The Simple Kingdom: What Constitutes "Ministry" to the Needy?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The simplicity of the kingdom is in the small stuff...the day-to-day things that need to get done...the not-so-glamorous tasks and to-do's that require attention, time, and even money.  We often mistake the "kingdom" ministry with big stuff...you know..."ministry."  Yet when asked what that looks like, people suddenly come to realize that it's so...

...well...

...vague.

Is it planning an event, like the marriage night we are having in two weeks?  Or the men's retreat we are publicizing right now for March?  How about the facilitating of a small group, leading a discussion, or even preparing to teach and preach?  Is that what "ministry" is?

Maybe it's coordinating child-care for various events and functions.  Or maybe it's facilitating worship on a Sunday morning.  You know what I'm talking about.  "Big" stuff, like that.

But when you break this "big" stuff down into actually getting it done, the "magic" of ministry is actually seen to lie in the "little" stuff, like administration, phone calls, emails, practicing and praying together, mailing postcard reminders, creating publicity fliers, managing a web page, doing write-ups, etc.  When it comes right down to it, "ministry" can seem vague...that is, until we stop being more in love with the idea of ministry than actually doing ministry.

In the simple kingdom of Jesus, ministry IS in the small stuff.  It's in the stuff Jesus talked about to the sheep and goats in Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving something to drink to the thirsty, giving or buying clothes for the naked, visiting and praying for sick people, visiting and befriending jailbirds and prisoners, etc.  When judgment day comes, the "small" stuff is what it all will come down to for us.  Notice the "big" stuff was what the goats were enamored with.  In Matthew 7 they were the ones out prophesying, doing demonic deliverances, and working miracles.  Not that these things are bad.  Not at all.  In fact they are the very "stuff" of ministry itself, per Jesus' command to His disciples. 

But the contrast Matthew wants to present in Jesus' two explanations about the final judgment should be clear enough to us all: Jesus cares more about the "small" stuff than the "big" stuff.  His sheep are the ones doing the servant-oriented "stuff" of ministry.  In Jesus' rebuke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23, His meaning about the "stuff" could not be any more clear:  "The greatest among you should be your servant" (v. 11).  Then, two chapters later in 25, right before the sheep and goats story I just mentioned, Jesus explains the nature of the kind of servant-sheep who follows Him:  "Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master" (vv. 21, 23).  

Jesus Himself is the supreme example of this whole servant imagery, for as He explained in Matthew 20:28: "the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve..."  And in Luke's gospel He says, "But I am among you as the one who serves," comparing Himself and therefore His ministry to that of the Gentiles and the way they exercise authority and do "stuff."

Perhaps the greatest story that reflects what this "stuff" of ministry looks like is found in John 13, where Jesus washes the stinky feet of His disciples.  Remember...there were no shoes back then, and therefore no "odor-eater" inserts, or baking soda, or foot powder, and all the stuff we use to make our feet smell good today.  Nor were there pedicures...at least I don't think so.  But even if there were, I don't think a Jewish male would have been caught dead in a pedicure shop, even if he did want to brush up on his Vietnamese.

Feet two thousand years ago were just as stinky as they are today.  I try to imagine feet back then smelling like my 12 year old son's feet, or my 10 year old daughter's feet, both of whom have a habit of wearing shoes without socks, which turns out rather wretched smelling by afternoon time...especially in the summer...and in the hot car...on a long drive home.  

Or, I try to imagine feet then like the feet of a homeless man named Robert who came to my house last year looking for work to make money to get a bus ticket home.  He was limping all around my neighborhood, and then stopped by one day to see me.  I was working out in my yard.  I told him he was welcome to help me in the yard and I'd give him $10 for an hour's worth of work.  Pretty fair.  

He worked a bit, then stopped, and complained of his foot.  I asked to take a look at it.  He slowly took of the shoe, wincing in pain.  Then he rolled off his sock.  "Dear Lord," I thought.  The smell and the site was nauseating.  He had some serious blisters boiling over and it was just plain nasty.  

So we did what Jesus did.  We commenced to washing feet.  My 12 year old (the one who could most relate to the smell, of course), went and got a first-aid kit, a bowl of warm water, and rags...lots of 'em...ones we'd never, ever wash and keep, of course.

Robert responded to us like the disciple Peter did to Jesus:  "Lord, do you wash my feet?"  Jesus prevailed over Peter's pride.  My son and I were not so lucky.  He washed his own foot.  But he did let us dress it for him with ointment, bandages, and such.  Then we gave him a fresh, less-rancorous pair of socks, sprinkled a little baking soda in the shoes to kill the odor, and let him put his foot up for a while to get some air.  He didn't work anymore.  I couldn't blame him.  I wouldn't either.  So I gave him the money anyway, after he had lunch with us on the front porch.  

This is the "little stuff" of ministry that Jesus is talking about.  This is the stuff the simple kingdom is all about.  We prayed for Robert's foot that God would heal it.  But only after being faithful in the "little things", like Jesus said.  Goats pray for healing and deliverance from demons.  Sheep do that stuff after smaller acts of ministry and kindness have been ministered.   They feed the hungry demon-possessed man, and clothe him, and give him something to drink, and visit him in jail.  Sheep pray for people to be healed after we have been the "Good Samaritan" to them, taking them to the doctor in our car, paying for their visit, paying for the medicine, and all the same stuff the "Good Samaritan" did to that guy who got beat-up by thugs on his way to work one day (Luke 10:25-37).

The combination of these things (what the goats only did, and everything the sheep did) is what constitutes real "ministry."  Only doing the little stuff kind of just makes us a clinician or nurse.  Only doing the big stuff just makes us arrogant.  Doing the little stuff and the big stuff together, preferably in that order, seems to be a simple-kingdom concept of integrity.  It states publicly in actions of mercy and kindness that we fervently and genuinely love these people as human beings first and foremost...images of God...and that we care about the whole person, therefore.  

We don't just care about their "big" needs like healing and deliverance and prophetic words, because they can just take that stuff and leave it.  And we don't just care about their "little" needs like foot-care and clothes and food, because they can just take that and leave it.  No, we care about everything, and that's not something a needy person can easily run away from.  It sort of puts them in between our bookends of care, doesn't it?  They know we are not just after making a ministry name for ourselves when we do "big" stuff...cause that's what "big" name people generally tend to do with the needy.  And they also know that we are not just after making our consciences feel better by giving them a little food and money and clothes...cause that's what "charity" givers tend to do with the needy.

Sheep, however, care for the whole needy person...heart and soul and body.  They occupy themselves with the little stuff that makes the most difference in life when it comes right down to it.  Like my precious wife who text-messaged me one day about a homeless man who was living with us.  He came out in his dingy underwear to show her how dingy his underwear was.  We never figured out why, cause he certainly wasn't the type to make advances.  Evidently, it was a simple as him needing to have 'em washed, and needing a few new pair, too.  So what does the wife-of-my-youth do in a case like that?  

The simplicity of the kingdom told her:  "Pssst.  Holy Spirit to Sherri.  Just wash 'em...after he clads himself commando-style in something else...and then take him out to get some new drawers."  That's pretty much all you can do, right?  And that's the little stuff.  And she did it.  And that's why she's a sheep for whom Jesus has prepared heaven before the creation of the world, where she will enter into the joy of her master.

Will nasty, rancorous feet and dingy-drawered old men shock you to freakin' death?  Absolutely.  But the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal body.  I read that promise in Romans 8 one day.  Essentially we give ourselves over to death everyday, knowing that the life of Jesus will raise us up...both emotionally, mentally, and of course physically one day.  I read that promise in 2 Corinthians 4:11.  Yeah, it'll shock you to death.  But Jesus can raise you up...and pretty quickly from what my wife tells me.  We both thanked Jesus we were dealing with boxers and not "tighty-whities"...or whatever color "dingy" is.  I'll defer to her color expertise.

Don't sweat the small stuff.  Embrace it.  Welcome it.  Wrap the towel around you, just like Jesus, and dig into the "small" stuff of ministry and see Jesus - the greatest servant in history - meet you there in power and joy.

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