Servant Leadership

January 19, 2014, Psalm 40:1-11, John 13:3-17

Today we are ordaining and installing a new class of deacons. Last year when we ordained and installed deacons I told the story of how the church started to have deacons. Really the word “deacon” in Greek means “waiter” like the people who work in restaurants. The position of deacon was created by the very first group of Christians in Jerusalem because there was too much work for the original 12 disciples of Jesus to do. They were getting burned out, so their job description was changed and the task of serving and dividing food at and following church gatherings was outsourced to seven trusted leaders, “people of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” [Acts 6:3] who were chosen by the people. The first deacons were called in front of the people they were prayed for and the apostles laid hands on them. This is a lot like what we do with deacons in the Presbyterian church.

At our church deacons have a number of important tasks. Every Sunday a deacon is responsible for seeing that there is coffee, juice and snacks for fellowship following worship. That is probably the most visible, tangible thing that deacons do. And what we would most miss if the deacons suddenly decided to go on strike. They do other work too. Each Sunday a deacon sees to it that the flowers from the service find a good home. The deacons also set up communion each time we celebrate that sacrament. They give a gift to every child that is baptized here. They also visit members and friends who find it difficult to get to church on Sunday morning.

I’ll talk more about the importance of visiting shut-ins in a moment. First, I want to point out some things about Jesus’ conversation with his disciples. He is talking to them on what we call Maundy Thursday, the day that Jesus gave them a new commandment—that they love each other. Maundy comes from the Latin for “mandatory.” Now this is strange, that the new commandment is that they love each other. Can love be commanded? Can friendship be commanded? I’ve often wondered about that. But this is what’s really important about this story. Jesus didn’t just tell his disciples to love each other. He washed their feet. He helped them experience love. He literally touched them in love. Loving them was something they felt, it was tangible. After touching them in love, he asked them if they understood the significance. He told them that he had set an example for them. And here he was, their leader, their teacher, offering this humble, kind service.

It was hard for them to accept. Simon Peter didn’t want him to wash his feet, but when he understood the significance of this act, he wanted to be washed from head to toe! Some churches have a foot washing on Maundy Thursday. Last year the new pope washed some poor people’s feet in Rome. I remember a colleague telling me that when he was new in ministry he conducted a foot washing service on Maundy Thursday. And later the members of the church told him how uncomfortable it made them, watching their pastor on his knees—they were humiliated for him. He was stunned. Here he was the one called to teach the people the ways of Jesus, doing exactly what Jesus had done to instruct & equip his followers—and the people were very, very uncomfortable. Washing feet is a very personal, intimate act, and doing it in public, even in the context of worship is understandably awkward. Still, there was somethig deeper and troubling in a different way than that, something that made this especially troubling for some member of my friend’s church.

They were used to giving. They were generous and loving and kind, but it was hard for them to be on the receiving end of kindness. They never learned how to accept a gift of ministry, though they were very, very good at giving them.

Have you ever paid someone a compliment and been disappointed that they didn’t receive it as you intended? That is sort of like what was happening in my friend’s church that Maundy Thursday. They were asked to sit still and receive an act of love and that was uncomfortable.

As I think about the last task that deacons do, visiting our shut-ins, I have a lot of thoughts to share about the importance of this ministry—this act of kindness. I remember visiting one of our shut ins in the hospital one Maundy Thursday morning. She had been hospitalized with a blood clot in her leg. When I arrived she was about to put lotion on her leg, but I told her this was her lucky day, so I knelt down and rubbed lotion on both her legs. When I was done I asked her, “How did that feel?” and she said, “It felt like my pastor put lotion on my legs.” I said, “Help me out here, I want to have something to preach tonight!” But what she told me was that she could accept an act of kindness. She wasn’t embarrassed by what I had done. And she trusted me enough to let me touch her. I left her hospital room feeling that she had ministered to me as much as I had ministered to her. Her acceptance of my gift was a gift she gave to me. She gave me a gift. I walked out of the hospital in a completely different—and much better—frame of mind. I understood servant leadership.

Contact with the church is very important to our members who cannot get here regularly. It does take time to visit people, but what is easy to overlook is how much the deacons receive from their shut-ins. Woody Allen said that “80% of success is showing up.” And I’ve heard deacons at nearly every meeting say things like, “I was really busy last week, but I found time to visit my shut-in and left there feeling so much better.” Sometimes we think that we can only give, when, in fact, we can and should receive! And sometimes we forget that there is satisfaction in helping other people—and that satisfaction is its own reward.

Our psalm this morning says “I delight to do your will.” And that feeling of delight in doing God’s will is a great feeling. Let me tell you one way that deacons feel delight. The delight is in the smile on the face of the person you’re visiting. Before they say a word, when they see that someone from their church has come to visit them, they have a beautiful smile.

Mark Twain said, “I can live two months on a good compliment.” And that’s another way deacons are compensated—the smile on the face of someone who loves her church—the smile on the face of someone loved by her church is a delight, and a tangible, visible sign of the presence of God. Oh, and this isn’t limited to deacons.

So deacons, here’s your task as you start the year of service: accept the gifts you receive through serving. Amen.