November 21, 2010

“Everybody’s Gotta Serve Somebody”

Colossians 1:11-20


You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
~ “Gotta Serve Somebody”  Bob Dylan


Only a couple of people were honest enough with me last week to say they were uncomfortable with my sermon.  I say ‘only’ because I am sure that if I managed to convey the whole of those three lessons which were read there were more than two uncomfortable people.  I am sure of this because I would have been the third.

I was not eager to speak such a strong word of challenge.  Yet, because I believe that the bible (and all of it, not just a few snippets) is an authoritative word; and because I believe that ‘God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit’ speaks to us in and through this word, I had no choice.

I am rarely called upon to identify my allegiances in such a way that I am in physical danger, but I am frequently required to speak a counter-cultural word.  I must do so, offer such a ‘minority report,’ because I desire to be a follower of the One we believe “that in everything he might be preeminent.”[1]  And so I have titled this reflection, “everybody’s gotta serve somebody.”


Some of you might believe that you do not need to serve anybody.  Such a belief is popular, it is very American, this ‘rugged individualism.’  And, from a strictly personal level it isn’t all that bad a position to take.  See, such a person enters into society to further his or her own interests, or at least demands the right to serve his or her own interests, without taking the interests of society into consideration.  In religious circles, a purist of the individualistic bent would enter into the community of faith from the position of meeting his or her own interests, not the interests of the community, or the interests of the Deity unless these interests just so happen to coincide.


This type of participant is common.  One observer of the church[2] notices that when people describe what they hope for in a church, it looks similar to a ‘drive through restaurant.’  Another observer[3] identifies some people for whom church is really only participated in vicariously, that is they are glad we are here worshiping on Sunday morning, they would complain were we to shut our doors, but they have no intention to actively participate.


Others may realize that this is a forced choice that we all must make, “you’ve gotta serve somebody.”  But, in your own prioritization, Christ is not first. 


One of the reasons that we might not put Christ first in our lives is that we don’t really have any motivation to do so.  We put things that are important first:  Family, Work, Country even.  We put things first that have some tangible and real impact upon our every day to day existence.  Unlike these other ‘firsts,’ we have so thoroughly domesticated Christ that it takes some imagination to see the cosmic Christ of Colossians.


In my old raggity Revised Standard Version of the Bible, down in the notes, this section is titled “The Supremacy of Christ.”  This is the Christ in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Nothing of God is held back or left out of the person of Jesus. Perhaps God once was content to dwell in places like Sinai, Zion or the Temple, now God is in a person. Everything that God is, and cares about, now resides in Jesus Christ. Christ is the face or the image of the invisible God.
I am not sure that it really matters how Christ got to be second or third in our lives.  The fact of the matter is that He is often there and not on the top.  We have distilled God down to small ‘g’ size, down to nothing more than the stain in the bottom of the cup; we have whittled God down to the size of a pocket charm, confining him to the containers of our own ethnic, economic and political instincts. Chumminess is in[4]; grandeur is out.  Clarity is in; mystery is out.  We want a version of God that bears some resemblance to ourselves.

 Fosteria, Ohio, made news in 1986 when a local resident saw an image of Christ on the rusting side of a soybean oil storage tank. Archer Daniels Midland was suddenly on the religion page. Hundreds of cars lined Route 12 on August evenings, full of curiosity seekers waiting to sneak a peek. As one local named Jimmy noted, “It’s real. The image looks like me, but I’ve always had long hair and a beard.” With more profundity than he may have ever realized, Jimmy spoke for all of us who unwittingly like to see Christ reflecting the image of our own lives. 

 But this isn’t right.   In fact, it is as if Paul is saying to the Colossians and to us, ‘enough about you, about your faith, your patience, your gratitude, now it is time to turn to the source and strength for all this stuff.  We all know, after all, that this didn’t come from you.  And Paul uses a ‘creed’ or a ‘hymn’ that they all were familiar with in order to remind them of what they believe in.

See, Christ the King Sunday serves as a reminder for all of us.  The point of our faith is not that we encounter a Lord whose life looks mysteriously like ours, no.  Because this Christ is the ruler of the whole of creation, in whom we live and move and have our being, we cannot contain this power or presence in our mere mortal bodies.  The only place we come close to bearing that image of Christ is in the church, the Great church, the “holy catholic Church,” the Body of Christ,  where we can put together hundreds of tiny shards of this image and when we are at our best, reveal something way beyond our collective self.  When we put Christ first in our life as a community, we reveal something of this Lord to everyone we serve.  That is the point.

That is why I want diversity in my church.  That is why I want a crazy welcome in my church.  That is why I love the mystery of a good liturgy.  That is why I want some reverence and awe.  That is why I want to be a group that prays. That’s why I want to gather as a community and not attempt faithfulness off on my own.  I need to be a part of this community that is larger than myself, more skilled than I am, with richer gifts of the spirit, to make this image real, in part and in the whole.

This is why the early church, particularly the writer of Colossians, said of Jesus, “He is the very image of the invisible God.” What they meant by that is when we look at Jesus and we see Him feeding the hungry, we see the image of God in action. When we look at Jesus and see Him healing somebody who is broken and in need, we see the image of God in action.   When we see him balancing his life between prayer and service, we see the image of God in action. It’s hard to see otherwise, isn’t it?  The same is true for us.  You can tell who we serve by watching.


[1] Colossians 1:18c

[2] See Penny Edgell Becker’s work: “Congregations in Conflict” Cambridge University Press (May 1, 1999), on “Houses of Worship”

[3] See Bruce Reed’s work: “Dynamics of Religion” Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd (November 1978)

[4] Hence the not so unrealistic “Buddy Jesus” in the film “Dogma” (1999) Disney/Miramax