teachings of his life. He began that life as just another poor child – one of millions – born in some unknown village to parents of no special reputation. He lived his years in another small town, performing manual labor and never amassing the funds to build or own a home. And yet, whether or not this man Jesus ever lived, two thousand years later, we still celebrate his birth. To understand why, we need only hear the words attributed to him…
Blessed are the poor,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth…
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy…
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of the Divine.
Come, you who are blessed…I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
The one whose birth we celebrate tonight and tomorrow, the one who calls us to give, to find peace, to act with love and humility, was first and foremost a servant. The cries of the Jesus child echo to us from that distant Bethlehem night……to be like him…..to have the heart of a servant.
(Please sing with me, while remaining seated, the song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”)
Jesus is quoted at one point in his life as saying that whoever is the greatest among us will be our servant. He teaches the paradoxical notion that greatness comes not with power and status but with lowliness and servitude. In that regard, the story of a low-born baby coming to serve humanity resonates strongly. As we just sang, it is in those who are humble who find the Jesus child within. The heart of the Divine, we are told by Jesus, is to think less of ourselves, to esteem the needs of others as greater than our own, to love our enemies, to renounce violence, and to forgive. In each action, we serve others.
Out of all the things we do each day – most of which are done to meet our own personal needs – the mundane actions of service for others speak the loudest. Whether it be for a partner, a child, a friend or a stranger, each act we do for another, is a Jesus act…we reach beyond ourselves, and our own needs, to meet those of others.
Seeing through a servant’s eyes is to see the world in a new way. As I often say – and continually must apply in my own life – we exist for a purpose far beyond the meager years and petty demands of our own lives. By serving the needs of others, we fulfill our holy destiny to help build a better world. We participate in the moral imagination to improve equality, justice, health and welfare for all creation – not for our narrow interests. What a nasty and brutish world it would be if we each always acted according to our own interests.
A servant does not count the cost nor does he or she seek the limelight. Genuinely motivated servants often operate in the background never seeking glory or recognition. Indeed, the highest form of service or giving is to do so anonymously – we will have served and loved with pure motivations. If we serve only to bolster our own egos or reputations, I believe we have failed to act with love.
Much like prayer or meditation, serving others selflessly has its own intrinsic rewards. We draw nearer to the heart of God – who is simply defined as love. Mother Theresa is famously quoted as saying that when she tended a dying street person or leper, she felt she was in the presence of the Divine. To wipe a tear or extend a caring hand was, for her, a way to touch the face of God.
My friends, it is not enough for us to simply say we believe in love. Each of our actions and, indeed our lives, must, I believe, speak of serving others. We must refuse to return hatred with hatred, we must listen to another when we have no desire, we must forgive an offense as if it were not committed, we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, extend a smile, offer a kind word, rescue an animal, give a hug, cook a meal….in simple terms, we must find a way to do for others great or small acts of kindness. Indeed, if we say we love others but do not act to tangibly show it, we are the worst of hypocrites.
I was recently sent the story about an honor marine whose duty it is to inform the families of soldiers that their loved one has been killed in combat. This marine arrived at a nursing home to so inform the father of a fallen soldier. He discovered, however, that the man he was to inform was himself dying. In the fog of drugs and near death, the man confused the honor marine for his own son and extended his hand to be held and comforted. This marine, however, did not fulfill his intended mission of informing the old man of his son’s death, but instead grasped the hand of the dying man and then proceeded to remain with him through the night until he peacefully passed away. The dying man all the while believed he was holding the hand of his beloved son. Such an act of love and service may seem small but it speaks of what any of us should do for another. How do we treat family members? How do we respond when criticized or attacked? How do we serve the least of God’s creation – the poor, homeless, illiterate, hungry, abandoned, sick and imprisoned? Each of us has, I believe, the capacity to serve and to do so in amounts greater than we meet our own personal needs.
I know that within these walls there are many who serve sacrificially. The tutor who patiently teaches a young inner city child, the one who comforts a local inmate, those who rescue wayward animals, the life partner who daily loves and honors his or her mate, the ones who volunteer to feed the hungry, the tireless parent of any child, those who comfort and support frightened gay teens, we are all in the presence of the Divine. We celebrate the birth of Jesus tonight and His life purpose, as we ever seek to make it our own life mission…….we live to serve. This Christmas and in the year ahead, may we celebrate that servant child born in a manger within us all…………………….
Please reflect with me and watch a short pictorial video capturing, I hope, the essence of loving with a servant’s heart…click here.