Seven Marks of Vital Congregations – Part Four
John 13:2-17; Luke 22:24-27
I watched every episode of Downton Abbey, and was one of the early adopters to make my way to the theater to see the movie. One of my favorite scenes focuses on the beloved Mr. Moseley. Faithful, but awkward among the household staff, he finally left service to be a teacher at the end of the series. But he insists on returning to help serve when he heard the king and queen were coming to visit. The downstairs staff have to get a little tricky with the royal entourage, but they succeed in cooking and the serving dinner themselves. At dinner the King comments on the difference from the planned menu and is impressed, praising Monsieur Courbet, their traveling chef. Mr Molesley, quick to defend Downton, stops as he is carrying away a tray, to say that the dinner was actually prepared by Mrs. Patmore and that the Downton staff were serving it. There is a stunned moment of absolute silence as Molesley realizes he just spoke to the King without being asked. Extremely surprised and embarrassed, Lord Grantham apologizes. The Queen, understanding his embarrassment, praises the work of Mrs. Patmore and tells Lady Grantham that they are used to people behaving strangely around them.
“Behaving strangely.” That is what it is called when a servant speaks to someone at the table they are serving, especially the guest of honor. It just isn’t done. Not in 20th century England, and not in first century Palestine.
Jesus was asking all of the disciples to behave strangely. More precisely, Jesus is drawing attention to his own strange behavior, and asking the disciples to live likewise. “I am among you as one who serves,” he says.
The fourth mark of vital congregations is that they empower servant leaders. Or, simply, they empower service.
I have always been a bit skeptical about “Servant Leadership,” from the time I read Robert Greenleaf’s essay that all the seminary professors seemed to be touting. It was being taught to people who already want to be leaders. But that, in itself, seems to get it backwards. Jesus wanted the disciples to want to be servants. Serving is not a tool in the tool belt of leaders, but the way of life in the footsteps of Jesus. When we call it “servant leadership” I am suspicious that serving will become a manipulative tool for leaders to get what they want – which is power.
Greenleaf was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s book, Journey to the East (1932). The main character, Leo, is a servant like all the others. All the servants work well together until one day Leo disappears. Things do not go so well without Leo. They realize that he was far more than a servant, yet so much a servant that he made them all better. He was their leader, only in retrospect. Leadership is a byproduct of serving.
What does a servant leader do? Encourages, notices what someone is good at, helps them do their best, shares the load, is approachable, a team member, does not set themselves apart. Basically a servant leader is an ordinary human being, who honors all others as ordinary human beings, and knows that when we become honestly ordinary human beings, we change the world for the better. We quit pushing and shoving to get to the top, we no longer all look for the same power or limited resource. There is enough for all. And when we become ordinary in this way, we get wings and are free of the struggle, no matter how hard the work remains.
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he gave us the ultimate example of turning power upside down. In the days of walking everywhere, before pavement and street-sweepers, when shoes were sandals, washing feet was everyday hospitality. At the same time, it was the least honorable work. The lowest servants got this job. And at Jesus’ last big dinner party, no one had provided for the feet to be washed. Do you think Jesus was grumbling as he got up, took off his robe and tied on a towel? I doubt it. It is remembered that he did this as one last act of love. The story is introduced by the description that he “loved them to the end.”
I have always found it curious that Jesus told the disciples to do this for each other, as he had done it for them. Yet, most Christians do not observe this practice. I grew up in a tradition which did practice foot washing. I enjoyed hearing the memories of a black man who also grew up with the practice in a podcast this week. William Matthews says: “…what I realized was so powerful about it, even for me as a little boy, was [that] I wasn’t simply washing their feet. They would come and wash my feet. And I remember as a little boy that registering with me … recognizing that not only was I called to serve these men, but they were also called to serve me … Knowing that this community loved me and accepted me and would fight to protect me was deeply reassuring…. That’s where I truthfully got my sense of dignity and worth and value, was to be supported by this group of black men who loved me and my little body and said, ‘You’re okay just the way you are.” 
Father Javier Calvillo Salazar arrived at the site of Pope Francis’ visit to Juarez, Mexico in February 2016, carrying an unusual offering: a box full of migrants’ old shoes, worn and dirty…. Migrants’ shoes not only symbolize their journey, Calvillo said. They have added significance because when migrants arrive at the Casa del Migrante, volunteers offer to remove their shoes and wash their feet, reminding them of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. At first, the priest said, immigrants hesitate, ashamed of their rough feet, worried they have to pay for pedicures. But once volunteers start washing and trimming their nails, they relax, he said, and begin to tell the stories. “This is why Jesus washed the feet of his disciples,” Calvillo said, “In that moment, he saw all that was inside them and restored their dignity. It’s a therapy that helps open them up.” It is more than therapy. It is healing. Jim Wallis put it this way: “Often people who are oppressed, marginalized, what they most want to hear or know is that they are seen. I see you. I see you. When someone is washing your feet, you know they see you.” 
This is what the servant does. The servant offers the respect of being seen, the honor of being welcomed just as you are. It is an act of healing love.
This is the kind of thing nurtured in vital congregations. This is why we want to be servants. I prefer to leave off the word, “leader.” Let’s just make our aim to be servants. Jesus is our leader. Remembering that Jesus is our leader also helps us skirt the temptation to see serving as a means to an end to power and influence.
Honestly, this serving thing is hard for all of us. It is hard for me. I have not yet learned how to balance serving love with the demand for justice. I have always it powerful that our Presbyterian ordination vows repeatedly ask us to commit ourselves to the love and justice of Jesus. The kind of service we are called to is strong. It means serving the least of these. It means standing with the oppressed, the marginalized. Like Matthew 25, it means accompanying the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsty – and here, the unwashed.
What might it look like in our congregation as we step into this mark of vital congregations? Several things are suggested in the program materials.
One (said as what to do), identify, nurture and support the use of spiritual gifts of all people to serve. (Said as what to avoid), don’t rely on others to do your work, get everyone involved rather than relying on a few. We are all servants and have been given gifts with which to serve. Each gift is needed. God has given us every gift we need to do what we are called to do right here and right now. We haven’t discovered all those gifts. We may not like where the gift mix leads us. But we are not the boss. We serve Jesus, and each other.
The Vital Congregations materials will offer us resources for identifying the gifts in our community and in our congregation. But we don’t have to wait for the program to start. Simply pay attention. See…, really see…, the person sitting with you. What gifts do you see? Tell them. Encourage them. Think of ways to serve with those particular gifts. God didn’t give gifts to be wasted. There is a path. And all these gifts will lead to fresh ideas, generated and energized by you, the congregation. And that is a vital congregation!
Two, remember that all voices and people are necessary, and when anyone is missing, we feel it, we miss their presence. Already we have a wonderful Deacon ministry. The Deacons care deeply for those who cannot be with us regularly. They send cards when people are ill. They notice when someone is missing for a while. We can all help them. Pick up the phone when you notice someone who is missing. Tell them they are valued. See how you can help. With this kind of community, all will find a welcome and a home of inclusion, just like Jesus offered.
And more. Notice who is not speaking. Whose voice is not at the table? Who might be left out, or just shy? Invite them in. We need to receive their gifts, too.
Three, nurture and encourage people who have gifts for ministry. We often set pastors off as a class by themselves. Yes, we pastors have training in Biblical studies and are used to standing up in front of people. But these gifts are open to all. Pastors are often not the most skilled managers of ministry and need a lot of help with their “To Do Lists.” We have some wonderful folks around here who do this all the time. I don’t know what we would do without them. You know who they are – say thank you! We are all called to ministry. This is one concept I love about my Mennonite roots. Baptism, in that tradition is considered one’s ordination to ministry. If you have decided to follow Jesus, then you are in the ministry and we are partners, sharing the same work. It is not a career, but a way of life.
In the coffee house we sing “The Servant Song.” It could be the theme song for this mark of Vital Congregations:
Will you let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant too.
We are pilgrims on the journey:
We are travelers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping;
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through.
So may it be among us. Amen.
 Story from “Reclaiming Jesus Now” with Jim Wallis, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/reclaiming-jesus-now-with-jim-wallis/id1481026354
 Story from the LA Times, https://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-pope-shoes-migrants-20160216-story.html