Friday, January 11, 2013
Status and Service
Sermon for Sabbath, January 12, 2013, at
Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Texts: Matthew 5:40-48; 20:25-28.
The setting of one of my favorite Max Lucado stories is Cinderella's castle at Disneyland. The place is jammed with noisy, excited, rambunctious kids. Cinderella comes in one of the doors. Like a flood, the kids rush her direction, clustering around her to get their pictures taken, to admire her, to bask in the excitement and glamor of her presence.
She is beautiful, of course. Her natural grace enhanced with exquisite costuming and made up. She poses for photos with kids and grand kids. She smiles endlessly. Then you notice her begin to move purposefully through the crowd toward the opposite side of the room. You turn and see the great empty space across from the princess and her crowd, a couple of guys. One an ordinary teenager, sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. The other—it must be his brother—a grotesquely deformed youngster about four feet tall. When he moves, his actions are so awkward they look painful. When he doesn't move, his misshapen form is painful to look at. You are ashamed for thinking it, but the thought goes through your mind that you've never seen anyone so ugly.
You back at Cinderella, this fairy princess, this gorgeous young woman whose life at every step will be eased by the grace of her beauty, then back at the ugly kid. Your heart breaks because you know that this boy will spend his entire life trying crawl up the down escalator.
Cinderella is still working her way through the crowd. Escaping another photo session she moves quickly enough to make to the edge of the crowd. Then she is walking across the empty space toward the brothers. The crowd trails after her, like the tail of a comet, like an entourage.
Then she's standing in front of the boys. The crowd behind her pauses. Repulsed, perhaps even made afraid by the broken kid, they hide behind their princess. In a single camera frame, you could capture on one side perfect ugliness, on the other fearful loathing, and dead center perfect beauty.
Then what? What does she do, this golden girl, this incarnation of beauty and privilege? This leader of an entire entourage of healthy, active, beautiful children? She stoops and plants a kiss on the little boy's cheek. The loathing vanishes. For at least an instant, the entire crowd is transformed. The guys dream of trading places with the ugly boy, for the privilege of her kiss. The girls wish they had her courage.
Beauty is one of the most universally revered forms of status. In this story, Cinderella attracts swarms of little kids. But if she walked into a crowded coffee shop, if you watched closely, you'd see the face of every guy in the place light up, young men, men old enough to be her great grandfather, they'd all look and if she dropped her napkin, every guy in the place would consider it an honor to pick it up. If she applied for a job, the males in the process would have a hard time paying adequate attention to the deficits in her resume. In school, male teachers will struggle to be objective in their grading of her essays. Beauty confers status quite apart from intellect, character, money, education.
Another story about status. This time an incomplete story.
In his late teens Ethan Durden got into drugs and crime. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison. 20 years! His mother did not object to prison time. She did object to 20 years for crimes in which no one was hurt. In prison, Ethan came to himself. He availed himself of every educational opportunity. It was universally recognized that he was a changed person. There was no point in keeping him in jail, except for the “little detail” that it was the law.
In our system, there is one last resort people can appeal to when the law itself turns out to be unjust: the governor can pardon people or commute their sentences. We have given the governor extraordinary status, the power to overrule the verdict of courts and the process of law.
Society would fall apart if we allowed everybody to challenge the rule of law and the verdict of the courts. On the other hand, there is a deep understanding that the human condition is so complex that sometimes, true justice requires a personal touch outside the machinery of the courts. That personal touch is part of the exalted status of the governor.
Last year Ethan appeared before the clemency board. They voted unanimously to recommend that Ethan be released from prison. Now it's up to the governor. She can use her status to restore this young man to life and freedom.
You and I can only attempt to help Ethan by writing letters. The governor alone has the status to make a decisive difference.
The question is: what will she do with her status?
When it comes to status, this is the most important question for all of us. You may not be a gorgeous woman or a governor with the power to grant or deny clemency. Still you have some measure of status. What are you doing with it? This perspective is highlighted in the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 20:25-28.
Jesus called his disciples together and said to them, "You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:25-28.
When we think about status, we can imagine it as a place of privilege or as a platform for service. Cinderella made her status a platform from which to serve. She could have merely basked in the adulation of her admirers. Instead she used the status of her beauty as a tool to elevate a boy with no status of his own.
This is what Jesus calls us to do. In fact, using our status to serve others is the essential definition of godliness, the essential definition of what it means to be a devotee of Jesus.
Consider these words from our scripture reading:
Jesus said, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. Matthew 5:44-45.
The salient trait of the heavenly family is indiscriminate generosity, giving not because others deserve it, but because we have it to give. We are to give as recklessly as God who sends sunlight and rain without asking who is receiving it. Whatever gifts are included in our status are intended as resources for blessing others.
Late this week I received an email from a doctor I have not yet met. She is a dramatic model of godliness—at least the kind of godliness Jesus describes here in Matthew 5.
I am a retired family doctor from Seattle currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer at the Maluti Adventist Hospital in Lesotho. My service will be completed in August and I will be returning to my home on Phinney Ridge in Seattle. While I myself am a Quaker, I have developed a strong attachment to the hospital here and the wonderful people who put their hearts and souls into service to some of the world's poorest and sickest people. I am hoping to create some links between Lesotho and Seattle when I return.
The Green Lake Adventist Church is the nearest to my home, so I have decided to start with you. I am writing to you now to learn if there are some particular elements of the work here that might be of interest to your church members. I would be happy to collect specific information to address such an interest.
Lesotho is in the bottom 10% of countries on the United Nations Development (UNDP) list, with an unemployment rate approaching 50% and an HIV rate of 23% among adults and around 40% for pregnant women.
There is only one doctor for every 15,000 people (compared with one per 500 in the US). . . . The postpartum ward in our hospital has 21 beds and only one toilet and shower. . . .
In a country of 2 million people, about 160,000 children have been orphaned by HIV. In every community, one finds child-headed households, sometimes with the oldest child only 12 years old. . . .
I recognize that your church is already very generous in its outreach and I am not expecting it to tackle a large project. There are needs as small as the purchase of a blood pressure cuff or providing a food package for orphans that would make an immediate difference here.
The hospital is located on a campus where many of the staff reside, with the Maluti Adventist Church located immediately adjacent as well as a preschool, primary school and School of Nursing. Would your Sabbath School be interested in a pen pal exchange? I can talk with people here about anything that would interest you during my remaining few months here.
Thank you so much for taking time to read this. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
May you have a blessed Sabbath,
Barbara Meyer MD, Mapoteng, Lesotho
Barbara, like Cinderella at Disneyland has status. Barbara's service in Lesotho will not cure the 40% of women with HIV. Her service will not replace the missing parents for the 160,000 children orphaned by HIV. But she has planted a kiss on the ugliness. She has touched the pain.
Then she has used her status as an American from a neighborhood just blocks from this church to recruit us to share in her ministry. She has stretched her status to the very limits of its capability to serve. She is a beautiful illustration of Jesus definition of what it means to be a daughter of God.
Most of us are not doctors. Most of us can go to a remote, impoverished place like Lesotho. But all of us have status. Will we use our status to serve?
Does math come easily to you in school? That confers a certain status. How are you using that status to bless other students?
Have you been granted tenure at the university? How much richer has that made your service to your students and your colleagues in the department?
Are you popular? Do people like you? What are the ways you can use that popularity to decrease the loneliness at your school or office?
Have you mastered habits that enhance health or family life? What about inviting others to experience those habits with you?
Can you make music?
Are you healthy?
God has granted all of us some measure of status, some gift that is uniquely operative in us, something that makes us beautiful. When we walk across the room and kiss someone who is entirely bereft of our gift, we are acting as the true children of God. We are making the ultimate statement about the goodness and reality of God.