Monday, 17 July 2017

Sermon, Sunday 16 July 'A Spirit of service'...WMRBW wk46

READINGS/ Philippians 2:1-11;  Matt 23:1-12;  John 13:1-15

May the words of my mouth and the meditations
of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The music from the main stage fills the air.
Thousands of mostly young people listen, watch, dance,
or, for those a little more challenged in the dancing department,
they at least tap their toes in time to the beat.
Beyond the main stage, smaller stages –
more intimate venues, featuring other musical acts.
Other large tents are spaced about the wider venue,
places used for meeting, and eating, with friends old and new.
Thousands of smaller tents, pitched on the outskirts of the grounds, are for sleeping –
although, with something on the go 24/7, most folk party hard.
All is endless energy, and adrenaline rush.
To be there also involves getting around 80 hectares:
from venue to venue, from music to meal and back to music once more,
or, to head off in search of a loo, or even an elusive shower.
Lines, crowds – noise and crush and fun and slightly chaotic craziness.

In among the various venue tents, there’s one with a difference:
It’s not particularly flashy, no great gimmickry to attract attention...
just signs of welcome on the outside and invitations to come in, and rest.
A larger sign names this area as ‘The Cathedral of Stillness’.
Many pass by, ignoring it completely, headed on a mission elsewhere;
but others stop, curious to see what this apparent chilling out zone is all about...
They enter and discover a quiet space of sanctuary in the festival madness.

It is summer, the season of festivals, and this particular festival is
held each year in Roskilde, Denmark, in July.
Each year the festival attracts well over 100 00 people;
And each year, in among the acts on stage, and the crowds off stage,
the pop-up Cathedral of Stillness provides a place of rest,
and, quietly offers to all hospitality and humble service...
Among the various installations and pieces of art for reflection and meditation,
there are cushions and bean bags scattered about – comfortably seating many a tired reveller.
Drinks, hot or cold are offered...
as is another, more ancient form of hospitality.
Year after year, a team, made up of priests and student volunteers kneel alongside one another,
quietly washing and massaging the weary feet of festival-goers
in what is a practical act of loving-kindness and service.
Year after year, festival-goers react in different ways:
some, a little awkwardly, and who don’t linger long once their feet are done;
some, delighted to get rid of mud between toes and have a cuppa;
some pleased just to have a little time out from the noise and busyness;
and some, moved by this gentle, unhurried act, ask questions,
share their stories, and occasionally even stay a while longer and join in...
helping to do something that is done with no other agenda than to do to others
what was done in an upper room in Jerusalem nearly 2 000 years before...
done, because the team believe it’s what Jesus would have done;
done to connect and to care;
done, to serve, and to demonstrate
what God’s love looks like,
what God’s love feels like
in a 21st century context...
which happens to be at a music festival,
but which, could equally be done any place where
weary feet are needing washed,
tired folk are wanting a cuppa,
anxious hearts long for a listening ear,
and lonely souls seek to feel connected and cared for.

It is something not being done, according to Jesus, in our reading from Matthew this morning.
The very ones in society who should be leading by example –
the ones who have studied Scripture,
who know God’s laws inside out,
who know the history of God in relation to the people of God...
the ones who should have the greatest understanding of God’s love,
the very ones who talk of that love,
are the same ones who think that practising God’s love is a task that’s for everyone else but them.

Jesus shines a most unflattering light on the religious leaders of his day.
His fierce gaze highlights not humble service given in love for others,
but pride and actions done in the pursuit of self-service and glory-seeking:
for love of self.
If the religious leaders Jesus mentions were transported to Roskilde,
they’d be doing their darnedest to be up on the main stage
drinking in the adulation of the crowd...
Where they wouldn’t be found
is in a tent a little away from the action out of the spotlight,
kneeling and washing filth from feet.

Everything they do, according to Jesus,
is designed to show off how important they are –
how grand, how highly favoured they are by God and society.
They have a sense of entitlement around their office, their role.
They expect and demand the best seats in church, the places of honour at banquets.
They make sure that what they wear will be noticed –
make ostentatious shows of just how pious and prayerful they are.
Not ‘look at God’,
but ‘look at me.’
They are actors, reciting lines:
playing a role, a part, but who are not putting their heart into it –
not living the life of faith.

Because everything they do is done to demonstrate how powerful and important they are,
they turn God’s love into a tool
to keep people down,
to keep people in a lesser place.
Instead of showing how God’s law is one of liberation
they make it a burden, point fingers accusingly,
give the message that only they are worthy –
and that nobody else will ever measure up.
They have made an idol of the law,
a religion of rules,
a system in which only they and the favoured few prosper.
They do everything in their power to do nothing that will show
the way of faith,
the way of loving service.
And Jesus... tears strips off them.
Sure, they have the knowledge:
they sit on the seat of Moses –
by this, Jesus means they have authority.
Sure, listen to them, says Jesus.
But don’t do what they do.

This passage is where we get that phrase:
‘to practice what you preach.’
And the religious leaders of the day are not doing practising what they preach at all.
Jesus teaches his listeners what practising what you preach actually involves:
first, equality –
we are all one, all on equal footing.
God is God and, as his people, we are to be brothers and sisters
to one another, and not lord it over anyone.
Second, those who follow Jesus are to leave their ego at the door.
To follow Jesus is to live a life of service,
to understand God’s love in your own life in such a way,
that it leads you to share it with others in concrete and practical ways
that don’t draw attention to how awesome you are, but rather,
that point to how awesome God is.
To follow Jesus is to seek to connect with others:
just as God, in Jesus, connected with humanity.
To follow Jesus is to seek to demonstrate God’s way, not our own way,
just as God, in Jesus, demonstrated loving-humility.
But what is humility – what does it look like?

American theologian and priest, Carter Heywood states that:
'Genuine humility is a gift from God which has nothing to do with 
downcast eyes, a misty voice and noble stories of sacrifice. 
Humility is, rather, living courageously in a spirit of radical connectedness 
with others, which enables us to see ourselves as God sees us: sisters and brothers, 
each as deeply valued and worthy of respect as every other.'
Genuine humility…
Jesus doesn’t just point to the religious leaders of his day as a bad example:
in our passage from the gospel of John, we see him put word into action.
As with our reading from John last week,
this scene takes place on the night of his arrest –
the night before his trial and execution.
Unlike the other 3 gospels which focus on the sharing of the last supper,
it is John’s gospel alone that gives us the account of Jesus
washing the feet of his disciples – his followers and friends.
He has talked the talk of humble service – of being love in action,
now he shows them how it’s done.
He knows who he is:
God’s beloved.
That knowledge is enough to enable him to see others as beloved by God:
deeply valued,
worthy of respect,
connected to God and to one another.
He takes a towel,
a basin of water,
and, in the words of an old, old hymn:
‘kneels at the feet of his friends,
silently washes their feet;
Master who acts as a slave to them.’

These days, washing another’s feet is…unusual.
Feet are generally safely tucked away hidden out of sight
by shoes and, mostly, by matching socks.
We don’t really wash other people’s feet –
perhaps in an occasional service on the Thursday of Holy Week in some places –
where those feet have probably been washed to within an inch of their
life and have been made sweet-smelling;
and, perhaps at the occasional music festival in Denmark…
but, for the most part, it’s unusual, and maybe even a little uncomfortable to think about.
In Jesus’ day, however, it was common practice:
sandaled feet, dusty roads –
the washing of guests’ feet was part and parcel of practical, everyday hospitality.
But always done by the most menial of servants.
And suddenly, in that room, among his friends,
the Master chooses to practice radical hospitality, becomes servant;
shows what genuine humility is,
shows deep compassion,
shows his connectedness to God,
and to each one of his friends;
shows them the upside-down power of God’s kingdom of love.
Shows them.
And expects them to go and do likewise –
to have the same attitude he has.

To live as followers of Jesus today may or may not involve washing the feet of others.
But it does involve seeing others with Christ’s eyes of compassion;
seeing others as connected – as loved by God,
just as you, yourself are loved by God.
It may mean fighting for the most vulnerable in society when no-one else even notices they exist;
it may mean challenging governments that seem to find enough money for
the buying up of party votes to hold on to power…
but can’t seem to find enough money to alleviate the need for people
to resort to food banks, or invest in education and health;
it may mean making a cup of tea and having a blether
with someone who is shut-in or lonely…
or dropping off a casserole to the family with a new wee arrival;
or passing along some home baking to the person who’s just moved in to the house next door.
There are many ways to demonstrate love in action, loving-kindness and service,
knowledge of God in both head and in heart.
What one random thing might you do this week to demonstrate God’s love in action?
No matter how large, or how small, you think it is, do it.
Do it to remind yourself of God’s love for you;
do it to remind yourself of God’s love for all;
do it,
and in the doing, give God the glory,
for in our serving others, it is God we truly serve.  Amen.

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