I was walking around downtown a few months ago with some high school students handing out burritos and warm socks to homeless people we met. This isn’t an activity that I find completely within my comfort zone, but I had a good group of students that were excited to engage the homeless friends we met and were even more excited for me to lead them as an example.
We had some great conversations with people that we met, but one interaction sticks out to me. We met a man who was sitting on a cement planter with his dog. We approached him and asked how he was doing and if he needed anything that we could give him. His eyes lit up at the mention of warm socks and we gladly offered him a pair that we had. He apologized for his appearance but was so excited for the new socks that he asked if we minded him putting them on right as we talked. We encouraged him to do exactly that as we enjoyed our conversation together. We talked for a few more minutes as he enjoyed his new socks, we prayed for him and wished him well, then we went our separate ways. I haven’t been able to shake this interaction since then.
As I think back to it the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet keeps coming to mind. Now, I’m not a huge fan of feet and germs frighten me more now than they did when I was younger. But, looking back, I wish we had a bowl filled with warm water and a soft towel with us as our homeless friend changed his socks. I think we would have washed his feet for him before he put on his new socks. I hope this interaction never leaves my mind or the minds of my students. Jesus modeled for us a life of serving one another.
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
Jesus calls his followers to service throughout his ministry. Jesus himself was always serving others by healing people when they were sick and feeding them when they were hungry. In Matthew 25 when Jesus is talking about the second coming he says that some of the things that will separate those who follow him from those who do not are how they treated others. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I needed clothes and you clothed me.” “When did we do those things,” Jesus followers will ask? “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Serving can happen on a variety of levels, but the richest rewards come from giving generously of ourselves and investing time and resources into the lives of others. Some time after this interaction I was talking to a friend of mine about service, specifically serving with students. How can we serve in ways that honor the dignity of those we are serving and invite the giver to participate fully in life-changing ways. We were talking about different options and opportunities that adults or partners had to serve together with students or children. As we talked, it became pretty clear that there were different levels of serving together that we were identifying.
This type of service may make the giver feel good but it can be paternalistic and undermine the dignity of those who receive the care. It is more focused on the needs of the server to feel helpful and appreciated rather than walking with someone to understand their actual concerns.
Serving others by taking a collection can be valuable to get the resources needed to others, but it also keeps the giver at a distance and separates them from participating in the lives of others.
Serving in the context of a relationship preserves the dignity of the recipient and creates an environment for genuine transformation of everyone involved.
These different levels of serving together had different outcomes and different levels of risk. As the risk went up, so did the positive outcome for both those serving and those being served. The possibility of relationship between server and the served rose as well. And the possibility of long term change on all sides increased. Consider how you can follow the example of Jesus and serve one another in generous ways.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster