Sunday, February 8, 2009

At Your Service - a sermon for Epiphany 5B

“I just can’t wait for spring” Manny told me when we met last Friday. Manny is a second grader in my daughter’s class, and last Friday I got to spend an hour with him, as we worked together on his reading skills. “I love the way the leaves sound when the wind blows through them. It gets inside me. I just can’t wait for the green leaves and the grass.”

How about you? Are you waiting for spring too? As you are all aware, spring is still a long way off…here in northeast Ohio I try not to count on warm weather until late May. Who can forget last Easter, March 23, when we had a foot of snow on the ground and the wind was blowing?

It’s hard to wait, isn’t it? I must admit to you that I am TERRIBLE at waiting for things – just ask my husband! He knows that if he wants to surprise me, he can’t give me any hints that something fun is coming my way, or I will torture him into telling me what to expect. I like to plan, I like to have everything laid out, and I HATE to WAIT! How about you?

As I read the Scripture passages for today, the idea of waiting wasn’t initially what came to my mind. I must admit that the Isaiah passage has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and not because of an image of waiting. In the last verse of the passage it says “and those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, they will mount up on wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary and will walk and not faint.” What beautiful imagery! I know this passage is a favorite of many of you as well.

The psalm for today, which we used as our call to worship, brings us back, though, to the another focus of this passage. In verse 10 it says “His delight is not in the strength of a horse, or pleasure in the speed of a runner.” Hmmmm…that was enough to bring my fleet feet to a halt. If the passage is not about running fast, then what is the point? That is when I started to think about the idea of waiting.

Different versions of the Bible use different words for the beginning of verse 31, where we read today “those who wait for the Lord” The King James version says “They who wait upon the Lord” while the New International Version says “They who hope in the Lord” The Hebrew word used here can be translated as hope, or wait, or even “look for” I know when I am waiting for something, like spring, I do spend a lot of time “looking for” it – I heard on the radio the other day that a man is sure that spring is coming because he saw some ants in his house. And how many of you tuned in to see whether the groundhog saw his shadow or not on Monday? If he didn’t, winter was supposed to be over, but he did, so we are supposed to wait another six weeks until spring. Of course, we know here in northeast Ohio that winter never ends on February 2, but we keep looking, and waiting…and hoping!

The idea of waiting as hoping is something that resonates with me. Waiting as hoping is something that a lot of us do. When we wait to hear how a medical test has turned out, or wait to see someone we love, we are hoping. With a husband who travels a lot, I spend a lot of time waiting and hoping for his safe return. Probably the most difficult time I waited for Starman was when he left on what was supposed to be a four week trip to Australia back in 1989, yes, 20 years ago. He left on a cold winter day in February, and expected to be home in early April. His experiment was flying on a weather balloon, though, and we all know you can’t make plans based on the weather. Our wedding was scheduled for May 27, and in mid-May, he called and asked me “how many days before the wedding do I actually have to arrive in order for us to be able to get married?” Every day there seemed to be a new problem, either with the instrument, or with the weather, or with the computer program. He arrived home on May 18, just one day before it would be too late for us to get the blood tests needed to get our marriage license.

What have you waited for? Perhaps, like me, it was for your fiancé to return from far away so you could get married. Perhaps it was for your children to be born – I know from experience that can be a very long wait! Or perhaps you waited for your loved one to return from a war overseas, or for a job offer, or for a time when you could retire from your job. As you get older, there seems to be more waiting instead of less – waiting for someone to drive you somewhere when you have decided to give up your car, waiting for doctor’s appointments, waiting to hear from loved ones who are too busy to call. Even waiting here in the chapel (sanctuary) for worship to begin.

Waiting is hard work, don’t let anyone fool you. It makes sense to me that the ones who serve us in restaurants are called the “wait staff” – waiters and waitresses. They work very hard at the business of waiting, don’t they? For that reason, I also like the King James translation of the Isaiah passage, where it uses the phrase “wait upon the Lord” rather than “wait for the Lord.” That’s quite a different picture, isn’t it? If we can think of ourselves as waiting upon the Lord, the picture goes from one of passive sitting to active service.

My mentor pastor, Phil B, told me the story of John Milton when I stopped by to visit him one cold winter’s night, as I was working on this text. Phil recommended I read a poem by Milton called On Blindness. Milton wrote his poem back in the 17th century, when being blind meant many different things than it did today – without keyboards or Braille cards, it was difficult if not impossible for a poet to go on writing after he became blind. Milton was forced to dictate his later writings to a scribe. In his poem, he states that God does not need the work that a man may do, God wants us only to take the yoke God has given us. And in the last line, he speaks this truth: He also serves who only stands and waits.

He also serves who only stands and waits. Through our waiting, we can be serving God and others. So what are we supposed to do while we wait? Exactly how is waiting supposed to be helpful to anyone?

I think part of our answer can be found in the way we use that phrase, “to wait upon” – as a way of serving. In our Mark passage for today, we see that phrase again, in a different way. In one of the first acts of his ministry, Jesus heals the mother-in-law of Simon. She is ill in bed with a fever, and Jesus goes to her and takes her hand. As soon as Jesus touches her, her fever is gone – and she gets up and serves the visitors.

In this passage, the word used for serving is one that is close to my heart – the word “diakoneo” – from it comes our word Deacon. In Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon, if you look up this word, the first definition is, again, “to wait upon” – there’s that idea of waiting again.

Here in the United Methodist Church, we have two “orders” of ordained ministry – two pathways for a person to enter into full connection with the church. People who are called to a ministry of elder commit themselves to serving as pastors of local congregations, to a ministry of service, word, sacrament and order. Roger made that commitment 36 years ago in June. Elders are assigned by the bishop to their appointments.

The ministry of a deacon is a little less clear cut. Deacons are called to a ministry of service and word – they act as the connection between the church and the world. Deacons are not assigned by the bishop but find their own positions, sometimes in a church as a minister of Christian Education or Youth Ministry, sometimes outside of the church as a chaplain in a hospital or even as a social worker in a secular organization. Deacons represent the church wherever they serve. They may be called to “wait upon” or wait with others in the hospital or at a clinic, or to wait with someone and assist them as they wade through the paperwork required for an adoption.

Paul could easily have been talking about deacons in the passage we read today from 1 Corinthians. When I first read this passage, where Paul says he has become “all things to all people,” I was a bit confused. Was Paul saying that he was changing who he was just to get people to agree with him? That didn’t seem right. Was I supposed to do things that I wouldn’t normally do, just to get people to come to Christ? What happened to being principled?

I think, though, that Paul is saying something different. Paul is not going to change who he is, a Jew by birth, a follower of Christ now. Paul is, however, going to do what it takes to communicate the gospel with all those around him. If it takes being weak, he is willing to become weak. If it takes remembering his Jewish heritage, he will remember his Jewish heritage.

When I was in high school I worked for three summers in the maintenance department of Charles River Breeding Labs, a company in my hometown that bred rats for laboratory experiments. I was the first female ever to work on the maintenance crew, and the rest of the workers had no idea what to make of me. At first, they all tried to avoid me – they told me I couldn’t eat lunch with them, because it made them feel uncomfortable. The first year I worked there, they actually had a pool to see how long I would last – at the end of the summer, the head of the department gave me two tickets to a Red Sox game – the winner of the pool was me.

I worked there for two more summers. It wasn’t an easy job. We spent any day that wasn’t raining outside – painting. We painted everything from cinder block walls to chain link fences. I showed up to work on time, wore the same green uniform everyone else wore, and tried to learn how to keep my paintbrushes as clean as my supervisor, Adrian, wanted me to. I didn’t change who I was – I didn’t pick up the swearing habits or start smoking like some of them did. But I also lost some of the superior attitude I had when I started there – I had thought these guys wouldn’t be as intelligent as I, a college bound high school student. I was wrong, and I figured that out pretty quickly. By the end of that second year, they asked me to eat lunch with them. And by the next summer, I was invited to their softball games and parties. I was able to be myself, and yet, be a maintenance worker like them. I never denied who I was, a churchgoing hardworking student, but I didn’t amplify the differences between us. Instead I focused, and they also focused after that first year, on what connected us – getting through the long hot summer days, getting our work done, sharing our brief lunch breaks and even our music.

There is a funny ending to this story. One of my coworkers was a fellow high school student named Larry. Larry and I worked together a lot, and talked together a lot. Larry actually helped me to feel better when I was down, and we both helped each other get through the long days and mandatory overtime. When we left after that last summer, I didn’t know what Larry was going to do next. But a couple of weeks ago, I found Larry on Facebook, one of those social networking sites on the internet where you can find all your old college and high school friends. It turns out Larry is a pastor too – after owning his own electrical company for a few years, he started working as the youth pastor at a growing church in a neighboring town. Now he is the campus pastor at a large church in South Carolina. I guess being a maintenance worker is good training for the ministry!

Has something like that ever happened to you? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were called to do something, to be someone you didn’t really see yourself as, but found out that by doing that job, or being that person, you could connect with people you never thought you would connect to? That is service, and waiting as service – I was waiting to go to college, but instead I found out about the lives of those who never had a chance to go to college. And we served one another by being a community for one another.

The website for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship puts it this way:
It takes some practice to shift from “being the experts” to “coming alongside,” to shift from “giving the answers” to “becoming all things for all people”

So where are you waiting these days? Can you see your waiting as active service – waiting in a doctor’s office as a chance to pray for those who are waiting with you, waiting to hear some news from a loved one as a chance to serve that person by telling them you are praying with them, that you will be alongside them? As the church, we are called to all be servants of Christ, and therefore servants of one another. Let us go out to serve, to wait upon, those in this community, and around the world. Thanks be to God.


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