Serving With Joy

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 24, 1999


Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 15-19, 47, 48 Blessings and curses

If you obey the Lord your God by carefully observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:

You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

The fruit of your womb will be blessed, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.

Your basket and your kneading bowl will be blessed.

You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. . . .

But if you do not obey the Lord your God by carefully observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:

You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.

Your basket and your kneading bowl will be cursed.

The fruit of your womb will be cursed, the fruit of your ground, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks.

You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out. . . .

Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.

Luke 10:1-9, 16-20 Jesus sends out the seventy

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.

Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'" . . .

"Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"

He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Yet do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

The Heavenly City #104 The joy of kindness

Kindness is an inner desire that makes us want to do good things even if we do not get anything in return. It is the joy of our life to do them. When we do good things from this inner desire, there is kindness in everything we think, say, want, and do. You could even say that as people or as angels, when we think of goodness as our friend, we are kindness in our inner self.


Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. (Deuteronomy 28:47, 48)

What a tough text to start out a sermon on "Serving With Joy"! The Bible does have a way of jarring us out of our complacency.

Sometimes we do like to complain about this and that--our financial woes, our aches and pains, our missed opportunities. But the fact is, compared to just about any time and place throughout human history, we've got it pretty good these days. We live in a wealthy country where even most poor people can survive reasonably well. We enjoy freedoms that are rare in history, and in much of the world. We have riches of science, knowledge, and intellect far beyond anything our grandparents could have imagined. Even more, we live in a time when the greatest riches of all--the riches of love and compassion--are growing in value. These days, even men are becoming more sensitive . . . at least, some of them are!

The Lord our God has given us an abundance of everything--material, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. It is natural for us to take these gifts for granted. Once we have achieved a certain level of material or emotional comfort, we get used to it. It becomes a part of the furniture. And we forget that everything we have is a gift and a blessing from the Lord. We forget that it is the Lord who keeps every single little thing in existence every minute of every day. We forget that if the Lord were not continually giving us these gifts new every moment, they would instantly vanish, and we would have nothing.

We forget . . . except when we lose a blessing that we had taken for granted. When we lose a job or a relationship or a loved one, then we know by that absence the blessing which the Lord had been giving us each day. Our Old Testament reading makes it sound as though the Lord punishes us for our lack of joy and thankfulness in all the divine gifts we have received: "Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you."

Yet underneath the stern warnings and threats, there is God's love for us and God's concern that if we get complacent and take our blessings for granted--that if we forget to use the good things we have been given by serving God and one another with gladness and joy--we will lose the Lord's blessings eternally. We will lose them because we have not stored them up in our hearts, minds, and lives, which is the only way anything can become eternal for us. So God gives us passages in the Bible such as these in order to jar us out of our complacency and get us back on track spiritually.

For it is true that if we do not serve the Lord our God joyfully and with gladness of heart, we will serve our enemies--the enemies of apathy and ungratefulness, jealousy and bitterness that take over our lives when we do not appreciate and enjoy the gifts of God. We will serve these enemies while hungering for the appreciation and kindness of others--which we are continually driving away. We will serve them while thirsting for an understanding of why our life has gone so sour--an understanding that continually eludes us. Sooner or later, as we serve these inner enemies, we will find ourselves emotionally naked when our hidden bitterness and jealousy become clearly exposed to the people around us. Even in the midst of material and spiritual riches, we will serve our spiritual enemies with a feeling that we lack everything; that we have nothing at all; that everything we do have is worthless.

Now, I want you to know that I speak from some experience. As I was growing up, I acquired nicknames as easily as Rajneesh acquired Rolls Royces. One of my nicknames was "Eyore," after Winnie the Pooh's four-legged friend who was always moping about this or that. I'm afraid that in my case, nickname was well-earned. At one stage in my life, there wasn't a silver lining for which I couldn't find a cloud. If I found a quarter, well, you couldn't buy much for a quarter anyway. If I won a game of chess, so what--I was sure I'd lose the next one. If someone said a nice word to me, I wondered what they wanted from me. There was no reason I couldn't have a perfectly nice day . . . but I'd made other plans.

When we're caught up in that kind of thinking, God does not need to bring calamities upon us; we bring them on ourselves! We become experts in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Even if we experience material success, inwardly we feel as if life has cheated us. We conclude that life just isn't fair.

Yet all of this negativity really isn't necessary. When we find ourselves getting too wrapped up in our own woes, there is a simple solution: do something for someone else! There is no better way to get our mind off our own problems than by focusing our attention on the needs and the happiness of those around us. This is the positive side of our reading from Deuteronomy. If we do obey the Lord our God by observing his commandment to love and serve one another, then all of the curses we have experienced will turn into blessings.

It is hard to feel bitter and jealous when we are truly thinking about another person's needs and happiness. When we look outside ourselves and pay real attention to the people around us, we find that they have their difficulties and struggles just as we do. We discover, to our amazement, that God has not singled us out for special hardships after all! We find that we are a part of this web of human life; that we share both our struggles and our joys with the other people whom God has created to be with us.

When, instead of looking for ways to make ourselves feel better, we look for ways to be of service to the people around us, both our attitude toward life and our effectiveness as people changes. Wilson Van Dusen sums up this contrast beautifully in his booklet, Uses, A Way of Personal and Spiritual Growth:

Swedenborg makes a subtle distinction that has to do with our purposes. We have two shoe repairmen, both making a living at this trade. One has as his aim making the most money. He cuts corners on materials and workmanship. He has to grind out as many repairs as possible. The second also is concerned with profit, but he enjoys meeting customers, talking of shoe problems, and he enjoys his craft. The aim of the first is his profit above the customer's welfare. The aim of the second is profit through the customer's welfare. This is the difference between hell and heaven. If you visited these two shops, you probably would quickly sense the difference. If we sent in a shoe repair expert, he could probably find the difference in the repaired shoes.

This moves us along to the next stage in our progress toward serving with joy. It is not enough simply to go out and do something for someone. If in our job our work around the house we are simply seeking our own welfare and advancement, we will feel none of the blessings of serving others. It is only when we are thinking of the welfare of others that being useful can lift us out of ourselves and our own problems, and start carrying us toward the blessings of heavenly community even while we are here on earth.

This is one of the reasons that all too often, the work we do to make our living or to take care of our household is flat, boring, and unsatisfying. We have neglected the most vital and living part of service: keeping the purpose in our heart of serving other people's needs and helping to make them happy.

Even if we are involved in work that, from an external view, is repetitive drudgery, our satisfaction in doing it can leap upwards if we keep in mind the good results for others of our work. Cleaning the house becomes a sacred task when we are thinking of the comfort of those who live in the house. Agricultural work becomes a sacred task when we think of people enjoying the food we are growing, and having healthy bodies as a result. Any trade, profession, or task can be a sacred calling if we focus on the welfare of those served by the work we do. And when the welfare of others is our primary motive, we will continually do a better job of whatever we are doing, since we will continually be looking for ways to serve better.

As we devote our lives to this pursuit of better and deeper service, we will gradually begin to discover the kind of service that gives us the most joy. As Van Dusen writes:

If you don't know your highest use, it can be found eventually while exploring uses in whatever needs to be done. You are nearing your highest use when you come on uses that you can hardly help performing because they give such pleasure. These uses are the high points of life.

To borrow a phrase from Joseph Campbell, the path of "following our bliss" is one of looking for ways that we can be of more and more service to those around us, giving joy both to ourselves and to those we are serving. It is a path of serving the Lord our God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything that the Lord has given us.

If we do this, the words of Jesus will come true spiritually in our own lives. We will tread on the snakes and scorpions of material snags and sorrows, and have power over our inner enemies of bitterness and jealousy, so that nothing can hurt our spirits. And we will rejoice, not just because we have gained power over these damaging spiritual forces, but because our names are written in heaven. There, we can spend eternity serving one another with joy--a joy that we have already discovered in our daily tasks here on earth. Amen.

Painting entitled "Little Red" is ©Tom Sierak 
and used with his permission by Moon And Back Graphics to construct this set

©Tom Sierak

Music: In the Garden
© 1999 Bruce De Boer