The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s137g09 Sunday 25 20/9/2009
'servant of all' Mark 9.35
Many a good church-person has been described as a 'servant of the church'. I remember many years ago a prominent Anglican layperson who was wont to say that deacons were the servants of the people; priests, servants of the servants, and bishops servants of the servants of the servants! However often those considered saints were not servants of the church, indeed they oft incurred the wrath of the authorities. Mother Mary McKillop, presently being considered for sainthood in Australia by the Catholic Church, was excommunicated by her bishop in Adelaide (where I grew up). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_McKillop) And the legacy of, for my money, the one best deserving of sainthood, Pope John the 23rd, had similar opposition. His biographer, Michael Elliot, notes 'a remark attributed to Cardinal Siri, that it would take the church fifty years to recover from the aberrations of John XXIII'. ('I will be called John' p285). Perhaps some catholics think that it will still take even more than 50 years :-)!
The present anxiety about the future of the church, characterised by defining an 'Anglican' or a 'Christian' identity, inevitably distinguishes 'Anglicans' or 'Christians' from others. We are concerned with the future of the church, but Jesus calls us to be servant of all. So while we are concerned with our subset of humanity we are failing to be the church Jesus called into being.
I wrote last week of our identification with our beliefs. We are loved for ourselves rather than because of what we believe, and so are other people. If we make our beliefs something that distinguishes us from others, then we make our faith into a work that we do. We might piously believe that God has somehow 'made us' believe, but if it results in our salvation somehow denied to others, then predestination or not, it remains essentially selfish. It becomes clear that many of the arguments that have raged in the church have been arguments about God, when God wants us to get on with those around us. The pious arguments have been a fine way of avoiding what God would have us do!
I am reminded of the ancient story of the tower of Babel in Genesis with its 'top in the heavens' (11.4). The inhabitants wanted not to be scattered, but remain apart from others, secure in their own fortress, and a law unto themselves. How easy it is for our religion to do likewise, to build up a tower to God associating with people who all speak the same theological lingo! This 'security' is a charade, for it inevitably only promotes envy and hostility in others.
But, of course, real faith is work. Acceptance of others is hard work. Again the arguments that have raged about faith verses law has been another fine way of avoiding doing what God would have us do.
It is often thought that the Church lost its way when it became the official religion of the State under Constantine. Whereas formerly it had flourished under the reality of martyrdom, the official promotion of bishops and the church meant that poverty became passť. But Constantine wanted to use the new faith to unite the empire. He saw the faith as something that could glue the disparate people together by a concern for the common welfare. How right was his theology, but how wrong he was to think the church would catch the vision! Even today as the State insists that I offer pastoral care in hospitals to all regardless of faith or lack thereof, they too have caught a godly vision of concern for the common welfare ≠ but the ancient question remains as valid today ≠ will the church play her part or remain in its ivory tower?
As I typed the words: 'glue the disparate people together' I thought how this is the purpose of the incarnation. And this same paradigm is not new, for when the tribes of Israel were dispersed to Babylon the advice of the prophet Jeremiah was for them to: 'build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.' (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
Perhaps we have to learn from the failure of the exclusivist attitude of Ezra and Nehemiah rather than emulate that attitude. They wanted the temple to be theirs rather than a house of prayer for all people. Surely, just because we read in the Bible that Cain killed Abel, we are not excused if we emulate Cain? Just because we read the excuses of those who had Jesus killed in the Bible does not mean that we should believe those excuses! I am not showing disrespect for the words of the Bible here, but we are not excused from using our brains!
This saying about being 'servant of all' follows the second occasion when Jesus predicted his forthcoming death, and the disciples privately arguing about who was the greatest. In a complete antithesis, Jesus places a child and bids them welcome even such a one. The doctrine of being 'servant of all' was precisely what motivated the religious authorities to have Jesus killed. They wanted Jesus and God to be servant to them alone. They had built their theological edifice, and rested in their charade of security, and here was this Jesus associating with others in the name of God. They had a choice, to abandon their edifice or to proclaim him a blasphemer. Neither can we build our own edifice around 'Jesus' for we will always find Jesus outside edifices, associating with outsiders.
This morning I read the words in Acts chapter 16, where Paul was forbidden to speak the word in Asia and Bithynia. Many years ago, I heard a conservative bishop expound these words to suggest that the Holy Spirit similarly forbids the church going down the track of ordaining women. But even the most cursory reading shows that here Paul is being led away from the familiar territory in Asia and towards Europe. He is being led further away, to people who were more 'outsiders'. And the first person he found in Europe was a woman named Lydia who immediately welcomed the message, she and her household were baptised, and she welcomed the apostles into her home. So rather than arbitrarily forbidding us to do things, the Holy Spirit leads us towards others who inevitably think differently to us.
On a personal note, I have often thought of theology as a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. The standard way of doing these is to pick out all the pieces with the straight edges and from those the four with right angles. These four are the corners and the others form the sides. Then with the outline formed the rest comes together. For me the outline is the incarnation, being 'servant of all', that puts every other piece of the jigsaw in its proper perspective. Without this unifying principle, the places of all the other pieces, even if they join up with quite a number of others are still uncertain.
Finally in mental delusion, the status of the person suffering the delusion is paramount. Their exalted station demands submission, compliance, obeisance, This alerts us to the reality that we are concerned about something global rather than local. Being 'servant of all' might be similarly unlikely and delusional, but at least it comes as an invitation and as an affirmation of all. And it is wonderful just how many people do work towards the common welfare of all in their quiet and unpretentious ways.
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