Essential Practices for Living the Christian Life
Challenged to Serve
As we continue to look at essential practices that we need in our lives, if we are to have a robust Christian faith, we will look at our call to live a life of service. In many ways, this challenge intersects with a deep emotional need within all of us. We want to live a life that matters and makes a difference, not just to those we love but impacts the world in a positive way. In Jesus’ parable where the king separates the sheep from the goats, those who were blessed because of their service to others were surprised: “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?” They did not see people as us and them but as part of a shared humanity and tried to meet the needs they saw. They were not doing it for recognition. They were trying to live a life that matters and share love. Yet, God saw their actions and said they were blessed because caring for others is like caring for God. Over and over again, Jesus emphasizes the need for a servant heart. So, today as we celebrate Mother’s Day, we are going to look at an early servant who, to my way of thinking, does not get the recognition she deserves, Tabitha from the city of Joppa.
Her story tells us that there are many ways of serving others. We know very little about the early church community in the town of Joppa. What we know is that Cornelius the centurion lived there. He had been told by God to send for Peter. He responded after his vision of the sheet full of animals descending from heaven. It was here in Joppa that Peter declared, “God shows no partiality.” Before he left Cornelius’ home, Peter had baptized him and all in his household. In Joppa, there was a marvelous seamstress named Tabitha (Dorcas – meaning “gazelle” – in Greek). You wonder how she came to the faith. Was she part of Cornelius’ extended household? Was she one who came to believe because someone in that household told her the good news of Jesus? We don’t know. Tabitha dies and the faithful, knowing that Peter was in a nearby city, send for him. I am guessing that they wished for him to lead her funeral service. Tabitha is prepared for burial and when Peter arrives all the women come to him in tears showing him the garments that she had sewn for them and for the poor.
There’s no evidence that she ever preached a sermon, but God equipped her to sew, and gave her a heart for the poor. Those talents had touched many and brought some to faith. Tabitha lived her faith in such beautiful ways. Peter was touched by her story. Peter prayed to God and was used by God as a channel to allow Tabitha to come back from the dead.
Tabitha loved people, lived out her love through her gift of sewing, and changed a whole city. What gifts has God given you that you can use to bless others? So often when we think about gifts from God, we imagine the most notable, like: she has a beautiful singing voice, or he is really good at running a meeting, or she is a gifted writer. We then look at our lives and they might be lacking in these kinds of gifts. After all, we can’t sing on key, the last time we chaired a meeting it went on for three hours and nothing got accomplished, or I am spelling challenged and don’t know an adverb from an adjective. So, since God has not blessed me with these kinds of special gifts, I am off the hook. I am not required to do much when it comes to faith, other than take care of myself. We will leave the sharing and leading and all the rest to those gifted ones.
Tabitha reminds us of a truth we sometimes forget. We all have gifts that should be used for service. She was a gifted seamstress and used that talent to help the needy. Through her sewing, her life mattered and was transformative for her community. I think of others who have found their giftedness in skills that some might consider ordinary. I think of a gentleman who loved to garden and produced much more than he and his wife could eat. He had a regular delivery route of people he shared his vegetables with. Many of them were people who were on a very tight budget and getting fresh produce was a gift. I think of a woman who lost most of her eyesight. This was many years ago. Her daughter got her a phone with a braille keypad and she had her daughter read onto a cassette tape the names and phone numbers of friends and people she was concerned about. She spent several hours each day, while her daughter was gone to work, calling other people to encourage them. When she found a new concern, she let the church know. We all have gifts God can use in service, that help you fulfill that deep need to live a life that matters. What are your gifts? How are you using them?
One of the gifts that God places in all of our hearts is compassion for others. Now some may not show it, or admit it is there, but I see it. Particularly many men do not want to let people see their emotions, but then they will talk to me about a need they saw and did something about it with tears in their eyes. Since we have a heart of compassion, if we are to grow in our service to others, we need to nurture that gift. We need to see in each person a reflection of Christ.
There is a famous story about Martin of Tours. Early in the life of the church, Martin was converted to Christianity. He was also a Roman soldier. One winter day, Martin met a beggar who was blue and shivering with cold. He asked for money. Martin, a poor man himself, had no coins to share. But Martin felt compassion for this beggar and so took his worn and frayed soldier’s coat, cut it in two, and gave half of it to the beggar. That night he had a dream. In it, he saw the heavenly places and Jesus amid the angels. Jesus was wearing half of a Roman soldier’s cloak. An angel asked, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak?” And Jesus answered softly, “My servant Martin gave it to me.” We all have the ability to serve.
Tabitha’s story also should make us ask how we can let others know about Jesus and his love. She not only sewed for others, but she also let them know she did it in the name of Christ. She didn’t see herself as an evangelist or minister. She didn’t go out to convert her neighbors. But her compassionate nature, that caused her to help them through sewing, would not let her keep from them what she saw as her most precious gift, the gift of faith. So, she let people know of God’s love for them. They saw those words lived out in actions through her life and many were changed. This is what we are all called to do. We are not just to try to use our gifts, to pray that God increases our heart of compassion, but to also let people know why we do it.
One of the things I am most proud of concerning this church is how they allow its space to be used by the community. I, on behalf of the church, often get thanked by groups. Or, I have people tell me how impressed they are that we do this. My response is always the same. I say, “We open our doors because we believe God has called upon us to make a difference in the community in every way we can. This is one of the ways we are trying to do it.” Often, I get a smile and they move on, but it has also led to some wonderful conversations about faith and service. So, how are you doing at letting others know the whys of your compassion?
A key part of our heritage as Methodists came from John Wesley’s stress on holding together the “evangelical gospel” (the good news of salvation as God’s gift, received by faith) with the “social gospel” (the good news that God actively seeks justice and help, particularly for the weak and powerless). Wesley reminds us that both are necessary. It means caring for those in need as well as having a willingness to share, at least a bit, our faith story just like Tabitha must have done to get such a response from the women of Joppa.
The last question I have is, “How committed are you to a life of service? Does it become second nature so that when others mention it to you, it surprises you that anyone sees it as being special?” In Jesus’ parable, the people who were rewarded had so integrated compassion and service into their lives that it was no longer something they consciously thought about. That is our ultimate goal, isn’t it? If we are to live our faith fully and completely, we need to work each day on having a servant’s heart. We need to pray for a heart of compassion. We need to see in each need the face of Christ. And step by step we will grow in this faith practice until our deeds and our life become one. Doing this will deepen our faith and also meet that psychological need to know that we mattered to others and to God, that we made a difference for the good with our lives.
God used both Peter, the apostle, preacher, and healer, and Tabitha, the seamstress with a compassionate heart, to lead many to believe in Jesus. What role(s) has God equipped you to play in serving others? How committed are you to doing your part in helping others to “put their faith in the Lord”? How is your servant’s heart?