“Life's most persistent and nagging question is, 'What am I doing for others?’"
--The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.
I presided at a poignant memorial service last week for a humble and sweet and selfless man who after eighty-seven years in this world passed on to his God. In my faith tradition, many of us hope for one encounter when we pass from life to death, from earth to heaven. God, welcoming us home at the pearly gates, and saying: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We hope that when we return to our Creator, the One who gives us life, we’ll be able to say that in life, we gave back too. We served. We sacrificed. We were generous with our time, talents and money. We lived our days, not just for ourselves, but for others too. We tried to be servants in the service of love. Such service is at the heart of all great faith traditions.
And so John, the one whom our church memorialized? He was a servant, and then some. A World War II veteran who served in the dangerous waters of the Pacific. A community volunteer serving the elderly, serving on town boards, being a Mason and a Shriner and serving seriously ill children. A forty-eight year church member, in the balcony without fail each Sunday with his beloved wife Ruth, he was always cleaning up the kitchen or doing the recycling or manning the church elevator. A faithful friend who twice each month visited a nursing home patient who might have otherwise been forgotten. A servant, plain and simple.
I’ll bet you can quickly think of such a servant, a soul who modeled for you the importance of such giving. A coach. A clergyperson. A neighbor. A grandmother. They respond to that persistent question of Reverend King’s: “What am I doing to serve others?” by answering the call to serve with a “Yes!” and an “I can help!” and a “Sign me up!” They make up a rare group of folks who see service to others as a given, not just an extra. Who view service to others as natural as breathing. Living by this ethic, they believe that to be a member of a community always carries with it this great responsibility: to give back to others, in large and small ways. For them service is the norm, not just something to do when every thing else is done.
Servants. We can applaud them, thank them, laud them but how about this? Can we become like them too? Serve others in our lives, our town, our faith community, our country, our world? That’s what the witness of a life like John’s persists in asking each of us as citizens and children of God and human beings. This week we’ll spend hours and hours working and playing, consuming and buying, texting and typing, driving and rushing. That’s the world we live in. But in the midst of all this activity, is there room for service to others too? For taking some of what you might have spent on yourself and instead putting it into the plate at church or towards tornado relief for our neighbors just down the road? For marking up the family calendar not just with one more birthday party but maybe some service time too?
Service. Is this your norm in 2011? How many hours a month do you volunteer? Do you devote a good part of your wealth to charity? How many hours a month do you volunteer? Coach a team? Lead the Scouts? Serve a hot meal at a soup kitchen? Build a home for Habitat for Humanity? Visit the homebound? Help at the library? Do you vote and help make your town or city a better place? Is service central or an afterthought, an extra, that thing on your chores list that never quite seems to get done? Do you meet your neighbors in a church or synagogue or mosque and find your God, or is Sabbath just something Grandma used to do?
Service. The world we live in continues onward and upward in large part because of the service that others have done and do for each and every one of us. It’s tempting to imagine we got to where we are through individual pluck and solo efforts. But the reality is we got to where we are as well on the shoulders of the servants who carried and carry us. Parents who gave up that we might thrive. Volunteers who loves our children and care their souls. Teacher who take personal time after classes to connect with a struggling youth. The man who drives our grandfather to worship each Sunday or mans the Meals on Wheels van. The citizen solider who puts his life on the line for me and you this very day. The coach who inspired you when you were a kid. The Sunday School teacher who helped you realize that God is love.
What saddens me about the death of folks like John, beyond the personal loss, is the communal loss too. Of a rare saint who by his one life of service helped create from the ground up a family, a town, a nation, and the whole world. All by serving others. For without service and volunteering and generosity, our world would truly crumble. Of that I am sure.
So yes, this is life most persistent and nagging question: what am I doing for others? We are asked. How will we answer?