Sermon Summary 1.29.23 "Serve: Examples and Appeals"
The service opened with a reflective reading of John 13:3-17 and the Hymn Christ for the World We Sing. Pastor invited us to experience the emotions of the unexpected act by Jesus – the shock isn’t the foot washing – that was a routine act of hospitality – the shock is that Jesus, leader, willingly, humbly taking the place of the servant and telling them to do likewise. We were then invited to hear the hymn not as triumphant, but as recognition that we are participating in what Christ is doing in the world.
The call to worship was Psalm 100 and the readings were Micah 6:1-8 and Romans 12:1-21
As we continue our series about our mission statement: “We have no mission but to serve.” We have heard this day from the scriptures, examples, and appeals to service. The Church of God in every age…” Our call is to live out resurrection. Not to fear death, not to avoid suffering, but to live out resurrection as Christ's body in the world. To serve. Our call to worship was Psalm 100. I just took Psalm 100 and broke it up as a responsive reading. And I was doing a word study a few weeks ago, as I was preparing for this series on our mission statement. We usually summarize that as know, grow, serve, share. So, I was doing a word study in the Bible on those words and serve pops up in Psalm 100. In Hebrew, it's the word “avodah”. And it is used dozens of times in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew scriptures. One example comes as early as Genesis 2. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it, (avodah) and take care of it. So, avodah means work. It means what God intended for the first human to do. Remember, at this point, sin has not happened yet. There is not yet the fall - according to the story of Genesis 2 and 3. Creation is exactly as God intended and humanity is created and put into the garden to “avodah.” A partnership with God. Doing what we were created to do, Work is not yet toil It is something more than that.
Or in Exodus as Moses has been sent to speak to the Pharaoh, the words that God gives Moses to tell Pharaoh, “this is what the lord says, let my people go so that they may worship me. avodah. Avodah a is worship. It is right relationship. It is praise. Work and worship.
In the Psalms. Psalm 104 is a hymn of creation in which humanity's effort is celebrated as part of God’s creation. “There go the ships.” And in verse 23, it says, “the man goes out to his work, avodah, to his labor until evening.
Or in Joshua 21, part of the history of the entrance into the promised land. Many of you probably have this verse in a plaque or a painting on your wall “but as for me and my household, we will serve (avodah) the Lord. To work, to do what we were created to do, to worship, to be in relationship with God, to serve, to live out that relationship in all that we do Avodah doesn't translate easily to a single English word.
And we heard from Micah, another familiar verse. Many of us quote verse 8 as part of the definition of our faith. “Do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God.” I wanted us to hear that in context. I talked last week about my understanding, a Wesleyan understanding, of grace being primarily therapeutic, of healing, of making whole, not so much legalism, the guilt, and innocence, that is so dominant in western culture. But there is a reason that that courtroom metaphor for our relationship would God comes to the fore. It is found repeatedly in the Scriptures. But there's a real difference in trial scenes in the Scriptures and what we think of as a trial scene. Think of your favorite detective TV show. Perry Mason or Ironside or Matlock. In Western Justice, there is someone on trial. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. But the whole premise is they did it and we're going to prove it. And so guilt and innocence and if the lawyer is really good and they find the facts and they create enough doubt or they find who really did it, that person can be exonerated, let go.
But we would start over with a new trial when Mattlock or Perry Mason or whoever it was broke the witness down on the stand and they admitted to the crime. They don't go off to jail guilty. They start a new trial. We don't see that part on TV because that part's boring.
In the ancient near East, the trial was set up differently. There was a controversy and you would present the evidence and then the jury of your peers, often the other citizens of the town, gathered at the city gate, would weigh and decide who was at fault. So the one bringing the charge could be also found guilty. Over and over in the scriptures, particularly in the prophets, God is put on trial. God or a figure like Job demands a controversy – a trial – and both parties are at risk. And here in Micah, it's actually God that calls the controversy, that calls the assembly. “Plead your case before the mountains and let the hills hear your voice.”
The mountains and the hills have been established as the jury. We're going to contest this controversy. We're going to state our case and then the jury is going to decide. God is at risk here. It's even more prominent in Job but this is the pattern that we're seeing.
“For the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel.” And then we heard read a very, very short summary of the relationship of Israel and God, “What have I done to you?” God asks. “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And then some stories that I will admit, I had to look up and double check what they were referring to - but an audience in the ancient near East, a Jewish audience would know these stories Balak and Balaam, the Moabite king wants to curse the Israelite people and he hires a prophet, Balaam, to do it. But because of God's Spirit and God's presence Balaam can't deliver the curse. Instead, everything he says turns into a blessing. It's quite a comedic story.
From to Shittim to Gilgal. That's the crossing of the Jordan. I wasn’t familiar with those towns but they're on either side of the Jordan. It is a summary of Israel wandering ing the wilderness, and being delivered time and again, ultimately crossing the Jordan into the promised land. God, very, very succinctly reminds Israel of what God has done for them.
And then this next part we should probably hear in the voice of an aggrieved teenager or… perhaps me when I'm whining at 54. “With what shall I come before the lord and Bow myself before God on high. Do I bring a thousand rams? Do I bring rivers of oil? I mean, what can I do?
Israel is complaining that God is just not fair. God demands too much. But God just reminded them that God has given them everything and then that last part is the Mountains speaking, not God, not the prophet. The jury at this controversy, at this trial has heard the case and says to Israel, “he has told you, oh mortal, what is good and what does the lord require of you? But to do justice and to love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” That is how you are to live. It's not about the perfect ritual that gets you off the hook. It's about this relationship that flows out into the world of justice kindness and humility That's what the rituals are supposed to bring you to, to remind you of - How many of us say, oh well, I keep my faith in my politics separate. The mountains here are saying no. What you do, what you enable others to do, needs to be about justice and kindness, and humility.
How many of us want to control things. To jump in and cease our discomfort by trying to dictate how God will work. Oh, the mountains say, do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.
The message version, a paraphrase of this passage expresses it this way, “do what is fair and just to your neighbor. Be compassionate and loyal in your love and… don't take yourself too seriously.” I think Eugene Peterson has some insight there.
We talk about our mission statement to know Christ. Not just an intellectual ascent, not reciting a creed, not even sitting in the pew one hour a week - but it's a relationship that then flows into the world.
to grow in Christ. We're never done. There was always a next step on our faith journey. We change throughout our lives. We gain more insight. We are equipped to do better. We are called to learn and to grow and this day, we are called to share and we are reminded of what God has already done for us and we are reminded that our journey of knowing and growing and serving and sharing is neer done. It's a process. It is a lifelong journey.
We are being conformed to the image of Christ. We are bearing witness to the image of God within us and we do these things - according to the definition of spiritual formation we've been working with – “by the gracious working of God's Spirit.” We don't do it ourselves or alone.
It is because of God's Spirit, because of God's grace that surrounds us, that equips us, that calls us, that sends us. A reading from Romans 12 tells us about how we are to live that out. It is an appeal to a new life in Christ and I really can't say it any better than Paul does. “I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the mercies of God present your very bodies, your whole selves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” your work, your worship is to share, to be part of the body of Christ, not conformed to this world with its emphasis on violence and control but transformed by the renewing of your minds that you may discern what the will of God, what is good, and acceptable, and perfect, what is holy. what is sacred. That is what we are to do not just on Sunday morning but always in everything that we do. And it's a tall order and we can't do it ourselves. but by God's grace, we can do it.
We are called to be a body with many members. To recognize that we are gifted in different ways to discern what our gifts are. I will never forget taking a Spiritual gifts inventory and it came back as craftsmanship, compassion, administration, and wisdom. I still can't file to save my life. What does this administration thing do? And I get overwhelmed dealing with people. I'm very much an introvert. What is this compassion thing? Wisdom. Don't get too full of yourself. The scriptures say.
And yet reflecting on those gifts. Well, I was immediately put on trustees. Which let me start leading in the church. Which got me out of my comfort zone. Caused me to start building deeper relationships. Start caused me to start studying scriptures more diligently.
The first verse I ever truly memorized… I've been all the way through confirmation and I kind of failed everything I was supposed to do and I just gone through the motions. But as I was getting back into church, the first verse that really stuck with me was the end of this reading from Romans chapter 12. “Be not overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” And I memorized it because it was part of a news report of a young woman who had been murdered at a fast food restaurant I had worked at a few months before. I didn’t know here but I knew a lot of her coworkers - and she had been studying scripture on break and she had highlighted that line. It stuck with me that in the midst of this injustice and this evil and this wrongness that I was called to respond differently, and I did not have a vocabulary at that time for what it was like but it stuck with me. God's grace was already surrounding me. I was being challenged to step into the woundedness of the world. To stand in the gap, not to avoid pain or suffering but to be part of a transformation that God is working here and now in each of us in this broken and divided world. The gifts that we have been given are not just for ourselves – but for the world. To let love be genuine, to hate what is evil, but not to be too full of ourselves, to think that we know what the definition of either of those words really is.
How quickly we jump to violence, to dehumanizing the other. “Well, they did it first.” We don't let kindergarteners get away with that. Why do we think God would let us get away with it?
“Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take what is thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Leave room for God's wrath. I struggle with this next part. And I learned that Paul is directly quoting Deuteronomy and Proverbs.
Deuteronomy says, “to leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” And in Proverbs, it says, “no, if your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. For the, by this, you will heap burning coals on their head.”
The Old Testament and the New Testament bearing witness together. And these verses illustrate the challenge of Scripture. I am assured that God will make things right even when it seems like there is no way. I am assured that if I participate in what God is doing with humility, with kindness that exceeds the call of the law. With love, with an eye towards true justice, which is restorative, not just punitive. That God will make things right. But there's a temptation here. The temptation is I want “to heap coals on their head.” So I'm going to be really sickly sweet because God's going to get you! I've missed the point. I'm not acting with justice and kindness and humility. I'm trying to manipulate God. Oh, I'm doing it nicely. “Bless your heart. But I'm trying to manipulate God. I’m making it transactional…
The call is to not give in to that temptation, to trust that God will make things right and to love genuinely. To avoid evil, genuinely, but with humility, to not be overcome but to overcome. This is our call as the body of Christ.
How often we give in to the ways of the world instead of being a transformative force of grace and goodness and kindness and so we are reminded.
We are reminded of who Jesus is and who Jesus calls us to be. Jesus, who last week we attested as the word of God become flesh. The perfect image of God, the ultimately real made visible. Gets up, wraps a towel around himself and takes the lowest station in the room and serves others, and says, I have given you an example. It’s not transactional – it’s a gift given freely. This is what you are to do for each other and for the world. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Closing hymn was Many Gifts, One Spirit # 114 in the United Methodist Hymnal.
Benediction: “We are called to service. We are called to worship That is the work of the church. That is the work of the body of Christ of which you are a part. Go forth in love, in kindness, with humility, to be the body of Christ in this time and place. Thanks be to God. Amen!”