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July 19, 2020

The Servant Song

written by Rev. Ruth Moore
adapted and used with permission by Rev. Carol McDonald

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Our focus hymn this morning is “Will You Let Me BeYour Servant,” also known as “The Servant Song.”  Both text and melody were written by British born New Zealander Richard Gillard whose faith background is a mixture of Anglican and Pentecostal. His music background contains little formal training, but rather experimentation with a variety of instruments. He began writing folk songs for worship in the 1970’s – this morning’s hymn was written in 1977. Gilliard’s lyrics speak of being a servant and are also a reminder that those who serve must be willing also to be served.

The Servant Song leads us to one of the most powerful challenges in all of Jesus’ ministry – chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel.  “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me” we read in verse 40. If we’re honest, Matthew 25 makes us uncomfortable – especially if we think about it too much. Come on, Jesus, I can’t help everyone who asks. I don’t have the money and I certainly don’t have the time. Plus – how do I know someone is really needy? What if I’m giving money to an alcoholic or a drug addict?

The gospel mandates us to remember Jesus’ directive– when you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me – it’s not about who we think is truly hungry, or really deserving. Jesus is quite clear: there’s only one criterion for action: “the least of these.”  The least of these – those who are hungry, homeless, imprisoned, victims of racism and oppression, survivors of abuse and domestic violence – those who are weak, vulnerable, unable to speak up for themselves, especially children.  Jesus’ words challenge us to look into a human face and see the face of God.  “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” No one ever in all of history has said that following Jesus is easy!

American religious historian Elaine Pagels says Jesus’ words are the basis for a radical new social structure based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being. People are not to be abused or dehumanized because of socio- economic standing, criminal history, religion, skin color, gender or sexual orientation. Jesus is clear – he is present with all “the least of these.” What you do to them, you do to me he says.  If you want to see the face of God, look into the face of your neighbor, the one who needs you right now. If you want to see the face of God look into the face of one of the least of these -- the vulnerable, the weak, the sick, the suffering, the oppressed, and especially the children.

Our hymn message for today is about serving those for whom God’s heart has a special place. I hear in this powerful text deep significance for this strange season in which we find ourselves. Look once again at the words of this song.

I sing stanza one – “let me be as Christ to you” -- and give thanks for all who have been as Christ to me during these days of social isolation.  I sing stanza one and give thanks for this congregation where so many gifts have been welcomed during this time when focus is difficult to maintain --  the gifts of Children’s Time leaders, sound technicians, camera and video gurus, musical geniuses, staff and volunteers who keep at it each and every day, and Session members who meet faithfully on-line and continue to lead and guide us.  Who has been Christ to you in this season? And to whom have you shown the grace of God?

I sing stanza 2 – “We are pilgrims on a journey, we’re together on the road” -- and think of my neighbor Carolyn who regularly takes grocery orders from several of us on our street – which means I’ve not had to enter a grocery store since March 20.  I sing stanza 2 – “We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load” -- and pray for all the parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members who struggle with difficult decisions regarding the re-opening of schools. With whom are you traveling – with whom are you walking the mile and bearing the load – during these strange days?

I sing stanzas 3 and 4 – “I will hold the Christ light for you in the nighttime of your fear” – “I will weep when you are weeping” --  and think of our own Pastor Ruth – whose mother died just this past Wednesday.  In her nursing home hospice since October, and in forced isolation since March, Charlotte was diagnosed with COVID-19 three weeks ago. The isolation stole her mind and the virus destroyed her body. That she died alone, that Ruth and her family were not able to say goodbye in person, are agonizing realities.  In the days and weeks to come, Ruth will need us to be the Christ light for her; may our care for her be the peace she needs and longs to hear.  How, in the days ahead, will you hold the Christ light for Ruth? Who else in your life needs you right now to hold the Christ light  -- to share their joy and sorrow?

And then I sing stanza 5 – “When we sing to God in heaven…” -- and realize that, ultimately, we’re all going to sing together in harmony – We’re going to sing with beloved Civil Rights icon John Lewis who, late Friday, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.  We’re going to sing with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Charlotte Chadwick and Bob Rogers whose ashes will be placed gently into Northminster’s Columbarium this afternoon.  We will sing in harmony with those who have lived with privilege all their lives and those who have struggled every single day… those who have pretended they were big shots and those who were truly ‘the least of these.’  For Christ’s love and agony were not just for the select few … his life, death, and resurrection were truly for all, especially for the least of these.

There’s only one directive in today’s gospel passage.  And there’s only one directive in today’s focus hymn. Neither is about creeds, or religious practices, or earning our salvation, or who’s in or who’s out in the realm of God.  Both the gospel and the hymn direct us to see Jesus in the face of the needy and vulnerable. Both the gospel and the hymn mandate us to give ourselves away in love in Christ’s name. It’s a challenge that will change our lives forever … for, remember … no one ever in all of history said that following Jesus would be easy!

We are pilgrims on a journey, we’re together on the road.

We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

And the least of these are waiting to show us the face of God. 

May it be so. Amen.       


Resource: Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Proper 29, Matthew 25: 31-46, John M. Buchanan.