Delivered at Volunteers of America Holy Week Service 2016
Tuesday, March 22, 2016 John Henson
I went to a funeral over a month ago but it stays with me. I’m still thinking about what the deceased man did with his life as a husband, father, worker, deacon, and devoted follower of Jesus. It made me think of what Garrison Keillor wrote about funerals: They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days. Though I knew the man pretty well, I learned so much about him at his funeral that I didn’t know. He was the quiet, work-behind the scenes-type, doing so much more for the world than I realized. Throughout his life, he showed Jesus to the people around him. The actions of his life were just references to his death, to the way he died everyday. And nice things were said of him at his final act of death. Those of us who gathered there at the funeral that day did more than mark his death; we marveled at what it produced.
In the text we heard here this morning, Jesus said that death was the best way for his followers to bear fruit and show themselves as followers of Jesus. This was not physical death per se, as Jesus clarified, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus was like the kernel of wheat about to die and be sown into the ground, but the world would see him in the lives of his followers. Much fruit would be borne from his death. He wanted the disciples to know that was true for them as well and said to them, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (v.v.24-25) This was not your typical approach to keeping followers encouraged for the future. It certainly wouldn’t make for a commencement speech these days.
David Brooks of the New York Times notes that,
Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to [character growth] do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?” (“The Moral Bucket List,” The New York Times (4-11-15))
Isn’t this a fitting quote for Volunteers of America staff and volunteers? Our mission here is to do what Jesus calls all followers to do: to die to ourselves that we might bear fruit, allowing people to see Jesus; allowing people to see what God is really like. For the last 120 years, this has been the mission, ever since Maud and Ballington Booth founded Volunteers of America as a ministry of service to people in need. They kept the purpose of the organization incredibly simple and practical, focused on what Jesus called followers to be and do. Think of all of the fruit that has been borne from that initial kernel of wheat dying into the soil! What we do now as volunteers and staff is join in a long line of fruitful harvest, continuing its bountiful yield right here in Shreveport-Bossier. The fruit we bear is the result of the the daily dying to self in order to serve someone else.
We just celebrated the fruit of some of our most dedicated volunteers at the annual Volunteer banquet. Three of them die a little each week at the Lighthouse program, one by giving of her time and energy to provide a Wednesday program for Travis St. Lighthouse kids at FUMC, the other one takes off work each week to bring his daughters to the Highland Lighthouse to help at risk children but also to help his own children learn the value of service to others, and a third one who wants to help children make good choices when it comes to drugs. Another volunteer honored provides a birthday cake and party every month for veterans who have hit rock bottom in life. There’s also the group who sees their foundation’s $12 million dollars as seed to be sown through grants to fund programs that would otherwise not survive the ups and downs of government budgets.
In addition to these kernels of wheat, there are countless stories of Volunteers of America staff who give their lives in service to people every day. Some do so by actively listening to a client share about a recent problem. Other staff give their lives by preparing and cooking food. Some allow their lives to fall into the soil by cleaning a client’s wounds, changing diapers, organizing supplies, driving a van, cleaning bathrooms, creating events, keeping data, reading spreadsheets, managing cases, sharpening pencils, and myriad other tasks. Yes, there is a lot of dying going on at Volunteers of America.
But that means there’s a lot of living, right? The actions of service are reaping a bountiful harvest in our city, as lives are improved in measurable ways. We show Jesus when we do what Jesus did with his kernel of wheat. During this Holy Week, we get to watch what he did with it.
This Easter Sunday, we get to see the beautiful result.