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Engage #3: (Connect, Grow, Serve) - The Towel, a Sign of Service Sermon Notes

Engage #3: (Connect, Grow, Serve) - The towel, a sign of service
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • August 30, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Executive Pastor

Good morning and welcome! I’m so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th time, we are grateful that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search or you already knew the way, we are grateful. And we pray that you would experience welcome, acceptance, and peace. And I hope that you encounter the loving presence of God during your time with us this morning!

This morning we are continuing our Engage sermon series. Last week, Lindsay Balazer, our engagement coordinator, talked about making space at the table for all of us and invited us to consider participating in a new life group. We had a life group fair and many of you checked our new groups, so you can continue to sign-up for groups today after the celebration.

Two weeks ago, at the end of the sermon, I asked those here to do one of two things, either fill out an index card with your name and two interesting facts about yourself or fill out a prayer card. 108 of you submitted a prayer card. I’ve been carrying them around and praying for you everyday. It’s been a deeply humbling experience, of standing with you before a listening God, offering your requests and petitions to him. I want to continue to do, so before we launch into the sermon this morning, if you are here today asking God for anything (or meaning to) would you take a moment right now to locate and grab a blue prayer card from the seat pocket in front of you and fill it out. Start by sharing what you are grateful for then share what you are asking for. If you want to, put your name on it, and I will add these prayers to the ones I already have and will continue to pray daily for you. The staff team and I pray for you at our staff meetings on Wednesdays as well.

Pause. Fill out a blue prayer card.

Introduction - Only Look Out for #1
What have you been told about looking out for yourself? As I joined IBM as a new hire, I had a sorta work mentor who sat me down quoting Arnold Rothstein said, “No cares about you here. If you don’t look out for yourself, you won’t survive.” Great, I thought! What does this mean? How do I look out for myself in a 100,000 person corporation with offices in every corner of the world?

Jesus says this interesting thing in John that we have to wrestle with, his command seems in complete opposition to the life skills we are taught:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:12-17)

My mentor was just trying to be helpful. He was also wrestling with the conflicting messages we receive from the Empire. On the hand, we celebrate heroes, people we are willing to sacrifice themselves for others, and then on the other hand we have the Arnold Rothsteins reminding us it’s a “dog eat dog” world.

Plato pushes in here with this very intriguing thing about the human condition; he describes the soul as a chariot: our intellect is the rider in this chariot and our emotions are the horses. The picture that Plato paints tends to make life into this continuous struggle to keep our emotions under control lest something or someone take advantage of us. Only our rational mind can save us because if we are governed by our emotions, we will fail.

This is echoed in the Empire when we are told that any of the seemingly beneficial emotions of compassion, care, and service are a collective waste of time and energy. People, the Empire says, will take advantage of us, they won’t appreciate our efforts, they won’t reciprocate, and often, they will return to the same patterns that caused them to be in need of compassion, care, and service in the first place.

But, what if Empire and our authoritative interpreters are giving us all bad advice?

What would it look like in a culture of somebodies, if we were willing to be a nobody?

Shortly before the last meal Jesus would have with disciples, an argument broke out over who was the greatest. You can almost imagine it. Each disciple offering his explanation as to why he is greater than the others.

“I healed fifty people.”
“Well, I delivered 25 from demons.”
“I walked on water.”
“I was at the transfiguration.”
“It was my idea to feed the 5000.”

And so it goes, the back of forth.

Overhearing this conversation, Jesus recruits a child to help him deliver an important object lesson. As I enter into the story myself, I imagine the disciples arguing back and forth, each not realizing that Jesus has overheard them and he’s doing something, recruiting, acting, moving. Finally, they turn their attention from themselves back to Jesus and discover that there’s a child with him. Where did this child come from? Whose child was this? Jesus pauses, then he speaks up, “Ahem.”

“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. ” (Luke 9:48)

The key to the object lesson is delivered at the very end.

“For whoever is least among you all is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48)

The Economy of the Kingdom runs on Service, Compassion, and Care
Jesus pauses to explain the economy of the Kingdom of God. It’s a powerful object lesson as Jesus declares, “It’s not through power, authority, recognition, material wealth or possessions, nor status; it’s through our service, compassion, and care that we become great.”

And just like the original disciples, we often miss and ignore Jesus.

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)

Right after he said this, they rush pass his words and pepper him with questions about who is allowed (has authority) to cast out demons in his name. They didn’t even really hear him. They completely missed the point of his object lesson.

Like the disciples, we can miss Jesus and his invitation. The scene is a simple one, yet it’s packed with wisdom. In a culture of somebodies, is anyone willing to be a nobody.

The disciples rush right pass the object lesson, dismissing Jesus and the child with him. They miss the wisdom he departs and the invitation he offers to us to welcome God into our midst. The disciples only focus on what matters to them. Friends, let’s not be foolish, let’s pay attention to Jesus instead.

The towel, a sign of service
From this object lesson, I want to jump to the account of the last supper found in John 13. If you have your Bible, you can turn there with me now.

The evening meal was in progress... so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:4-5)

Because they had gathered for this meal in a borrowed space, there was no host, and since there was no host, there were no servants. Yet there was a required task to be completed -- the washing of their feet. Now, given the argument that the disciples had recently had about who was the greatest and Jesus revealing it was the servant of all, you might just assume that the disciples would be all over themselves, stumbling, rushing to serve each other. “Whenever there is debate over who is the greatest, it reveals a lack of agreement over who is the least.1” Each of the disciples were well aware of the fact that there was no servant among them. Instead of taking on the role themselves, they were content and happy to remain dirty, smelly, and unclean. They all knew that the first person who acted, who spoke up, would be revealed to be the least, the servant of all. The feet washing task belonged to someone lower than them.

And there’s the rub, they completely missed Jesus.

He said, “It’s okay to be a nobody in a culture of somebodies.” Being the weakest, allows for God’s strength. Being the least, you become greatest of all. Yet none of them acted on what he said.

I love this next part... Watch this...

Since they are all gathered together to celebrate the Passover, they know the meal cannot move forward unless they clean themselves; paralyzed, unable or unwilling to act, Jesus does. Just as he often does in our midst. Someone had to clean them, someone had to wash their feet. And like many of us, especially me, none were too keen on taking up that role. I understand it, I’m not a feet fan. And especially feet caked with dirt, mud, and fecal matter! Just ask my kids. No thanks!

But caked with dirt, mud, and fecal matter is where we often find and discover the King of Glory in our midst. There’s something profound that Jesus wants us to see and discover, but we have to get out of ourselves in order to hear him and certainly in order to follow him. It starts with our willingness to serve.

In a simple act, Jesus enacts what a life of discipleship and service looks like. He gets up, takes a towel and a basin, and redefines what it means to be great.

As he moves around the room to wash his disciples’ feet, he is reminding them that the Kingdom of God is different. It doesn’t run on authority, status, wealth, and power.

We serve the God Who Doesn’t Need Anything by Serving Others.
Jesus washing the disciples’ feet was an enactment of the upside down kingdom of God where “the one who would lead among you must be a servant of all.” (Mk. 9:35)
We discover who we are in relation to others. I’m told there’s a word for this: Ubuntu, a loose definition of it means: “I am because you are.”

I understand who I am because of you. And I understand clearly who I am because of my relationship with you. I understand my purpose, my calling and way forward because of you. You help shape who I am and who I want to be.

In Matthew 25, Jesus pushes in on this, he wants us to pay attention:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matt 25:35-36)

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ (Matt 25:37-39)

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt 25:40)

We become better students of Jesus when we trust him and loosen our grip on our fears. This allows us to follow Jesus into the unknown and discover the life that he has for us.

So how do you serve the God who doesn’t need anything? Here we discover the gift that the church is to us. It’s like a learning laboratory where we try out and discover the truths of the Gospel.

Since our transformation doesn’t occur overnight, we have to start somewhere, and learning to serve others is one way that we help shape and form ourselves into better disciples of Jesus.

As I’ve been wrestling through the finances of this church, I’ve been having deep conversations about what the church is and what it isn’t. The church isn’t a building, but it is really convenient to have a stable central place to gather each week. The church isn’t a social club, but it’s really nice to be in a community that’s learning your name and listening to your story. The church isn’t a social agency, but it’s really great having a community that cares for those at the margins in our community. This happens as we lower our defenses and share our stories with each other, inviting others to help us do life together with them. It’s humbling being in a place where someone expresses a need, and someone with resources is able to answer and help out. It’s not a perfect system and doesn’t always work out. But I’ve been hearing more and more stories of how it is working out.

The church isn’t the endpoint of our discipleship, it’s the place where we learn, “How.”

How to give our time, treasure, and talent in serve to others.
How to love people different than ourselves.
How to sit with others in their suffering.
How to serve those in need.
How to simplify.
How to listen.
How to pray.
How to love.
How to be.

My theme for this year has settled on this idea of learning to live with our hands open, open to receive and open to give.

We need this kind of openness in our lives, an openness that invites Jesus through the Holy Spirit to teach us what it means to be his disciple, what it means to be his student, what it means to trust and be willing to follow Jesus into the unknown. And I love that the church is at the center of that learning.

Practical tip:
I have two practical tips for you today.

Today is our church work day, and we have some really practical things you can do right after the celebration. There’s a list of things that need fixing, repairing, updating, organizing, cleaned.

As I wrote in my congregational budget letter that was emailed to you on Friday, today is our budget vote, I hope you voted to approve the budget! If you didn’t get that email from us, we don’t have your email address, so can you fix that by giving us your email address?

As a part of budget cutting measures, we are hoping to enlist a dozen or so of you to help us weekly at the church by helping with some recurring tasks like answering the phones and receiving deliveries, by replacing the cards and pens in the sanctuary, by mowing the grass, by updating the church’s website, by setting up Children’s Ministry classrooms, and all of the other things we need help with each week. You can view <> for a listing of projects.

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