Readings: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Mark 1:29-39
We pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen
Today I would like us to think about what it means to serve God. To explore the ways in which firstly Paul, and then Mark understand Jesus’ commission to us to proclaim the Gospel, to share the good news.
In the reading from Corinthians it will be helpful if we first remind ourselves of the words that precede the ones we heard today. In the previous chapter Paul refers to the knowledgeable converts who quite correctly argue their right to eat the meat given to idols because they are aware that the idols have no power or status. It is just food. But the difficulty comes from those without that clarity of understanding who see and copy, still thinking that the idols have some ability to impact their souls. At this point you are not serving God but leading others astray – best to give up meat, says Paul. And then, in today’s reading, Paul tackles the same question of how we best serve God but from a different perspective. He argues that to be effective in service to God you actually need to put yourselves into other people’s shoes; to share in the blessings of the gospel, you must share in the cost of the vulnerabilities of those you serve. Can I put that a different way? It may well be our natural bent to want to deliver the message of the Gospel in and through the strength of our conviction and our blessing. Whether it is preaching from the pulpit, leading study groups, hanging out with young people we find it easier to pray that our certainty, standing where we are, inviting others into our well organised space, will draw people to the church and to God. That our understanding of truth is sufficient, in itself, for everyone else. Apart from being somewhat arrogant, Paul is telling us that this is not being a serving church nor is proclaiming the freedom that Christ brings us into.
‘Freedom in Christ’ says Bruce Rigdon, ‘means the radical freedom to identify with others in their otherness – the way in which Christ did by giving his life for the poor and the weak on the cross.’
In the story of the eating of the idols food, Paul expressed the responsibility that the strong have for the weak – in this passage he insists on the responsibility that the weak have for the strong and that in serving relationship, transformation is for server and served. That bears some thinking about does it not.
Christ came to serve, his disciples also must serve.
And so we come to the mother-in law of Simon (another nameless woman) who, in the Mark reading, illustrates exactly the point Paul makes.
An initial reaction is to wonder why the men couldn’t feed themselves but I want you put aside your outrage that she leapt off her sickbed so that the men would be properly looked after – and think about this.
She is not commanded to do what she does, she is not doing it from any sense of a woman’s place but rather she has understood intuitively that the gospel message is one of service. This is the Sabbath remember. Jesus has healed in the synagogue – on the Sabbath. He has healed in the home – on the Sabbath. And she – on the Sabbath – overcame all the selfishness and restrictive teaching– and chose service to the people who had gathered in her house over the sacredness of the Sabbath – no matter the consequences. She is not a menial – she is Jesus first deacon and, as Ophelia Ortega suggests, she joins Jesus as his first servant in the radical announcement of what the kingdom of God will look like. The healed mother in law and Jesus share the same liturgy!
But the disciples do not do so well. Nor do the vast majority of the people. Despite the desperate need there would have been for healing, they do not turn up until the sun had gone down and the restrictions are lifted. And then they flood in.
Simon, in his turn, - well he should have taken notice of his mother in law – then he and the disciples might have figured out the servant path a great deal earlier. But instead they see responding to the crowd as Jesus role, not theirs and their astonishment at his leaving while there is still work to be done is barely held in check.
Can I connect this idea of servanthood this Waitangi weekend with the fact that it was just over three years ago when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the initial contact of Maori and Missionary on the beach at Hohi (Oihi) in the Bay of Islands - where Samuel Marsden led worship and preached the Gospel to Maori and Pakeha alike. And I wondered how the bringers of the good news of Jesus Christ approached those important first encounters – with servanthood or with compulsion. Almost certainly much of this relationship between church, settler and tangata whenua would have been characterised by not putting self in others shoes and seeking rather to command.
But rather than dwell on the mistakes can I share some thoughts that give us hope here in Aotearoa.
For sure, we have not served God well in much that is associated with bi-cultural relationships in this country. Even with the best of intentions all participants in the living document that is the Treaty of Waitangi can dominate, frighten, incense, and cause seemingly unrecoverable divisions. And yet there is hope - and reconciliation – and where do we find it? In the stories of the people! I have a longtime friend called Dave who I have known since university days and Dave’s mother was Helen Jackman – a deaconess in the Presbyterian Church and a tireless and compassionate leader in education – she was principle of Turakina Maori Girls school among other things. She is in the book out in the Morrison Lounge called “A Braided River of Faith” along with many other woman whose lives of service are a light to us all.
The story of Sister Annie Henry and her discerning and compassionate ministry of reconciliation to the people of Ruatahuna is nothing less than inspiring. With her presence to guide, and in the light of her unselfish devotion to the welfare of the people, her care of them in sickness and in need, the most unlikely covenant was reached between the Presbyterian church and the Ringatu Church under their leader Te Kooti – where Christian mission schools would be set up for the children of the Tuhoe. The co-existance of two faiths respecting and caring for each other still today could teach us a great deal about how to live in a reconciled and loving community. I think of people like Rod Madill who succeeded Sister Annie in Ruatahuna, ministering within the tension of a pakeha dominated church in a Maori community and who, with vision and compassion, built a strong and remembered relationship with the people. Many, many people have served God in this place of cultural reconciliation and restorative justice.
And finally I would speak of the work of Te Ako Puaho When, as an intern I and others were invited, with some apprehension I might say, onto the marae in Ohope it was like no other experience of marae that I have had. The sense of embrace and welcome was palatable, the conviction that God calls us all to serve each other was lived out in the teaching and the sharing of stories of faith and action, and, you know what, I got really excited about the ways in which we can grow in faith through the contributing lenses that each of our cultural journeys brings. It was a moment of epiphany for many of us.
There is much to hope for, I believe.
May we always seek to know how we might too serve God in bringing reconciliation, restoration and hope to the lives of all people in this wonderful country – working for a world that lives into the hope of all peoples, in all times. “He iwi tahi tatou” – we are one people . Around this table of welcome as we share in the bread and wine “He iwi tahi tatou” – we are one people And for this we say - thanks be to God.