Thursday, November 09, 2006

serving beyond ourselves (mark 10. 35-45)

It would be easy to take off, in a reflection on this passage, with the idea that I know all about service, I know all about the scripture, and I am going to try to coax you, inspire you, guilt-tip you into serving. I have heard a few of these sermons, and I confess I have preached a few of them. I have arrived, over time, at a different conclusion.

I have come to believe that people are created with a natural desire to serve others. Our first instinct is to be generous and giving. You and I were created in the image of God, a God whose nature is self-giving. What is the scripture verse that the guy used to hold up at every football game, every golf tournament, every basketball coliseum? For God so loved the world that he gave…

It is God’s nature to give. The Book of Genesis teaches us that we are created in the image of God. If God’s nature is to give, the scripture is equally clear that it is the nature of Jesus to serve: The son of man came not to be served but to serve… (Mark 10. 45)…and to give his life.

We can be clear at the outset: it is fundamental to the nature of God the Father and God the Son to be giving, to be serving. And the overflow of this character is the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the encourager, the advocate.

We are here this morning, most of us, because or we have some interest in knowing this God, or we have come to know this God, or maybe we want to be a part of what this God is up to in the world.

Again I am convinced that this is a primary instinct within us, we are wired for this. We want to connect with this God. If God is giving, we want to give. If Jesus is a servant, we want to serve. If the Holy Spirit is encouraging, we want to encourage.

This first instinct, this internal wiring, is also our highest calling: to live a life that pleases God, that honors God, that praises God, that glorifies God, that bears witness to the love of God.

Yes, along the way, we do get sidetracked. Our relatives James and John show us this path. We begin by wanting to know more about God, wanting to follow Jesus, and then, the next thing we know, we want to be in control of an institution, to sit in the seats of power, to judge others.

At the beginning maybe it is all about God, but over time it can become all about us. And so we worry about who gets the credit, or who takes the lead, or who is in control. We are not bad people. We just lose our way. We take a wrong turn. It’s called sin.

One of the definitions of sin in the middle ages was cor incurvatum, the heart curved in on itself. James and John were afflicted with this sin: let us sit at your right hand and your left hand, in your glory…

Sometimes we get separated from the mission and we become more concerned with things that really aren’t so important. It happens, but it doesn’t have to be our destiny. And so, as I read this teaching of Jesus, I am also reflecting on a series of questions: How can the bad news of this passage become good news? How do we get back to our primary instinct, to our highest calling: to love God and to love our neighbor? How do we get reconnected with the mission of God?

Tip O’Neill, a famous senator of a generation ago, had a saying: all politics is local. In my adult life, in twenty-five years of ministry, I have come to believe that all mission is local.

When I began in the ordained ministry, missions was something that a third party did. One group, on one side of the world, heard about another group, on the other side of the world. Or one group, on one side of town, learned about another group, on another side of town. How did they come together? A third party. A missionary went to that far away place, and we prayed for them. This was, and is good. Or a denomination sent a newsletter about life in that exotic locale, and we subscribed to the newsletter and read it. This was, and is good. Committees and boards were formed to make decisions. Some of us have served on these committees and boards. This was, and is good.

But the mission of God has changed, morphed into something different. All mission is now local, whether it is Charlotte or Cap Haitien or the Catacombs, whether your lifestage finds you parenting a child or caring for an adult or encouraging a friend in who is in the midst of a crisis. This is all mission, and all mission is local. Not that the mission is just here, but it has to be something we can see, smell, taste, touch.

Over time, this has come pretty clear for people, in the church and in the world. A year ago Katrina hit the gulf coast. It was devastating. And because most of us have access to televisions, we saw it, it all of its raw power and fury and destruction. We were here, and the people were there. How did we connect?

Well, you might think that one connection would be governmental. We pay taxes that support agencies, agencies that were established for just this purpose, to help people in times of crisis. It soon became clear that the government was not very helpful---blame the political party of your choice. And so people searched for ways to bridge the gap between those in need and those who wanted to give.

People do have a primary instinct to give. They are at their best when they are giving to others. And so people, people in this congregation, shared their time, their money, their expertise, they shared meals and holidays and their homes, they traveled long distances to be a part of God’s mission. A group will go to the gulf to do Katrina relief in two weeks. Maybe God has been calling you to make that journey.

It did not happen in a top-down way, from the government to the people in need, and it did not happen in a top-down way, from the denomination to the people in need. Neither the denomination nor the government was very helpful.

It happened in the lives of people. All mission is local. It is not top-down. It is from the bottom-up. I have learned over these years that people are very suspicious of institutions, especially institutions that were created to help people. For the most part, people often have good reason not to trust institutions. Over time these institutions become more concerned with rules and regulations, policies and procedures than the mission itself. Over time these institutions lose sight of their mission. They lose their way. Like James and John, they are more concerned with their place of power and prestige. I have fallen victim to this disease. Maybe, at some point along the way, you have too.

The good news is that God does not operate with us in a top-down way, with the answers and the judgments coming down from on high. If this were true, Ken Callahan has suggested, “Jesus would have been born in a mansion or a castle”. No, the apostle Paul continually reminds us, the gospel is a scandal. And the shock of it is found in this wisdom teaching of Jesus. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all.

This seems odd. And yet, deep down, we know this wisdom to be true. We have experienced it.

Over these years I have spoken at a number of memorial services, sometimes for close friends, sometimes for active church members, at other times on behalf of people I might not have known, or individuals for whom the church was not very important. Whatever the differences, each service has its own dignity and meaning.

I am struck, in thinking over these services, about the recurring themes. Some of these people have accomplished a great deal, but the accomplishments are never more than a minor part of the story. Some have held important positions. These are noted only in passing. What is remembered? How the person gave, how the person served, how the person encouraged.

Could it be an accidental that these qualities---giving, serving, encouraging---are the very qualities of the God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? And could it be that as our lives become more giving, more serving, more encouraging, we are discovering God’s purpose for our lives?

This is the basic reason for the church’s existence: to connect with God and the mission of God. And so the question must be asked: how is the church serving beyond itself? This is not just a theoretical question. Some see the church as an entertainment center, a multiplex of offerings to meet the demographic needs of a changing world. Others see the church as a group of people who must be separated from the sins of the unrighteous. One way of seeing the church leads to competition, every church fighting for market share. The other way of viewing the church leads to isolation, and finally irrelevance.

The church needs to be relevant enough to connect with the real hurts, hopes and hungers of people: loneliness, poverty, illness, shelter, education, meaning and purpose. And so the mission we offer is connected to these real hurts, hopes and hungers.

But there is more here than relevance, and more here than meeting the needs of people. In a post-Christian world, we cannot assume that people know what we are doing and why we are doing it. That is why we tell the stories of Jesus. Sometimes the connection is as simple as reflecting on the profoundly good news that “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”.

A faithful way of living connects the mission of God with the story of Jesus.

We are entering into an age when people are more religious than they have ever been, but they know less about Jesus than they ever have. A faithful way of living calls us to rediscover who Jesus is, where he is in the world, what he wants us to do with our lives. If that sounds like an old revival sermon, so be it. Someday you and I will give an account for the life we have lived: was it one of love, service, encouragement? Did we recognize the Jesus of Matthew 25 (When did we see you? I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was a prisoner and you visited me, I was hungry and you fed me…Did we multiply our talents or bury them in the ground (Matthew 25)? Did we have the same mind and pattern of life that was in Jesus, who emptied himself and took the form of a servant? (Philippians 2)

Here’s the paradox: A world saturated with religion truly wants to see and know and follow Jesus. The problem with many of our models of church is that Jesus was not an entertainer, and he was not isolated from the sinners of the world. That is what New Beginnings on Wednesday nights is all about: a time to reflect on Jesus as the starting point of a conversation between seekers and disciples.

At its best, the church connects the mission of God with the story of Jesus. We give a cup of cold water and we name the name. We hold together the great commandment with the great commission.

The church discovers a faithful way of living when it serves beyond itself. People discover a faithful way of living when they serve beyond themselves. And then people discover a faithful way of living when the tell the story of Jesus.

Deep down, we all know that this is why we are here, not only inside a church today, but on this planet. This is why the Christian faith stirs within us, resonates deep within our hearts. We want our lives to mean something.


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