The following is the text of the sermon offered by Ned Allyn Parker at the opening of the Spring Open House, March 6th, 2009. Read, share, enjoy. (Scripture: John 13: 2-7)
Friends, I apologize. You’re going to have to bear with me a little bit. I’m about to do something very odd, I’m about to talk to you – to use WORDS – to describe the significance of ‘actions’ in ministry. I tried to figure out a way to use actions to describe actions… and I did graduate from Hampshire College, so I suppose I could have done an interpretive dance for you… but time is limited, so I’ll do it this way instead.
Our scripture says: “And during supper Jesus … got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”
Without a word. Without a word.
Imagine the shock.
Peter - the rock - even QUESTIONS him! “LORD, are YOU going to wash MY feet?”
How can we begin to imagine this? Picture your favorite high school or college mentor filling a basin dropping to the classroom floor and washing your class’ feet. Picture your boss at work, coming into the office gathering everyone in the conference room where a pitcher of water is waiting. Imagine President Obama visiting every person in the United States – the rich, the powerful, the underrepresented, the family collecting food stamps, the homeless –picture him stopping in in the midst of a senate meeting: in one hand a basin and in the other a towel.
The trouble is that we really can’t picture it, can we? Because remember how these disciples thought of Jesus: think about it, when Jesus asked, “Who do YOU say that I am,” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Savior!” This simple action on Jesus’ part subverts their notion of leadership – indeed subverts their notion of kingship.
Without a word.
How compassionate. How moving. How startling. How unexpected. How tender. How… loving.
And all without a word.
You see, Jesus’ action spoke. It spoke to the disciples then, and it speaks to us now - for friends, actions do speak. They are their own language – and it can be a universal language. They can speak loudly or softly. Yes, they can speak angrily but they can also speak tenderly. Actions can tell a story, change a life, and witness a faith louder and more poignantly than any words could come close to doing.
I moved to the Dominican Republic shortly after graduating from high school. I was working at a construction site where we were building a hospital for Haitian refugees that worked the surrounding sugar cane fields. A family of eight Haitians lived onsite in the garage bay next to the storage shed where construction tools were kept. Shortly after my arrival in the country – LONG before I had any grasp of the language – I had spent a morning bending conduit for electrical outlets. I was alone and waiting for my ride back to the pastor’s house for lunch and – one of my favorite parts of living in the Caribbean - siesta. One of the little boys, No’el, who was about six, came out of their home with a mango. Let me be clear, this mango wasn’t just a snack. This small mango was both his breakfast AND his lunch. He ran over to me and we went through our daily unspoken ritual: he flexed one arm… then the other… and then both together, and then gave me his best Muhammad Ali pose. Then I gave him my impressed face and a big thumbs up. And then, on this particular day, after our little ‘acted out conversation,’ No’el peeled his mango and held it up for me. The whole thing.
He peeled his mango and held it aloft towards me.
Without a word.
Such a simple action.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Mark tells us that Jesus declares, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
He peeled his mango, his breakfast and his lunch – his sustenance for the first two thirds of the day - and he held it aloft toward me.
Without a single word between us. Much like Peter I cry out, “You can’t give me that!” But at the age of eighteen, perhaps I didn’t understand the action, did I? The trust. The friendship. The tenderness of a child for whom “the kingdom of God belongs.” No’el subverted my notion of who HAS and who has not. No’el kind of washed my feet in a way that day, didn’t he?
His action spoke to me then and continues to speak to each of us in this space now, I think.
Shortly after I returned from the Dominican, my mom was ordained as a Baptist Minister in the state of Maine. The theme song for the service of ordination was Michael Card’s slow ballad, the Basin and the Towel – a song about this passage of scripture we’re talking about today. Card tells us, Jesus action was a call to community…
My mom shared no words during the service, instead opting to wash the feet of each of her peers that were present – fellow pastors, executive ministers and the mayor of the town. She didn’t want to say it, instead she wanted to show that her call to leadership in the setting of the local parish was also a deeper call to service.
As a freshly ordained minister she wanted to show those gathered what she thought ministry meant. Imagine this friends, this was my home state of Maine, and many of these folks have become dear friends and mentors over the years, but the room was essentially packed with a bunch of white heterosexual men - many of whom had existed in their privilege and social status without taking opportunities to reflect on what POWER might mean through the lens of their faith… and here was a woman, one of the only women in the room, teaching them the true power of the gospel – teaching them that our call to ministry is also a call to service – our call to ministry is a deeper call to action. A year later she was the president of the Minister’s council for the American Baptist Churches of Maine.
Actions like these speak, don’t they?
When you’ve hit rock bottom and a friend shows up with an ice cream and a hug – sometimes that hug means more than any words ever could. When you go to work in a food pantry, the power is in your presence and service just as much as anything else. Andover Newton had representatives march in the gay pride parade that traversed the streets of Boston last year. The action of marching, the action of simply being present spoke volumes more about our school’s unique mission and ministry than any sermon ever could. Last year we also closed our school for a day and walked down into Newton Centre and planted 75 trees as part of a greening project – we didn’t just talk about global warming but we took action to stave it off. The most popular mission trips in the US and abroad right now have nothing to do with evangelization; they have to do with loving neighbors in kindness and action, don’t they?
Actions like these speak! They minister to a broken and ever-changing world. They minister to the weak, to those who will indeed inherit the earth. We can talk until we’re blue in the face, but it’s our ACTIONS that can speak on their own about who we are, about what we stand for and about what we believe.
We should not only talk about peace, friends. We take our weapons of destruction down to the riverbanks and we make them into plowshares. We can talk about changing the world, about making it safer for our children and our children’s children – but it’s the action, it’s the actions of taking the swords and the shields and making them into tools that nurture, tools that heal, tools that grow food for the weak and the weary. Talking peace ain’t enough, we’ve got to make peace. We’ve got to till the earth with the swords and shields that we've used for far too long and plant groves of mangos for No’el and every child like him.
So is ministry confined to the pulpit? Is it confined to the local parish? No way. You minister every day. Doctor’s minister to their patients. Carpenter’s minister to their crew. Leaders of faith can be found in every facet of society.
You do it already, I bet, or you wouldn’t be here. Someone, somewhere along the way saw ministry in your actions and they said to you: you’d make a good minister. You can do that.
Ministry is how we live our lives in words, in faith AND in action.
For you see friends, actions speak. Sometimes they speak louder than words.