THE SERVING COMMUNITY
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I’m not one to throw around a buzz word like “counter-cultural”. It may be my generation. I tend to be suspicious of people who use it, especially if they’re self-describing as counter-cultural. It seems to me that one is trying a little too hard to be cool at that point. Maybe it’s just me and if so that’s fine.
When we talk about the church and service, it seems even to me to be entirely appropriate to pull out the word counter-cultural. Our culture, like most cultures throughout history, espouses the lookout for yourself ethos. This is how we live. Just take a drive through the city through any given rush hour and you’ll know what I’m talking about. James Bryant Smith puts it like this in his book – “One of the most dominant narratives is built on self-preservation, personal happiness and making sure our goals are met. This narrative is not only for individuals. It can also be the foundation for a community.” You see this worked out in individual ways (driving).
You see it worked out in organizations. The primary purpose of our organization is to grow in income, in people, in influence. Power is valued over all else. When it comes to nations, we need to put our own nation first. Trade is a zero-sum game and winning is indeed not everything but the only thing. Winning.
What does it mean to win?
What does it mean to win when our God is a servant.
Our God is a servant.
This is what I want us to sit with for these moments we have together this morning. Any talk of what we’re called to be, what kind of community we are enabled and called to be – what we are called to do – is predicated on who God is, what God does.
This is an age-old issue. It was an issue for the disciples. Who would be the greatest among them? Who would occupy the positions of honour? Who doesn’t want to be the greatest, right? This is what we do when we make things all about ourselves. We compare ourselves to others and see ourselves more favourably or see ourselves coming up short. We become prideful or resentful. We do it as individuals. We do it as churches. Why can’t we be doing as great as them? Look at their numbers. Look at their budget. We’re doing much much better than them. Look at their numbers. Look at their budget.
Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, takes a child. Children were among the least of these in Jesus’ day. Their opinions were not sought. The task of raising a child was thought to be a menial one. Jesus tells them “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
What did this mean?
This was new!
It’s a hard lesson to learn, and the disciples were not through learning it. At the last supper, the dispute arises again as to which will be regarded as the greatest. Jesus said to them “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
Our God is a servant. He took the form of a slave. This wasn’t a disguise that God put on for a while. This is what God looked like in human form. A servant. This is what God’s love looks like. No one has greater love than this, Jesus said, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is what servanthood meant for God. Humbling himself. God is humble. Let us never forget that. Someone has said that God is humble enough to let us reject him. It hurts to be rejected and to love unconditionally means that we are going to be hurt. Jesus’ death and resurrection showed that there is no hurt, not even death, from which God is unable to bring life.
Our God is a servant. In this is love and life.
The community of God is called to serve. To show and tell of this love by our deeds and by our words. We do not exist for self-propagation. Our job together here in this faith community is not to ensure the continued existence of Blythwood Road Baptist Church – though we think that its existence is vital and we do work to ensure it keeps going. It’s not our primary goal though. Our primary goal is to show and tell of Christ’s love. Our primary goal is to reflect Christ. To serve. We don’t engage in ministry primarily with the view of how it will increase our numbers or our budget, though we like a good number, of course we do!
James Smith tells a story from his university chaplain days in his book. A local church hired him to start a Sunday morning ministry for students at their church – basically a Sunday school class for college students. About a month in, he had a call from the pastor saying there was a problem. The students who were coming in for Sunday School were not staying for church. Smith didn’t know as he was going off to his own church after class. It turned out those who had stayed for the service hadn’t felt particularly welcomed. Things were less than compelling for them. The church stopped the class.
Not long after that, another local church was in touch. They were a small, older congregation who felt they might have something to pass along to younger people. They asked Smith how they could meet the needs of local students. Smith told them students like food. He told them they like to be welcomed warmly – many are living far from home. The church put on a lunch after service regularly. Smith invited some students to come along with him. They kept coming back. This church wanted to know how they could serve others. It was their primary concern.
Of course, we have our own stories here at Blythwood, which have become part of this community’s story. When OOTC was started over twenty years ago, the primary aim was not to increase the size of the membership roll or Sunday morning attendance. In fact, it might be argued that starting OOTC decreased the membership roll and/or Sunday morning attendance. This was not the point. It’s not to say that all aren’t welcome here by any means, of course not. We strive to not be wasting anyone’s time here on a Sunday morning with God’s help, and we ask God to work in us to make this a place of welcome. The primary goal was and still is to show Christ’s love in tangible ways to those who are considered to be the least of these. Think of the lives that have been touched through those years. Think of the partnerships that have formed. Think of all the myriad ways in which God’s love has been made known and is made known.
These are our stories. Consider the Lawrence Heights Summer Camp. I remember the first time the team came up here from Murfreesboro TN. I remember talking to them and telling them not to measure the success of the week by the numbers of children who would attend. We had no idea what the number would be! I told them to measure the success of the week when all was said and done by how well they had shown and told about the love of Christ to those kids. Six years later look at all the lives that have been touched by that ministry. We are always sure to let people know they are welcome here on any given Sunday, and we always consider how the reach of God extends through this faith community. Look at the lives that have been touched, the partnerships that have been formed, the mutual blessings that have been ours through these acts of service.
We’re called to go out and serve as individuals. Not simply because this a high moral or ethical standard, but because the King that we follow is a servant. Because the King that we follow so loved the world that he gave his only son for it. We need to be asking God to give us eyes to see the world as God sees it, to love it as he loves it. We need to ask the Holy Spirit of God to be enabling that in us. We need that empowerment. This is not something we could do on our own. We continue to serve because God continues to enable us. We didn’t start OOTC to end homelessness. If we did then we’d get discouraged when we see homelessness continue to exist. We’re in this service thing for the long term. We can’t do it on our own. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us to love. Our acts of service borne out of love needn’t be spectacular. Jean Vanier said this – “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things, it means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”
To be able to serve is to know our own worth in God’s eyes. To be able to see ourselves as God sees us. To know that we don’t owe our sense of self-worth to the things that the world uses to judge the worth of people. We are then able to see the inherent worth in others who are people who are made in the image of God, people who are loved by God. Again Vanier – “To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.” Note how Christ taught that service would be shown – through the welcome given to those our world sees as the least. We don’t welcome people because we see them as projects – people that we can save. On the other side, nor do we welcome people based seeing them as assets - a sense of “What can they do for us?” either as a church or individuals. We welcome people rather because they are beloved by God.
As we’re thinking of service, let us not forget the part about seeing ourselves as God sees us. Let us not forget that the command is to love our neighbours as ourselves. The possibility of burnout is all too high, and it’s not just for ministry professionals. There is no end to the activity that we could be doing, but I don’t think that we’re called to neglect ourselves. We do not need to work like everything depends on us, because it doesn’t. We need to be looking after our bodies as well as our souls. We need to be taking time for rest, for recreation. Smith puts it like this in his book – “I have many Christian friends who are so focused on serving others that they neglect their own needs, and sometimes the needs of their families. One woman confessed that she had burned out and left the church when she was younger because she was told that serving others was our constant duty as Christ-followers. So she did and found herself worn out and discouraged. Another man shared that for many years, his own family ‘only got my leftovers’ because ‘I spent all of my energy caring for people and neglected them.’”
As I like to say, we need to make sure we’re getting things right here or we won’t be getting them right out there. We need to ask God to help us get this service thing right with those closest to us. That’s a request that God will honour, I’m sure.
Our God is a servant friends. Our God humbled himself even unto death. May God continue to create that same sense of servanthood in us, so that God’s ways may be known is us, among us, and through us, as we go from here. God grant that this might be true for us all.