Matthew 16:21–27; Romans 12:1–8

This week the latest issue of Greater Good Magazine arrived. It’s the second issue I’ve seen since I first was introduced to the magazine. The first issue was so engaging, I was looking forward to the arrival of the next one. This issue is exploring the question, “Is Goodness Contagious? New research explores the roots of moral inspiration.”

According to the editors, current scientific research has suggested that humans have a real and deep-seated propensity for compassion, and that people can learn to be kind and more empathic by witnessing the good deeds of others or being parented or mentored by an ethical person who is looking out for their good.

As I read through the articles, I became intrigued by the question, “Where does goodness come from in human beings?” Is it innate? Can it be caught?

What do you think? Do you think a person can witness a completely unselfish act of one person caring for another and be elevated and inspired to do good deeds themselves? Do you think children can be taught goodness and young professionals mentored to behave ethically and “do good”?

I invite you to listen to the following story told by an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Jonathan Haidt, in the article, “Wired to be Inspired”…and see what you think.

“Myself and three guys from my church were going home from volunteering our services at the Salvation Army that morning. It had been snowing since the night before, and the snow was a thick blanket on the ground. As we were driving through a neighborhood near where I lived, I saw an elderly woman with a shovel in her driveway. I did not think much of it when one of the guys in the back asked the driver to let him off here. The driver had not been paying much attention so he ended up circling back around towards the lady’s home. I had assumed that this guy just wanted to save the driver some effort and walk the short distance to his home (although I was clueless as to here he lived). But when I saw him jump out of the back seat and approach the lady, my mouth dropped in shock as I realized that he was offering to shovel her walk for her.”

What motivated this young man to want to “do good” in a situation where there was nothing for him to gain?

We are daily bombarded in the news by Enron-type scandals where people have chosen to defraud others for personal gain; with athletes using steroids and lying about it…People all around us seem to be driven by a desire for power and material gain…so where does this idea that people want to be good and do good works come from?

Some people like to think of themselves as good and want others to think well of them so they volunteer to serve…perhaps they volunteer to tutor at a local elementary school or serve on a church or non-profit board. Others may serve because they are paid to do so…(like the many people who are employed in the service industry) or some serve to fulfill a school requirement.

Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to be his disciples, they would have to take up their cross and follow him. He was calling them to a life of service.

One way to define Christian service is the “loving, thoughtful, and active promotion of the good of others and the just causes of God in the world through which we experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves.”

When the young man in the story, jumped out of the car and offered to shovel snow for the elderly woman, he noticed someone in need and offered his service. Did a little part of him die as a result? Perhaps so, in the sense that every time we choose to serve the good of the other and not our own self interest, we rub off a little piece of our inflated ego and become a little more selfless.

What is tricky about all of this is that if we serve so that we will think of ourselves as good or so that others will think of us that way, it brings glory to us and does not inspire goodness in others.

It is the source of one’s service that makes the difference. Jesus tells his disciples that the kingdom can be gained only by losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake; in other words, acts that are motivated by unconditional love with no strings attached because we have accepted we are loved and forgiven.

The capacity to love and be loved resides in us; it needs to be acknowledged and acted upon.

How do we encourage a spirit of servant hood in our community life? The call to servanthood is not an attempt to devalue individual human ability and potential or to become doormats. Those of us who are especially vulnerable to being suspicious of a call to servanthood are women, children, and people of color who have been viewed by society to be less than fully human and were expected to or forced to serve.

Child labor laws were enacted to protect children who were being used as cheap labor in factories and elsewhere. Women have worked hard to do away with a slave mentality which made them servants not by choice but out of a lack of self-worth and fear of abandonment while at the same time being considered worth less than men in the economic arena. Civil rights laws have been passed to prevent discrimination and forced servanthood based on race, color, creed or sexual orientation.

Because of the pain of past histories, it is perhaps hard for some of us to hear the words of Jesus without becoming fearful, defensive or distrustful. It may be even harder for those who have never experienced forced servanthood or servanthood based on duty, to embrace Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross and serve, as a positive choice.

The crosses we bear not only come from our culture that puts us in categories based on nationality, race and gender, level of education and wealth, and says who is better than whom, but there are often individual crosses that we create in our psyches by the way we have come to see the world:

  • our prejudices
  • our need for approval
  • our greed for more and more things to make our lives more comfortable
  • our own self-hatred because we are not perfect…to name a few.

To become conscious of these things, confront them in ourselves, and turn them over to God for healing is part of preparing us to engage in loving, thoughtful and active promoting of the good of others.

This is not easy to do. I can readily identify with the disciple, Peter, in our gospel lesson for today.

You may be like me in that one minute, I, like Peter, am able to see who Jesus truly is and proclaim my loyalty to follow him, confessing that he is the Messiah, the son of God. The next minute I fall into fear of what it means to follow one who must suffer and die to fulfill his life purpose. I, like Peter, want to run away from the call to a life of service because I see it includes embracing suffering.

If Jesus had stopped short of going to Jerusalem because he knew he would suffer and die, he would be remembered as a great moral teacher, a prophet and a compassionate healer. But because he didn’t allow himself to be tempted to avoid suffering, he was and is much more than that. When Peter and the other disciples saw where Jesus was going, it scared them. They didn’t want all of the hope and goodness they experienced in Jesus to end in suffering and death.

For most of us, our physical death most likely will not result from our choice to serve God. However, as we choose sacrificial self-giving, little by little our self-importance, need for recognition, and material reward becomes smaller and smaller as we die to self.

Do we lose a sense of our individual uniqueness in this process? No! – just the opposite, we become more ourselves.

There are many ways that we can serve each other in the course of our daily lives that are not dependent on roles or life situation. Paul lists some of the ways in our passage this morning from Romans. We may, for example,

  • Honor one another by not talking about another behind his or her back.
  • Receive the gifts of others by allowing others to serve us
  • Express gratitude for the gifts of others and respect their cultural differences
  • Practice hospitality by sharing our homes and resources
  • Listen to each other; bearing one another’s sorrows and rejoicing in the good
  • Share the good news of the gospel which brings life to all who hear and receive it.

Ultimately, though, service is not a list of things we do, it is not a code of ethics, (although the 10 commandments do give us guidance); it is a way of living our lives.

It takes daily discipline to keep the passions in check. If we set out each day to accentuate the good, we may find a profound change occurring in our lives. The grace of humility may slip upon us unawares. We will have a fresh zest for living and a sense of unhurried peace.

People we once envied, we now may view with compassion because we see not only their achievements but their pain as well. People whom we may have, up until now, passed over as uninteresting, we may now find to be a delight; all because we are no longer only concerned with ourselves but with others as well.

Does it make any difference to the rest of us that one young man got out of the car following a morning of volunteer service to shovel the snow of an elderly woman he didn’t know? Or does it matter in the long run that many people risked their lives or left the comfort of their homes to aid in the relief efforts following the Tsunami or the hurricanes in Florida or recent bombings in London? Is goodness contagious?

My answer is, “Yes.” Because of the humble service of some in our community, in our nation, and around the world, the rest of us will sense a deeper love and compassion operating in our midst even though sometimes we can’t even account for the source of the knowing.

At other times, we will actually witness the good work of another and it will inspire us to do the same in the setting where we reside.

What a paradox! To spend so much of our lives working to gain power, prestige and material wealth, only to discover that ultimately we find our life’s purpose and our true selves by taking up our cross and giving our lives away in joyful, loving, thoughtful service empowered by the love of God for us and for all of humankind. Amen.