Servants of God
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost - Year A
November 2, 2008
Let us pray: O God, guide my words and guide our feet that they may be faithful to the path you want us to follow. Amen.
In last weekís readings we heard how Moses was given the opportunity to survey the promised land before he died. He had led the people this far, but the time had come for someone else to take on the job of leadership. The Jordan river was a real and symbolic dividing line between the past and the future. Joshua was promised Godís help in leading the people from their nomadic wanderings to a different land and way of life.
Jesus draws a different kind of dividing line in his conversation with the people around him. His line is a figurative one described by the difference between talking and walking. He describes the showy religion practised by the Pharisees and theological scholars. There is nothing wrong with their teaching, he says, but be careful of what they do. They donít follow their own rules. The heap the rules like deadweight on the backs and shoulders of the average person, but arenít willing to bear the load themselves. Instead they wander around in a showy display of how faithful and pious they are.
The reading we heard from the letters this morning raises some of the same themes. Paul is clear in this portion of the letter to remind the Thessalonians that when he and others were with them that they pulled their own weight. They werenít about to be accused of being the showy religious authorities that Jesus warned about. No, they worked their fingers to the bone, working more than one job to earn their keep. Paul obviously has a warm spot in his heart for this community of Jesusí followers in Thessalonica, and he continues to give praise to them, as he did at the beginning of the letter.
Each of the passages today presents the opportunity for people to make a decision about their future. Crossing the Jordan was a formative moment in the history of the Hebrew people. Taking a step that would put God and Christ first in peopleís lives was an important message from Jesus in response to the showy, puffed up actions of the religious authorities. Reminding the Thessalonians of the example that Paul and Timothy had set when they were among them, is a preface to the call by Paul for the Thessalonian Christians to continue living a Godly life.
And really, if you step back and take a broad look at the message of the gospels, it is exactly that. If Jesusí teachings and actions could be summarised on one theme, it would be that Jesus spent his time of travel and teaching in Galilee helping people to discern Godís way. It was both a populist and iconoclastic message. Populist in the sense that Jesus praised, told stories about and encouraged unexpected but ordinary people and their faith. Todayís passage is consistent with his overall message - trust the faith of ordinary people, especially those whom you ordinarily would not expect to be examples of great faith. He used iconoclastic statements like: the last shall be first to remind people that Godís way was different from the expected. The normal way of doing things was often a way of praising and honouring people instead of God. Jesus invited people to turn their thinking upside down - to think about God first and in so doing they would be surprisingly led to new insights about Godís will and Godís way.
It was that kind of thinking that led to a similar kind of ďlast becoming firstĒ insight from Jesus in todayís reading. To be a good leader, you must become a good servant. Itís the kind of statement that draws head shakes in both directions, but which invites deeper reflection on just what it is that we are to be about in our way in life and in the world.
Well, the message is transferable to every facet of life. In these days when the term maverick has taken on new life as an honorific, I think it would be safe to say that Jesus was indeed a maverick - which is just another way of defining the word iconoclast - at least thatís what my word processorís thesaurus told me. But Jesusí maverick ways were always ones with a bias: What different way of doing things will result in us following more closely the way that is Godís? Does it mean leading from the middle - which is another way of being a servant leader. I think so.
This Sunday is designated as Peace Sabbath in some church calendars. The designation is poignant in particular reference to two things. You may recall from the reading from the Hebrew Bible this morning that besides the description of the crossing of the Jordan river, there was a part which talked about the dispossession that would occur among the current dwellers of the promised land when the Hebrew people came to live in it. So, while crossing the Jordan was a formative event for the Hebrew people, it was a much different experience for the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites. This event then is part of the history of the centuries long struggle in Palestine, a struggle that is echoed in current events. It was in debating the conflict in this part of the world that Commissioners to the 2006 General Council of The United Church of Canada set the path towards what would be called the ďUnited for PeaceĒ campaign. It began with a debate about what is the faithful response to the plight of Palestinian people and their rights to live safely and securely in their land and the plight of Israeli people who feel constantly threatened by certain elements among the countries and peoples that surround them. Itís a complicated and pitfall filled discussion - as so many years of negotiation, diplomacy, warfare - both declared and guerilla, have attested. Well, that debate led to a much broader definition and terms of reference for the United for Peace campaign, but it helped to underline the important understanding among people of faith that Godís will is for peace. Thatís the first connection to Peace Sabbath I wanted to make.
The second is one which I see as a particular instance of the kind of upside down thinking and acting that Jesus called us to do. There is a movement in Canada calling on the Federal Government to create a Department of Peace within the federal government structure. You can read more about it at: departmentofpeace.ca and hopefully you will be happy to see that The United Church of Canada is listed as one of the supporting organizations. Perhaps the call is made even more poignant given that we are on the heels of the appointment of a new cabinet in our federal government, such that several new ministers of state were appointed. So, it seems that prior to legislation establishing a new department of peace, it would be possible for the Prime Minister to appoint a minister of state with responsibilities that would include peace.
Is it too much to hope? Well, we are people of hope. We are followers of the way of God, as described and walked by Jesus. It was a way of iconoclasm, a way that invited us to see with new eyes, to find glimpses of Godís presence in ordinary, but unexpected people, to cast off normal ways of being and doing when they were not ways which led to faithfulness and to not just see but to be - servant leaders, followers who put God first, who put first Godís economy which is different from the world economy, who put justice right beside love, who see peace as the way rather than conflict and violence.
Our election is over - but the work before us is not over - one might say that the act of voting, as important as that is, is but the simplest and least effective action we can take in the work of democracy. We all know that important decisions are made in cabinet and in parliament. There are ways of making our hope and our new ways of being, doing and seeing, known and considered in the halls of power. The people we elected are quick to tell us that they are our servants while the election campaign is on, and many of them serve effectively in that role while they hold office. But they donít all do so - I think that Jesus could probably have been just as cutting in his remarks about our political authorities as he was in his day about the religious authorities. I wonít name names, but perhaps we have some in mind.
One more election looms. All the candidates have made ďchangeĒ part of their campaign. Is it possible that we could hope that Jesus iconoclastic message of real change could be one that is heard here where the political choices have been made, or in the arguable most powerful country that lies primarily to the south of us?. It is our responsibility as walkers of the way to make sure that it is. We are servants of God, after all. Amen.