I wonder how many of us have seen a film starring Harrison Ford from 1985 called Witness. It’s set in a small Amish religious community in the States and shows their traditional farming lifestyle. There’s a scene where the whole community works together to build a barn for a newly married couple – I’ve found a clip to show you over coffee later and barn raising as it’s called is still carried out in Amish communities to this day. I mention it as an example of a community working together to help others and in truth there’s nothing unusual about that. Throughout human history we will have survived and prospered by helping others in our community, knowing that when we ourselves were in need we too would be helped.
Academic papers are written attempting to define volunteerism and to separate it from the simple helping of one another that’s part and parcel of human existence. These problems of definition also make it hard to measure just quite how much volunteering goes on. One recent study asked the question ‘Did you help, work or provide any service or assistance to anyone outside your family or household without receiving compensation?’ If you ask that question of yourselves in relation to the last few months you might be surprised by just how much volunteering you’ve been doing, much of it without any formal arrangement or even conscious planning. It’s human to notice another’s need and to do something to help.
Mutual self-help is an essential in pre-industrialized societies, so essential that it doesn’t need a name. It’s part of life. But once we have industrialization and urban societies, using money as the primary means of exchange, then we see the rise of volunteering as a concept and as part of life. So it was in 19th century Britain that new charitable organisations were formed, that depended on volunteers to carry out their tasks of improving social conditions.
I’d intended not to say a word in this service of a political nature so if you’re tired of hearing me grumble on about the ‘austerity agenda’ that is dominating our current political landscape then cover your ears for the next minute. But it would be wrong I think to wax too lyrically about how marvellous volunteers are and not point out the danger of a state backing away from its responsibilities to society’s most disadvantaged members and leaving less regulated charitable organisations to do the work. Yes there’s an important place for charities in modern society but surely they are not a replacement for a state welfare provision. The two need to work closely alongside each other and I personally expect my taxes to contribute towards the care of those in need. Governments have a duty of care to all and for me that means the most vulnerable need greater resources than the most capable of independence. Enough of that.
Let’s move to a more spiritual place. We’re here in church after all and so far we Kensington Unitarians are not joining in any Big Society projects though I know of churches running programmes to help prisoners to rebuild their lives, to teach English as a second language, to help families who are struggling, churches are hosting the ever more needed Foodbanks. Maybe this is a conversation for us to be having – asking one another what our role is in 2015’s social setting. Because the religions of the world have long been at the forefront of social care. They all emphasise the importance of service to others and have provided and continue to provide education, medical care and care for the most vulnerable within their communities.
The message from all these religions is that by serving others we are serving the divine. Jesus expresses this so clearly as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
Matthew 25:35-40, English Standard Version (ESV): For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
This sums up service quite beautifully I think because at its core is the teaching that though human existence sometimes feels like a solitary endeavour, it’s not. We are all one human family. When we serve one, we serve all.
Spiritual writer and activist Andrew Harvey in his book The Direct Path describes five different but interdependent forms of service “all of which need to be pursued and fulfilled together to be fully empowering and effective.” These are
Service to the Divine
Service to the self
Service to family and friends
Service to the community
Service to the world, to all sentient beings and the cosmos in which we live
Harvey reminds us that the ultimate aim of the mystics’ path is selfless service as an instrument of the divine – the message of our chant earlier – o signore, fa di me, un instrumento della tua pace. St Francis’ prayer – O lord make me an instrument of your peace. This is St Theresa of Avila’s image of us as God’s hands here on earth.
From the mystical heights I must bring us to the dark side for a moment because like every human endeavour serving others has its shadow side. I wonder if any of these ring bells for you as some of them do for me. Yes, it’s a good thing to help others – and the shadow side may be a growing illusion that we know what’s best for others – as individuals or at an organizational level. We may cease to listen to the people we are attempting to help because we are so convinced we know best. Yes, it’s a good thing to help others and the shadow side is we become so concerned about others that we mask our own needs or we lack the self-reflective ability to notice that in truth we are attempting to meet our own needs through helping others. This way exhaustion or irritability or lack of authenticity lie – if we don’t attend to our own needs as well as the needs of others. Yes, it’s a good thing to help others and the shadow side is that being on the receiving end of other people’s charitable endeavours can feel quite dreadfully disempowering and humiliating. There is an imbalance of power in such a transaction that needs acknowledging and ideally redressing. These are just a few of the shadow aspects of volunteering, a reminder for us all to remain awake and reflective about what we do and how and why we do what we do for other people.
But when volunteering is working well it is a potentially powerful tool both for self-development and for social improvement. A United Nations Report from 2011 on The State of the World’s Volunteerism emphasises how volunteering is a means by which people can take control of their lives and make a difference to themselves and those around them. Volunteering can be a route towards social inclusion for those who might otherwise be excluded from social groupings. In a church setting such as ours it is essential for our very existence. This church was created by volunteers, it is run by volunteers and will be steered towards its future by the decisions of volunteers. Ministers like me come and go but volunteers as a body, as a community, as a committee of committed people – they – you – are our past, our present and our future and for you I give thanks.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 31st May 2015