I’ve been thinking about the Hindu concept seva, which means selfless service or service done not for the sake of personal reward. The concept helped me start to understand this tricky Gospel passage in Luke, which I was going to preach on back in October. I ended up putting the inchoate sermon on hold when I decided to preach on St. Francis instead. The passage, however, has come back to mind along with seva, especially as I reflect on my Ministry Study Year at St. Alban’s. I preached this sermon to other students in the ordination process in Linda Clader’s Homiletics class…
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
There is a Jewish tradition in which children are introduced to the Torah by receiving sweet honey cakes, with icing on top in the shape of Hebrew letters. Or sometimes they would be given a plate with honey and candy on it covering the letters of a Hebrew verse. The child would joyfully lick the candy off the plate, reciting the letters as they appeared underneath. Either way, their first association with the Torah was sweet deliciousness. The child was therefore eager to keep learning, especially if it involved more sweets. Eventually the child’s love for Torah would outgrow its sugary reward and he would come to love studying Torah for its own sake. He would study Torah and conduct his life in accordance with its commands with no expectation that someone might reward him with candy. Certainly the adult who expected candy for his study and service would be considered quite immature. This Jewish tradition understood the initial desire for reward and motivation, but aimed to propel students to grow beyond the juvenile need for reward.
In the Jewish Mishna, an ancient Rabbi teaches his students, “Be not like servants who serve their master because of the expected reward, but be like those who serve a master without expecting a reward.” In Hinduism, this kind of service is called seva. It is selfless service done for the sake of service alone, not for any personal reward. And the more I think about it, I feel this practice has the potential to transform lives, particularly my own. I wonder, how often do I do things for selfless reasons? Or how often do I serve without expectation for reward or acknowledgement or compensation?
In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus offers his teaching on seva. First, the apostles ask him, “Increase our faith!” Underneath this apparently virtuous request, Jesus hears the apostles saying, “Give us more faith so that we can experience that amazing power and authority and honor we felt when we were casting out demons in your name.” In other words, “Give us faith so that we can get our reward, so that we can get our candy!” Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, you will get your candy. You will have faith that will uproot trees, but don’t ask for faith in order to receive your reward. Your reward is not the point.” He then explains seva to the apostles with a brief parable about a master and slave, in which the slave is expected to serve the master without any real reward or honorary place at the table or even a “thank you.” And, after all the work is finished, the slave should say, “I am worthless. I have done only what I ought to have done.”
Now, of course, Jesus is not teaching the apostles (nor us) to have low self-esteem or to really see themselves as worthless. (In this same chapter, only ten verses later, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” And I don’t think anyone—let alone Jesus—would say something so beautiful and affirming to people that he thought were worthless slaves!) If we can look beyond some of the trappings of first-century Palestinian culture (including the references to slavery), we can see Jesus’ words as a kind of Zen koan, teaching us to practice seva. Through his parable, Jesus is saying, “Don’t ask for faith in order to receive great reward and power and honor. Ask for faith because you are my disciple. Ask for faith even if it doesn’t uproot trees or cast out demons. Ask for faith and act in faith even if there is no reward whatsoever, even if you gain nothing, even if it all ends up being completely worthless. Even if you end up looking like a complete failure, ask for faith and act in faith because you are my disciple and I expect that from you.” That is seva, selfless service done for Christ and not for personal reward.
And here’s the good news: Ironically, there is immense reward for those who practice seva. In his book Be Here Now, Ram Dass says, “The most exquisite paradox [is that] as soon as you give it all up you can have it all…As long as you want power you can’t have it. The minute you don’t want power you’ll have more than you ever dreamed possible. What a weird thing!” Our faith in Christ and our service to him will result in glory and honor and power and eternal reward, but let’s not let that be our motivation. Although that motivation may have initially drawn us to Christ, let us learn to grow into mature disciples who faithfully serve Christ not for personal reward, but because we love him and because we know that that is what disciples do.
When I came into this Homiletics class, I was participating in a Ministry Study Year at St. Alban’s in Albany as an aspirant of the LA Diocese. A few weeks ago, I went down to LA to be interviewed by the Commission on Ministry. Through the process I learned how few people are actually being made postulants right now due to a surplus of priests. Last year, only two out of the ten aspirants were actually made postulants. So after the interviews, I had to come to terms with the very real possibility that I will not be made a postulant and will not continue in the ordination process. The reason I was working at St. Alban’s and even taking this class was in order to move ahead in the process. So the idea of not moving ahead in the process forced me to see my participation in the Ministry Study Year and in this class in a different way. I came to see my service as seva, as work done not for some reward or to achieve some canonical status, but as work done for the Lord because I am his disciple and because that is what I ought to do. I had to let go of my desire to hear the LA Diocese say, “Thank you, now come here at once and take your place at the ‘postulant’ table.” I had to learn to start saying, “I am God’s servant and I have done only what I ought to have done. I do not serve God for reward or money or power or postulancy. And even if everything, in the end, appears to be ‘worthless’ and I look like a failure from the world’s perspective (or even the church’s perspective!), I will still serve God because that is what I ought to do.” And I will confess that this is very hard for me to say. Often, I cannot say it at all. Practicing seva is extremely difficult for me and often feels impossible, but Christ calls me to practice it nonetheless.
I am glad that the LA Diocese has decided to make me a postulant, but I am also glad that, through the process, I have learned how to at least start practicing seva, which will be a necessary discipline to practice through the rest of my process. As we know, postulancy does not insure candidacy, candidacy does not insure ordination and ordination certainly does not insure a job. We all know this. We are all taking some major risks. We are all stepping out in faith by stepping into this ordination process. And the question that Jesus invites us to ask ourselves is “What if I don’t get a job? What if I don’t get ordained? How then will I look at all this hard work I have done? How then will I look at all the sacrifices I have made? How then will I relate to God when He appears to give me no ‘Thank You’ for all my hard work?” When we learn to let go of our need to be thanked and rewarded and learn to say that we have done only what we ought to have done, then I know our reward will be great indeed and Christ will say to us, “Thank You, my beloved servant, now come here at once and take your place at the table.”