The people who walked in darkness have seen a great
It’s Sunday morning in a small Mennonite town in Southern Manitoba and while many, if not most, in the community are faithfully and dutifully on their way to church, one man remains at home with a vacuum cleaner in his hand. With blue grass gospel music blaring in the background about “Jesus meeting us on the other side” the ironic self-proclaimed atheist wishes his family well as they head out the door to church. As they go he preaches his own gospel about the church not having enough “room” for him and he tells his family he will have the house clean and lunch ready on the table when they get home. Meanwhile the man’s partner brings the children to church, and although she, too, is not overly fond of religion her Mennonite upbringing tells her that this is the right thing to do. The woman is also active in her community and as an educational assistant often volunteers to care for the disabled children she works with on the weekends so that their parents can have some much-needed respite.
This man and this woman are my father and mother, and they were the first ones who guided me toward that “Great Light;” they were my first examples of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
In this our third Sunday in a series of reflections exploring Jesus’ baptism and it’s purpose, we hear about how Jesus gathered his disciples. Matthew 4:19-20 tells us: “He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Hearing such passages may lead us to ponder the seriousness of such a call – what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Are we ready to drop our “nets” and follow? What is our call?
Discipleship through service, a simple lifestyle, and non-violent peacemaking are some of the primary tenants of the Anabaptist Mennonite faith which I was surrounded by while growing up. Another primary tenant of the Mennonite faith is adult baptism. Thus, while I attended a United Church as a child, this church (together with its’ congregants, which included my mother) was heavily influenced by the Mennonite ethos of the larger community and I was not baptized as a baby. In my home community it is believed that baptism is a choice to be made later on in one’s life and the act of baptism tends to represent a sort of coming-of-age activity (or right of passage) that happens in one’s late teens or early twenties (similar to the act confirmation in the United Church).
It was during my mid teenage years that I began to question what I believed and what the Christian faith meant to me. It so happened that it was also during this time that I experienced a very dramatic and emotional alter call at a friend’s non-denominational church in the nearby city of Winnipeg. It was sealed! I decided to “officially” become a Christian and went back to my United Church and requested to be baptized. While the alter call was a dramatic and emotionally charged event, the drama and emotion were not to last. As my journey of faith and questioning began, I was soon to find out that the alter was an unlikely place for me to encounter Jesus. It is little wonder that I did not discover Jesus at the alter, for what we know of him from the gospels, it seems that this was a place that he had little interest in being. Jesus’ place was with the people – particularly those who were considered “unclean” and “unworthy” by the rest of society.
When Elaine, Kathy and I got together to discuss the scriptures for this series of reflections on Christ’s baptism and call to discipleship we talked a lot about the theme of Christ’s call, the call of “the Light,” being counter to our culture. Today’s scripture reading from 1Corintians tells us that the message of the cross in “foolishness” to those who do not believe. What is it about the society we live in today that makes the message of the cross seem so foolish?
Middle-class North American culture teaches us that our own needs come before those of others. It tells us that we must busy ourselves with bettering ourselves. To work harder, to do better, to get a better job, to earn more money, to attain more and better things, to seek comfort and contentment, to look out for ourselves and our nuclear families – the message is about the individual and meeting our own individual “needs.” The message is about being in control. Jesus takes this whole value system – this whole paradigm of thinking – and flips it upside down. He tells us to give away all we own, that “real wealth will be safe only where your heart is (Luke 12.34),” and that “life does not lie in the abundance of things one owns (Luke 12.15).” We are to drop our “nets” and follow him.
In his book entitled What Jesus Meant author Gary Wills (who labels himself a “questioning Catholic”) articulates that radical call of Jesus. Wills writes, “[Jesus] tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest…What he signified is always more challenging than we can expect…” Wills continues, “According to the gospels [Jesus] preferred the company of the lowly and despised to that of the rich and powerful. He crossed lines of ritual purity to deal with the unclean – with lepers, the possessed, the insane, with prostitutes and adulterers, and collaborators with Rome…Jesus continually tells people, to their astonishment, that no company is beneath his presence. His followers,” adds Wills, “are not to aspire to the social register but to seek out the forsaken.” Surely we cannot fulfill such a calling as described by Wills. How can we can we be disciples of this radical Jesus? Surely the message of the cross is foolishness?
A very natural way for us as North American Christians to respond to the call of Christ is to provide charity to those we deem “in need.” However, while this charity may be well-meaning it has the potential to be temporary and the tendency to create power imbalances between those “doing the service” and those who are the “recipients” of that service. Charity also has the tendency to measure results and depend on external thank yous and rewards. While charity has the potential to create an “us” and “them,” it seems that Jesus’ way of discipleship was more about relationship – fully engaging with and embracing the humanness of those whom he served.
It is this type of altruistic service that cancer Dr. Rachel Remen describes when reflecting on the spiritual lessons she received from her grandfather who was a Kabbalist rabbi. Remen writes: “We do not serve the weak or the broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual. There are many ways to serve and strengthen the life around us: through friendship or parenthood or work, by kindness, by compassion, by generosity or acceptance. Through our philanthropy, our example, our encouragement, our active participation, our belief. When we offer our blessings generously, the light in the world is strengthened.”
Remen’s description of the blessings of service, and how our service strengthens the light in the world, sounds so simple yet complex. The idea of service being mutual may be a hard concept to grasp in a society where we want to be on top and in control, but it was certainly a concept well demonstrated by Jesus. So when we ask the question about how we are to serve, one of the most difficult acts of service we are called to may be the one which runs most counter to our culture: the service of allowing ourselves to be served by others. Quaker author Richard J. Foster writes: “There is the service of being served. When Jesus began to wash the feet of those he loved, Peter refused. He would never let his Master stoop to such a menial service on his behalf. It sounds like a statement of humility; in reality it was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed feet!” Foster concludes: “It is an act of submission and service to allow others to serve us.”
As a young idealist, out of high school and eager to “change the world” and “make a difference” I certainly did not believe that service involved others serving me. I self-righteously thought that discipleship was about the “big acts.” In my enthusiasm (and desire for adventure) I signed up to participate in a program through the Mennonite Central Committee called SALT – Serving And Learning Together. As a SALT participant one lives with a family in a developing country, participating in their daily routines while volunteering with a service project for a period of one year. I was off to Zambia, Africa. While at the beginning of my SALT term I admittedly believed that I was the one there to do most of the serving, I was soon to find out what it meant to be served. The premise of the program was to “serve together” but I know that I was served much more than I could have possibly served others.
My year on SALT was probably the most difficult year of my life. I was often plagued by loneliness and culture shock and it was during some of these most intense times that I was so graciously served by my Zambian family and friends. These are people, whom we as North Americans, might pity or feel sorry for because of their material poverty and the forms of suffering that result from that poverty. However, the spiritual wealth of my host families and friends, combined with the service they showed me, was truly humbling and life preserving. I think particularly of Beena Chello and her three co-wives. When I was feeling most down, I would visit these four beautiful women whose laughter and constant chatter would bring an intense light into my day. Our time together usually consisted of an hour or two of visiting (mostly through gestures and laughter as I did not speak Tonga well and the women did not speak much English), followed by singing, and ending with a small meal prepared for me. (Story of Canadian food) Talk about a humbling experience…talk about true service.
On another occasion when I was sick and having a break-down my host sister physically held me and said “Jaime, God has brought you all this way to Zambia…God would not have called you here only to abandon you. God is with you.” On a few occasions Zambian clergy spoke to me about their belief that one day they would be called to North America to serve as missionaries to those who were spiritually poor. I think we would be blessed to have African missionaries serve us.
When we ask ourselves how we are to serve – how we are to drop our nets and be disciples – it might also help us to understand that we are not all called to serve in the same way. While it is important for us as a Church community to be “united in purpose and in mind” (as today’s scripture reading reminds us) our gifts call us to disciple in different ways. It is also important to remember that perhaps sometimes we think we are serving others one way but are really serving them in another way that we have not thought of. Rachel Remen tells the story of an intern who struggled tirelessly to bring medical attention to young men at an inner-city AIDS ward in San Francisco at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in North America. The young intern soon became overwhelmed at the futility of his efforts as he watched many of the men die. However, the intern (who was Buddhist) later confided in Dr. Remen about how he had prayed for each of the men he treated and had lit a candle for each patient on his alter when they died. Remen writes: “Many years afterward…it has made him wonder. Perhaps the reason he was there was not what he had thought. He had expected to serve by curing and rescuing his patients. When their problems proved resistant to his medical expertise, he had felt useless. But maybe he was not meant to be there to cure people. Perhaps he was there so that no one would die without someone to pray for them. Perhaps he had served every one of his patients flawlessly.” Maybe being a disciple is not just about being called to the light but dropping our “nets” (what ever those nets may be) and adding to that light by living out our calling according to the gifts God has given us.
When I was a teen I experienced the drama of an alter call and the idealism of wanting to do something “big” as a disciple of Christ. But in my continuing journey of effort towards discipleship I have learned that the call was, and continues to be, as unlikely as watching a self-proclaimed atheist with a vacuum cleaner in his hand and as difficult as allowing oneself to be served; as complex as discerning one’s call and as simple as a woman doing her best to help out the parents of disabled children when she could. All together it is as unlikely, difficult, complex, and simple as faith.
In preparation for this reflection I wrote out some of today’s scripture passages on a piece of paper and circled the words that I found meaningful. The words that jumped off the page were: “light, light, come, seek, united…follow.” The following Inuit prayer song seems a beautifully fitting prayer for the journey of a disciple and an equally fitting prayer to end this reflection:
The great sea has set [us] in motion
Set [us] adrift,
And [we] move as weeds in the river.
The arch of sky
And mightiness of storms
And [we are] left
Trembling with joy.