The Dumbwaiter

The Rectory of Saint Mark’s was built in 1893 to replace the previous residence of the Rector at 1620 Spruce Street. It required the demolition of part of the Parish House, which I guess used to extend further west. And it was built to house a small community of clergy (presumably single) all living under one roof. As I understand it, the clergy living there would have relied on the attention of at least a few people providing domestic service in the house for their care and feeding. The present large kitchen was, I believe at the time, the housekeeper’s suite. In the late 19th century the kitchen was actually in the basement – there are still some large built-in cupboards down there and a mantle over an old fireplace. Everything I know about domestic service in late nineteenth century America I have learned from watching Masterpiece Theatre costume dramas about the English aristocracy, mind you. Nevertheless, I have no difficulty jumping to conclusions that the one must have been very much like the other.

There remains, on the three lower levels of the Rectory, from the basement to the 2nd floor, the shaft of an old dumbwaiter, which would have been extremely useful in a brownstone townhouse that requires a certain amount of vertical movement. But on the first and second floors the dumbwaiter shaft has been converted into closets; so while you can tell that the shaft is still there, and its little carriage still rests in its old place near the basement kitchen, the dumbwaiter is no longer functional. It is a kind of ghost of the memory of the time when servants used the back stairs; and I imagine (somewhat wistfully, I admit) how well looked after the Rector must have been in those days, alas, long gone.

When we hear Saint Paul writing to the church in Corinth that “we are God’s servants, working together...” the words themselves are in no way confusing. But I wonder if we are really able to grasp their meaning. In my experience, most Americans these days are at least a little conflicted about the idea of servanthood. And in the church, it sometimes feels to me as if the idea itself is a little like the dumbwaiter in the Rectory – we remember what it used to do, and we can imagine its usefulness; but we know that it doesn’t work anymore, and we have no intention of trying to restore it. There exists in the church a kind of ghost of the memory of servanthood, but aren’t servants a thing of the past? How can we possibly be God’s servants?

All you have to do is watch a little Masterpiece Theatre to know that ideas about servanthood have changed a lot. The Rectory was built with two staircases (front and back) for a reason, and it wasn’t simply convenience. Servants had their place and their domain: quite distinct from the domain of those they were to serve. Nostalgia for those days may be quaint on Masterpiece Theatre, but it won’t do in the church today. Does that mean that we should discard Saint Paul’s suggestion that we are God’s servants? Is the mere idea of servanthood simply outmoded?

There are those who would say that, in fact, the idea is not dead at all, that servanthood is alive and well in the church, and that as an organization the church is as stratified as ever. It is true, after all, that a small company of volunteers shows up in churches all over the globe to enable the church to function. Hardly a thing happens here at Saint Mark’s without a division or two of such volunteers appearing to get us through our liturgies, or to help the office function, or to provide hospitality when we gather together, or to feed the hungry as we do in an organized way here most days of the week. And as is the case in churches across the globe, a few people tend to do an awful lot of the work.

But notice that Saint Paul does not write to the church in Corinth to tell them that some of them must be servants. He says, “we are God’s servants, working together.” When he says this, he means that God has something for each of us to do, and that we accomplish God’s purposes best when we do our work together.

God has something for you to do. This is a simple statement that could change your life: it changed mine. My life changed when I stopped asking myself what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and started asking what God wanted me to do with my life. With that shift in perspective, the entire world looked different, and I saw myself differently too. And it was a little scary to consider the implications, but it is also the reason I am able to give thanks for my life every single day.

But this assertion is not the domain of the clergy. God has something for you to do, no matter who you are. It might be with knitting needles, or with a book, or in quiet time of prayer. It might be at the ironing board, or at the stove, or with a bag full of groceries. It might be at a hospital bed, or on the phone, or just by holding someone’s hand. It might require some training, or a great deal of patience, or a commitment to be in it for the long haul. It might mean you get up early on days you could otherwise sleep in, or that you stay up late when you would rather be in bed, or that you find yourself well outside of your comfort zone. It might mean you have to get dirty, or work with your hands; or you it might mean you have to embrace silence, or you might have to think long and hard. It might require a smile, or it might lead to tears. It might seem deeply fulfilling, or it might leave you feeling quite drained. It might draw on talent you know you have, or it might result in doing something you never knew you were capable of. It might happen in church, or at home, or in Honduras, or on the street, or somewhere you never thought you would go. God has something for you to do, and that something will probably not be about you; it will be about helping someone else, living beyond yourself, being a neighbor, a friend, a partner. For when God calls us to serve him, it usually means serving someone else, and oftentimes the best way to love the Lord your God is to love your neighbor as yourself. God has something for you to do.

“We are God’s servants, working together....” Working together is such a challenge for so many of us and for the church. Often we prefer to work alone; who of us doesn’t prefer to do things our own way? Working together requires compromise, patience, and more compromise. But working together we can do things that God does not expect us to do on our own. And working together is what makes us a church – a blessed company of faithful people who together constitute the Body of Christ. You cannot be a church on your own. And while it’s possible that many people working separately do contribute to the church, the church is at her best when her members are working together in a more deliberate way. This may be one of the reasons we prefer choirs in church to soloists: it’s a model of working together, many voices producing an anthem that a single voice could never sing on its own.

It can be difficult these days to know what anyone thinks they mean by calling themselves or someone else a Christian. I suspect that many people think the label speaks for itself. And that easy assumption is built on another assumption that there’s nothing much to learn about becoming a Christian, living like a Christian, doing what a Christian person does. There’s an assumption that you could wake up on any given morning and know what you have to do to be a Christian without giving it any thought. I think this is a dangerous assumption. For one thing, it doesn’t allow us to be God’s servants, working together. It takes some thoughtful consideration, some practice, and a concerted effort to let your life be about others and not yourself, to be a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. It requires that shift away from asking what I want, to intently discerning what God wants of me and of you. And it takes us working together to build up God’s kingdom, and strengthen God’s church, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I realize that many people look at the church these days and see a dumbwaiter: an outmoded thing that takes up space that would be better utilized in some other way. But I can’t tell you the number of times that I have wished the old dumbwaiter in the Rectory still worked. Every time I serve coffee or drinks or snacks of any kind on the second floor, I carry trays of cups and glasses and wine and ice upstairs(well, I do use the front stairs for this, I’ll admit), I think, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to send all this upstairs on the dumbwaiter? The dumbwaiter might be the last servant left in the Rectory... if serving the Rector was the point.

But I think I may have something to learn from that dumbwaiter, and maybe you do too. For a dumbwaiter has something to do, but it can’t really ever work on its own; it takes working together, with others to load and to unload, to carry and deliver, to remove and to clean up. This is how feasts are kept!

Whether it knows it or not, the world needs the church. Which is to say that the world needs God’s servants, working together. In fact, it is when she strays from her identity as the company of God’s faithful servants that the church incites skepticism and animosity from those who suspect we are little more than a fancy outmoded relic of a former age. Well, we are called to be servants - God’s servants, working together – and if that seems outmoded, so be it, there are worse things to be called in this day and age.

There was a time when God’s servants, working together, believed that they could change the world. They knew that God had something for them to do, and that it would be most effective if they did it working together. The church has known this truth since the days when a dumbwaiter would have seemed like an outrageous contraption, and our ancestors in the faith saw that when they functioned as God’s servants, working together, the most amazing things happened. They brought Good News to the entire globe. They changed the world.

My friends, we are God’s servants, working together. Let us never forget that God has something for each of us to do, and that working together our offerings of ourselves become so much more than the sum of their parts.

There are so many places here at Saint Mark’s to pray, so many places to light a candle, so many places to ask God what he has for us to do, and to help us work together. But today I think I may walk down to the basement of the Rectory, and light a candle there on the dusty, wooden shelf, inside a closed-up shaft, that once carried sherry (I expect) and all kinds of other things up two floors so it could be whisked to the Rector and his guests. I might just make a temporary shrine of that dumbwaiter, and ask God to remind us all that we are God’s servants, working together, and with God nothing is impossible.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

12 February 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 13, 2017 .