September 20, 2015

“Choosing to Serve”

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
Psalm 1
Mark 9:30-37

This morning’s scripture readings are overflowing with wisdom about how to live day-by-day as followers of Jesus and communities of God’s people.

James encourages us to make ourselves pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. He calls us to submit ourselves and all our decisions to God, to resist the devil, and draw near to God who will help us with this high and difficult calling.

Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, tells his disciples and all who would follow him, that if we want to be first, we must make ourselves last and be servants to others. Showing them a little child (a vulnerable, unimportant person) Jesus teaches them that welcoming the lowly ones and the least in our societies is the way that we can welcome and honour Jesus himself.

These are words of wisdom that we have heard many times before. But, I imagine, we all continue to struggle in living by them. They call us to true humility, allowing God to direct our actions and our decisions so that we are focussed on the good of others rather than ourselves, and especially focussed on the good of those who are usually left out, left behind, poor, or marginalized.

The other day, I found myself preaching at the television… okay, “ranting at the television” is probably more like it. I often watch The National on CBC in the evening, and if you watch it too you will know that they are doing a series of stories from Canadians across the country and their reflections on the upcoming election. In each story, we learn a little about the individual Canadian and their situation, and then they comment on a particular issue that is important them, and that will impact how they will vote in the election on October 19th.

What got me upset was not what any of these individual Canadians was saying, although I could relate to some more than others. But what bothered me was the underlying theme and assumption in the way that the stories were framed. The assumption is that Canadians will cast our votes based on the party or platform that will be most beneficial for us personally.

If I have children, I will vote for the party that promises a child tax credit or affordable child care. If I own a business, I will vote the party that reduces my taxes or keeps the minimum wage low. If I work in manufacturing, or in fisheries, or in the oil and gas sector, or in the service industry, I will vote for whoever offers me the best deal.

And maybe that is true. But it makes me sad.

Because as Christians (and I think this applies to people of many other faiths too), we are called to live our lives, and to make our decisions according to an ethic of love and service. Most churches, including our Presbyterian Church, do not claim a particular political ideology or encourage us to vote for a particular party. But our faith does call us to make all our decisions, including our voting decisions, not primarily to meet our own needs and interests, but keeping in mind the common good of our society, and the needs of the least and the marginalized in our communities.

Just once, on the National, it would be nice to hear from a Canadian who has something to say about an important election issue that is not based on his or her own needs, but is rooted in care and concern for someone else.

If nothing else, the CBC stories reminded me of how counter-cultural our Christian faith continues to be. Because Jesus calls us to follow his self-giving, life-offering way – to put others first, and to become great by serving all, and especially by serving those in need around us.

And we have to choose to do it day-by-day… in our decisions about how we spend our time, how we spend our money, how we respond to the needs of others, how we interact with our families, friends, co-workers, neighbours, and fellow church members.

The wisdom of Psalm 1 also invites us to choose. The psalmist tells us that we can choose to follow the advice of the wicked and sinners, or we can choose to look to God and God’s Word for wisdom and direction in all that we do.

Psalm 1 makes it seem pretty simple and straightforward to make this choice. There are two ways: Choose to be directed by God’s Word, or choose to be directed by the wicked. The choice seems obvious, doesn’t it? Especially when you read about how things will turn out for you depending on your choice.

The psalmist explains that those who delight in the law of the Lord, and meditate on God’s law day and night… “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In contrast, he says that “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” And “the way of the wicked will perish.” I’m not sure why anyone would choose the way of the wicked after reading this.

But I read about a pastor who was working with marginalized Korean immigrants in New York City who used this psalm to encourage his congregation by emphasizing the message that God would bless those who followed God. But after a year or two he discovered that his church members were becoming disillusioned. They were in fact following, but they had not experienced any improvement in their lot in life, the circumstances of their daily living, their financial security, or their status in the community.

He had told them that if they followed Jesus and God’s Word that they would prosper. What were they to make of this? Well, we know from our own experience that God does not dole out good fortune in proportion to our goodness, or misfortune as a consequence of our misdeeds.

If that was the case, then there wouldn’t be any rich and comfortable people who got that way by oppressing others or engaging in illegal activity. If that was the case, then there wouldn’t be any kind, loving, generous people living in poverty, homelessness, or suffering from persecution, oppression, or violence. If that was the case, then Jesus (who was just about as good as anyone could be), would not have been rejected, betrayed, tortured, and killed.

So, does this mean that the psalmist was wrong? If we choose the way of God, and try to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, are we most likely to experience hardship, persecution, poverty, and even death? Would we be better off to choose the way of the wicked, to look after our own interests, and maybe get rich on the backs of others?

No, I don’t think the psalmist was wrong. But I don’t think he was talking about prospering in the sense of getting rich quick. And I don’t think he was talking about prospering in the sense of gaining all the things that our world tells us make for “the good life” – a great job, a perfect family, material comforts, and a leisurely life.

The author of Psalm 1 tells us that those who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night become like trees. We become like trees planted by streams of water, which yield our fruit in its season, and our leaves do not wither.

When we turn to God and God’s Word and wisdom every day, when we look to Jesus for guidance and help in all our decisions, and when we draw close to God for strength in our daily lives, we receive the help we need. God nourishes us like trees that are rooted near a source of fresh, running water. God works through us so that our lives bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. God sustains us through whatever circumstances, troubles or trials we may experience so that our “leaves do not wither.” We probably don’t get rich, but we do prosper.

This morning I told the children about making the decision to go up to Mistawasis for three days to conduct wake services and a funeral for a young member of that community who had died in tragic circumstances. I admit that I grumbled about it a little bit before I went. I didn’t want to go. I knew it would be hard, and it would take a lot out of me, which it did.

But it was one example in my life… and I’m sure you can think of some examples in your life too… in which I was blessed in doing the hard thing. The people of Mistawasis welcomed me warmly, and offered me wonderful hospitality. And as I spent time with them at the wake, they shared stories and trusted me with their hurts and their hopes. I learned more about the richness of their culture, traditions, and community, and I received their deep respect and appreciation for what I offered in my role as a minister.

Today’s scriptures encourage us, as followers of Jesus, to stay rooted in the Word and wisdom of God as we make our daily decisions, and even our election decisions, putting the least in our society first, and offering our lives in service to others.

As we do so, we must keep our eyes and our hearts open to see and experience the blessings that may come back to us in the midst of that service. And when things are especially difficult, we must remember how Jesus faced his own impending death. He said, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, [but] three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

May we know, as Jesus did, that God’s goodness and love will triumph in the end, and that as Christ has been raised, we also will be raised. As the psalmist tells us, “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Amen.