It was a beautiful, sunny, early June evening – a rare day given all the clouds we’ve had recently. Linda, my wife, and I set up our chairs and joined an audience of around 70-plus people made up of all sorts of folks: retired, those with young children, teens; those well-dressed, and those less well-dressed. We were in Claremont to attend the second concert of a seven-concert summer series put on by the Claremont Presbyterian Church.
The performer for the evening was John York, whom some of you may know. Like many music professionals in Southern California, John York played with several groups whose names you may recognize depending on your age: the Byrds, the Mammas & the Papas, and Johnny Rivers to name the ones I recognized.
John’s enthusiasm for the music he was singing, and his 12-string guitar skills riveted the crowd – and me. What a great entertainer.
I tell you this story because of the first song John sang that evening. How many of you know Bob Dylan’s song Gotta Serve Somebody? I don’t remember hearing the song before that evening, but it struck a chord for me, pardon the pun. I had been casting about for a theme for today’s message – and “you gotta serve somebody” was perfect. It was as if the Holy Spirit said to me listen to this song carefully here’s an important message for the Riverside Presbytery.
I would have liked to have played the whole song for you, but in the interest of time, I’ll just read a couple of verses from the song and then the chorus so you can get a flavor of the song. Let me encourage you to do an internet search and listen to the whole song when you get home.
You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks
Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Who does your church serve? How does your church serve your community? You gotta serve somebody, but who is your church really serving? Your community? Or your members?
In our scripture lesson today, Joshua is asking the Hebrew people who are they going to serve. Joshua is concerned that the people will forget all that God had done for them. God led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Joshua was their leader as they conquered the people living in the land God had given them. Now, Joshua was no longer going to be their leader and he wanted a promise from the people that they would remember all that God had done for them and continue to depend on God and to serve God.
Today, I share Joshua’s concern. I ask you today, who are you going to serve? Many of our ancestors worked hard to bring Christ to the cities in which their churches were located. Yet, many of these ministries are struggling today, with buildings too big for the congregation that worships there. Many struggle to pay for the utilities. Congregations cannot pay for more than a part-time pastor.
Why is this happening? Could it be that we’ve forgotten who we are to serve? Has the building become a ‘god’ to the congregation? Are some churches serving their building instead of doing God’s work? Are some folks just too tired to serve God in new ways? Has the way we worship become so set that it has really become a ‘god’? What plans has your church made for the future that involve changing the way you’ve always done things?
We live in a liminal time, a time in between when we can’t quite see what the future may bring. As one historian has pointed out, every 500 years the church has a garage sale. The idea is that what doesn’t hold meaning is discarded just as you sell things you no longer need or want at a garage sale.
Are there things that you’re hanging on to that need to be ‘sold’ at God’s garage sale? I say God’s garage sale because I believe that God is creating a new thing as the scripture says. Don’t you perceive it? How will you and your church fit in?
Who are you gonna serve?
There are churches in the Presbytery that are serving their community, that are meeting the needs specific to their community. I’ll just mention three. There are more.
Calvary – feeding the unhoused and providing showers
El Buen Pastor – working with the unhoused and providing food for their pets along with showers for the unhoused
Stonewall – blessings bags for the unhoused and a sock ministry
Did you notice the size and variety of churches I mentioned? Calvary – a large church with what many of you may consider lots of people and resources. El Buen Pastor – an evangelical ministry that relies on volunteers to accomplish its work. Stonewall – one of the Presbytery’s new worshipping communities that has taken a sock ministry and ministry to the unhoused by providing blessing bags for the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission. There are probably 18-20 members of Stonewall and they have taken on this ministry that has made a big impact in their community.
You gotta serve somebody. Who is the somebody that your church is serving? What are you waiting for? Sometimes we hesitate to venture out to serve our community because we’re too small or don’t have enough money. But these examples reveal service isn’t necessarily limited by resources.
If you’ve ever been camping, you know the joy of a campfire. As you’re sitting out in a dark forest on a cool evening, perhaps hearing unfamiliar animal noises fill the air, it’s wonderful to feel the warmth of the fire, listen to its crackling, and marvel at the beauty of the flames as they dance before your eyes. Plus, campfires almost always draw a group of friends or family members who share the physical and emotional warmth generated by the fire. Without fearing what’s out there in the darkness, you enjoy the company of loved ones as you tell stories and eat s’mores. (Life for Leaders June 5th email.)
I mention this illustration to point out that sometimes we’re comfortable sitting around the campfire and aren’t looking at ways to be Christ’s hands and feet to the community in which we are located. We enjoy the love and security of our group and are afraid to move outside the circle. We cling to the past where it’s more comfortable.
You gotta serve somebody. What’s keeping you huddled around that comfortable warmth of the campfire? What would it take for you to leave the warmth of the campfire?
You gotta serve somebody. Is that somebody outside the campfire? I sincerely hope so!