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Serving When It’s Nasty

As Lisa and I were sitting around a table last night celebrating with a group of recently “retired” elders and deacons, I was feeling especially grateful for their friendship, their example, and for their witness as servant leaders. I thought about the challenges they had faced over the past three years, from the exciting to the mundane to the downright nasty – from teaching small groups to cleaning dirty dishes, picking up trash and visiting the deathly sick, working with temperamental office equipment, and dealing with difficult people. For the next few weeks I want to zero in on this theme of service again, because it is so critical to the life and witness of Christ’s Body and because “Sharing Christ by Serving Others” has been St. John’s “vision milestone” for the past two years.

After a nasty argument about which of them was the greatest, Jesus said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”– Matthew 20: 25-28

People who serve together can become nasty and competitive and just plain tired. That too is part of serving. Yet Jesus says to his disciples that the way upin God’s kingdom is down. The word that our English bibles translate “servant” is diakonos, and it referred originally to a table waiter. Jesus is clear about his mission: he came not “to be waited on” but “to wait,” and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20: 28).

Still, when I think of a “waiter” today I think of a guy with a white shirt and black tie standing over me at a restaurant, taking my order. The picture we should have is a little more “down and dirty” than that. On the night Jesus was betrayed he got down on his hands and knees and started washing his disciples’ feet (John 13: 12-15). William Barclay gives us a clearer picture: “The roads of Palestine were unsurfaced and uncleaned. In dry weather they were inches deep in dust and in wet they were liquid mud, and sandals gave little protection. For that reason there were always great water pots at the door of a house; and a servant was there with a towel to wash the soiled feet of the guests as they came in. Jesus’ little company of friends had no servants. It may well be that on the night of this last meal not one of them would accept the duty of washing the feet of the company as they came in; and Jesus mended their omission in the most vivid and dramatic way. He did what none of them was prepared to do.

As we all know feet can be pretty nasty, even when they’re not dirty! My nephew who is a podiatrist, has had to work, to use his words, “on some pretty nasty toes.” The “toe pictures” he showed me made me cringe, but they have highly motivated me to take care of mine. I recall the tremendous love and caring that was communicated to me after concluding a very long backpacking trip. There we were, sitting around a campfire, exhausted and foul-smelling, when our guides got down and washed our tired, dirty and yes, “nasty” feet in an act of Christ-like service.

To be part of the Body of Christ is to serve others even when they are difficult or demanding, and to be served all the same even when weare. Today we can serve others and one another in a variety of ways…but always it will mean voluntarily surrendering our rights, our power, and our position in order to help and love others well, even when it feels -- or smells -- a little nasty. Hope to see you soon…

Next week: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Serving Others

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