It was over a decade ago ... nearly two dozen of us piled into our heavily loaded vehicles and drove over five hundred miles south across the border into the teeming city of Tijuana. We pitched tents on the edge of an abandoned quarry and wondered what the days ahead would bring. None of us had ever done what we were about to do. That first evening, we lolled around the fire wondering if we’d taken leave of our senses. We had just put a lot of miles and money into a risky adventure during which we proposed building an entire house from the dirt up with our bare hands—no power tools allowed—in just four weeks. Oh wait ... no ... make that ... FOUR DAYS!
The next morning we drove what seemed an interminable distance out to a new neighborhood which still mostly resembled the level part of a mountainside that it had recently been. Our insides had been jostled into a froth by the rutted roads and now we stood in front of a small lot where a large jumble of building materials had been dumped. It felt to me like the first steps out of the hospital bearing our firstborn child ... a new and enormous responsibility matched up with a profound sense of inadequacy.
We unloaded our jumble of tools, buckled on our tool belts, tugged on fresh, pristine work gloves, looked at each other and realized there was no way around but “through”. We met the family we’d be working for--and with--and we hoped word hadn’t reached them that we were somewhat “virginal” in this endeavor, having never before built an “AMOR house”. But I’d guess that 21 people standing in one place festooned with brand new tools with their freshly gloved hands hanging limply by their sides might have been a give-away.
Soon, though, we remembered the guidelines and instructions we’d worked hard to acquaint ourselves with while planning the trip. Some of us began sorting lumber while others started leveling the 11 by 22 patch of dirt where the foundation would be poured. It was slow, dusty and dirty work ... and the temperature rose rapidly as the sun rose high in the sky.
After a considerable time, we had leveled the building site and put our form boards in place for the slab foundation. With no cement truck in sight, we transformed ourselves into human cement mixers. According to a recipe, sand and gravel and cement were dried mixed in large flat tubs on the ground. Water was added and the hard work became harder still. Rarely used muscles began to ache and we began to despair that we’d finish the first day’s work before nightfall. The ground was so dry and the air so hot that the concrete threatened to set before we could work it. By mid-afternoon, we still seemed depressingly far from finishing the slab and workers were drooping with exhaustion. Frustration and despair hovered at the edges of our work party. We were accountants and teachers and students and retirees. We had soft hands and un-tempered muscles. Our minds were adapted for other work. What were we doing, for heaven’s sake, pretending we were skilled and work-hardened craftspeople?
But by God’s grace and the good humor of the family with and for whom we worked, we persevered and very late in the afternoon, the last ghastly tub of concrete had been mixed and added to a foundation that definitely seemed to favor function over form. It ‘tweren’t pretty, but it served the purpose.
That night back in camp we collapsed into our camp chairs around the fire almost too tired to trudge to the showers to wash the crud from our hair and skin. But the ache and the weariness was suffused with an awareness that was like an inner glow ... we had taken on a hard, risky ministry on behalf of people we’d never met ... and it felt to each one of us like the closest we’d ever been to walking in the servant footsteps of the one who had called us to that place and that work. As I have said many times, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so alive and whole as in those times of simple, humble service on behalf of other members of God’s beloved family.
“If you want to ‘save’ your life,” Jesus says, “you’ll best do so by ‘risking your life’ in my name.” (my paraphrase)
For three more days we toiled and by the end of that fourth day a simple, but safe and sturdy, home stood where once there had been only a bare patch of earth. For four days our sweat and tears had mingled with the building materials even as our lives had mingled with our new friends in Mexico. And as we made our way back “home”, we returned as changed people ... and we knew that something very important had happened on that worksite. We had “lived our faith” in ways that we are not always privileged to do. We had counted for something. We had stepped way outside of what was familiar and comfortable to serve someone in need. And we had done it in ways that felt very consistent with the person and the practice of Jesus.
Christian mission and service has many, many faces. Depending on who you are, Jesus can lead you into compassionate mission and service nearly anywhere and nearly anytime. There’s almost no place Jesus won’t lead us ... if we are willing to follow. Wherever in God’s creation there is suffering or pain or need or oppression or violence or conflict there is a potential invitation to “come follow me.” Sometimes service and mission we offer can be ways that are perfectly compatible with who we are ... our interests and our training and our strength. And sometimes ... sometimes the call comes to offer beyond what we might think we are capable of offering. Sometimes the call comes with risks ... risks to our personal security ... risks to our livelihood ... risks to relationships ... risks to the cozy and comfortable lives we have worked so hard to build for ourselves.
When Jan and I came out to California 20 years ago on my second visit prior to my being called as your pastor, we stayed in the apartment of a member of this church. The apartment was temporarily empty because this church member had heard and heeded a call to volunteer mission work in that place of enormous continuing need: Haiti. She was a nurse and her skills were desperately needed by our mission doctors at the L’Hospital le Bon Samaritaine (The Hospital of the Good Samaritan) ... she served for a season and then returned to us. And I’d like to think that her acceptance of her risky call to serve helped prepare us for future calls and challenges. It was her new husband’s teenage daughter who described her mission trip to Mexico with a Catholic youth group that inspired us and became our own call to risky ministry. And as I think more about it, I think she might have inspired someone else. Her step-son ... her husband’s other child, now a grown man and married, first fostered, then adopted three young children who needed a safe and loving home and needed to be in one home together. And they have found that safety and the love and that togetherness with Matt and Golden. And Matt and Golden are simply seeking to live out the selfless and risk-taking love that the one in whose name they follow modeled for them.
Jesus told a story about three slaves who were entrusted with fabulous wealth while their master departed on a long journey. And while two of the slaves decided to continue their master’s work as though he himself were about it, the third slave took the wealth he’d been given and buried it in the ground. When the master returned, finally, at the end of a long absence, the slaves were brought to account. The first two slaves had taken risks, yet doubled the master’s money to the master’s great joy and are taken fully into the master’s life and love and work. The third slave brings the wealth back to the master from the place he had buried it. He defends his actions by saying he knew how harsh and ruthless the master was and hands back all had been given to him—no less … but also no more.
As Matthew retells Jesus’ story, it is near the end of Jesus’ life ... his “departure” is imminent and his “return” is beyond human knowing. The church that has formed in Jesus’ absence must consider what it looks like to live faithfully in the name and the manner of Jesus while Jesus is away. The needs of the world around them are enormous and they remember well that Jesus never shied away from need of any kind, but faced it and ministered compassionately to it with every resource he had—with heart, mind, soul and strength. The church in Matthew’s time knows that it has been given a treasure beyond any reckoning in the love and grace and lingering Spirit of Jesus the Christ. The treasure is in their hands and their hearts and the only question is: What will they do with that treasure? How will they spend it? What risks will they take with the treasure they have been given? Jesus’ parable is used by Matthew to make plain that possess the loving goodness and risk-taking mercy of Jesus and NOT risk it on behalf the world that God loves is a tragedy of the highest order.
We know this about that ancient time: that the safest thing to do with a treasure was to bury it. Once buried, all risk was completely minimized. Nothing ventured ... nothing lost. But there’s even one more thing to know about the action of the third servant. There is a rabbinic law that says that is you bury property right after you receive it, you are no longer responsible for it. The third servant has completed divested himself of his master’s property and work and interests. And the end result of caring only for himself and refusing to offer himself in any way for his master’s work is, it turns out, a life of separation and loneliness and regret and despair. It’s a self-selected bleak future he has created by his refusal to risk himself on behalf of anything larger than himself. As William Sloane Coffin said famously--and might well have said about this man: “There is no smaller package in the world than a man all wrapped up in himself.”
As a fellow preacher notes: “the greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently.”
Early in my ministry at Shell Ridge, I was visiting in the home of an elderly member of this church. She was becoming quite frail and had lived for quite some time with a serious physical handicap. As I walked through her kitchen, I stole a glance at her refrigerator. Our refrigerators seem to be the place where our life values and philosophy gets tacked up and displayed—along with photos of every living friend and relative.
On Myrtle’s refrigerator, among the photos and tidbits of wisdom I noticed a yellowed scrap of paper occupying a prominent place. A title on the paper read: “Only a person who risks is free.” And here was what seemed particularly true and important to this frail soul who lived with a great deal of pain; here was the “life philosophy” that she put up as a reminder to herself every time she opened her refrigerator:
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and your dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing does nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live. Chained by their certitudes, they are a slave; they have forfeited their freedom. Only a person who risks is free.
Like my elderly friend, only you know the ministries to which God calls you ... only you know your fullest and deepest capacities for love ... only you know your inner strength and the gifts you’ve been given to use. But you do know. We do know. And we know that the capacity to love and serve, and suffer if we must, is a great treasure for a world in need. And it is a treasure we are called to put to risk while we also put it to use.
Jesus says to us: “Do you want to live fully and become free?” Then be my servant ... be my slave ... love and serve as I loved and served. And in so doing, your love and your service and your very life will be a treasure beyond any reckoning.