September 23, 2018
The Power to Serve
About five years ago, I was sitting at dinner in our sanctuary with a group of winter relief guests and members of Ark and Dove on the second or third night of hospitality. One of the guests said to us, "Man I can’t believe how nice you people are here at this church. You are really nice and you serve great dinners." A couple of other guys agreed and one of our members asked, “Aren’t they nice at all the churches?” He answered, "Well I don’t want to speak out of turn, but no ma’am they are not nice at all the churches. Some treat you like you’re not there. They ignore you. Some treat you like cattle and some treat you like you are at boot camp.” “Boot camp?” I asked. “Yes, boot camp; and I’m too old for boot camp. We had this sergeant, at least he said he was a sergeant at the last church, and he was always screaming at us, right in our faces. That’s why I asked if I could switch churches and come to site 2. This guy was crazy on a power trip. The thing I like about this church is that you treat us like just regular people.”
As we prepare to host Winter Relief, I share my memory of a moving conversation with one of our guests; just one of scores of memories about creating community and a little hope for people whose circumstances have resulted in homelessness. The kindness you as a congregation have shown is part of a caring web of Anne Arundel County professionals and volunteers that really has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of people.
Gentlemen, what were you talking about back there when we were walking along the road. “Oh nothing Jesus, we were just talking.” “Sure seemed like there was a lot of shouting for a conversation about nothing. Sounded to me like it was an argument.” Suddenly all eyes are on the toes and all chins are neatly tucked on flustered chests. Thumb twiddling and nervous finger tapping abound. They didn't really want him to know of their bragging and brattling. The space is filled with the hush of a loud quiet. Skillfully yet painfully the surgeon of souls extracts the details from politicians turned school kids. And Mark writes that the disciples were silent, for on the way, like overgrown children they had dueled over who was the greatest. The teaching of Jesus just minutes earlier seems to have had little impact on them. Even while Jesus was still with them, there were arguments in the church. I guess when we bicker at Ark and Dove, I know that hardly ever happens, we follow in the footsteps of Peter and his eleven friends.
We do well at Winter Relief but it could be that once in a while we serve God as if we were drill sergeants or maybe even generals. Like the disciples in our telling from Mark, maybe we desire to be in charge, to have the authority, power, recognition, and honor. Or we are willing to serve but only as special advisor to God. Sometimes maybe we are ready to invoke the 25th amendment on God. Hey God I got here, I can handle this. You just kick up your feet on the throne. We are willing to minister as long as we command or as long as we are serving in our comfort zone. Part of the power of serving however is breaking out of old patterns.
First let us notice that Jesus does not yell at his gaggle of disciples. Rather than upbraiding them, he sat down and called the twelve over, and said to them, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He offers a proverb, a teaching. This social inversion that Jesus promotes does not always appeal to us. We live in a culture that rewards power and prestige and urges us constantly to get ahead. We are bombarded by messages about being first and on top and great again. Sometimes when we promote the values and teachings of Jesus we are treated by power people as if we are naïve or too idealistic, like we don’t know the real story.
When Jesus says to his cocky disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”, the word that is used for servant in the original Greek language is Diakonos. We know a little Greek by virtue of being Presbyterian. Presbuteros in Greek means elder and Presbyterian means church run by elders, ruling elders elected from the congregation and teaching elders also known as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. The word Diaokonos means servant or deacon. Deacons in the Presbyterian Church lead a ministry of caring and compassion. Jesus in this text, is calling us all to be deacons to the world. At its most basic or literal level diakonos or “deaconing” means waiting tables. Laying out the nurture for the care of hungry people. When we host Winter Relief in October we all will have the opportunity to deacon, to wait on some vulnerable people who at this time in their life find themselves homeless.
When Jesus grabs a child and places the child in the middle of the disciples directly after they have been arguing about which one of them is the greatest; this is not a huggy bear moment. We all value children and love them. We love hug, educate and support them but in the first century children did not have quite the status we supposedly accord to them in the modern world. Children were lowly, very often they were servants. I am not saying they weren’t loved – I am simply saying they were very much in their place – societally inferior at the bottom of the social ladder. In the fifteenth century some clergy person quipped that children should be seen and not heard. Maybe that illustrates the status. So when Jesus says welcome a child, he means welcome the lowly ones in the world and take care of them. Take a risk. Welcome more refugees not less refugees into our country.
Keep in mind that this lesson comes from Jesus to the disciples while they are traveling through Galilee to a home in Capernaum. Knowing the literary construction of the Gospel of Mark, this path of Jesus and his disciples is the path of discipleship, they are on the way to Jerusalem and to the cross. We too are travelling the path of discipleship. Their debates are our debates. We face similar challenges on our journey.
You might remember that when you joined the church or in a couple of sermon series, mention was made of the Six marks of Discipleship. This is what we covenant, this what we strive for, this is the pact that we make with each other as fellow members. We will strive to engage in daily prayer, regular bible reading, regular worship, ongoing Christian education and friendships, Generosity, and Acts of Mission Mercy and Justice. This telling which we have shared today is one of the texts that stands behind our covenant to engage in Acts of Mission, Mercy and Justice. God calls us all to be servants or deacons to the world.
Acts of Mission, Mercy and Justice are wonderful and part of our call but after you have been at it for a couple of years, the wise disciple starts to ask. Is there a systemic problem here? Are we patching stage four cancer with batman Band-Aids? Over the years I have heard many members of the mission ministry raise such questions. And in the process of creating our last three year long range plan, many people in our congregation raised the systemic issues. Doesn’t it make sense to work on the root causes of the poverty, injustice, addiction, discrimination, racism, helplessness and homelessness that we seek to alleviate in our mission work.
When you the congregation create a three year long range plan, it does not just sit on the shelf. I take that plan to staff. We study that plan at Session. It guides our work for at least three years. The Long Range Plan is my marching orders and my job description as it is for Jon and our Directors of Music. It becomes our guide for ministry.
Weather willing, we start replacement of our roof and siding on Monday. That stems from the long range plan. Just a few weeks ago the Session signed small contract with a stewardship consulting firm called the James Company, that decision evolved from our long range plan. And on Thursday October 4, you are invited to the launch of ACT Anne Arundel Connecting Together. We became involved with ACT, in fact we are a lead congregation because you said to your Session and your staff, that you wanted to interface with other Presbyterians, other Christians and other people of faith to work together on the root causes of things that plague our county, state and nation. ACT is not some venture that Tim and Jon simply cooked up to force feed the Ark and Dove “lambies” of Jesus. ACT is an adventure in the power of serving that you directed your Session and your Staff to discover and facilitate. Anne Arundel Connecting Together is an acknowledgement that one Church, one Mosque, one Synagogue alone cannot affect much change in the local community, but thirty congregations and organizations working together can transform a community. There is power in serving with others, a large portion of that being that when we put 1200 people in a room with both County Executive Candidates all 14 country council candidates and the candidates of Attorney General and the Mayor of Annapolis we will get their attention and we will be recognized. We will earn their respect because we are people of faith and we are non-partisan or multi partisan and as far as I know now one else in our county has ever done this.
Now how might Jesus feel about our work? Are you people arguing about who is the greatest again? He might ask. Uh no Jesus, we are checking our egos and our sectarian views at the door – we are working with the people of Moses and Mohammed here. Heck we are even working with the Baptists and Unitarian Universalists. Instead of burying our power in couch potato acts of listless bowing to the status quo we are being good stewards of our power to serve and we are organizing with other people of faith. We are setting aside money in our budget and money from our special offering for this cause. We are organizing people through our Ark and Dove ACT IAF core team. And we are researching issues so we can be knowledgeable and helpful and maybe even partner with our elected leaders. We are organizing serving power, Jesus, so we can knock institutions off inertia.
We all have power, it is a matter of choice as to how we exercise it. We can use our power to berate or build up, hurt or to heal, to divide with fear and hate or to unite with love and community to serve ourselves or to serve as Christ calls us, to be deacons to a world in need.