Sunday, August 5, 2012

But How?

But How?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 5, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12: 11c
Matthew 20: 20-27 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

 So we continue again this morning with the "Marks of a True Christian" from Paul's letter to the Romans 12: 9-21 with verse 11c, the second half the verse we started last week. So far we've looked at:  verse 9, Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; verse 10, love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor, and now verse 11: Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, from last week, and now, simply, "serve the lord." Serve the Lord, and so I titled my sermon for this morning, but how? I chose to pair this verse with the prophet Isaiah's account of the suffering servant from the Old Testament, and from Matthew's Gospel, chapter 20: 20-27.
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many[1] 

I have been thinking this week about what it means to serve, what it means to be a servant, or even a slave, and the first thing that comes to mind is humility. The servant must be humble because he or she is there to follow rather to lead, there to be at the beck and call, the service of someone else. What kept coming to mind to me all week while I was thinking about this text, and I'm not completely sure why, was the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. By way of introduction, I'd like to begin with that story. Indiana Jones has been following his father's quest to find the Holy Grail, but all of his life the father had chosen the study of the grail over spending time with his son, so there is resentment, there is skepticism, and there is doubt, but at the same time real faith is necessary because his father has been shot, and desperately needs the grail now to heal his wounds, so Indiana must take over the quest, facing the three challenges, led by his father's life's work. He has to put aside all of his resentment, skepticism, and doubt, and follow another's directions, putting himself at risk. He faces three challenges, all that require him to put aside himself and be basically his father. The first is to follow the word of God, so he steps on the letters that spell Jehovah, making it across. The next two challenges are what have stuck in my mind. The first had the clue, "the penitent man will pass." He's trying to figure it out, and just in time he does, the penitent man is humble before God, he kneels before God, so Indy kneels, just in time as circular saws spin just inches above his head. Then the last challenge the step of faith. There is a ravine, that must be crossed, and it looks impossible, but the book says the faithful can walk across, so Indy puts aside his thoughts and fears and steps out, and what is revealed is a stone bridge that was hidden in a camouflaged optical illusion, he safely steps across. The cool thing about that scene in the movie is that Indy must become humble, he must follow another's advice, he must follow a path of study, a path of kneeling obedience, and last a path of complete "life on the line" faith in order to get to the grail, and he makes it, chooses the humble clay cup, wisely, and brings the grail out to heal his father. It is a humble walk of faith, and such is service to God.
Serve the Lord. Serve the Lord, but how? be humble, ok, but how? This topic is not as easy as it seems. If you look at the world you will see a lot of different ways people interpret what it means to serve the Lord. On opposite sides of the political aisle you find people who are trying to serve the Lord in very different ways. In other cultures and other countries service to the Lord takes very different shapes. It may include sacrifices of animals, or fasting, or following lists of rules, or any number of different things. In Sunday School class the last few weeks we looked at Islam, which has its own set of ways for serving Allah, and this morning we were looking at Hinduism, where service to god revolves around following one's own dharma, which is a path that is very different for all people. But what do we see when it says there in black and white in verse eleven of out text, "serve the lord." How do we tell if the work that we are doing is serving the Lord, or just serving our misguided sense?
One of the things that I have noticed since I have begun the study of this passage is that the Marks of a True Christian are the marks of Jesus, so one way of getting at what is meant by serving the Lord is in following the example that Jesus has left us as the servant, as described both by Isaiah and Matthew. The Gospel lesson for this morning concluded with: "just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." What are the ways in which Jesus was a servant? There are some that are very obvious. If we look at the life of Jesus we will see Jesus teaching people about God, and life, and love. We see Jesus healing the sick, casting out demons, and bringing healing to many. We see Jesus serving food, washing feet, getting his own hands dirty. We see Jesus caring, caring seems to be a big piece of the service puzzle. A servant must care enough about who and what he serves, and there seems to be a connection between service and caring for the people around him who are in need, and in serving God. These seem to be the basics of service, but Jesus goes further than this, goes further than the basics, though he doesn't by any means ignore the basics, but his mission and service to God take him eventually to the cross, and the cross seems to be the pinnacle of his servant hood, and for us, who are called to serve and called to carry and be marked with the cross, must also include the cross in our serving of the Lord.
And so what is the example of the cross in serving God? To me there seems to be three important examples of service found in the cross, and they are crucial examples. The three are, Reconciliation, Setting people free, and Sacrifice. I believe these three ideas must mark our service to the Lord. They become a good test to see if the work that we are doing is in service to the Lord. Let's take a look at each one.
Reconciliation. Jesus died so that we could be reconciled to God, forgiven. Service to the Lord must include this idea of reconciliation. How can we work in our world to bring people together? How can we work in our world to forgive those around us? How can we work in our world to be an agent inspiring forgiveness in others? This needs to be a major piece in our service. It is something that is always needed because conflict is ever present in our world, but conflict does not need to be bad. So many times we seek to avoid conflict at all cost. I don't think that is always good. Sometimes conflict is needed because the working through it, the reconciliation step brings us closer, more strong in our relationships because of the experience of the conflict itself. Think about it: is the potential to our relationship with God stronger, having gone through the fall, having understood further the power of God's love for us, the amazing depth of God's love for us, the boundless nature of God's love for us, so big that it includes the gift of Jesus Christ. Of course the cost is great, but it shows the possibility and power that reconciliation has. If the work that we are doing is not bringing people together, but instead is dividing, it is possible that it is not in the Lord's service.
The next is setting people free. There is no greater example of God's work and love than this. All throughout the pages of the Bible we can see the work that God does as a freer of peoples. From the great freeing of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, to the freedom from Sin that Christ buys for us on the cross we see a God who sets his people free. How can we be freedom fighters in the world? How can we fight to set those around us free. There are many things in our world that enslaves. We have drugs that enslave our bodies, we have sin and doubt that enslaves our minds. There is real oppression that surrounds us at every turn. All around the world there are people who use and manipulate others for their own ends. The people they use become mere pawns and tools. How can we set those people free? Finding ways would certainly be following Christ's example and serving the Lord. If our work's object is binding people rather than setting them free we are not serving the Lord.
Finally, Sacrifice. Obviously sacrifice was a major part of Jesus' work on the cross. There is pain involved, there is shame involved, harassment, ridicule, even death involved, and Jesus willingly goes through with it. Self sacrifice must be present in what we mean when we say serve the Lord. We must offer up our complete self, and it is hard to do. It is hard to do, but necessary. Reconciliation is many times impossible without sacrifice. Many times we have to give up our own agendas, our own manipulations, our own feelings of rightness to listen, to hear, to understand those from whom we are estranged in order to reconcile. When we are setting people free, many times the road is also fraught with danger, so willingness to sacrifice is paramount to our success.
All through this series on the marks of a true Christian, we keep trying to put the mirror up, and we continually find more and more that we would need to be to truly live up to the distinction. There is always more that we can do, always more that we can be, and always more that we can give because our model gave all, and so must we if we are truly to become Christians in reality. As Indiana Jones does, sacrificing himself, not just physically by putting his body on the line, but also his resentment, and his doubt, he sacrifices them to serve his father's will, to finish his father's quest. He must walk the path of a Christian, and in doing so he is reconciled to his father and sets  him free from his life's obsession of the grave. He also finds that he is set free, and finds a little piece of faith along the way. There is something about trying to walk the path of God, which is the way, shows the way, and brings us closer and closer to our heart's true desire of being home again in the midst of our creator. God give us the strength.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 20:20-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.