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The Power of Service

March 04, 2012

Bible Reading

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.

Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

(Genesis 4:1-16)

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”

(John 13:1-16)


In the past two weeks, I have received three visits from those in the larger community wishing to address social concerns. There was a very nice woman that wanted to establish a coalition of people to address domestic-violence issues in our community. That same day I had a meeting with a man from the cathedral down the street who wanted local congregations to band together to educate the public about issues related to ethnic and religious diversity. There is also an effort to form an organization, involving volunteers from the churches, to help people acquire the skills necessary to find jobs and become less dependent on welfare programs. These are all good and worthy programs. They address social issues that need to be addressed. Even so, part of me has been wondering, do we really need these programs?

I know this sounds a bit callous, so let me explain. I have been exposed to a great many social programs. We all have. Anyone who receives mail knows that there are a lot of programs in our community hoping for our participation or our generous donation. From my vantage point as a minister, I have seen many programs doing their best to get off the ground. Someone perceives a social need and designs a new program to address it, then goes on the road, sometimes even door to door, looking for those willing to support this new initiative. I have seen quite a few programs fail, even after they have their charters and bylaws written and filed in the appropriate municipal office and even after they have funding, because there’s no one to do the work that needs to be done. The program looks great on paper, but too few actually take over from there and run with it. So I wonder if we need yet another program, when what we really need to get the job done are those who will do the work and see it through as long as the need exists.

Establishing a new program is often the first response to community need, and it’s not difficult to understand the reason why. In general, we are a head-centered species. Our brain actually thinks that it’s in charge. Swedenborg maintained that the story of Cain slaying Abel was really the story of how our minds—our intellectual faculties—are considered more important than our hearts—our affections—in our lifelong quest for truth. Cain is a tiller of the ground, corresponding to the realm of the mind in which ideas are planted and nurtured. Abel is a shepherd, a caregiver to the beasts of the field, which correspond to our feelings and emotions. Cain is the knowledge of what is good, and Abel is the desire to live according to it. In the story, Cain is confused and disturbed that Abel’s offering is accepted by the Lord while his is not. We all need to know what is good, but that doesn’t do us any good if we aren’t also willing to live by it. So Cain responds in the only way he knows how. He rationalizes that with Abel out of the way, God will begin to favor his sacrifices of the fruits of the earth. He is cursed for killing his brother, since thinking without compassion doesn’t lead to spiritual growth.

When we perceive a social need, our mind jumps right in there and responds in the only way it knows how. Our minds want to make certain that needs get addressed in a rational manner and constructs a system with a solid infrastructure that not only establishes clearly defined goals and objectives but also meets the parameters of the written mission in a timely fashion. The heart, in contrast, grabs a can of soup and a blanket and lays it before the altar of God. Programs are good, but they are nothing if our hearts—our desire to be of service—are not involved in the process. The desire to be of service is essential to meeting any social need, whether it’s preventing domestic violence; promoting diversity awareness; reducing unemployment; ending poverty, illiteracy, or hunger; teaching effective parenting; reducing environmental pollution; or anything else we can name. These needs will continue ad infinitum as long as we do not act from a desire to serve.

This is really the foundation of Swedenborg’s doctrine of uses. God has given each and every one of us, including and especially you, gifts and talents. There are some things that you do especially well, and they are related to the things that you love most. We are each called upon to contribute to our communities by invoking our loves, expressing our gifts, and doing useful things. If we do not practice our usefulness, our thoughts and feelings never get expressed in meaningful ways. They remain unproductive, and in fact can become stagnant and destructive if we do not allow them to flow as they should. When we act from our usefulness, we not only benefit our communities but also receive benefits. We feel our wisdom enhanced and our desire to be of service growing even stronger.

I believe that this was one of the central messages Jesus sought to teach his disciples when he washed their feet before the Passover. He knew that his students regarded him as supremely important to the world and that they therefore probably regarded themselves rather highly. They were part of the elite, and perhaps because of this fact not one of them was willing to do the servant’s task of washing the dust from the other guests’ feet as they entered the household. Jesus saw that there was work to be done and was not too proud to do it himself. “Whoever would be a leader among you,” says the Lord, “must be willing to be a servant to all.” Jesus invoked his love for his students, expressed a gift for sensing the needs of others, and became useful within that room.

There is a term that is growing more popular in use: “servant leadership.” It is a model for leadership that actively incorporates humility. It is extremely easy for humans in positions of leadership to act like kings and queens, believing they have the power to make or break things. But if we are to assume a position of leadership we must begin, if we want to be effective, with an attitude of humility. We must be willing to put aside our personal agendas in favor of fulfilling the real needs of those we lead. Servant leadership not only insists that we put the needs of others ahead of our own but also discourages us from assuming that we know what their needs are without actually having to ask. That was Jesus’ gift because he was in community with the divine. How many leaders do you know of who have attained that state in which they no longer have to ask what our needs are?

There are a lot of needs out there and a lot of opportunities for each of us to be of service. There are a lot of programs around us, each of them beginning with a sincere desire to fulfill a need. If you encounter a program that touches one of your loves, don’t let it just sit there on paper. Support it. Be of service. Make your contribution. Being useful is how we grow.

Rev. Eric Hoffman