September 23, 2012
The 17th Sunday after Pentecost,Year B, Proper 20
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Jesus is telling us that the one with the greatest needs get priority in the eyes of God, and if we are to be followers of that, disciples even, we must do the same. If we are to be the church that we can be, we need to listen to Jesus.
We need to welcome the least of these in the name of Jesus. When the broken arrive in this place, we need to continue practicing our habits of hospitality, radical hospitality to all. We are doing it, let’s keep it up and keep opening our arms wider and wider. We need to keep up our ministry to those who are suffering: the home starter kits, the 2nd Sunday Breakfast, Shelter Week and bringing food in for FISH. We need to keep writing checks through the Outreach Commission and sewing dresses for kids in Haiti and blessed sock monkeys for St. Vinnie’s. …all those good works, we need to keep doing them, work like that is part and parcel of the Christian life. But that is the easy part, the doing. A challenge, Jesus is pointing out, is more subtle than that, more subtle than doing, it is an ontological challenge: it has do with being.
Being the servant of all is a real challenge to us when we need to start practicing it where we live. Here. The great spiritual lesson we are being presented with is not about charity or mission of any kind, it is not about how much of our wealth we share, or how often you serve breakfast, that is all external, we have obvious control and decision power about who we engage with and how. Serving the needful from this place is largely done on our own terms. Placing ourselves in the role of servant is easy when it is a clear choice in the matter. Would we ever be dismissive of a guest we are serving breakfast to at First Christian? Begrudge a young parent staying here during shelter week? Of course not. Serving folks, putting our own needs second in relation to people with such obvious needs is obvious. But when we are in a community such as this, a voluntary community of peers, friends, fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God, the distinction of choice, whom we choose to serve, whose needs get holy priority, whose needs get the day in, day out welcome in the name of Jesus Christ, that gets a lot more complicated. That gets a lot more challenging. That gets a lot more personal.
Why are we talking about this this morning? Why are we talking about the challenges of service within Resurrection? ____ Change. Things have always been changing, but the pace of that change in this place is accelerating. Look around. Really, look around. How many of us were not here three years ago? Last year? Last month? Think about how many people are here in this church with you whose name you don’t know. How long has that been going along? Things have always been changing and at this point in the life of this parish, things are changing more and more. More and different people, new ways of praying and organizing ourselves, new ways of communicating with each other, new ways of serving and new ways of simply being in the world are all around us. We even have a new listserve! The Spirit is alive in this place and that is thrilling, it is titillating, it is encouraging and heartening and it is challenging and scary. It is challenging and scary because we are being called into new forms of relationship with people we have no control over and it is happening right here, in our community, in our church home, our church family.
I was at a retreat this past week, obstensably reviewing the preaching lectionary for the coming year. Besides Fr. Bob Totten, the priest from Florence, everyone there was United Methodist. If you are going to work on preaching, one could do worse than working with Methodists, they’ve got the whole holiness thing down. The leader of the retreat is a church consultant and he had the fire of Christ in his belly. He spoke with great urgency about what makes vibrant and vital parishes, what makes a church an outpost of God in the world. In his decades of church service, as a parish pastor and consultant, he is convinced that the only churches that are long term viable, or even worth making an effort on, are the ones mid-wifeing and equipping disciples of Jesus for service in and to the world. I went to work on our preaching ministry for the coming year, I come home thinking about discipleship.
That is why we are here, or why we should be here. We should be here to learn about ourselves, discern our relationship with God, we should be here to practice living in relation to each other. We are here to practice loving God with everything we have and practice loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are here to be disciples, servants in the name of God. There is a lot of fun and socializing here, but it is not a social club. There is a lot of fun and serving here, but this is not a service organization. This is a church. We are The Church, the Body of Christ. We are an athenaeum of sacred learning and discipleship. We are an academy of practice. We are a boot camp for recruits on God’s way. And all are welcome to join us in our work and witness.
This is the change and the challenge we most critically need to pray on together. Following that winding path up the holy mountain into God, we will encounter pilgrims that we will not encounter elsewhere in our lives, and we will not be able to do this on our terms. We will sit next to folks in church, sit on committees with, serve pancakes with, eat pancakes with folks we do not encounter anywhere else, and we must be glad for that. As time goes on, as our message is delivered more widely, as more join us in our work and presence in the world, this caravan of pilgrims will look less and less like it does now and will look more and more like the kingdom of God. In this we are challenged, we are orderedby Christ to be the servant of all.
We cannot just tolerate these changes. We cannot just tolerate those who join this caravan. Tolerance is not a Godly virtue. It is a bare minimum requirement for civil living, it does not meet the bar of Christian living. Welcome. Acceptance. Embrace. Maybe even Celebration. Those are the kind of words Jesus would use, well, at least Paul would. Accepting, embracing, celebrating each other is a requirement for life in this community. Where and when we fail, which we will from time to time; where and when we do not measure up which of course we won’t from time to time, we must be willing to try, we must be willing to learn to try, because it is so hard to do.
Serving the broken; helping the needful; lifting up the downtrodden… that is simple. Loving the annoying; working with the low functioning; cooperating with the kookie, the cranky and the confounding; working, serving side by side with those whom you couldn’t dream of relating to anywhere else in your life…now that is holy living. That is higher practice math. That is what makes a church family, a Christian community, a full part of the body of Christ. That is welcoming one such as a child. That is being a servant of all. That is another step on our journey in to God in Christ. As St. James reminds us, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” AMEN