Proper 26a & All Saints’ Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, the greatest among you will be your servant.
All our readings today address the theme of service, and it is fitting to reflect on that theme, in light of our annual celebration of the lives of the Saints — both the great historic saints of the church, and our own more personal saints, whose lives had such a great impact on our own. This impact, historical or personal, resonates down the years — from lives of those who touched so many other lives. And this resonance, this impact, is due to how these saints served.
What does it mean to be a servant? For it is in being a servant, in serving, that people leave a mark for the good on all whom they encounter, and all whom they serve. How people of the church’s past, or of its present — around the world or in this parish — serve their neighbors and their Lord, will determine the future of our world, and the future of this parish, both their immediate future, and how they will stand fifty or a hundred or a thousand years from now.
The problem with the word servant is that for most of us these days it is just that, a word. There was a time when almost every household among the well-to-do had live-in servants. And even among the middle class it wasn’t unusual to have what they used to call “help” or “someone to do” once or twice a week. But nowadays about the only place you see servants, even on TV, is on Masterpiece Theater. The world of maids in starched aprons and butlers in tail-coats is far from us.
However, there is one kind of servant with which we are familiar, and it goes back long before butlers and chambermaids. These servants stood at their masters’ tables, served them their meals, filled their empty goblets, and cleared away the dishes after each course. This most ancient kind of servant is still with us, though today we call them waiters. And since we’ve all experienced good and bad waiters, it seems appropriate to look at the servants in today’s readings in that light.
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The prophet Micah starts us off with the portrait of the kind of waiter who is only interested in the tip. If you’ve ever had a terrible waiter and left a small tip on that account, you’ve probably encountered the sort of waiter who as Micah says, “declares war against those who put nothing in their mouths.” These servants only work for their pay — they have no devotion, no vision, no vocation or calling. It’s just a job as far as they’re concerned. And if they can get away with substandard work, they will. Probably the less said about waiters like this the better; and so let’s move on to the next sort.
The gospel takes us from the ungrateful waiter to the haughty maitre d’. Don’t the Pharisees and scribes of today’s gospel sound an awful lot like a snooty waiter? They are unwilling to lift a finger, they do everything for show, and are all dressed up and placed in the position of honor, to be greeted respectfully.
It may seem odd that a servant would be in a position to look down on a patron, but that is the odd circumstance one finds in certain posh dining establishments, like the one I described a few weeks ago where “proper attire” is required and the maitre d’ is the guardian of gentility. He is the one who has the power to admit only those deemed worthy to dine, looking down his nose at anyone who doesn’t show him proper respect, but groveling before the rich and famous. Unlike the first sort of bad waiters, who couldn’t care less about the job as long as they get a good tip, this kind seem to care more about the appearance of the job, the perks and titles, and honors and esteem, the fancy suit and the stylish boutonniere, than they do about actually seating the guests and seeing that their meals are served. Their focus isn’t upon those whom they serve; it’s on the whole role-play of importance and appearances, what Shakespeare called “the game of who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down.”
Finally, though, we turn to Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. And here we find at last a servant whose attention is properly directed. All Paul cares about is those whom he serves. It is their happiness and their joy that is important. This sort of waiter is always there when needed, not someone whose attention is impossible to attract. You will find this kind of waiter filling your glass before you even notice it is empty; offering suggestions on what is a particularly good dish; ready to serve and eager to make you comfortable. And not because there’s a big tip to be looked forward to, but because the waiter simply enjoys seeing you enjoy yourself.
This is the kind of service one rarely encounters. It’s the kind of service loving parents provide for their children. And Saint Paul uses such imagery, family imagery, in describing his work among the people of Thessalonica, his brothers and sisters for whom he toiled so hard, and who, when he was separated from them, he missed as an orphan misses his parents.
This is the kind of service to which our Lord calls us all: service not for profit or gain, except the profit and gain of our brothers and sisters as they reap the fruits of the Spirit. It is not service for show, for honors and titles, but service that lifts up others without thinking about itself.
This is the service of the saints — the big important famous ones from church history, as well as those personal saints who touched our own lives with their immediate presence. Such saintly service finds its end in the happiness and joy and well-being of those who are served; such a servant finds glory and joy in the act of service, and in knowing that the service was rendered to a good end, that it has done some good.
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I want to close with a remembrance of such a servant — not a saint of the church, but of the world. He has touched all of our lives though we may not think about it. But if you ever drink a glass of milk, you should give thanks to the man who gave his name to the process that made it safe to drink: Louis Pasteur.
Pasteur was one of the greatest scientists of all time. He was numbered among the top 100 most influential persons of the last millennium. He was among the first who championed the notion that germs cause disease, and developed treatments for scourges such as anthrax. As I alluded to, he invented the process we now know by his name, pasteurization, by which beverages are kept safe and healthful for our tables — and though we think first of milk, the process was originally applied to beer and wine, which the French considered far more important!
Pasteur also discovered the first successful treatment for rabies, which in his day was a deadly affliction that killed thousands every year. He had worked on the vaccine for some time, and was about to try an experiment on himself, when a young boy of nine, Joseph Meister, was savagely bitten by a rabid dog. Joseph’s mother begged Pasteur to try the new and untested vaccine on her son, who would surely die in agony otherwise. Pasteur, a patient servant, administered the vaccine for the next ten days, in progressively stronger doses. His experiment worked, and young Joseph Meister lived. Not only did he live, but he continued in a form of service himself — working first as a janitor and later for decades as a tour guide in the Pasteur Institute, completed just a few years before Pasteur died.
For Pasteur was already old when he saved Joseph Meister’s life. After years of people saying he was crazy, he had finally become a national hero, with the great Pasteur Institute just completed, funded by contributions from all over the world. As a new national hero in old age, public plans were being made for his tomb. (You know the French love to build fabulous tombs for people whom they dissed for most of their lives!) Pasteur was asked what he would like to have as an epitaph: some acknowledgment of pasteurization, that saved the French brewing industry? A few words to serve notice that this was the tomb of the man who proved that germs do after all cause disease, and who found a way to combat some of the most deadly? What would be a fitting epitaph for this great man?
Pasteur said that if it were up to him, there would just be three words engraved on his tomb, three words that would sum up what his mission had been about, three words that summarized the service he had rendered: “Joseph Meister lived.”
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For a servant can focus only on his wages; a servant can focus only on his prestige and office; or a servant can focus on those whom he serves. I know what kind of servant I hope to be; I know the kind of servants whom we remember as saints in the church and saints in our own hearts and homes. May God give each of us the strength to serve in humility and humbleness ofheart, that we may one day be remembered not for who we were, but for who and how we served; through Jesus Christ our Lord.+