Posts Tagged ‘service’

Master

September 18, 2016

A man learns that he will lose his job for ‘squandering his master’s property’.  Knowing he has few options, he embarks on a campaign of deceit – cheating his master and earning favour with his master’s customers; deals are made, discounts appear out of nothing, and lo and behold, the master praises the servant for ‘acting shrewdly’…Faithful can mean many things, you see – and if you are faithful to a pattern of shady business practices, that is apparently praiseworthy (in certain circles).  The ‘moral of the story’ can be confusing – “…if then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches…” – until finally, Jesus cuts through the confusion with the bumper-sticker statement of the day: You cannot serve God and wealth.

Simple, right?  Yet this is not a call to poverty, either.  Jesus didn’t want to drive us all into the desert, where we would not be tempted by the flash and dazzle of successful people.  He walked among the rich and poor – his vision included all God’s people – and he could see how difficult it is to choose between economic success and the security offered by God’s covenant promise.  Even in his day, the lines were blurred.

Because cash is king.  Nothing happens without money changing hands – that is how the world has worked for thousands of years.  And the result of this otherwise simple economic reality is the so-called ‘golden rule’:  The one who has the gold, makes the rules.  So the crooked manager is playing according to the rules that he knows – following the most effective pattern to success…and Jesus offers an alternative.

Jesus’ mission is to bring another reality to light – the reality of God’s mercy, grace and love; the “Kingdom” of God.  Not an ‘end of time’ alternative, but something that we might experience here and now with a change in attitude, a different focus, and a proper reverence for the wonder and mystery of both Creation and the Creator.

So to the crowds and his disciples, Jesus offers many examples – in parable form – of how our focus has been shifted away from the things of God.  And the message is clear; you cannot serve God and wealth.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  You don’t get to worship worldly success and the Creator of the universe.  And yet, here we are, in a time of unprecedented wealth – unbridled capitalism – and unimaginable opportunity.  In North America, at least, the church has been the beneficiary of the ‘success’ of capitalism…and also its primary victim; because enough is never enough, is it.

When times were promising, and possibilities endless, churches grew without counting the cost.  congregations seemed to flourish, and that gave us an appetite for more.  We wanted (and thought God wanted) a church on every corner – and in some places that dream became a reality.  But what God wants is devotion in every heart, and that comes with a different price tag.  We thought our buildings and our programs were the key to success, and we pour money into both.  Now we do need places to gather, and it is wise to have plans in place once we have gathered; to teach, to encourage, to praise and to pray – but it is too easy to slip off the edge; to forget whom we serve.  The building or the program – the status as a “happening place” – can quickly become our master.  The world approves – the world understands success that can be seen and measured in buildings or bank balances – but that is not the pattern we were called to follow.

Money cannot become the thing that defines success for God’s people – for Christ’s church!  It threatens to do just that, because cash is still king, and the bills must be paid.  But I say this as one who has turned my passion for God into my vocation – my livelihood; the money doesn’t matter.  Mercy, mission, grace and generosity – the marks of the church and the habits of those who would follow Jesus – these are the signs of true wealth, independent of our seemingly constant concerns about money.  The call of Jesus to follow him was a call, not to poverty, but a different kind of treasure.

We have been invited to share the treasure of God’s love – and to do that with our worldly wealth or in spite of it.  Jesus life – spent trusting in the goodness of God and the hospitality of his fellow travellers – might have ended in failure by the measure of the world; a short trial, a grisly death and an unmarked grave.  But the fullness of the story includes resurrection – the gift of new life, new hope, new possibilities – things that money cannot buy.

Because we are ‘in the world’ we will always struggle to find our way.  but we must remember that because of that resurrection mystery – because we are not ‘of the world’ – because of the love of God in Jesus Christ, we need not be held captive to our fear of ‘failure’, nor should we confuse our priorities:  We serve God; our resources serve us.  The moral of Jesus’ parable restated – though it doesn’t look as good on a bumper sticker – stands as our invitation to imagine a way forward; a vision for those who long for the vision of God.

Humility

August 28, 2016

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ (Luke 14: 7-14)

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What I know about humility, I learned first as an eldest son – eventually, I discovered I needed humility as a parent too.   The lessons are different; as a teenager, I was reminded that “I didn’t know everything yet”, and it seemed no time at all until, as a parent, I was putting my children’s needs before my own.  Of course as a parent, I am constantly reminded that I don’t know anything about what those needs are – for they are constantly changing.  As a parent (and a son) I’ve long accepted this as the state of things.  I don’t mean to brag about my humility (that would be ironic) – but I’ve recognized these traits in others and compared their stories to my own journey, and in the cycle of these ordinary family relationships, I see opportunities to apply the lessons Jesus gives us in this morning’s gospel.

When Jesus talks about humility in Luke’s gospel, he suggests that there is a cycle of humility that might just be contagious – a ripple that turns the tide of self-interest and self-importance that can keep us from being the people God calls us to be.

Now, the problem with humility is that it sounds too much like humiliation; and while the two words come from the same latin root, they describe very different conditions in our day.  Humiliation is not something we go looking for – it finds us.  It’s usually public, it’s always awkward, and the memory lingers.  It can be as innocent as a messed up presentation at work or in school; it can come from a joke gone wrong.  Humiliation leaves us with stories we can tell about why we hate public speaking, or why we don’t feel like dancing, or why we never sing in public.  But humility is something we are encouraged to pursue.

“‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour…”  This is a choice we must make, fully aware of the setting.  We need to know ‘who’s who’, and should assume that someone else’s needs are more important than ours.  Make the wrong choice, Jesus says, and you may be humiliated – asked to make way for more important guests.  Give the host a chance to ‘move you up’ to the head of the table – don’t honour yourself, let others honour you.

Now – if the parable were all we had, we would be resigned to a passive life; a life of waiting to be seated well – a life of dependence on the generosity of others – and maybe that is a good metaphor for a life of faith; totally dependant on the provision of God; waiting to be “moved up the table” at the invitation of our Host.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He knows that this life involves guest and host duties – humility is needed on both sides of the equation.  Passive humility is too often misunderstood – seen as weakness or cowardice.  The host needs to reach out in the right way, and Jesus shows him how: “ when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”

Humble yourself when you are the guest – and humble yourself by exalting your guests.  Express humility from both sides of the table – in all of life’s situations.  This parable offers us a glimpse into the kind of relationship that God desires with us, both personally and collectively as Christ’s church.

It would be easy to offer examples of the lack of humility; we’ve all encountered those, and having learned lessons of humility as a parent and son, I’m now relearning those lessons as your minister – but I’m learning them in terms of this parable, and the question for all of us is this; What does the church look like when it lives out this parable?

It would be a church that does not serve itself.  A church that accepted the notion that 20% of the people do 80% of the work because that is what good hosts do – devote themselves to the needs of others.  It would be a church that concentrated on those who ‘could not repay’ (or help pay) for the work that needs to be done.  It would be less concerned with ‘bottom line’ things, and entirely concerned with front line questions like poverty and injustice; compassion and generosity.  The church that lives out this parable would give us a first hand look at the kingdom of God, where the weak are strong, and the foolish are wise.  It is an honourable pursuit – and it requires that we walk the fine line between humility and humiliation – for there are some who imagine such service as failure or folly.  But this is what brings us close to the heart of God – to heal the broken-hearted; to lift up the fallen; to honour humble poor, and so give God glory by our humble service.

Who’s the greatest?

September 20, 2015

Who is the greatest?

The church in the Western world for the last – let’s say four hundred and fifty years – has considered itself the greatest; a top level power – a player in the global community. Think about why this was the case; Christian religion, for better or worse, opened new territories to white, European development.  The Church (as an institution) helped monarchs make rules, then governments, then empires.  From the earliest days of Christian Europe, the institutional church filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of Roman Imperialism, and until the middle of the Twentieth Century, Christianity maintained the illusion of power in most of the countries and colonies of Western Europe – and of course, in North America.  The greatest – though not always the best – but surely the (Institutional) Church had achieved a certain status in the world that Jesus disciples could not have imagined.

But since we are a product of the “great age” of Christian thought, we are not sure why Jesus would need to redefine ‘greatness’ when it becomes the subject of discussion among his disciples.

Greatness, in this context, is about power.  You might want to imagine that the disciples were comparing their own relative successes on their recently completed mission trip, or trying to decide whom Jesus’ successor may (eventually) be in their tiny travelling theology school (Jesus has just suggested that the Son of Man would be killed – and raised; a statement that the disciples did not understand…), but the word used in Mark’s gospel means greatest in the ‘Mohammed Ali’ sense of the word.  The best; the top; none better – most magnificent, powerful etc etc etc.

The followers of Jesus needed only look to the world around them and notice how greatness was achieved; through power.  The greatest among them (in society) had influence, positions of authority, and wealth.

These guys – walking along dusty roads, living on the hospitality of strangers, challenged at every turn by the religious authorities (and the civil authority) are the opposite of what society considers “great”- and when they imagine greatness, they are not dreaming of some heavenly reward; they were thinking about power.  So this sudden call to a new reality; a divine reality – whoever wishes to be first must be last of all and servant of all – must have been difficult to hear, and harder still to imagine. So to help them, Jesus takes a child, places it in their midst; the universal symbol of helplessness – of non-power – and Jesus tells them their needs must take a back seat.  They are to welcome those who are powerless – to interact with people in ways that won’t necessarily increase the disciples own influence.  The truly stunning revelation is not that there are people who are ‘worse off ‘ – Jesus invites them to honour God by honouring the least of these – that is the revolutionary idea

It was counter-intuitive then; it is still an unusual perspective. The disciples may have been astonished by the notion that there were people in the neighbourhood (or in society) who had less power than themselves, or those whose measure of greatness was something as ordinary as a small band of students trailing after an unlikely teacher. Jesus’ object lesson ought to stand as a reminder to us that power – greatness –  is not where we think it is; and that true greatness – greatness in the promised Kingdom of God – involves a different kind of power.

Our attitudes toward greatness are still wrapped up in money, fame, influence and power, but we also imagine that it is possible for people to achieve these things through determination and a good work ethic.  You could argue that greatness has become a cultural expectation – so we don’t ask the question for ourselves as the disciples did; today in the church, the quiet debate is not “who (among us) is the greatest?” – it is, rather, “whose need is greatest, and how can we help?”  Imagining our own power to be sufficient – and our own needs relatively small – we cast about for places where we may do the most good (and so make a name for ourselves in the name of God.)  –  It’s a subtle difference and it is still the wrong question.

While it is good that the church is willing and able to respond to disasters both sudden and slow-moving, our focus tends to get dragged to the big events – the grand scale of wreckage and despair that is now made known to us almost as soon as it happens – can leave us numb; but then we can make a donation, or host an event, or attend a vigil, and feel like we have contributed, in some small way, to a great relief effort.  That is how we work, (and it is not a bad approach, given the scope of the misery we are asked to consider) but our habit of lurching from disaster to disaster must surely seem (to some) as though we have no clear sense of direction.

Remember the Tsunami of 2005?  The Haitian earthquake?  Bosnia?  Bangladesh?  The Vietnamese ‘boat people’?  Headline makers, every one;  but when was the last time we thought about Haiti?  Or Indonesia?  or the plight of minorities in the Asian sub-continent?  Has the need been eliminated, or merely eclipsed by more recent news…

Whose need is greatest, we say in our board meetings and our prayers – imagining that the success of the institution might somehow serve the Kingdom of God.  So we acknowledge the crisis appeals, and continue to pour money into buildings and programs in the vain hope (and fervent desire) that we may yet be a power (for good) in our culture.   And then Jesus, having confronted us with the grim reality of his own greatness with a blunt announcement of his inevitable death and glorious resurrection, puts a child in his arms and says this is what need looks like; consider the multitudes who are truly powerless – acknowledge these – identify with these – serve these and put their needs and comforts ahead of your own.

Not just the children, of course – the child in Jesus’ arms is a symbol of all human helplessness, and the urgent need of all Creation for the redemptive love of God.  And we are invited to be agents of that redemption, by opening our hearts – our homes – our lives to this wonderfully simple and beautiful idea that to be first is to ignore power; that to be great is to seek the companionship of those whom society ignores.  That to follow Jesus is to love what seems (to us) unloveable.  The scale of our outreach must be both small – person to person as well as grand – nation to nation.  Jesus invites us to overcome personal prejudice and  serve those whom God has called children.  It is not the sort of greatness we might have imagined for ourselves – but it such basic acts of love are the service to which we are called.

Who is the greatest?  To those who honour God in humility – who seek justice, and love kindness, the question is irrelevant.  For in such service, God’s greatness and glory are revealed, and that is all that matters.

A Letter to Paul (a response to 1 Corinthians, ch. 9)

August 3, 2014

From the servants of Christ in this time and place,

to Paul, our brother in the Lord;

Grace and Peace to you through our Lord Jesus Christ.

It has been too long since your last letter, and we are eager for news of your plans to return to us. As you recognize in you letter, there has been tension in your absence.

Your frustration with the community is understandable. While you were with us, your example was clear – your teaching, engaging; your enthusiasm was hard to miss. But you need to imagine how hard this is for us. This Good news of yours has challenged everything we thought we knew about the world. This Jesus – risen and glorious – seems too good to be true; a man who challenged authority with provocative parables and who welcomed the nobodies and called them friends – what a wonderful world it might be if we could all have his courage. We are trying, but it is difficult to love those whom we have never before noticed – harder still to love those who hate and oppose us. God knows we are trying.

Your recent instructions about marriage are going to take some time to sort out – you speak well, brother, but your writing is less than clear. And it is for clarity that I was asked to write.

I appreciate that the religious habits of our town may have been strange to you. Temples and idols everywhere, and each with their attendants and devotees. Those old habits are hard to break, and we know the truth of your teaching concerning the God of Abraham. No food brings us closer to God – and no temple or idol can contain this magnificent Creator. How might we honour God, and you, his servant, if we can no longer make sacrifice of meat? You were clear about this – and you seemed grateful for our hospitality – but surely this gift you have given us has a price. Don’t you know that we would be glad to pay for the freedom that you have shown us? And we are willing to pay the messenger for the message – yet you refuse! Your recent letter seems to confirm our desire; ‘do not muzzle the ox while it is treading grain’ says the ancient law – you quote it yourself! – Yet you would refuse our offering – you give away good news and call it duty. You are a braver man that we have ever met.

You say that your rights as an apostle might become an obstacle – how can this be? You have seen Jesus; we have not. You have much wisdom and understanding – your education has given you insight and knowledge, and we don’t resent this; rather, we welcome it. Help us to understand how we may support you in this task. You speak of the Lord’s command that ‘those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’, and then you refuse to ask anything of us. Your convictions will be the death of you!

We recognize that not everyone can respond equally to this offer of freedom that you have so generously shown us in Jesus Christ. For our part, we would follow your example and make ourselves poor for Jesus’ sake – but what of those already poor? Our master Jesus was always among them, and measured their generosity differently than others. The story of the widow whose penny was praised as the greatest gift – what was that but an example that all have a part to play; and Jesus accepted her gift with gratitude and praise! Perhaps you go too far, enslaving yourself so that everyone might be free?

True, there are many whose faith is not as strong – and there are those whose minds are easily distracted – but you have given us the gift of Jesus’ story; his life of service; his call to seek God; his steadfast devotion to justice and things that are right. The kingdom will be like this – and may it come soon – but until then, can we not share both the task and the rewards of this proclamation?

Let us be generous – though our generosity may be flawed. Let us seek the joy of this work to which you have given so much – and let us share with you the fruits of our joy. Together, let us claim for the Kingdom of God first our community, then the whole countryside. Your sacrifices and your insistence on suffering seem like extreme measures to those who have found freedom in the message of God’s love that you shared. This race we run, though there is only one prize for those in Christ – eternal rest in God’s glorious presence – is it not a prize offered to all who run with faith, with integrity, and with the Spirit of Christ? You have eased our suffering; held us accountable in our weakness; and guided us in the way we should go. Let us share our joy with you – our generosity is nothing when compared to the grace of God, but we offer what we have in a spirit of love and that same grace.

Come to us soon. Time grows short for some of us, and we would hear more from you of the mercies of God, though Christ Jesus, our Lord. May the one true God guard and guide you always.