Sunday, March 13, 2016

13 March 2016 - The Marks of Discipleship: Serve for the Sake of Others Both In and Beyond the Congregation

“The Marks of Discipleship:  What it means to follow Jesus”
Serve for the Sake of Others Both In and Beyond the Congregation
5 Lent C
Philippians 3:4b-14 / John 12:1-8
13 March 2016

So I understand that last week’s Mark of Discipleship …

Invite Others Often / Pass Along the Faith

… I understand that, for some, perhaps many of you, you found it daunting … difficult … off-putting … an incredibly high bar to attain in our discipleship journey.
Namely, the question you asked is, but How Do We Go About Doing This? 
I get that.  I get that, what with these playing large in our lives:

Unhelpful messages in the culture, the media, in politics, in interpersonal relationships, about Christianity and the Church …
Decades of “Lutheran Laryngitis,” of not inviting others to worship – remember, the statistic is that Lutherans invite others to worship once every 23 years, so for most of us, that means we’ve done it twice in our lives …
That we now live in a place and time where our neighbors are of such different and diverse cultural backgrounds, that it’s difficult for us to find a point of entry, something in common, to even start the conversation …

I get that.
And so, today, for our final Mark of Discipleship, this final Sunday in the season of Lent, before we enter Holy Week next Sunday with the Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord … here, today, we have a help, a guide, some excellent advice, on how to begin those Crucial Conversations of invitation and welcome with others …
Today’s final Mark of Discipleship is

Serve for the Sake of Others Both In and Beyond the Congregation

So hear the Word that Service is that open door, of invitation and welcome … to start the conversation of faith with others, we can invite them to serve alongside us.
Once again, our texts for the day are of a great help to us, in understanding, comprehending, putting into practice this Mark of Discipleship.
Paul’s words to the Philippian church are, primarily, a confession – Paul’s confession that his heritage and reputation placed him in the “spiritual 1%” – the elite of the elite -and of them, he had every reason to brag:

A member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet for Paul, that’s not what this life of faith is all about.
Paul used the word which our polite English translation gives as “rubbish” but in his Greek the word is sssssss-kubala, and indeed, it literally translates as our favorite four letter s-word today.
Strong stuff, to be sure.
But Paul doesn’t want us to miss the point, that discipleship, following Jesus, is all about following the One who gives up all power and prestige and pedigree to become … one of us … going all the way through suffering, through the cross, through death itself, to show how much he loves us.
And so for our Mark of Discipleship today, serving both in and beyond the congregation, … well, serving in these ways, it is at the heart of discipleship precisely because it is humbling, and decentering. 
When we serve, we get right into the sssssss-kubala of life, life in all its messiness and clutter, not clean and neat but REAL LIFE with un-tied-up loose ends, and those loose ends are so often our brothers and sisters who we serve with and alongside.
Now, I realize that this may well be new for some, perhaps many of you.  For a long time, “Church’s” impact on church-people’s lives was all about coming here, and worshipping, maybe attending Sunday School or Adult Education, coming to some social events, perhaps being on a committee, maybe, for a few, getting elected to an office.
But Jesus’ call to us, the discipleship journey into which he gathers and sends us, it’s about more than that.
There is service in the congregation.  For many of us, it’s the first time and place we got involved with something outside ourselves.  And there’s lots of ways to serve the needs of the world through the congregation’s life and ministry.  Making quilts.  Helping teach the faith to children.  Taking flowers to and visiting with our homebound members.  Keeping our building and grounds clean and functional for the many groups who meet here. 
But our Mark of Discipleship doesn’t stop at the church doors.  Remember that it’s

Serve for the Sake of Others Both In and Beyond the Congregation

And it’s that “beyond the congregation” where we run into a block, isn’t it?  Just like with speaking the faith – it’s easier to do here, among people we know … but when it comes to out there, with people who are different from us … well … that’s tougher. 
How do we do it?
Let me tell you a story.
My ministry “career,” although that seems like a strange word to use to describe it, it started out in youth ministry, then youth and family ministry, over thirty years ago.  And back then, youth ministry was all about planning events and gatherings, where youth could get together with other youth.  Sometimes fun and games, sometimes larger gatherings, synod, regional, national.
But then things started to change about 15 years ago. Youth weren’t so interested in just being together as much as they wanted to be together to do something that made a difference in the world.  And so we started doing servant work.  Servant trips to Indian reservations where we taught summer Bible school, painted houses, cleaned up communities alongside the residents.  Servant trips to disadvantaged small town and urban areas, partnering with other service organizations all across the country.
So I’ve had the privilege of painting houses in Appalachia … visiting men with black lung in the nursing home … planting and working an urban farm in the Bay Area of California … cleaning up a park around a food bank in SE Portland … helping refurbish a home for orphaned teens in Chicago.
When we’ve gone to places like that, it’s a humbling experience.  First of all, it’s NOT a vacation when we go on a servant trip.  We are there to serve, first. 
And to serve, we need to listen to the people who live there, to hear their stories, and find out what kind of help they say they need. 
Then we pitch in alongside them, adults and youth alike, church people and not-church-friends who come along, no one’s service is less valued than the other.
Back in 2004, our congregation, Glenwood Lutheran in Minnesota, we brought 34 youth and adults out to the Yakima Reservation to get to know and serve alongside the residents of the Reservation, painting houses and helping clean up the community of White Swan.
Our servant-leader sent our group way, way out on the res – where we found a well-weathered house in need of not just paint but some repairs.  So we got to work, Lutheran Minnesotans alongside Presbyterians from Seattle and Assemblies of God youth from Sacramento.  Soon the weathered old house started to look pretty good, a new shade of blue nestled among the browns of the Horse Heaven Hills. 
And then the residents of the house came out … with a full burrito, enchilada, beans and rice lunch for everyone there!  It was about 100 degrees – but that hot food tasted great after working so hard. 
I’ll not forget what one of our youth said as he had his third or fourth burrito … “Hey, we came all the way out here to serve them, and here they are serving us!”
Exactly.  Serving is a de-centering, humbling experience.  When we serve, we set aside our place, and find new place, alongside others, alongside each other, in the kingdom-work into which Jesus calls us … calls us, to be and become his body in the world, his body where there is no room for power and prestige and pedigree.
And service is also natural and organic.  As Jesus is around – and our hearts and minds are open to hear and see him, hear and see him to follow his call to service … service will just happen.  It will just happen.
This is what our Gospel reading is all about. 
This Lent, we don’t get the story of how Jesus brings dead Lazarus back to life, Lazarus who has been dead for four days, in a sealed tomb … but then Jesus commands him to come out, and so he does … we don’t get this story from the chapter prior, chapter eleven of John, this Lent.
What we do have here in the opening verses of chapter 12 is the aftermath and reaction to this final miracle-sign which Jesus works before his Passion, his journey into Jerusalem to the Cross and his own tomb. 
Jesus is once again at table, gathered now with the two sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, he who is back to life once again … these three, there with them. 
And then Mary takes that expensive perfume and cleans Jesus’ feet with it. 
Good hosts in those days provided the means for people coming to their homes, to clean their feet, after journeying on dirt roads and paths in sandals.  Perfume or oil was often part of that, to help hot, tired feet feel better.
But here Mary just does it, she washes Jesus’ feet for himHer service is not only humbling, as she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, but organic, natural, it just flows from her. 
Certainly she had reason to be grateful and thankful to Jesus, for bringing her brother back to life.  But her service here is over-the-top from that, isn’t it?  See, hear how many barriers and stereotypes are being shattered here, emptied out like that perfume, poured freely on Jesus.
Judas won’t have any of it, and calls it a waste.
And certainly there will be, there are those who call service a waste … a waste of time, of energy, of resources.  We always hear it when we’re setting aside our stuff, and diving into the ssssss-kubla of life, in service.  “Why do you have to feed those guys dinner?  Why do we need to send our kids all the way out there to paint houses?  The Bible says charity begins at home (well, no, it doesn’t).”
There’s an Internet meme going around these days … you know, those little familiar pictures with words on them … well, I saw one a couple of days ago, a picture of Jesus at the feeding miracle, and the disciples are saying to him, “We can’t feed all these people, it would only take away their incentive to better themselves.”
And so Jesus’ words in reaction to Judas … ah yes … well they’ve certainly been taken, over the years, centuries, as a word against service, haven’t they:

Leave Mary alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

Does Jesus really mean what it sounds like he says here – setting up some kind of a dichotomy, a split, between worshipping him, and serving others?
NO WAY.  No way.
In using that phrase “you always have the poor with you,” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 15.  And here’s what the Hebrew law has to say about how God’s people are to serve:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought ...and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."

Service is our call from the Lord.  Our service, into this world God gives, loves and saves through Jesus. 
And it’s a fitting conclusion, as we now come to the end of our Lenten journey through the Marks of Discipleship. 
Discipleship … which begins with Jesus’ call to repentance … come to yourselves, pay attention, turn around … regard your position and privilege as rubbish … for the sake of the Gospel … the Good News … which is Good News for rich and poor, man and woman and child, Jew and Gentile, Martha and Mary and Lazarus … and Judas … and you and me.
Discipleship … which is everything then that follows Jesus’ call to us, after we confess and are forgiven … as we come, and eat and drink at his invitation, at his table … as we are formed into Jesus’ body, his people, in the world … to show, and live into the world another way of life … The Way of Life …

Pray frequently
Worship regularly
Study scripture diligently
Give freely
Invite others often / Pass on the faith
Serve for the sake of others both in and beyond the congregation

Live there, disciples.  Live.  There.  Disciples.

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