Written by Pastor Ed
October 18, 2015
Isaiah 53: 4-12
Mark 10: 35-45
Tomorrow is election day here in Canada. No, this is not going to be sermon about politics, although to say that Christianity has nothing to do with political reality is not true. I just don’t care that much about politics, frankly, I suppose partly because I can’t vote here, and it’s too much of a hassle to try and vote in the US, and partly because I long ago decided that the political realm was not the place where real change was going to happen anyway. As Garrison Keillor once said, “It’s scary when people your own age become the political leaders, and nothing changes!”
But as I read today’s lectionary texts, and as we have been inundated with political ads, both here as well as the feeds I get from my US friends on Face book, I was struck by an interesting contrast.
Almost all of the appeals to voters, from any party, have to do with what it will mean for you, as an individual, either if the other party gets elected, or if my particular party gets elected. You’ll have more money in your pocket. You will most likely lose your job. Or in the US perhaps your rights will be infringed upon. It is our self interest that seems to be the chief motivator for how one should vote, according to the ads and rhetoric.
The story we read from Mark 10 begins with two of the disciples, or at least the two who were bold enough to speak up, also coming to Jesus out of self-interest. They had, it seems, come to recognize something of what Jesus had been talking about and decided to get their bids in early. We’d like some place in your cabinet when you form your government, they say.
And Jesus , first of all wonders if they really understand what that might mean, which obviously they didn’t, but then goes on to offer a contrast to such self-interest. “Don’t be like politicians who want to rule over people, rather if you want to be first, or greatest, you must become a servant of all.” That is, rather than looking out for your own self-interest, you need to be concerned primarily with the needs of others.
And he offers himself as an example. “For the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It’s the reason, looking back, the early church, and we, often use Isaiah 53 as a description of Jesus, the suffering servant. And we could cite other passages that make the same point, like the hymn in Philippians 2 of Jesus not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself and took the form of a servant.
Ryan Dueck, pastor at the Lethbridge Mennonite Church, wrote in a recent blog about his experience at where he saw an elderly Chinese couple come to cast their ballots at the advance polls. He reflected on the fact that whoever won this election probably would have little effect on them, but that they were voting for what they saw as the good for others, in contrast to the ads we keep hearing.
Well, all of that led me to bring it closer to home and ponder some things I have been reading and hearing and thinking about over these past months. We generally think about Jesus’ words on an individual level, “we should care about others” but what might they mean for a congregation, or for the church as a whole.
What does it mean for the church to not act like those who want to rule it over others, but to act in the role of a servant? What does it mean to give up our self-interests for the good of others? How can we follow the example set by Jesus? How is the church to be a servant?
The Saturday morning speaker at Mennonite World Conference was Hippolyto Tshimanga who is the Director of Africa, Europe and Latin America Ministry for Mennonite Church Canada. He spoke of the missional task of the church, the fact that God has a mission in the world and the church is the vehicle by which that mission is to be carried out. Without that mission, he said, the church has no reason for existence, it is dead or at least dying.
It occurs to me that these ideas have some similarities, mission and servanthood. Both of them point to the reality that the church is not first and foremost about us, but about the other. The first question we should ask is not, “What’s in it for me?” as the disciples did, but rather how can we serve those around us and fulfill God’s mission in the world? And sometimes that’s hard for us to do. Why? Because it means giving up control of what’s happening.
I recall Pat Keifert, a person who has done a lot of writing in the field of missional theology, responding to a question about what makes a missional church by saying, “A missional church is a church that is willing to accept the hospitality of strangers.” Now there’s a switch! Now in some ways that may sound like a contradiction to what I’ve been saying about becoming a servant to others, but I don’t really think so. You see they’re both about giving up control, doing things their way rather than ours.
Now I think I’m pretty good at letting others do things, most of the time. But occasionally I get accused of wanting to keep control. I remember when I was in the middle of painting my house in Nebraska, and other people offered to help, and I made excuses that, well that would take more time organizing things, etc. but really it probably had more to do with keeping control of what happened. I wanted to make sure it was done the way I thought it should be done because everyone was going to see the end results.
Being in control can also send the message that we don’t trust the other person, we don’t think they can do things as good as we might be able to, or it might not be the way I want it done. I recall one congregation I worked with where some people were upset because the church had been successful in attracting new people to the congregation, but now they were taking over, it seemed to the old timers, and were changing things. Those who had been in control were losing it.
And rather than celebrating the fact that the church was growing, they eventually forced the pastor to leave, drove many of the new people away from the church, probably never to return to any church, and then asked me to find them a new pastor. Within a year they closed the doors of the church. They were neither missional nor servants because they wouldn’t give up any control.
You see we like things to be clean & neat, know what’s going to happen and how. But church, and being a servant is a little like taking up the offering or serving communion at Mennonite World Conference this summer. Normally, in the morning when we ushered, we only stood at the doors and helped direct people to seats and answered questions. But they needed help in the evening to collect the offering and then on Friday evening help serve communion. And their mantra as they gave us instructions was, “we have a plan, and we think it’s a good plan. But we know it’s not going to work everywhere around the stadium so you’ll just have to wing it and adapt.” And that’s kind of the way it worked.
Even NASA discovered that with all the planning and minute details that went into every space mission, sometimes things happened that were beyond their control and “mission control” became “mission chaos” as they tried to figure out what should happen next.
We have been given a mission, to share the good news with people next door, across the street and around the world. That’s our purpose for being, it’s not about creating our own little nice, neat safe place. And we have been given an example of the stance we are to take in fulfilling that mission, that of a servant.
And that can be messy. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a plan; in fact it’s good to have a plan. But, as Jesus says to Nicodemus, the Spirit blows where it wills. The mission is God’s, and sometimes God places opportunities in front of us that don’t fit our plans. Or sometimes our plans actually work, and then we have to figure out how to adapt to the new realities.
Part of being missional is being flexible, willing to experiment and try new things, looking for those opportunities that present themselves. It’s being willing to give up some control and welcome new ideas and new people. It’s seeking first of all the good of others and not just our own good.
So what might all of that mean for us? Well, as I said I don’t know for sure, but let me pose several opportunities that we might consider.
I believe Congregational Life is working on re-forming our Care Groups. Small groups are one of the ways we can not only share among ourselves, but can also serve as a gateway to invite our neighbours to join. They serve as a vital part of congregational life. So a small challenge is to simply agree to be a part of a small group, if not for your own good, then for the good of the others in the group. And think of who you know that you could invite to join you. One of the congregations I visited was forming small groups and had a posting of their possible small groups on the bulletin board. Some of them were social, some were focused on study, some were more project, service oriented. Small groups are one opportunity.
I think I have mentioned this before, but I was reminded of it again this summer as I talked with the community Association leader for Richmond/Killarney at Marda Gras. The neighbourhood around the church is changing. All you have to do is drive or walk around the block – or just go out to the alley parking lot, to see the evidence. New people are moving in, many of them younger families with children. And that trend is expected to continue; the density of this area is expected to double eventually. How might we serve those who move in next door? What are the opportunities that present themselves, not for our good, but for the good of those around us and the neighbourhood? A blog a friend posted talked about reasons people aren’t coming to your church. One paragraph caught my eye. It read:
“Jesus walked in a world with political, social, economic, and spiritual forces at play. We, too, walk in a world with all of these forces. Jesus engaged them. Are you really telling me that the church can’t or shouldn’t? Add to that the fact that your church doors are always locked and largely only used on Sundays, and why bother? Yes, God will still deserve praise, but that church down the street that actively lets people use their space and engages the world does it better than you, and people will just head down there.”
How might we engage our neighbourhood and what opportunities is God opening for us to serve those around us?
What are the opportunities presented by the refugee crisis in Syria? Or the Arabic school that is meeting across the street even as we are gathered here? Yesterday Gay and I attended the Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Edmonton which is part of the work that Donna Entz is engaged in for Mennonite Church Alberta.
The opportunities are around us, and will continue to be there. The question for us is, are we willing to give up some control, be engaged in God’s mission, and meet those opportunities? It could be messy. It might mean change. It might mean letting other people do things differently than we might have always done them. And that can be scary and difficult.
But the alternative, as Hippolyto and the blog writer said, is that we simply become irrelevant and/or dying. God’s mission will be carried out, the church will survive, that I believe. We can either join in God’s mission or be left behind. The choice is ours. I hope we will choose to serve in carrying out God’s mission in this neighbourhood and in the world.
I’m glad Lisa chose to sing our next hymn, “Will you let me be your servant.” It’s a favourite of mine and a fitting song for this mornings theme. But the morning I have a challenge for you. If you look in the Hymnal, this song is under the “Church” section, and that’s usually the way we think about it as we sing. But I wonder if it shouldn’t really be under the “Mission” section. And as you sing it this morning, I want you to think of the words, not as being sung to the person sitting next to you in the pew, but as though you were singing them to your neighbours, the ones who live next door to you, and the ones who live next door to the church – all the new people that have moved in recently.
“The one who wishes to be first among you must be the servant of all.” (Mark 10:44)
Let’s join together in singing.