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Worship and Sermons
Nov. 5, 2017

“Great Service” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, November 5 2017, Year A / Pentecost 22 (Commitment Sunday) – Micah 3:5-12  •  Psalm 43  •  1 Thessalonians 2:9-13  •  Matthew 23:1-12

THEME:  Become great by humbly serving others, not by exalting ourselves above them.


          When you think of Hugh Jackman, the actor, what do you think of?  A major Hollywood star, right?

          I have to confess, I was late to the Hugh Jackman party.  The first time I realized how talented he is was ten years ago when we took our girls to see the movie Happy Feet.  It won the Oscar for best animated picture that year, and Jackman did a superb voice for the character Memphis.

          Even if you know nothing else about Hugh Jackman, you probably know two things.  First he’s Australian.  Second, he is the star of the X-men film series based on the Marvel Comic books.  

          In 10 X-men movies over the last 17 years, Jackman has played the character “Wolverine”.   It’s become one the highest-grossing movie franchises ever and it turned this almost unknown Australian actor into a worldwide superstar. 

          But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  He can sing, too.  He’s won all sorts of awards on screen and stage.  In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single major award he hasn’t either won or been nominated for.  In 2008, he was even voted Sexiest Man Alive.

          Anyone who’s had that much success you would naturally assume to have a large ego.  But nothing is further from the truth.  Hugh Jackman is known throughout Hollywood as the most humble A-List star ever. 

          He’s just a regular bloke from Sydney who’s been married for 17 years, sings ballads around the house and, on weekends, he makes pancakes for his wife, Deborah, and their two adopted kids.

          What’s equally surprising is how much Hugh and Deborah do to help others in need.  Both of them are Christians and they walk the talk. 

          Through various charities they give much of their time and money to assist orphans and streamline international adoptions.  They’re patrons of the Children’s Cancer Foundation and the Lighthouse Foundation for displaced children.  They serve on the Advisory Committee for Film Aid International, helps refugees throughout the world.

          Most recently, they’ve signed on as World Vision ambassadors in Kenya.  They work to promote Fair Trade Coffee that helps struggling and starving coffee farmers.   They’re not afraid to get their hands dirty.

          The two of them have clearly found happiness by humbling themselves and serving others with their time, talent and treasure.

          They’ve taken to heart what Jesus teaches his disciples in this morning’s Gospel text.  After skirmishing with the Pharisees, Jesus advises his disciples to follow their teaching, but not their behavior.

          The problem is the Pharisees don’t do what they teach.  They insist the people keep every last letter of the Jewish law, even though it makes their lives extremely difficult.  

          The Pharisees themselves, however, don’t lift a finger to help.  Even worse, instead of helping the people, they help themselves by trying to make themselves great!

          Jesus’ advice – to his disciples and to us - is to pursue a very different path.  It’s the way that leads to true greatness: serving others in humility. 

          We know the disciples were concerned about greatness.  A few chapters back, they asked Jesus point-blank “Who will be the greatest in your kingdom?” 

          Jesus’ response shocked them.  He called a little child over, put him on his lap and said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

          Here, Jesus takes it a step further. “The greatest among you will be your servant,” he tells them, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

          There’s something subtle and powerful here, so let’s be sure not to miss it.  The greatest is never us; it’s always someone else, the one who serves us.

          But there’s something in us that resists that.  Call it pride, ego or ambition, the result is the same:  we are fatally impressed with status, wealth and power.  We go to great lengths to accumulate all three. 

          More often than not, though, even when we succeed, we find ourselves less fulfilled than we expected.  The happiness we assumed would come along with them, proves illusive.

          It turns out there’s a very good reason for that.  It was described in an August Time Magazine article about happiness. 

          The writer is a woman named Jenny Santi.  She’s becoming well known for her work advising philanthropists.  She’s written a book called “The Giving Way to Happiness.” 

          She begins by reminding us of an old Chinese proverb that says, “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.  If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.  If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.  But if you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.” 

          This folk wisdom has been passed down for centuries, if not millennia.  Your parents probably taught it to you, just as mine taught me.

          Many great thinkers have said the same thing in different ways.  Saint Francis of Assissi said, “It is in giving that we receive.”  The great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, agreed.  He said,  “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.”  And Winston Churchill famously said “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

          Others from the Dalai Lama to Star Wars creator George Lucas have said the same.  It all boils down to this:  happiness is found in helping others.            Anecdotally, we all agree with this.  But can we actually prove it? 

          It turns out we can.  Thanks to a new tool called functional MRI, scientists are able to see the brain’s responses to various activities. 

          It works just like an MRI, but instead of creating images of organs and tissues, functional MRI looks at blood flow in the brain.  Because we know which areas of the brain are associated with various human actions and feelings, measuring the changes in blood flowing to them allows us to see how we respond to different activities like giving.

          What neurologists have found is astonishing.  Giving generates activity in the same areas of the brain that respond to food and sex.  Giving to others creates pleasurable sensations that are much like those we feel when we receive gifts.

          It would seem we are hard-wired for helping others.  That’s how God made our brains to work.  As Jenny Santi concluded, “Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but healthier, … more productive and meaningful.”

          We all want to live that kind of life.  It’s the abundant life Jesus promises when we follow him. 

          But in order to attain it, we’ll have to forego the temptation the Pharisees fell into:  we will have to squelch the voice of ego within us, the voice that tempts us to what C.S. Lewis called “the great sin”:  that’s pride.

          That’s where spiritual disciplines come in.  With the exception of prayer, none is more important than tithing.

          Tithing humbles us.  No matter how hard we work, how smart we are, how adept we are at whatever we do to fill our days, put food on our tables and keep roofs over our heads – tithing reminds us it’s all a gift.  100% of it comes from God. 

          You may not be tithing yet, and that’s ok.  If you’re not, don't start this coming year.  But what’s important is working toward that goal, trying to increase our pledge by 1% of our income each year until we get there.

          When we get on that path, funny things begin to happen – strange, awesome and wonderful things. 

          Tithing helps us overcome the voice of the ego, the one that tries to convince us we’re in charge.  It challenges us to confront the question, “What is the real source of my security:  Money?  Or my relationship with God?   Which one do I really trust?”  As Jesus said, there’s only room for one.  

          When we start leaning on God, God never fails to respond.

          That doesn’t mean it will be easy.  When you start walking closer with God, don’t expect stability and tranquility.  Far from it!  

          What God promises is our hearts and our lives will change.  And he’ll use us the way he used the disciples – to change the hearts and lives of others by following Jesus.

          So, I’m going to invite you now to join me in that spiritual discipline of giving.  Please make your way and meet me at the front of the chancel as together we make our 2018 Stewardship commitments to the work of SSPC.

          As we do, let’s remember.  We may not all be as handsome and talented as Hugh Jackman, but we can certainly be as happy as he and his wife are.  We just have to do what Jesus commands:  humble ourselves and giving ourselves to serve others. 

          And that starts right here.


Last Published: November 6, 2017 3:02 PM
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