Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Joy in Serving

Joy in Serving
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
September 18, 2012
Colossians 3:12-17

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.

Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.  (The Message, paraphrase by Eugene Peterson)

The fireworks were a dead giveaway that these folks had come together to “cut loose”….with bottle rockets, gaudy balloons, a mariachi band, and lovely young chiquitas in their dancing clothes.

Houston:  we’re not among the Lutherans of the upper Midwest--God’s frozen chosen!

No, we’re in the countryside near Esteli, Nicaragua.  Forty rural families are giddy with joy over a new, hand-cranked well bringing cool, clear water up from 130 feet below ground.   Lutheran World Relief provided the funds, the local well committee made the plan, the community rolled up its sleeves and did the work, and now the beneficiaries of such service couldn’t help themselves.   

“This water is God’s gift to us—of course, we will share it with everyone who is thirsty.”  

Irrational exuberance crowns a service project that means life for God’s people.  El agua es la vida, it says on a nearby sign:  “Water is life!”

The snake-dancing on the floor of the Mercedes Benz Superdome was another dead giveaway.    Thank God the youth of the church had taken control of this stadium in New Orleans, and they were getting pumped as a soulful saxophone led them--35,000 youth and adult leaders--in singing Jesus Loves Me. 

Houston:  these are not the ho-hum Lutherans who furnish ever-ready laugh-lines in Prairie Home Companion monologues.

The youth of our church were there in full force last July, listening spellbound as a speaker, acknowledged that some had protested her presence there.   Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber confessed astonishingly that her sharp critics were right about one thing:  she wasn’t worthy to be there, speaking to all those Lutheran young people—“but this is the kind of God we’re dealing with”—the God who is forever qualifying flawed persons to do God’s work! 

And just like that the whole crowd was up on their feet, making a holy racket, giving Jesus another standing ovation.  More irrational exuberance.

Even in the austere, thousand-year-old English cathedral of Durham, dominating the verdant landscape of Northumberland, a heavenly choir signals another dead giveaway about the joy of serving.  Tow-headed little boys who should by rights be running around on a rugby field, instead are decked out in cassocks and surplices, belting out John Rutter’s “Gloria” with their fluty little treble voices filling the sanctuary of a shrine that still holds the moldering remains of old St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and the Venerable Bede.  I kid you not, you can almost hear the singing of “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven” in that place.  

Houston:  even the walls of this ancient cathedral cannot contain the hilaritas of the Gospel as it soars in song from the sweet voices of little pre-pubescent choristers.

More irrational exuberance—and where you’d least expect it!

All summer long, I kept stumbling on to it:   the flashes, the outbreaks of evangelical fervor that burst forth whenever (as Eugene Peterson paraphrases our text) “the Word of Christ—the Message—[has] the run of the house.”

This is where our being in Christ and our doing as the Body of Christ lead us:  to the giddy joy that inevitably accompanies even the humblest service, done in the name of the Lord Jesus. 

But really now—“Joy in Serving?”

That phrase has always seemed a little like a “con” to me.   Yes, yes, you worked hard, got sweaty and dirty, rubbed elbows with down-and-outers, but wasn’t it fun?  Isn’t it wonderful to experience such “Joy in Serving?”

Joy in Serving:  Really?

Yes, really!  This hilaritas of grace is what we were created for….and now in the mercy of God, it is what we are being recreated for, in Christ Jesus.

But, in truth, we glimpse flashes of such crazy joy, such irrational exuberance breaking out all through the biblical story….

Miriam and the other Hebrew womenfolk, kick up their heels, shake their tambourines, create a song we’re still singing, and invent the line dance--right there by the Red Sea….even as Pharoah’s army (what’s left of it) washes up on the shore.  (Exodus 15:20-21)

King David, having recaptured the Ark of God, strips down to his boxers so that he can dance “with all his might” in advance of the ox-cart that bears the Ark back to its rightful resting place in Israel.  (II Samuel 6)

Isaiah paints a gaudy, over-the-top portrait of what the exiles’ return will look like, in punch-drunk images of greenery filling the desert, lame beggars leaping like Olympic athletes, stuttering deaf-mutes singing arias like Pavarotti, and a Royal Interstate Highway being carved through the wilderness…talk about “rebuilding the infrastructure!”(Isaiah 35:1-10)

And Jesus, even as Jesus faces the horrors of Holy Week, even Jesus cannot contain his exuberance, in the haunting words of Hebrews, even Jesus “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”  (Hebrews 12:2)

But it doesn’t stop there:   Paul and Silas, shackled in the bowels of a Philippian prison, singing hymns at midnight, so raucously that the ground trembles and the prison doors burst open.  (Acts 16:25-34)

You get the picture….the joy of it all, the joy of being God’s beloved ones, the joy of doing God’s work with the least and the last and the lost, this crazy joy just keeps breaking out….because “this is the kind of God we’re dealing with,” as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber proclaimed it so powerfully down in New Orleans.

My dear friends, I am not here this morning to encourage you to please be more joyful in your serving.   The last thing I want is for someone to go home from Fair Hills and tell their church council that “now the bishop says we all have to be more joyful.”

Please don’t do that.

No human being can make someone else more joyful.   That’s ridiculous—like trying to make flowers grow by pulling on them!

No, it is not up to us to get our acts together and be more joyful.

God is already taking care of that, you see.  God will provide your joy.   God creates the hilaritas of grace, and most of the time we realize that only after the fact, only after a little irrational exuberance has broken out in our midst.

Perhaps you and I simply need to be on the watch for it—and to get out of the way when it comes, this unfathomable joy that inevitably accompanies our serving.

And maybe, just maybe, God might use us to put in place the conditions wherein God’s joy will break out.

Do you know, for example, that we have a few congregations in this synod where the passing of the peace is starting to last way too long?   Why--everybody gets out of their seats, crosses the center aisle, and mills around, administering even hugs and a few furtive “kisses of peace!”

This sort of thing could get out of hand, don’t you think?   Perhaps someone needs to craft a new liturgical dialog for the ELW, for when the passing of the peace goes on too long.  Something like:  “P:  All right, all right, break it up and sit down for Pete’s sake,” to which the only possible liturgical response from the faithful would have to be:  “C:  Nothing doing, Bub!”

For when the joy of serving breaks out, as it will when God’s message of mercy “has the run of the house,” our best response is just to stand back, let it happen and simply be carried along by its swift, overpowering current!

For if it is God and God’s people whom we serve, how will we do so with anything less than the hilaritas of our Savior,  “thanking God the Father every step of the way?”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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