William Wilberforce, Anthony Ashley Cooper, and Serving God

July 31, 2015

Steve SmithOur guest blogger today is Stephen Smith of the Diocese of California. Currently a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary, Stephen served as a missionary in Grahamstown, South Africa with the Young Adult Service Corps. During Stephen’s two years in South Africa, he lived and worked with the brothers of the Order of the Holy Cross at the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery and taught the Holy Cross School. Stephen preached at the mid-day Eucharist service at the Chapel of Christ the Lord at the Episcopal Church Center in New York yesterday and has graciously shared his homily with us.

Mark 9:33-37, 42 William Wilberforce and Anthony Ashley Cooper

 “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

On two separate occasions in the chapters leading up to today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus predicts the Passion and explains to his disciples that he must suffer and die and on the third day he will rise again, and the poor disciples just don’t get it. It’s not sinking in. Instead of absorbing the significance of what Jesus has been trying to tell them, the disciples get into trivial squabbles with one another about who is the greatest. Jesus, being the patient guy that he is, doesn’t get frustrated or loose his cool (something I would probably do), but instead he keeps on teaching. He does so by warning his disciples not to seek to be greatest but rather to be a servant of all. He also goes on to explain what the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom looks like when he commands the Twelve to receive a child (i.e., an often overlooked and insignificant person for this time period). It’s a rather straightforward message that Jesus is hammering home: 1) Seek to serve all people, 2) welcome even those who may have been overlooked or deemed insignificant.

This past week I had the opportunity to spend some time with the new cohort of Young Adult Service Corps missionaries who were going through their orientation at the Holy Cross Monastery. It was a fun and exciting time to be around this group of young adults. They were in the midst of getting ready to spend a year of their life serving the Episcopal Church as mission workers in various parts of the world. During the orientation, one of the mission officers who was helping to lead the training, made a point that stuck with me. He informed the young adults that a lot of what we were talking about in terms of mission, service, and cross-cultural immersion may seem straightforward, but it’s a whole different ball game when we actually have to start living it. The real challenge for these young adults, and for all of us, begins when we have to make the jump from merely hearing Jesus’ message of service and inclusiveness to actually having to start living it out in our lives. Service for others isn’t easy. It requires putting egos aside; it requires putting oneself in uncomfortable situations; it requires patience; and it requires doing things we don’t often want to do. Yet, in the Gospel lesson we heard today, Jesus commands his disciples to put service at the very center of who they are. This is exactly what the Young Adult Service Corps program does. It asks young adults to put service at the very center of their lives. And this isn’t always easy for them. It means being away from family and friends for a year, sometimes it means putting a career on hold, etc. But it is through this experience, experiences of service and of mission, that the young adults are invited to dive deeper into their faith and their relationship with God.

Today we specifically remember two men who lived lives of service: William Wilberforce and Anthony Ashley Cooper. They were two English politicians who fought tirelessly for social reform and for the rights of those who were often overlooked. I love how Lesser Feasts and Fasts describes these two. It says these men, “refute the popular notion that a politician cannot be a saintly Christian, dedicated to the service of humanity.” Wilberforce and Cooper, despite being politicians, devoted their lives to fighting injustice at all levels of society. They led crusades for the abolition of slavery and fought against the oppression of women and children. We remember them today because they committed their lives and their vocations to the service of others.

So, why is service so important? Why does Jesus command that we live a life of service to others? Well, the very nature of God, and the nature of God as Trinity, is self-giving and overflowing love. This overflowing love is not merely hidden in the being of God. Rather, God reveals this love to all of creation going all the way back to Genesis. Jesus invites us to participate in this overflowing and self-giving love by commanding that we put service at the very center of who we are. In doing so, in giving our lives to others and by serving those who may be overlooked or not deemed worthy, we draw closer to the self-giving love that is the very core of who God is. Amen.