Sunday, September 22, 2013

Phil Kniss: So who's serving whom?

Holistic witness: Service
Luke 4:16-22; Genesis 1:1, 31; Isaiah 65:17-25

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This is the third of my five sermons 
on five forms of holistic witness—
discipleship, incarnation, service, words, and worship.

So today’s theme, is service.
And this theme, more than any other,
ought to make every good Mennonite in this room,
breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Because you know I’m not going to stepping on your toes
with this sermon.
Since I’m trying to encourage more active commitment
to the various forms of witness,
I won’t need to waste a lot of breath preaching on service,
because good Mennonites have this kind of witness
down pat.
This is where we shine!
In fact, despite our relatively small size as a Christian group,
Mennonites have earned a global reputation
for being a people of service.

We may not always be the most vocal witnesses
like some evangelical Christians are. 
We may not get too involved in the public arenas
of power politics and cultural engagement
like some mainline Christians do.

But this is one form of witness we can be pretty sure 
we don’t need a lecture on from the pulpit.
We are good at this. 
The world knows we are good at it. 
We serve, and we serve well.

. . . 
You know I’m setting you up, don’t you?
If you’ve listened very long to my sermons,
you know this is the place where I say, “Yes, but!”
Because it’s a good thing to take our unspoken assumptions
every once in a while,
and pull them out and examine them,
look at them from another angle,
and see if they hold up.
If so, well and good,
we stick with the assumption,
if not, we make an adjustment—
sometimes a minor adjustment,
sometimes major.
This morning, I’m hoping for a minor adjustment.

Because I think our assumption is basically correct.
We Mennonites have a beautiful and valuable 
legacy of service in the world.
And we have had, for generations.
We often find ourselves in places of extended service,
sacrificial service,
sometimes risky service.
And we consider that service an act of witness.
When we serve, 
we do so as a way to bear witness to the good news.
We see ourselves as evangels, bearers of the Gospel,
communicating, through our deeds, 
the love of God in Christ.
We serve “in the name of Christ.”
In fact, for many years, Mennonite Central Committee
has printed on their boxes of relief shipments,
and meat cans, etc, the words, “In the name of Christ.”

So how have we come to embrace service 
as an act of evangelical witness?
as a way of bearing witness to the good news?
Why have we come to emphasize service?
How are we going about doing it?
And is there anything deeper God might be inviting us into?

There are many good reasons we have been a people of service.

I think of Menno Simons himself,
our most influential early leader,
who famously said these words,
that have been framed,
and hanging in Mennonite homes and church offices ever since,
(including our conference room here at Park View):
“True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. 
It clothes the naked, 
it feeds the hungry, 
it comforts the sorrowful, 
it shelters the destitute, 
it serves those that harm it, 
it binds up that which is wounded, 
it has become all things to all people.”

I think of the text we read this morning from Luke 4.
This one, along with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew,
are probably the two passages in the Bible
most often read and commented on by Mennonites.
We believe it’s not only Jesus’ death and resurrection
that are significant for our salvation story.
His life of ministry and service among the people,
were also part of his saving work,
and we called to follow him in life, as a disciple.
So we are inspired to live a life of service
when we read in the Sermon on the Mount
that blessed are the merciful, and meek, and peacemakers,
about going the second mile, loving our enemies,
and helping the needy without calling attention to ourselves.
We are challenged to serve when we read Luke 4, 
like we did this morning,
and realize that Jesus himself was called
to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free.
And since we are called to follow Jesus in life,
that is our calling, too.

So, with this value of service supported in the scriptures,
and reinforced by Menno Simons and other Anabaptists,
we developed this communal inclination to serve,
whenever there was human need.
And actually, for us American Mennonites,
we can thank the U.S. Government for 
strengthening our commitment to service.
At our request, they permitted humanitarian service
to be an substitute for military service,
and service to others became even more part of our church DNA.
During the draft years, we sent hundreds, maybe thousands 
of young men and women into places of service,
for a couple years at a time,
and it transformed us, for the good.

Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service
have became wonderful tools we use to serve human need,
whether refugees fleeing war or famine, 
or victims of natural disaster,
we are ready, equipped, and willing to serve.
We have always been among the first to arrive, and last to leave,
in places of desperate need around the world.
We have been recognized for it.
We have become known by it.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been in some setting
where Mennonites are not well-known or well-represented,
and I get into conversation with someone,
and they find out I’m Mennonite,
and the first thing they mention is how Mennonites came to help
in their town when a storm came through,
or something similar to that.

And my response always . . . sounds . . . very humble.
But inwardly, I’m doing a fist pump and saying, “Score!”
It feels good to be publicly recognized, 
for humble servanthood.

I’m not the only Mennonite 
who has ever felt some righteous pride for humble service.

I always get a little kick out of seeing how excited we Mennonites get
when we’re at our big conventions in big cities,
and the city paper runs an article on how impressed they are
with the humble service projects 
being done by the youth and adults
who are going around the city, cleaning up litter,
or doing home repair for the poor,
or working in a soup kitchen.
We get joy out of doing good works, of course,
but we get lots of joy out of getting good press.

A week or so ago our church retreat committee
got together to debrief and celebrate after our successful retreat,
and someone reported on a conversation with the camp director,
who commented they never have to worry about cleaning up,
after a Mennonite group, 
because Mennonites always leave the place spotless.
And someone on the committee did a literal fist pump, and said,
“Yessss!! We win!”
Of course, it was meant tongue-in-cheek,
we all laughed at the joke,
because we were all thinking the same thing.

Now . . . being recognized for our service is not a bad thing,
it might even have some benefits,
but there’s something amiss if that becomes our motivation.
We should be out there cleaning up empty lots and fixing leaky roofs,
even if our efforts were completely ignored, now and forever.

So why do we serve?
If not for public affirmation, then why?
Do we do it out of duty or obligation?
Knowing that our religious tradition, our church,
teaches the importance of selfless service,
therefore, we ought to serve, selflessly.
Do we do it because it adds meaning to our lives?
It does, in fact.
People who give and serve, without compensation,
are happier, studies show,
than people who don’t.
There is legitimate emotional payback
when we give and serve.
Do we do it out of pure human compassion?
When we see another human suffering,
we connect with their humanity,
we feel with them, we hurt with them,
our compassion compels us to get involved,
and not stand back.

I think all of those things are, in fact,
part of our motivation to serve.
And I do not disparage that.
It’s good for our self-identity to have affirmation and support.
It’s not bad to feel a sense of obligation and duty.
It’s good to do things that give our lives meaning.
And it’s certainly good to have pure compassion.
If it wasn’t for these motivations, 
there would be a lot less human kindness and service all around,
and the world would be a more miserable place.

However . . . and now I’m getting to the “yes, but” . . . 
actually, it’s more like a “yes, and,”
because I do not want to detract—at all—
from all the wonderful service we do,
in the name of Christ,
or in any other name.
If it meets human need,
whether it is done by us who follow Jesus,
or by those who motivated by a different religious framework,
or by secular humanitarians,
or even by atheists—
if it is compassionate service 
done by one human being for another
it is a good thing,
and God is in it,
whether or not the givers and receivers recognize it.
That’s what frees us to embrace all kinds of humanity,
who are also serving sacrificially,
and work together,
collaborating for the good of God’s creation and people.

But there is something else at work here,
for us who believe that God and God’s purposes 
were revealed most fully in Jesus Christ.
We have some beliefs that profoundly shape
how we view what we are doing when we serve,
and profoundly shape our motivation.

We believe that God has a design for creation,
and that design is one of wholeness and harmony.
And we believe sin and human rebellion 
has resulted in brokenness and disharmony in creation.
And that God is on a mission to restore and re-create and redeem
all that has been lost by sin—
our sin, and the sin of those who have gone before us.

That was the lesson from our O.T. readings this morning.
From Genesis 1, we heard the beginning and end of the creation story.
After God created the heaven and the earth,
and looked over all that he made,
God said, “This is very good.”

And then we heard the word of the Lord given to the prophet Isaiah,
after this good creation had long been suffering under
the destructive forces of sin and evil,
and things were not good anymore.
God looked on it all, 
and described his new project of re-creation.
In Isaiah 65, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the old will pale in comparison.”
“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in [the city].”
“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.”
“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

So we believe and affirm 
that God has good in mind for this broken world—
goodness and wholeness.

And we believe that God revealed these good purposes
most fully when God came and dwelt among us 
in the person of Jesus,
whom we name as Lord and Savior.

And we believe that God is calling together a people
who are willing to be partners in salvation,
who recognize and submit themselves to this saving mission.
So . . . entering into God’s saving work,
is both our calling and destiny,
because God has made it so.

That, sisters and brothers, is now,
and ever shall be,
our primary motivation to serve.
Because we hold to something other humanitarian servants do not.

We hold that making the world a better place
is first and foremost, God’s doing.
It’s God’s mission, God’s purpose, God’s agenda.
Wherever there is human need in the world,
God is already there,
already at work,
already about the task of saving and reconciling.
So when we see that need, and join in that work, 
we are not starting something,
we are merging into the prior activity of God in the world,
and we are literally serving God.

Someone said that we misunderstand our calling when we think,
that we are serving the world, on behalf of God.
Rather, we are serving God, on behalf of the world.

That is more than just clever semantics.
It speaks to our identity,
which shapes our motivation and attitude of service.
If we think we’re serving the world on behalf of God,
we might assume cleaning up the mess of the world
is our job to do,
that we do God a favor bringing about the change 
God is unable to do on God’s own.

The word of the Lord in Isaiah was not,
“You . . . people of mine,
go make the wolf lie down with the lamb,
make a new creation for me.”
No, it was, “I am doing a new thing.
This is about to happen, because I will do it.”

If we forget that, our service becomes a matter of pride,
hoping for some good press coverage,
or we put moralistic pressure on ourselves or others,
or even get legalistic about it.

But if we see ourselves first, and only, as servants of God,
who have promised to lay themselves down before God,
in worship and obedience,
then our acts of service are more likely to be God-directed
to point people in the direction of God’s activity,
to give witness to the good news of God’s saving purposes.

That’s when service is done truly “in the name of Christ.”
Because we are serving like Jesus did.

Jesus was all about serving the one who sent him.
Jesus was not so much serving the world on God’s behalf,
he was serving God’s purposes on behalf of the world . . . 
a world that simply didn’t get it.
He was trying to help them get it.

And that’s what we are about as well.
We are continuing the mission of Jesus—
serving God with our whole hearts,
demonstrating the new creation
for which God has already destined the world.
Service, for us, has that primary aim,
of helping people see what God is up to,
shining a light on God’s creative purpose.
It is giving witness in the fullest, most holistic sense.

At least, it should have that aim.
And it can, if we embrace, without reservation,
the reality that this broken world is God’s beautiful world,
and that God desires, and is working for, its restoration.

We are fully committed to our role of active participation.
But it is God’s work.
As we affirm in the hymn, #396 in the blue hymnal,
“The work is thine, O Christ our Lord, 
the cause for which we stand,
and being thine, ‘twill overcome
its foes on every hand.”
Let’s sing together.

—Phil Kniss, September 22, 2013

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