My first exposure to the practice of being Mennonite was through service. I was conceived of through service – (literally) – my parents were Mennonite Central Committee volunteers on the far northern coast of Labrador, Canada in the year immediately before I was born. And although my childhood was spent firmly rooted in church and the regular participation in Sunday school, it was not a Mennonite Church or Sunday school. It is our family participation in MCC when I was a young teenager that I feel was my real introduction to what it means to be Mennonite. MCC offered my parents (and through them my brother and me) the opportunity to encounter and serve not those like us in our communities, but those very unlike and (to me at least) unknown.
When began our preparations to move to the Middle East from small town Saskatchewan, I did not know that Amman was a place. I had a vague understanding that ‘Jordan’ was a place because of the Jordan River’s appearance in the Bible. When we moved there in 1990 during the first days of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Arabs and Muslims were (certainly again in small town SK, seen as people completely other, if not enemy). Through MCC, my family was called to serve and to make that unknown, other, enemy place and people our place and people. I invite those of you who are in the 12-16 year old age range (or who can remember or imagine that time) to think about what an experience like that might feel like…
For me, a theology was built around that very formational and foundation experience of serving – and it wasn’t really even my service experience, although I did that later.
So that’s my service experience – or one of them, anyway. I want also to know about your service experiences (and I hope we can engage this more in our worship response forum later). Let’s start with MCC – if you have been a long or short term volunteer with MCC, raise your hand. If you have participated in fundraising or kit assembly or the MCA, raise your hand (this will be almost everyone!) Now what about other Menno acronyms: Menno Disaster Service? Menno Mission Network? Have you worked as long-term (one year or more) volunteer in a non-Menno agency or denomination? Have you gone on a service trip of some other kind? Do you volunteer in your community (school, food-bank, organization, non-profit) Are you employed in a local service providing agency?
That just leads me to believe that many of you could be preaching this sermon for me. We are a serving people. Now, I will first say, that service is a particular gift of the Spirit that some people have – a natural understanding and intelligence for seeing and acting in practical response. I think it has not been that we have recognized service as a gift. Some of us who don’t have that practical seeing and doing do have gifts that can still be offered up in the context of making them available freely and in giving of self to others. Gordon has reflected back to us in this year a truth of who we are as a body at Seattle Mennonite is a practicing people. More than believing body, more than creedal body. Nicole MW said to us in conversation about how we see service in the Mennonite church – “it’s so foundational it’s often forgotten.” That’s how it is with gifts. So natural we don’t even think about it.
I believe that a commitment to Christian service is a gift of the Mennonite Church. I think I can say for certain that it is a way that we as a whole body are recognized throughout the world. I hope that’s not just exceptionalism speaking. I believe that in our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ we are committed to the servant Christ, the Jesus who was a servant leader. The Mennonite theology of the first-is-last kingdom is lived out in our commitment to modeling Jesus’ behavior and his instructions to follow his example.
In both conversation with his disciples and in the interactions Jesus had with his community we see emphasized the welcome of the outsider: feasts where the wealthy declined and the people on the street were welcomed in, the outcast Samaritan held up as an example of charity and mercy, the disciples fighting over who would get the best seat and Jesus responds: James and John, brothers, ask the special favor of sitting to his right and left in heaven (or in Matt it’s their mom asking Jesus for them – talk about a helicopter parent) and rightfully their friends are angry – why should they deserve special treatment.
“42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”
Okay guys, what have I been teaching you all this time. Life in the kingdom is not about getting the best position and looking down from on high, it’s about getting down and offering yourself in service to others.
Most centrally and poignantly in the Gospel, Jesus demonstrates this in the John 13 text we heard Gordon read. This act of service is so central to Mennonite theology than not only do we practice service in all the ways that we named and raised out hands to before, we enact this practice in worship.
This text from John is one that we most often hear on Maundy Thursday. In some Mennonite congregations, including the one that I participated in Winnipeg in my twenties, footwashing was a regular practice. At least annually, this tender and vulnerable (and sometimes ticklish) offering of service reminded us of our calling to follow Jesus into the role of servant.
Culturally, at that time, offering the opportunity to wash the feet of dinner guests was not out of the ordinary. When I visited Guatemala for a seminary class, for one night we students stayed with families in a little village outside Guatemala City. The host family my friend and I stayed with brought us a basin and soap and towels when we arrived so that we could rinse the dust and sweat from our feet after an afternoon to touring the village. In Jesus context it would have been similar. A rich host might even offer a slave to wash the feet of his guests.
So it is not the washing of feet in particular that is out of the ordinary. It is the startling posture that Jesus takes in this action: the respected teacher taking the position and place of a slave. It is no wonder, then that Peter wants to refuse. In spite of all that Jesus has been teaching using words, this action speaks more directly. “The directive to wash one another’s feet,” says Craig Koester, “is a call to share the kind of love that startles and surprises. It is a call for love to show up when no one might expect it. God put all things into Jesus’ hands, and Jesus did the unexpected by stooping down and using his hands to wash feet.”
And when he is finished, has has put the basin and the towel away and put his shirt back on, he explains what he’s done. “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. The truth of the matter is, no subordinate Is is greater than the superior; no messenger is greater than the sender. Once you know these things, you’ll be blessed to put them into practice. “ We have been entrusted with the calling to translate Jesus’ love for us into service – service that might even catch someone off guard.
When Jesus offered this act of service to his disciples, while there was already an intimacy among them, I can imagine that the bond grew greater in this act. He offered it even knowing that Judas would be turning against him, even knowing that Peter would turn away from him. His acts of taking their feet in their hands and inviting them to do the same, invites them into a shared experience of intimacy like none they’ve known before.
Serving together and for each other, builds community. This is something that MVS understands, I think in their discernment to restructure and downsize their program. It’s certainly something I’ve heard in conversations recently about the direction that our MVS unit it going. As MVS national looks toward making the settings for young adults healthier, they seek to place individuals in a group of 5 or more. Intentional community becomes an integral part of the service experience. In life together, sharing meals, service to each other through the care of the space, and sharing their experience of volunteering in the community, builds the intimacy of Christian community. The same is true of the church body.
It is also the intention of this group of volunteers and of the MVS Support Committee to be ion greater intention both about a commitment to shared spiritual practices and to their communities. Volunteers make a difference to their communities as well as to the lives of each other. This is true both of those of you who serve in your children’s’ schools or your neighborhood food bank and it is true of those who give years of their life to do local or overseas service. I was especially sensitive to this when I was a volunteer in my early twenties.
There happened to be a census in Canada in 2000 or 2001 when I was a MCC volunteer in Winnipeg. I was a volunteer coordinator in my volunteer role and the census asked about the paid work of individuals but there was no category for someone like me – a full time volunteer. Nor for the scores of low- or no-income volunteers who were gave hours of their time to the community ministries that I served. Serving without expectation of return is not a category that is understood or recognizable outside God’s kingdom – for this reason alone is it unexpected and upside down. We who follow the feet-washing Jesus witness to the kingdom.
St Francis of Assisi may or may not have said: “preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words.” I was always a little uncomfortable with being called a missionary kid – after all, MCC isn’t a mission organization, it’s a development and service organization. I would correct people. And yet, what we do, when we volunteer with MDS, or MCC or MVS (or any of the other acronyms) is serve in the name of Christ. And occasionally, even often, it is appropriate to share the truth of why we do this surprising and culturally upside down thing. It is indeed a part of the Gospel message that often unites Anabaptist Christian in all our varied theologies – Amish and Old Order and Mennonite Brethren and folks like us all work together in organization that rebuild houses for people who lost their homes. And we do it because Christ has called us into the position of servant.
The disciples don’t really get what Jesus is doing, although Jesus trusts that they will: “You don’t understand what I’m doing for you. But later you’ll understand.” When Jesus is gone, it will be up to them, both to serve and to act as models of service to each other and to the world. As it is now up to us, Jesus’ disciples, to follow that example: “Do as I have done for you.” May this be so. And may we bless those who join us today with the ability to be Christ’s hands, washing the feet of the world.