Wisdom of Servanthood
Based on Proverbs 31:10, 25-31, James 3:13 – 4:3, Mark 9:30-37
Robert G. Morgan tells a story about Mr. Sam Rayburn who was Speaker of the United States House of Representatives longer than any other man in history (17 years between 1940 and 1961 when he died). The story highlights what I want to spend time on today…the wisdom of servanthood. The story goes that, “…The teenage daughter of a friend of Mr. Rayburn’s (his) died suddenly one night. Early the next morning the grieving father heard a knock on his door, and when he opened it, there was Mr. Rayburn. The Speaker said, ‘I just came by to see what I could do to help….’”
I suspect that sentiment resonates with many if not most of you listening today. My experience with you all has been that you rally around folks who are grieving or who have suffered some tragedy or significant illness. You are moved to service out of love and respect for people with whom you are in relationship. You are also moved to help because you know quite well that one day, you too will require help from others. This is how a healthy and loving community functions – supporting each other in good times and in bad, serving one another not because we must, but because it is the good and right thing to do.
Given that intrinsic wisdom of servanthood then, how is it we currently we find ourselves in the midst of a volunteer shortage? All volunteer-driven organizations (e.g., Ruritans, Lions, MESA, Fire Department, Boy and Girl Scouts, churches) are all struggling because people today do not believe that they have the time or the energy to devote to these organizations – or they don’t perceive a value in volunteering. Non-profits always rise and fall on the quantity and the quality of volunteers and they find themselves (not only here in Madison County) in a crisis, trying to perform their community support and safety-net functions with fewer and fewer people. I find myself wondering if we have lost the wisdom of servanthood – the wisdom to understand that in order for us all to thrive, we must bring our gifts into service for the greater good of all.
Our scriptures today point us to what it means to have the wisdom to operate with the heart and mind of servanthood. We have presented to us the metaphorical model of the “worthy woman” of Proverbs. The writer of James is challenging us to consider the behaviors that characterize a tyrant rather than someone practicing healthy stewardship and reminds us what “wisdom from above” looks like. Jesus is dealing with the competitiveness of the Disciples who are arguing among themselves who will take over when Jesus is dead – Jesus tells them that a true servant of God comes in last in that competition. Let us go to God now in prayer asking to grow into the wisdom of servanthood…
Proverbs is a book that is based upon the fictional conversation between a father and his son. The father is trying to pass on wisdom to the young man and our reading today finishes that monologue. Chapter 31 is an acrostic poem – it is not to be taken literally to denote how all Godly women should conduct themselves. Unfortunately, over the millennia since it was penned, the literal interpretation has been oppressive and done great damage to women by pigeon-holing them into unreasonable expectations of conduct. When it is viewed in the light of a poem, however, it holds up a model for wise servanthood that we all could embody to the benefit of ourselves and our world. A person who lives out of the wisdom of servanthood is trustworthy, frugal, nourishing, strategic, strong, merciful and generous, kind to all, industrious, wise, happy and peaceful, and that person is known by the quality of their works. Interpreted in that way, this seems like a very good way to live our lives!
The writer of James is comparing earthly wisdom to divine wisdom. He opens with the statement, “…Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom….” He then goes on to warn us all about how “devilish” it is to operate our lives out of envy and selfish ambition. He counsels that envy and selfish ambition will lead to “disorder and wickedness of every kind” and come not from God but from a worldly and unspiritual wisdom. On-the-other-hand, “…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy….” The wisdom of servanthood does not covet or seek after its own self-interest. Truly this is good news for our troubled and divisive times!
Jesus is post-Transfiguration in today’s reading from Mark. Jesus once again is trying to teach the Disciples about his needing to die in order for God’s plans to come to fruition. The followers do not understand what he was talking about, but they did understand that the position of leader was coming open soon. This potential vacancy brings about the usual sorting behaviors of internal candidates vying for the job. They thought they were being circumspect, but Jesus calls them out and uses their selfish ambition to teach another lesson. To succeed in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells them, you must put away your worldly ambition and seek to serve everyone else through a humble and open heart. That is the wisdom of servanthood according to Jesus.
It is time to pick up our story of Speaker Rayburn and the grieving father. You may recall that we left Sam Rayburn standing in the doorway inquiring if there was anything he could do to help. Allow me to continue the story… “The Father replied in his deep grief, ‘I don’t think there is anything you can do, Mr. Speaker. We are making all the arrangements.’ ‘Well,’ Mr. Rayburn said, ‘have you had your coffee this morning?’
The man replied that they had not taken time for breakfast. So, Mr. Rayburn said that he could at least make coffee for them. While he was working in the kitchen, the father (man) came in and said, ‘Mr. Speaker, I thought you were supposed to be having breakfast at the White House this morning.’ ‘Well, I was,’ Mr. Rayburn said, ‘but I called the President and told him I had a friend who was in trouble, and I couldn’t come.’”
I have lived six miles to the West of Washington, D.C., for almost 30 years and I have rarely heard of or ever met a highly ranked politico who thought of someone else before his or her own political fortunes. Mr. Rayburn was a unique and genuine public servant who was credited with being able to find consensus and compromise with even the most recalcitrant colleague. He was so revered by Congress members that they named one of the three House office buildings after him – within a year of his death. It seems that Sam Rayburn operated with the wisdom from above that the writer of James detailed, living a good life with works accomplished “with gentleness born of wisdom”.
The wisdom of servanthood is one that constantly looks outside itself to see what most needs to be accomplished. It knows that any act of servanthood is a kindness and a mercy – it doesn’t have to be large and showy, it just needs to fit the situation. The wisdom of servanthood offers itself gently, with hospitality and never forces itself on another. The wisdom of servanthood knows that even the smallest acts, when done from the heart in pursuit of deeper relationship are always valued. It didn’t seem like much for Sam Rayburn to offer to make coffee, but he was wise enough in his servanthood to sense that this was enough for that moment, for that family.
The Church has always operated through dedicated people doing all types of tasks from taking on leadership roles to changing lightbulbs to cleaning toilets, caring for gardens or vacuuming the Sanctuary carpet; even doing their best to play unfamiliar hymns during worship. Wise disciples see these acts of servanthood as an offering to the Church (and to God) in addition to whatever monetary offerings could be given. Without such persons operating out of the wisdom of servanthood, the Church could not have continued over these last two millennia. She would have closed her doors for lack of dedicated servants who had better things to do than lead, clean, maintain, play, worship, teach and pray. The United Methodist Church will be going through some tough times over the next few years, and she will need all of us to tighten our belts, pray to God for strength, patience and compassion, and find the wisdom of servanthood to work with God while God creates something new and vibrant. The wisdom of servanthood knows that God will always triumph over human short sightedness and self-interest, as long as a critical mass of disciples freely choose to serve God and each other with their whole hearts. Let the wise servants of God say, amen!