Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Gift of Cleaning Toilets

So everyone, here's the gist of tomorrow's sermon. Readings are 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 and Romans 12:1-13.

But first, a story about Mohandas Gandhi.  In the 1930s and 1940s if you wanted to do anything in the Indian independence movement it was important to have Gandhi's blessing. So when Shriman Narayan returned to India from England in the early 1930s with a PhD in Economics and a head full of schemes for economic reform, he went to visit Gandhi in his ashram.  He explained his ideas and plans and asked Gandhi for his blessing.  Gandhi, however, said that first he wanted Narayan to clean the ashram toilets.

This was not a pleasant job. The toilets were not water closets they were latrines, and cleaning them involved a shovel and bucket. Narayan had probably never done it before. Traditional Hindu society has a strict caste system. Higher caste people, like Gandhi and Narayan, do important things like running the government and trading. Lower castes do less important things. The dirty and demeaning jobs, like toilet cleaning were done by "untouchables", people at the bottom end of the social scale who high cast people would hardly even notice.

Nonetheless, Narayan went off and did as he was asked. The next day he went back to see Gandhi again. "I've cleaned the latrines as you asked," he said, "now can I have your blessing?" Gandhi replied, "You will get my blessings only when you satisfy me that you are capable of cleaning toilets with the same enthusiasm as changing the economy of the country.”

All of which is very relevant to the subject of my bible readings, which is that thorny old subject of spiritual gifts. Here's the first,the opening paragraphs of 1 Corinthians.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Often when we think about spiritual gifts we dive straight into the lists of gifts and start to think about what ours might be.  However, this passage is a much better place to start because it tells you how these gifts fit into the bigger picture of God's calling of his church.  The first point is that we are "sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints".  Saints are those who are sanctified, and to be sanctified is to be set apart for some particular use.

Ancient Jews were big on ritual purity and this involved a lot of washing - before meals, when entering the house after being out for the day, before praying or visiting the synagogue, etc.  The water containers used for this washing were different from those used for drinking out of or other uses - they were set apart, or sanctified, for this particular use.  This did not mean there was anything special about them in themselves, or that they were any better than the other containers.  It was just that this is what they were for.  We're the same - we are set apart by God for a particular use - to further his kingdom.  We are not better than other people, we've just been given a particular job.

So then, to fit us for this job God has done three things.  First, he has given us his grace through Christ Jesus.  I don't want to go into this subject in detail or we'll be here all day.  The short version is, he has sent us Jesus to bring us to himself, to show us God's love and to call us to repentance so we can start to live in the light of that love.  We have heard and answered Jesus' call, and so here we are.

The second is, he has given us all the gifts we need for this job.  The word we translate as "spiritual gifts" is the Greek charismata which means grace, gifts or favours given freely without us deserving them.  It is used very broadly in the New Testament to describe the various things God has given us, from the gifts of eternal life and forgiveness to the specific gifts he gives each of us to help us in our work.  He assures the Corinthians that they "are not lacking any spiritual gift" - they have all they need to do what he has called them to do, and to be what he has called then to be. 

Finally he gives us reassurance that he is with us and will not abandon us: "He will also strengthen you to the end....God is faithful".  We are not left to labour alone.

This is all very well but quite theoretical.  To bring it down to a more practical level, we move on to Romans 12:1-13.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers

The first piece of practical instruction Paul gives to us here is that we should "Present our bodies as a living sacrifice" and that we should "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of (our) minds". To understand this metaphor, we need to get our minds into what ancient religious sacrifice was all about.

Virtually all ancient religions had some kind of sacrifice as a key element of their practice. The way it worked was this - people would generally go about their daily life as they chose. However, when significant things happened - a planned journey, a major business deal, a sickness in the family or whatever - they would seek help or relief from their god or goddess. They would take something - usually an animal - to the temple or shrine where it would be killed before the god as a gift.  The gift having been given and the request for the god's aid made, the person would then go back to their life as before.

We don't do sacrifice these days but often we do something similar.  We do our religious duty from time to time - going to church, giving thanks at meals, praying before we go to bed, or whatever - and then we get on with out lives. This is what it means to be "conformed to this world". Paul is asking more of his readers. For him, our worship does not consist of bringing something external to God and then leaving again, it consists of giving God the gift of ourselves. We bring ourselves to God, and if we give our worship to him we can't leave unchanged, we have to be transformed, devoting ourselves to God's work.

I believe this teaching applies to everything we do - our work, our family life, our relations with our neighbours, our politics, all should be transformed in this way.  However, in this passage Paul applies it specifically to the life of the church, to the way we function as a community.  The key image he uses is of the church as a body.  "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another."

There are two dangers we face in the life of the church. The first is the danger of hierarchical thinking.  We are often tempted to see some gifts and roles as more important or more prestigious than others. We idolise people who have those roles (especially teachers and preachers) and strive after them ourselves, so that the church becomes a vehicle for ambition. At the same time we despise other roles in the church - like cleaning the toilets - and disregard those who do them. For some of us, this may mean that the church becomes a kind of competition. For others it may make us passive - we are not leaders or important people, so we can just leave it up to someone else.

The opposite danger - and this is a particular one for us Western Protestants - is the danger of individualism. We often see ourselves as isolated individuals, responsible only to God. God has given us particular gifts and we are determined to use them as we see fit. If that doesn't suit other people that's their problem. Or we may feel ourselves to be carrying the entire burden of the church on our shoulders, and burn ourselves out trying to make everything work as we believe it should.

The image of the body shows us how to avoid both of these traps.  A body requires many different parts, all performing different functions, to work properly. Although superficially we may value our heads more than our bums, we need both to survive.  The church is the same. For it to be healthy it needs all of us doing our parts.

Now when people talk about this passage and its counterparts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 they often dive into the detail of the lists of individual gifts - in this list, prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading and showing compassion. This subject is fascinating but I think it's beside the point. Whenever Paul lists a series of gifts the list is different. This says to me that the lists are not a catalogue, they are examples used for illustration.  The important point is not what the individual gifts are, but how we use them.

He has two key things to say about this. First, whatever we do, we should do wholeheartedly, to the best of our ability. Secondly, all our actions and our use of our gifts should be motivated by love - "love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour." These two things go together. No-one much enjoys cleaning toilets and it its easy to do it in a half-hearted and resentful manner. However, if we remember that this act, even though it may not seem so, is an act of love for those around us, we will do it diligently. It will also be made much easier if the rest of the church honours its toilet cleaners as much as its preachers, instead of ignoring them and pretending they are not there.

So in closing, let me tell you another toilet cleaning story.  When I was young the church youth groups I was a part of used to often have retreats up on Mt Tamborine. We would go up there for a weekend, spend time in Bible Study and prayer and have a lot of fun together. Then at the end of each retreat would come the clean-up. All the campers would be asked to volunteer to help clean up various areas of the site before we left. The toilets, of course, were the least popular job. Then one camp, a couple of us hit on the idea that we should just volunteer for the toilets right up front and get that out of the way. We made a bit of a show of it, jumping in early as if the job was a prize we coveted.

I'm not claiming that we did this because we were hugely spiritual.  We were adolescent males and we were showing off.  But thing was, once we had taken that step we found that doing the toilets at the end of each retreat was something we enjoyed and looked forward to.  Did we discover that cleaning toilets is actually fun?  No we didn't, it remained a smelly and unglamorous task.  What we discovered is that doing things with other people can be fun, even if the things you do are not that pleasant in themselves. We were not enjoying cleaning the toilets, we were enjoying cleaning the toilets together.

Isn't that the same in all our areas of service.  If we feel that we are left on our own with a thankless unwanted task, whether it's preaching, playing music, managing the finances or making supper, it will be a burden. Yet if we get to do something in an environment of love with our brothers and sisters sharing the load together, and if others encourage us and get joy from our service, then it's fun and the burden becomes lighter than air. This is what the church, Christ's body, should be like. This is what we should pray for.
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