Saturday, January 15, 2011

Are You Being Served?


RCL Proper 2A
16 January 2011

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         From time to time an older British comedy will make an appearance on one television channel or another.  The series takes place in a family-owned and operated department store and features the antics of the owner and his staff, an eclectic collection of hard-workers and shirkers.  You may be familiar with the title, “Are You Being Served?”  Given the reluctance of some of the staff to provide any service to the customers, the answer is frequently, “No, I am not being served!”  One reason I find the programme amusing is that I spent four summers, four Christmases and one full year working in a department store in Colorado when I was a university student.  The programme brings back vivid memories of how we sometimes looked very busy in order to avoid contact with the many and various characters who came to the store every day.

         But if I spend too much time in that part of my past, I begin to recall memories that have more significant meaning.  I remember one older woman, perhaps my grandmothers’ age, coming up to me with a package in her hands that was tied up in twine.  “Would you please cut this twine with your pen-knife,” she asked me.  “I’m sorry,” I answered, “I don’t have a pen-knife.”  “Oh,” she responded, “I thought all gentlemen carried pen-knives.”  Her comment, gently made without any real criticism, lingered with me.  For months afterwards I carried a pen-knife in the hope that she would return and give me a chance to redeem myself and show myself to be a true gentleman.  By the way, I do carry a pen-knife in my dispatch case!

         When I think back on my days in retail, I find myself wandering further back to my childhood and memories of my maternal grandmother, Mildred Broom.  Her working days were spent as an assistant in Mr Wheatley’s corner shop in Molesey, a suburb of London.  Every time I went into that shop, I was well and truly served, not just because my grandmother worked there, but because the shop was a centre of the community’s life.  Neighbours met in the shop and spent far more time than they needed as they shared stories, gossip, hopes and joys, concerns and sorrows, with each other, with my grandmother and with Mr Wheatley.  Once, when I was in grade three, the school bus driver delivered me to the wrong address and it was hours before we finally found the right ‘Green Lane’ in the vastness of Metropolitan London.  The next day I was in the corner shop telling everybody about my harrowing adventure.  Mr Wheatley gave me a packet of Macintosh toffees in honour of my bravery.  Mr Wheatley’s shop was more than a place to buy things; it was a place where many of the neighbourhood’s needs for companionship, for listening hearts and ears, for a recognition that we existed even in the midst of a large city, all these needs were met, sometimes with a nod or a kind word, sometimes with Macintosh toffees.

         ‘Service’ and ‘servant’ and ‘serving’ are words that are having a hard time in the twenty-first century.  In contemporary youth culture, for example, the phrase, "you got served," means to be put down, to put in one's place.  Imagine going to a party where you are asked to tell about what your children or grandchildren or yourself are doing these days.  “Well,” you say, “I am proud to say that we are all involved in the service industry.”  Here in Kerrisdale I expect you might find yourself quickly enveloped in a cone of silence or by a circle of sympathetic friends offering their condolences.  When the government announces the current employment statistics, an increase in the number of jobs in the so-called ‘service industry’ is not considered a particularly encouraging statistic.  Yet who among us has not walked away from an encounter with a sales person or a restaurant worker or someone else engaged in the ‘service industry’ feeling a bit better because he or she, in that brief encounter, has treated us as a human being rather than an object or has gone out of their way to provide us with an item or a service we really needed.

         “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength --- [the LORD] says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”  (Isaiah 49.5-6)

         These words were spoken more than twenty-five hundred years ago to a people living in exile and holding on to the hope that they would be restored to the land that they had lost.  No doubt some of them hoped that the return would bring back the old days, but the words of the prophet challenge that hope with God’s call to the people to be more than just one more nation on the face of the earth, one more people holding on to a land and to a tradition --- “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  The work that God was calling them to undertake surpassed the geographical constraints of their original homeland.

         For all these centuries this is what God has done, is doing and will continue to do --- establishing communities of faith throughout the world, not as small enclaves of privilege or cultural continuation, but as lights to the world, illumining a way of life that calls us beyond ourselves and into partnership with God.  One of the concrete ways that we participate with God in breaking down the walls that people erect to keep others out, how we participate with God in building communities that are life-giving, is by learning the needs and concerns of those among whom we live and work so that we can identify how we, as a community of faith, can respond in ways the embody our faith even as we meet those needs.

         Some of you know that we are engaged in a mysterious process called the ‘Ministry Assessment Process’.  There are some people in the Diocese who believe this to be a thinly-veiled effort to close parishes and to sell their assets.  Certainly this attitude has been reflected in some of the ill-chosen words of the representatives of the Anglican Network in Canada in explaining why they have chosen to seek leave to appeal their judicial defeats to the Supreme Court of Canada.  But ‘MAP’, as this Process is frequently called, is about re-discovering the neighbourhoods in which we live and work so that we can be a light to the nations so that the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth can be shared, if not in words, then definitely by deeds of service and compassion, hospitality and openness.

         MAP asks us, “Why do you have a pre-school in the parish?”  One simple answer would be to say, “We need the revenue.”  But this would not be an adequate answer to that question.  Stepping Stones certainly is a source of revenue, but that is not why we have a pre-school here.  We have a pre-school because we live in a society where many families require two incomes to support their needs and their desires.  In a society such as this a pre-school and the care it provides the ‘little ones’ is not only desirable but necessary.  MAP will challenge us to look at how we might strengthen this partnership as an expression of our service to this community.

         MAP asks us, “Why do you have recitals in the church?”  One simple answer would be to say, “We need the revenue.”  But this would not be an adequate answer to the question.  As our provincial and federal governments decrease funding for the arts, private teachers are picking up more and more of the responsibility to offer our young people instruction in the arts, especially the art of music.  If there is one thing Saint Faith’s has enjoyed and continues to enjoy is a love of music, sung and instrumental.  By opening our building to recitals, we welcome families, many of whom have no connection with a religious community, into our space with its abundant reminders of the good news.  MAP will challenge us here as well.  How might we make stronger connections with the teachers, perhaps bringing their students into our worship, so that they are not an ‘outside user group’, but our neighbours.

         Time does not permit me to give an extended treatment of all the groups and the communities with whom Saint Faith’s comes into contact.  But if we are to be faithful to the call of God expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah, then we will not shy away from asking how our hospitality to the Special Olympics programme for younger children might grow into a more visible partnership.  These and other questions will arise in the months ahead.  They are driven not by a desire to end our ministry here, but by our hopes that we will find new ways to be a light here in this part of the city.

         It would be na├»ve to assume that there will not be changes of one sort or another in the months and years ahead.  One of the tasks of the priest who will come to be our priest-in-charge after Paula’s departure will be to build on the work done thus far and help the leadership of the congregation articulate a vision for what comes next.  Just as Isaiah encouraged the people to look at themselves in new ways, so too will the priest-in-charge call upon the members of this parish to see the future of ministry here in new and, I hope, life-giving ways.

         "Are you being served?"  That is our question for our neighbours and wider community.  In some ways my hope is that we might be a bit like Mr Wheatley's corner store, a place where strangers become friends, where the lost are found, where those in need find their needs met --- perhaps even with Maintosh toffees.

         In the meantime let us listen carefully to the Scriptures as they are read Sunday after Sunday.  As we hear them read, let us be attentive to any phrases, any images, any words that seem to grip us or open new vistas.  Then let us share those with one another and perhaps even with those who do not join us in our worship.

         In the meantime let us break the bread and share the cup Sunday after Sunday.  As we break the bread and share the cup, let us remember that bread does not fulfill its purposes until it is broken and shared, that wine does not fulfill its purposes until it is poured and shared.  We who eat this bread and drink this cup do not fulfill our purpose, our identity as the body of Christ, until we open ourselves to our neighbours and to the needs of our communities.  While we were yet in our mothers’ wombs, God called each one of us by name to this ministry.  While we were yet in our mothers’ wombs, God called us to be lights in a world that is often grey.  Even when we think we are labouring in vain and our energy is waning, God has chosen us for this work in this place.  I dare to say that God needs us to be here, not as a cultural artifact, but as a centre for God’s mission and ministry.  For that, my sisters and brothers, is who we truly are.

Let us pray.
God of grace and glory, you call us with your voice of flame to be your people, faithful and courageous.  As your beloved Son embraced his mission in the waters of baptism, inspire us with the fire of your Spirit to join him in his transforming work.  We ask this in the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen(Revised Common Lectionary Prayers)

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