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Undercover Greatness

Undercover Greatness

Luke 22:24-27

Epworth United Methodist Church

October 30, 2016

Linda Loessberg-Zahl

After the death of his father in 1999, King Abdullah II of Jordan took several tours of Amman. There’s nothing surprising about that, except that he went incognito. He donned a scraggly, white beard and rather shabby Arab robes, wardrobe that a common Jordanian might have worn in those difficult economic times. A palace aide was his taxi driver. He visited Jordan's state-sponsored trade zone, where business owners gave him an earful about inefficiency and red tape. Trade zone officials told the camera crew they could not record without a permit. Abdullah had to take off the beard and reveal his identity in order to be allowed to continue. He also tested the local police by having the cabby make a couple illegal driving maneuvers. They pulled over the taxi, issued a warning and told the incognito king to put on his seatbelt. The videos of his adventures were immediately leaked by the palace. Many considered his undercover forays a ploy to convince the public that he was a king who cared about ordinary people.[i]

The undercover king is a common plot device in ancient and modern storytelling. In the Arthurian legend, Arthur is conceived when his father, King Uther, disguises himself as his enemy Gorlois in order to romance his enemy’s wife. Not to be outdone, popular culture uses the narrative technique in the show Undercover Boss. The boss tries to do the work of the employees and usually fails miserably, before being revealed.

Often in these scenarios, the leader has a self-serving agenda for being incognito. Undercover bosses get publicity for their business, Uther got Igraine and Abdullah got political points and a lesson in the use of seatbelts.

We heard another narrative with a plot twist from the Gospel of Luke today. The disciples have just shared their last meal with Jesus and they start to argue about their status. He asks them to consider who is greater the one at the table or the one who serves the meal. He imagines that they will say the one at the table. He tells them, “Well I am one who serves.” This is a shocking role reversal. Instead of a perceived commoner revealed as royalty, the one they lift up like a king, their revered rabbi, is revealed as a servant. They must have been stunned. He tells them if they want to be great they should learn to serve. Jesus also has an agenda in this role reversal: to make a difference for others. This is no disguise for Jesus. This is who he really is.

This is a great church. That is what this church truly is, not because of how many members we have but because of how many servers we have and how many people we serve. We have an agenda too: making a difference for others, for young people, like adorable Søren, who we had the privilege of baptizing today, and for those who are not as young, like 96-year-old Susan Gittler whose life we will celebrate next month. We serve in a remarkable variety of ways. These banners of the many ministries of Epworth cannot fully capture the way lives have been affected by Epworth’s ministry, both within and beyond these walls. See if you can glimpse Epworth’s true identity as we uncover just a few of the lives touched by our shared servant ministry.

Let’s start by looking at just a sample of service outside these walls. We support students in Nicaragua, forming friendships and helping to renovate the library in a high school in Nueva Guinea, and many other ways. We help youth discover the difference they can make through Sierra Service Project. We remind the world that God loves all people including our valued LGBTQ friends at Oakland and San Francisco Pride celebrations. We strive to learn about and work against all forms of injustice through our Call to Action. Our community concert ministry brings world class music to our neighbors and will take music to prisons, shelters and urban schools. Our older adults lead us in wisdom, in compassion and in service at the Alameda County Food Bank. Our children teach us that KidsCare! partnering with children in community schools to support persons who are homeless, hungry or victims of violence.

Many of the Epworth community have served others through the men’s shelter dinners over the years. The dinner on Monday, November 21st will mark the 20th anniversary of the first dinner Epworth served. In the beginning they didn't have a group committed to serve dinner every night. That meant some nights there was no dinner. The men who are served are in great need. Many are veterans, 35% are chronically homeless, 60% have a long term disability, and 97% are extremely low income.[ii] Let me take a moment to share what the servers have uncovered as they have served. Kit Schweizer says: “They [are] really glad to see us when we show up each month. Many of them would go without dinner if we weren't there. Sometimes they clap for us to show their appreciation. Some ask where we are from. You may remember one of the residents has played his saxophone for worship at Jerry Asheim's invitation. I know it means a lot to the men that we do this. It means a lot to me as well. Often on the third Monday, I feel tired at the end of the day and wish I didn't have to do this. Always without fail, I feel better three hours later after we are done.” Sally Nasman says: “Almost every month a man will comment on how delicious the cornbread is and how it reminds him of his mother's cooking growing up. They often bless us for coming as they go through the line and sometimes that's the first time I've felt that way that day. I always thank them for the blessing and thank them for allowing us to serve them.” Who’s serving whom during those dinners? That’s often what happens when we claim our greatness through service. Everyone gets served. If you would like to help serve without leaving home, they need homemade pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas. See Nancy Pullen.

I could take each of our outreach ministries and discover stories of the greatness. That happens within the walls of this church as well. Thank you to everyone who shared the difference Epworth has made in your life though the inserts in the bulletin last Sunday. Listen for the recurring themes in these excerpts:

  • “Epworth is an anchor in our family. Everyday I get to witness the impact of Epworth on people within our community. Epworth is an epicenter of faith, prayer and action in the world.” Debbie Alvarez-Rodrigues

  • “Epworth is a source of spiritual challenge and reinforcement, as well as a place to fulfill my desire to serve in Christ's name.” Kathleen Rose

  • “I love being part of a spiritual community that supports one another.”

Becky Wheat

  • “It has made me more deeply aware of the needs in the community and the world, and shown me how I can use my gifts to serve.” Susan Jardin

  • “Epworth has been the catalyst for me to become the person I have the potential to be – more than any other single experience in my life.” John Schweizer

  • “Epworth supported me as a single mother when my children were growing up. It continues to support me as a retired adult.” Katie Johnson

  • “It has given me community I didn’t have before. It has always been a source of spirituality, support and enrichment.” Kit Schweizer

  • “It provided a place of safe harbor and peace.” Andy Schoenwetter

  • “Epworth assisted with the development of our children, inspired and supported social justice efforts.” Jerry Fillingim

  • “It allows me to reflect, feel comfort, and experience fellowship and joy.”

  • “Epworth has provided the grounding in community necessary to become a more humane human being, flourishing beyond simply surviving.”

Brandon Williamscraig

  • “The music fills my soul.” Cathy Travlos

  • “Both of my children joined Stephen Ministry as young adults. It has influenced them very deeply as adults.” Eda Naranjo

  • “Epworth gave me support and spiritual guidance during difficult times.”

  • “Epworth is a family and my life.” Roger Briar

  • “Epworth gives me a place to be still in a busy and sometimes stressful world.” Diane Downs

  • “My relative was suicidal. Coming here grounded him.”

  • “My husband was baptized in this church. This is profound.” Sharon Strachan

  • “I feel like I have a niche where I belong. Epworth is one of the few places…where people of different generations interact.” Margot Hansen

  • “I can’t get 46 years within this space!” Jeanne Olson

  • “Epworth has embraced us “newbies.” Maria Gallo

  • “My granddaughter’s values were shaped here.” Ana Martinez

  • “I rarely meet someone new who doesn’t know of Epworth directly or indirectly.” Nancy Pullen

  • “So much meaningful fellowship. Our children were baptized here and truly belong.” Connie Adachi

  • “I realized that God loves me exactly the way I am and that I am not alone. I became a person who finds joy in caring.” Greg Niemeyer

  • “Epworth has become my spiritual home. Being one of the earliest open and affirming United Methodist churches has provided a model of radical welcome.” Kim Hraca

Those are many testimonies to the ways you have served others within this church, the foundation of the greatness of Epworth. As those comments show us, when we support Epworth with our time, our resources, and our abilities, we serve others, and we uncover our own greatness. After this message a few people will share silent testimonies about how Epworth has changed their lives. How has Epworth affected you, encouraged, challenged, welcomed you? Look around at the truly great people in this church. Some of you have been going incognito far too long.

You are only a sample of the people who have been involved, inspired or encouraged by Epworth’s ministry. Every year we have to estimate the number of people served by Epworth in the congregation and the community. Our conservative estimate for last year was 1161 people.

Like the old clothes worn by King Abdulla the worn walls of this church can disguise the serving ministry that goes on within Epworth and from Epworth out into the world. Our capital campaign, A Community Building – New Spaces for New Graces, will help us uncover the joy, the vitality, the greatness of Epworth. Offering your support, offering my support, is another way we serve.

You were born to be great! You were born to serve, to be a leader in loving. Don’t go incognito. Don’t disguise it. This church was founded to be great – to lead in loving, to excel in serving. Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman[iii] reminds us of the words of the renown Nobel Prize winning theologian Bob Dylan: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Thank you for allowing your time, skill and resources to serve others through Epworth. Being great in service can take us to places we don’t expect – around the corner, and even around the world. So fasten your seat belt! Amen.

[iii] Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg,

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