Sermon 01/19/2020: Servant Identity

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Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42

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Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend
Tomorrow is a national holiday honoring the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. MLK was God’s Servant as the greatest Christian peacemaker in this country in the 20th century. Given the scriptures we just heard, it seems fitting as peace church Christians in the United States to focus on the church as God’s Servant of liberation and the willingness to sacrifice for this cause. The Gospel of John begins with a poem about how it all began. We hear about a Word that is light and life for all people. This Word, this Subversive Wisdom, this Logos that holds the universe together, became flesh. And finally in v. 29 of John chapter 1, we learn the identity of this Word, this person. It’s Jesus. Seeing Jesus, John the Baptist declares: Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Twice John calls him the Lamb of God, which is a fresh turn of phrase. Twice, John says: I myself did not know him. John takes no credit for calling Jesus into public ministry. It is God who called. John is simply the one who recognized him. And his recognition is shattering: The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

There are a number of scriptural connections to the lamb. The two most important for us are the lamb as the symbol for Israel’s liberation from empire and the lamb being led to the slaughter, the symbol of God’s Servant willing to pursue a sacrificial mission. This first idea, the lamb as symbol for a people’s liberation, comes from Exodus. If you don’t know that story, learn it. It’s in Exodus 12. If you know that story, review it. It’s important for our faith and our country’s history. Any church that takes on a Servant Identity and accepts this work of liberation had better know the first stanza of the liberation song–the enslaved Hebrews set free from Egypt under the blood of a lamb.

Servant Songs in Scripture
The second idea of the lamb being led to slaughter comes from one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. There are four “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. As Christian readers of the Old Testament, we tend to hear these servant songs as preludes to Jesus Christ. And there’s good reason. Jesus describes himself as the one who came not to be served, but to serve (Mt. 20.) The Apostle Paul, or the congregation he helped plant in Philippi, emphasized servant identity in a famous song directly about Jesus: who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. And, of course, in the Gospel of John we have the signature account of Jesus with basin and towel literally washing his disciples’ feet as a servant. So, we take seriously this servant identity of our Lord. We make it our own.

Last week, in the first Servant Song we heard the prophet Isaiah say:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Today we hear a second Servant song in Isaiah 49 in which the Servant is called and commissioned. Like the parents we commissioned today for their joyful and taxing work of raising children, this Biblical servant was sometimes exhausted and discouraged. Servants of God, CMC, how was your week? Were you energized? Were you stressed out? Here’s what God’s servant said in Isaiah 49:4:

I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…

I wonder what the servant was doing? Maybe it was another load of laundry, or hauling another load of bricks, or cleaning up another mess at home or in relationships, or grading another set of papers, or sending out the monthly invoices, or attending the board meeting, or emptying the inbox, or relating to another client, customer or colleague.

I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…

Like us, the Biblical servant is complex. One moment God’s servant says:

I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…

In the next poetic breath the servant says:

Yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
And my reward with my God.

Can we agree that the work of God’s servant at home, on the job, in the community, in the church is tiresome and we’re sometimes drained of energy and vision? Have we spent ourselves for nothing? Have we labored in vain–because God’s mission is impossible or because we’ve taken the wrong approach? Are we facing the abyss of meaninglessness? (That word for vanity is the same one that shows up in Ecclesiastes all the time: hebel–mist, vapor, vanity.) Have we no fitting reward for our labor?

Servant’s Call and Mission
God calls this very ordinary human servant–both struggling to make meaning of daily tasks and confident of God’s cause. In our times of discouragement and exhaustion, when we realize that we’ve taken the wrong approach and our labor is in vain, it is good to remember our calling. When our good labor has not been rewarded, we can be confident in God’s call, which is deeper than our present emotional state and more enduring than the current conditions.

In addition to the servant’s call, this song from Isaiah 49 clarifies the servant’s mission. It’s two-fold. And too big. A–the servant is supposed to reconcile scattered people to God and to each other. B–the servant is supposed to be a light to all the nations. Bible scholars sometimes see the Servant as an individual and sometimes as the whole people of Israel. The Servant Song we heard this morning sounds like it’s the whole people of Israel. But from either perspective, the servant’s mission is an impossible task. Reconciliation among people who know God, who know they need God and each other?! This seems impossible even among peace church Christians. And being a light to nations who don’t know God at all, who systematically reject the love and justice God requires?! This seems impossible even when Christians have citizenship and democratic forms of government. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, addressing moderate whites who were not joining the movement to end racism, MLK wrote: Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. We can certainly agree that the work of reconciling ourselves to one another and to God and being a light for the world is too big for any individual, for any agency or institution, even too big for a generation. God’s mission is too much…impossible without God. But God is real. God calls. God is available, so over the centuries individuals and groups have accepted the identity and mission of God’s Servant. Thanks be to God.

The Church in the Life of Christ
Today we are God’s Servant. God’s call came to us before we were born, among our faith ancestors. Can we receive our lives this week as God’s servant? Can we sacrificially give our lives as light for all people?

Our collective life as the church is reflected in this glimpse of Jesus’ life from the Gospel of John. Jesus is first recognized by a non-traditional leader of Israel, John the Baptist. By non-traditional, I mean whacky, out there, subversive, radical, movement builder. Jesus accepts this prophetic baptism as a calling from God. Jesus is also the Lamb willing to sacrificially live God’s love and justice among his own people and among the nations. So it’s not just the prophetically charged John the Baptist who recognizes Jesus. There are ordinary people too–Galileans like Andrew and Peter. Jesus is the Messiah building and leading a community of ordinary people to become God’s Servant in their familiar places. The servant identity of the church means that our mission and work is altogether too much, and very ordinary.

As Community Mennonite Church we identify as God’s servant, or at least as God’s servants. It’s hard for American Christians to build collective identity. At CMC, we see part of our mission as funding local ministries and agencies that address ordinary needs. We certainly support wider Mennonite mission and ministry, but today I’m focusing on the local agencies we support with our offerings. Many of them have strong connections to Mennonites, but these are not Mennonite organization per se. These are ways in which Community Mennonite Church has embraced our Servant identity. As I name and describe these organizations let’s give thanks for the light they represent in this community, the liberation and freedom they provide, and the sacrifices made to keep these organizations flourishing:

Scholars Latino Initiative creates college opportunities for first-generation Latino high school students [Candle is brought forward and placed on altar]

Patchwork Pantry each week provides a supply of staple foods to those in need

New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center connect cultures and builds community to reducing the burden that immigrants experience here

Our Community Place build a safe, loving community of restoration and hope for all, especially those facing homelessness and other adverse experiences

Mercy House provides food, clothes and shelter to homeless families with dependent children

Roberta Webb Childcare Center provides childcare and preschool education with a sliding scale fee structure

First Step which responds to domestic and dating violence

COSPU cultural celebration and advocacy within the Salvadoran community

Vine & Fig creates sustainable systems to care for the earth sponsor a nonviolent lifestyle with persons most marginalized. They focus on food, transportation and housing

Jail Ministry chaplaincy for incarcerated neighbors by Jason Wagner

Collins Center strives to prevent sexual violence and its impact in our community

Open Doors cold-weather shelter for persons without reliable housing

Gemeinschaft recovery from substance abuse & transition from prison to society

Bridge of Hope serves mothers and their children by engaging local churches to end family homelessness through neighboring relationships

Harrisonburg Free Clinic provides affordable sustainable healthcare for low income and uninsured adults

Medical Suitcase Clinic improves the health of the local homeless population

People Helping People is an ecumenical crisis ministry providing financial assistance for basic needs

Faith in Action is a multi-faith organizing of congregations to address systemic injustices in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County

Community Preschool serves about 45 children ages 3-6

Skyline Literacy focuses on adults learning English and studying for citizenship exams

Including these organizations in our congregational giving for 2020 tells a story of CMC accepting our servant identity in this community. It’s not just money we contribute, but volunteers, board members and staff. We also benefit from these agencies. For as much as we are God’s servants, we are also served by the one who came to take away the sin of the world, to lead ordinary people into liberation, through sacrificial love. Thanks be to God for the Servant, Jesus Christ, Light for the World.


Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.

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