Day: November 15, 2008

Sermon: The Eyes of a Servant

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, November 16, 2008.  The text is Psalm 123.  I hope your day is a good one. 

The Eyes of A Servant

Psalm 123 NIV

 1 I lift up my eyes to you, 
       to you whose throne is in heaven. 

2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, 
       as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, 
       so our eyes look to the LORD our God, 
       till he shows us his mercy.

 3 Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, 
       for we have endured much contempt.

 4 We have endured much ridicule from the proud, 
       much contempt from the arrogant.

Dinner at Ernie’s in Santa Fe

I don’t know if Ernie’s restaurant on Canyon Drive in Santa Fe is still open or not.  Debbie and I ate there nearly 30-years ago on one of our first trips to our Baptist conference center in Glorieta, New Mexico.  I was leading a conference at Glorieta, and as I told you last week, we skipped a session one night to go into Santa Fe to have a really nice dinner.  I can’t remember if it was our anniversary or not.  We did spend our 10th anniversary in Glorieta, along with about 30-folks from our church that were with us.  We went out to dinner that night, too, and when we returned and had settled in, we heard the musical sounds of our group serenading us from outside our window.  But that’s a story for another time.

So, I don’t remember why we had gone to Ernie’s to eat.  Actually, the choice of Ernie’s was random, I think.  We had been to several art galleries on Canyon Road, and Ernie’s was right there, too.  At that point in our young lives, with two kids, and me still in seminary, we did not eat out a lot, and when we did it wasn’t any place fancy.  The What-a-Burger next to the church was a favorite stop, as were  a couple of chain restaurants in Irving, Texas where we lived.  But, fine dining was something other folks did.  

Ernie’s was a really nice restaurant.  We could tell right away because the utensils were not wrapped up in a paper napkin.  Real silverware, real cloth napkins, and not one, but two waiters per table.  I remember I ordered the pan-fried trout.  Debbie remembered I ordered the trout, too, so the trout made a big impression on us.  

As we were in the process of eating, I had sweetened my tea and laid the empty sugar packet on the table.  I have a thing I do with sugar packets: I tear the top off, empty the sugar into my glass, then insert the piece of the sugar packet back into the empty pack, and fold it up.  I don’t know why I do this — some obsessive-compulsive disorder, I am sure — but that’s what I do.  Makes a neat compact piece of trash.  

So, I had performed that little ritual and laid the rolled up packet on the table.  Before I knew it, the waiter slid by, and in one smooth motion picked up the empty packet and kept going.  Well, Debbie did the same thing, without all the tearing, rolling, and so forth that I did.  She laid her empty sugar packet on the table.  The waiter again, glided by, scooping up the sugar packet without saying a word.  

We were very young, and at this point, very unsophisticated.  Not like we are today.  We got tickled at the glide-by-waiter.  So, I took a pack of crackers, unwrapped it and laid the cellophane wrapper next to my plate.  Guess what — Mr. Waiter-on-the-Spot swooped by again, picking up the wrapper.  This time I think he was slightly annoyed, as we were visibly giggling as he passed by.  

Now, my point of that whole story is not to tell you how unsophisticated we were in our late 20s, even though we were.  My point is that the waiter was watching us.  Even before we needed something, he anticipated what we were about to need, and was there to refill our glasses, pickup our salad plates, and clean up all the sugar and cracker packets we were tossing about.  His eyes were always watching for the next thing we might need.

Psalm 123

Which brings us to our text today, Psalm 123.  This psalm is a song of mild lament.  The psalmist is looking to God — I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.  His request, his prayer, is that God will have mercy on his people for they have endured contempt and ridicule from the arrogant and proud.  

In all probability, this song goes with others written during the Babylonian captivity.  Like Psalm 137 which laments —

 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept 
       when we remembered Zion.

 2 There on the poplars 
       we hung our harps,

 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, 
       our tormentors demanded songs of joy; 
       they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD 
       while in a foreign land?

The writer of Psalm 123 was feeling much the same quiet shame and humiliation.  But in verses 2 and 3, he says 

2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, 
       as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, 
       so our eyes look to the LORD our God, 
       till he shows us his mercy.

 3 Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, 
       for we have endured much contempt.

The people of God are looking to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for mercy.  

The Eyes of Servants

Friday night Debbie and I attended the ordination of David Smith, chaplain at Chatham Hall, to the order of deacon in the Episcopal Church.  David will be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in a few months, but the route to priesthood requires that one be ordained a deacon first.  

The bishop of this diocese commented that deacon means servant, and that David was to serve his Master, Jesus Christ, with humility and obedience.  

In the first century church, the Seven were chosen to do the work of service, to look after the care of widows especially, so that the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.  The idea of servanthood is both an Old and a New Testament idea.  

Servants Look to Their Masters

The point of the psalm is to remind God’s people that their only hope is to look to God, as a servant looks to his master, or a handmaid looks to her mistress.  

Servants watch their masters for indicators of how they, too, are to live.  A good servant sees the habits and lifestyle of his master and seeks to incorporate those qualities into his own life.  Jesus both taught and demonstrated how his followers, his servants, were to live.  

Jesus taught that we were to turn the other cheek, to not return insult for insult, even physical insult.  He demonstrated that teaching when arrested and ridiculed.  When the temple guard arrests him in the Garden, Peter draws a sword and in a wild swinging motion, severs the ear of the high priest’s servant.  We often picture that scene as everyone standing around and Peter acting alone in desperation.  But, I think it was chaos.  Lots of pushing and shoving and yelling and cursing — sweaty guards grappling with now-awake disciples for possession of Jesus.  But, Jesus calms both sides, heals the servant’s wound, and goes willingly with the guard.  

Later, as the Roman centurions plucked out his beard, spit in his face, railed at him blasphemously, the Bible says that he did not respond or answer them.  He has become, in Paul’s words, “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”  

The question we must ask ourselves is — Are we watching Jesus when conflict, war, and discord present themselves to us?  Our Anabaptists friends, the Mennonites and Amish, practice a lifestyle of peacemaking that puts us as Southern Baptists to shame.  Why do we not turn our eyes to Jesus to watch how he responds to violence and conflict in his world?

But, we also look to Jesus to see how he treats the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan — the weakest in his society.  In every instance, when we look at what Jesus does, our eyes see him feeding the five thousand, healing the sick, touching lepers, making blind eyes see, and caring for those who are on the margins of society.  

Those not in church, those who do not claim to be followers of Christ, see this care for the poor and marginalized more clearly than we do.  Ask most of the unchurched what they think the “church” ought to be doing and the answer you will most likely receive is feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, helping those least able to help themselves.  They get it, but do we?  If our eyes were really turned to Jesus we would see how he lived and how much he thought the poor, the weak, and the marginalized needed his care.

Matthew 25 quotes Jesus in the clearest language —

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For 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, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

 37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

 40“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.’

 41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

 44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

 46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Could that be more clear?  The righteous, the right with God, are those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, welcome the strangers, and care for the sick.  They are welcomed into life eternal, those who have not done these things are not.

Looking to the World or To Jesus

But, the argument for not looking to Jesus for guidance, for clues about how we are to live, is that we live in the real world.  A world where the weak are taken advantage of, the powerful rule the day, and unless you want to get run over, you’d better look out for yourself.  In other words, we find the practical world more appealing as a master.  

Because when this world is our master, and we look to its ways, we can follow our own reactions.  When someone hits us, we can hit them back.  And, if we don’t do that, then we are considered weak and cowardly. 

Or, we can take the attitude that the poor, the marginalized, don’t deserve our help.  That they are on their own, and can make their own way.  It’s interesting that there are two words used for the poor in the Bible. One means a man who is reduced to begging and is not respectable.  The other means a person who is poor, but still lives frugally and respectably — in other words, the undeserving and the deserving poor.  But in the Sermon on the Mount, guess which word Jesus uses when he blesses the poor?  You guessed it, the undeserving.  Those who are at the bottom of the pile, perhaps even because of their own choices.

So, if we take our attitudes from the world system — the system of power, and of strength, and of dominance — then we are looking to our master, but our master is not Christ.  

Now, if all this sounds really tedious, and difficult, and unpleasant, here’s the point.  Jesus came to change things.  

I’m reading Journeying Out: A New Approach to Christian Mission, by Ann Morisy.  Morisy says that the church, even when it is doing good, can be very much like the world.  We want to meet needs.  And so we organize need-meeting ventures: we feed people, clothe people, shelter people.  But, our focus can easily slide into the focus of any helping organization — number of meals served, number of beds occupied, numbers of coats given away.  No different than an organization that does not claim that Jesus is its master.

Rather, Morisy suggests, than adopt a strictly needs-meeting approach, we should look to Jesus.  Jesus not only fed people, he sat and talked with them, he engaged them in conversation.  He knew their names and their stories, and he let them participate by offering a few loaves and a few fish to the effort.  

Jesus not only healed people, but he touched lepers, he explained that a blind man was not blind due to sin but so that God’s power could be revealed.  He engaged the blind man by asking him what he wanted.  The decision to see was the blindman’s, not Jesus’.  

Morisy says that three principles should guide our venturesome love — love that steps outside its comfort zone to engage with all those around us:

  1. We must recognize the importance of struggle to the kingdom of God and the well-being of the children of God.
  2. We must take seriously the mysterious part which those who are poor and marginalized have in the purposes of God.
  3. We must take seriously the implications of the fact that we are all brothers and sisters with the same Heavenly Father.  — Journeying Out, Ann Morisy, p. 37-39

So, when we turn out eyes to Jesus, we see that Jesus came to —

  • To change worship from a perfunctory performance to a real encounter with God.  
  • To change righteousness from a term that could only be applied to the rich, powerful, and well-placed, to a condition of the heart, a child-like state of trust and hope.
  • To change society from its devotion to power, to embrace love as it’s operative principle.
  • To change his disciples from servants of the world, to servants of God.

Like our waiter at Ernie’s, our eyes should always be watching Jesus, anticipating what he might want us to do next.  Moving to do that which he calls us to do.  To change our world, to live as though the kingdom of God has come, to be an outpost of heaven here on God’s earth.  

When I was a teenager, I attended church camp, as I did just about every year.  One night at the end of the worship service, we all stood to sing, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.  Something changed in my life that night. I was already a Christian, I had professed faith in Christ and followed him in baptism when I was 6 years old.  But, I had not really grasped what it meant to follow Jesus, to turn my eyes, my heart, my attitudes toward him.  To be like him, to be conformed to his image.  To serve him with my whole life.  That night started me on that journey.  A journey that has brought me this far.  The failures along the way have been mine, the victories his.  

I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven.  Amen.