Last week we began a six-week exploration of our Congregational Core Values. These six values help define what it means for us to be a missional church, and the first value we explored was compassion. Now, we move on to a second core value, one that emerges out of compassion. That is the call to be a servant.
Since service, like compassion, defines what it means for us to be missional, it may be helpful to hear another definition of what it means to be missional. Consider this definition given by Douglas John Hall. A missional church is:
“Not only a church with a gospel to proclaim – not only an ‘evangelical’ church; it is also a church that itself tries to understand and conduct itself according to that Gospel.” (The Cross in Our Context, Fortress, 2003, p. 184).
To be a missional congregation we must not only share the good news, we must also live it, for as Edgar DeWitt Jones put it many decades ago:
“The most perplexing problem of Christianity is the discrepancy between the ideals of its Founder and the practice of its Followers.” (Jones, Blundering into Paradise, Harper & Brothers, 1932, p. 13).
He goes on to say that too often, when confronted by this discrepancy, the church buries itself in tending to the institution. He writes that we bury our ideals, and concern ourselves with statistics, and cease worrying “about the failure of Christian teaching to captivate and transfigure society” (Jones, p. 14). So, what does it mean for us to live out our calling to be disciples of Christ? Doesn’t it mean that we should serve the least of these?
1. Serving Jesus, Serving the Least of These.
There is no more powerful picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and to answer the call to service, than the picture found in Matthew 25. According to Matthew’s narrative, this scene comes during the middle of Holy Week. Jesus has already entered the city in triumph, riding on a donkey. That argument about who is most important is in the past. Jesus has already cleansed the temple, told parables of the kingdom, and now he begins to speak about the future. The text takes on an apocalyptic tone. The Son of Man is going to come and judge the nations, which have gathered at his feet. The question is, on what basis will he judge them?
Will it be a matter of ethnicity? Orthodoxy? That is, right belief. How about, one’s status in society? No, none of these seem to matter. Instead, the judge asks: Did you feed me when I was hungry? Give me something to drink, when I was thirsty? Did you welcome me when I was a stranger? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you care for me when I was sick? Did you visit me when I was in prison? It will be on this basis that the judge will divide between sheep and goats, between the justified and the condemned.
Some in the crowd took the judge quite literally, and wonder when and if they had ever been put in such a position. When was that, they wondered? And the judge answered, you did it to me when you served the least of these my brothers and sisters. That is, when you welcomed the little children, the homeless, the disabled, the working poor, and indeed, those who are struggling with life itself. This call to service is born out of the compassion of God.
2. Service in the Shadow of the Cross.
As we hear the word of judgment, we may be wondering – what would it look like to live this way? To be a servant. To whom might we look for guidance? Is Jesus not the one who reveals to us the nature of God? Doesn’t the Colossian letter say that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and so if we want to see what it means to serve God, then won’t Jesus reveal what that means in his own life? If this is true, then surely the cross defines what it means to serve others. Remember that this passage falls between the triumphal entry and Good Friday. If the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality is to disappear, will we not have to take up the cross and lay down our lives for others?
Clint Eastwood’s powerful movie, Grand Torino, which was filmed on location in Detroit, offers a poignant picture of what it means to serve others. Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood, is the primary character in this movie. Walt might not be the kind of figure that we would normally equate with Jesus, but, despite the crustiness and the apparent bigotry of this character, there is another side to Walt Kowalski. He is willing to lay down his life for another, so that the other might live. In this he becomes a most unexpected redemptive figure.
The cross reminds us that our God is a suffering God. If Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” then surely God experiences our lives through his life. Through his suffering, God tastes our suffering. In Christ, God becomes the suffering servant.
Jurgen Moltmann spoke of two crosses, one being the cross of Golgotha. The other is the cross of Constantine. One is a cross of service. The other is a cross of conquest. Too often we choose the second cross, but that is not the cross of Jesus. To bear that cross means living a life of service to the most vulnerable among us. It may not require of us physical death, but it will require of us our lives.
3. Living the Call to Service
As we hear the call to service – whether in the picture of receiving that little child or the picture of judgment – each of us must discern how and where this will lead us. Last week I spoke of two ministries that are already present in the congregation, both of which offer compassionate care to those in need. This morning I’d like to mention two ministries that are in the process of being born.
The first has been under discussion for some time, beginning with a conversation between Pastor Eugene James and me, and then in conversations late last spring that included Diana, Chris, Eugene, another leader from Eugene’s church, and myself. We’ve been talking about a partnership between our two congregations to reestablish a computer center at Eugene’s church. This center would offer the people living in that neighborhood in Northwest Detroit opportunities to learn computer skills, along with access to computers for their own use. Although we’re only at the beginning stages of this project, we have great hopes that this will be a fruitful partnership of service.
The second project has come to light even more recently. From the moment I knew I was coming here to Troy, I’ve had a burden for the city of Detroit. I understand why we moved from the city to the suburbs thirty years ago, but while you can take the church out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the church. While I believe that we’ve been called to minister to the immediate community that surrounds this building, I also believe that a concern for the greater Detroit area is deeply rooted in our ethos as a church. Even as the partnership with Eugene’s church would offer an opportunity to minister to people in need, so would this other new venture.
While I appreciate those who take the time and spend the money to go on mission trips to New Orleans and other places in the country, I’ve wondered why no one seems to be coming to Detroit. After all, Detroit is a city in deep and desperate need of help. It needs to experience some love. What I discovered is that there are ministries to the city of Detroit, and we can, if we choose, partner with them. So, this past Thursday I met with Carl Gladstone, the Director of the Motown Mission, which is housed at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit. This mission hosts mission trips, just like the ones that go to New Orleans. We talked about ways in which this congregation, our region and Disciples from across the country could partner with Motown Mission to bring a little life and hope to the city of Detroit by rehabbing houses and planting urban gardens, just to mention two possibilities. By doing this, we can help transform the city of Detroit, the city in which this congregation was born.
We discerned that God is calling us to be a people of service. May we discern how best to live out this core value, for if we are to be faithful to our mission, then aren’t we called to serve “the least of these”?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2009