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Sermons given by Rev Dr Brian Brown for the North Lake Macquarie Congregations

“CALLED TO SERVE”   The Willows Uniting Church   8th January 2023

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17                                                     

 

The call to serve echoes in the space at the very centre of the invitation of Jesus Christ to follow him. One of the greatest disservices that has ever been perpetrated on the life and witness of the Christian church is the idea that a person’s response to the call of Christ can be disconnected from the call to serve.

 

I could, at the risk of being seen to be unduly negative and critical, give some examples of what I mean, but I am instead going to leave that to your imagination. (Well, I might just slip in one or two along the way). I would rather, however, emphasis the positive by giving a number of examples, which will I hope explain why I feel so strongly about this.

 

Here is one that will be familiar to most of you, I am sure. Later we will sing the hymn Amazing Grace, written by a former slave trader John Newton. When Newton was converted to the Christian faith during a violent storm at sea (it’s amazing how violent storms at sea tend to focus the mind on things of life and death significance), he changed his profession to that of clergy. As his faith matured, Newton’s remorse over his involvement in the slave trade surfaced, and he became an ardent abolitionist, working closely in this ministry of service to humanity with William Wilberforce. And so “Brother, sister let me serve you” replaced his earlier call of “Brother sister, let me sell you.” As St Paul puts it, “Whom he calls he justifies, and whom he justifies he sanctifies…”

 

When I was in theological college, we students, being arrogantly sure of ourselves and our understanding of the ways of God, could not understand how the various theologians we studied could be so different from one another, even if all of them had Germanic surnames starting with the same letter- Barth, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann Brunner… The wise professor explained it this way- “in order to understand how a scholar thinks about God and the world, read their biography.” As another has said “What we see depends on where we stand”.

 

Now I am no academic theologian, even if my initials are BB, but I would like to share with you just a little of my background in order to let you see how I come to stand where I do; why when I read the scriptures for this week I want to preach a sermon entitled “Called to Serve”.

 

What do I mean by “Service”? One formal definition says “Actions and programs of support, care, nurture, advocacy and prophetic action as commonly exhibited in the church’s community service agencies and other mission and service focussed entities of the (church).” More generally, it can be anything we do that serves the needs of others, especially those who were the focus of Jesus’ ministry- the poor, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the displaced, the young and the vulnerable.

 

Now let me share with you how I came to the point of seeing Christian service as being at the heart of the Gospel. I had a typical Christian upbringing for a child of my era- Sunday School while my parents slept in, Confirmation at 15 because everyone else did, then the good fortune to fall in with a vibrant Methodist youth group at age 19.  I quickly began to take the gospel challenge seriously, became a Local Preacher at 21, and candidated for the Methodist ministry at age 24. I was as evangelically conservative and biblically literalist as the next candidate, but there was something else that was having a subversive and influential effect on the way I understood what it meant to follow Christ in a deeply cruel and seriously unjust society.

 

On reflection, I understand this influence to go right back to my childhood, where I absorbed rather than understood what was going on around me. I suppose it all came to a head one Friday evening in 1965.  (I was born in 1950 so the arithmetic is easy). My parents had friends in for cards that evening, and my father, having run out of cigarettes, sent me to the corner shop at a major intersection just down the road. It was raining, and as I approached the shop I saw a large motor-bike on its side, and a broken bag of potatoes. Looking around, I then saw the broken African man lying on the pavement, with a woman standing by helplessly. I went over to discover that the shinbone of his left leg was sticking through the skin. As he lay there on the concrete in a stream of water, I could think of nothing else to do but sit down and cradle his head in my lap while waiting for the ambulance.

 

 A little while later, a doctor who was driving home stopped, and administered a morphine injection, leaving me instructions to tell the ambulance officers this when they arrived. He will never know, as he drove away to his warm home, how much I wanted him to stay and take control.

 

When the White ambulance officers who drove the ambulance for Blacks arrived, and placed the patient on a stretcher, one of them, in walking around the man’s feet, bumped his left ankle. When the injured man cried out in pain, the officer said words that are now seared into my mind, words he could not and never would say to a White patient- “Don’t be such a baby!” I went home drenched by more than rain, and without my father’s cigarettes. I won’t say that that one incident changed my life, but it surely, along with many other experiences, helped set its course. Among other things, it ensured that I would or could never countenance a version of the Christian faith that allowed for a comfortable personal relationship with God without demanding a life on the edge, where the needs of the community intersect with the call of Christ to humble, and where necessary, sacrificial service. I know that I failed many times to maintain the gospel standard of service, but I will never be able to forget what it is and what it calls us to.

 

When the church reads about the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, it naturally and understandably relates this prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ, the hoped for Messiah. That is not to say that the Hebrew scriptures uniformly expected this kind of Messiah, in fact for many, a warrior king like David was much preferred, someone who would eject the Romans, or any other interlopers for that matter, from Zion. Nevertheless, at Easter we know that this is whose life, death and resurrection we celebrate, the one by whose stripes we are healed.

 

There is nothing wrong with this interpretation of the prophecy, as long as we understand that when it was originally written, it was more probably with the nation of Israel in mind as the Suffering Servant, a holy nation, dedicated to God, and to the service of its people. Such a nation would be looking, not to its own aggrandisement or accumulation of wealth and power, but to the costly, compassionate care of its people, its neighbours and the foreigners in its midst.

 

So it is that when Matthew, in the 25th chapter of his Gospel, talks about the separation of the sheep and the goats on the basis of whether or not they cared for the poor and needy in their midst, it is the NATIONS that are being called to account (Matthew 25:32). Is the nation a suffering servant of its people, or is it a ravaging wolf, dedicated to its own prosperity at the neglect of the weak and vulnerable?  

 

To cut a very long story short, the nations have by and large never seen this as their main responsibility, and it is the Christian church that is now the intended recipient of the Suffering Servant mantle, called to the task of care and justice and advocacy. In so doing it is showing what Christ is like, the one who proclaimed, in the words of the Prophet, “I have come to bring good news to the poor…” The Christian Church is called to serve in the way of Christ as are the individuals, you and I, who are part of the Community of Faith. This should, from an inspection of the gospel record, be self-evident, but, being a human organisation, has found ways to try and avoid this responsibility, as the waters of cheap grace flow around the rock of ages that they cannot dislodge.

 

To illustrate, let me take you back to South Africa, 1975, as I begin my first year as probationer minister to three suburban churches on the outskirts of Durban (It’s called being thrown in the deep end) These congregations are doing OK, with just a bit of evidence of the Wesleyan tradition of caring for the disadvantaged. Ten miles or so up the road, another local church of a different denomination is full to overflowing, a legend of the Pinetown ecclesiastical community.  Is the charismatic pastor the key to this success? Probably. I also suspect that it had something to do with the words in large print on the notice-board: “NO POLITICS ARE PREACHED FROM THIS PULPIT” In Apartheid South Africa, that is code for “We are not going to bother your consciences about the dreadful injustices that are being perpetrated around you on people of racial classifications other than yours.” The Jesus we embrace is not always the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. We sometimes derive from what we assume about him a cut price brand of grace, a grace anything but amazing. For the nation’s churches to say “we will not get involved in the politics” is in fact a political decision in itself, giving at least tacit support to the status quo, and one that has benefitted the cruellest of regimes from Nazism to the current invasion of Ukraine. Karl Barth radically changed the direction of theology in the 20th century in reaction to the acquiescence of the German Church to the horrors of Hitler. Meanwhile, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Gestapo for trying to put a spanner in the works of that genocidal regime. Suffering servants indeed! The Suffering Servant is, by definition, one who gets involved in the nitty gritty of life, when the chips are down and the fists are swinging.  The Suffering Servant always takes sides for the common good, and often pays the price for their courage.

 

Of course, the Gospels leave us in no doubt as to who Jesus is, and the extent to which a ministry of service lies at the heart of the Gospel. This is foreshadowed when he submits himself to baptism by John, placing himself in a humble space as one who is of and with his community, not there to be served, but to serve. The gospels then link this story with that of Jesus in the wilderness, where he explicitly rejects the devil’s temptation to embrace wealth, power and self-interest, instead entrenching himself the way of suffering service.

 

And so, in the light of all this, what does it mean to belong to a church which at best has a strong and vibrant ethos of Christian ethics, a church that embraces a ministry of service in the way of Jesus?

 

When I could no longer stomach the regime I grew up with, or imagine raising my infant children there, I applied to the UCA to enter its ministry. I had already applied and had been rejected by UK Methodist church on the grounds that they knew what was best for me. The Uniting Church Synod General Secretary’s response was swift: ‘Come as you are. You are welcome.’  Our ethos of inclusion is as close to unconditional as we can humanly get it, a stance which has at times attracted strong criticism from both within our own fellowship, and among the wider church. We will continue to wear that, under the conviction that being spiritually mature is consistent with a ministry of unconditional welcome and humble service.

 

More than that, our church, at its best, demonstrates at all levels of its functioning, a willingness to embrace the challenge to bring spirituality and service together. We try and honour the observation of Jesus that a tree is known by the fruit it bears, and that, as St Francis of Assisi observed, we preach by our deeds. So it was that as I wandered around this property a few days ago, I observed the signs of a congregation that understands the call to serve inherent in its commitment to Jesus Christ; from the welcome banner in the foyer, to the instructions about maintaining a Safe Place for congregation and community alike, to a labyrinth that says we see no separation between our spiritual pursuits and our ministry of service. Renowned South African theologian John De Gruchy reminds us of our calling to “…a spirituality which enables a lived experience of God, with people and with creation, fed by a longing for justice and wholeness and resistance to all that thwarts wellbeing.” (Public Theology as Christian Witness).

 

Part of the reason why I chose the word “service” to summarise my intended direction for this year was influenced by the fact that I will be working with you, part of the time, for part of the year. I understand that you are in a grieving space following the resignation of your former and long-serving minister, Rev Kenneth Brown. His gifts and skills for ministry will be missed, and the future is uncertain as you embark on that uncertain journey to engage future ministry.  You do of course have many gifted congregants who are willing to further serve where the gaps appear. You nevertheless need time and space to grieve and be restored, and I aim to honour that need in our life together.

 

I also know that service is a two way street, so let me close with words from a modern hymn by Richard Gillard:

 

“Brother sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.”      AMEN

 

Brian Brown. 8/1/23

 

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