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Knowing Our Place
October 18, 2015
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark:
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Jesus tells his closest followers – for the third time – that this journey to Jerusalem will lead to his arrest and death. And they – for the third time – don’t quite get it.
James and John completely ignore the whole “beaten and executed” bit and leap right to the seating chart of the Messianic banquet. Their ten colleagues are annoyed with the brothers – not for failing to support Jesus in his coming travail, but for trying to grab the best spots for themselves before the others have had a chance to submit their own requests.
It’s so tempting when we read this passage to tsk-tsk over the brothers’ unseemly ambition. To shake our heads at this jostling for advantage among the disciples. To smile with wry superiority about the incredible misunderstanding demonstrated by those who – for goodness’ sake – ought to know better because – for pete’s sake – they’ve been with Jesus for years now.
But Jesus doesn’t tsk-tsk or shake his head or smile wryly. He treats the brothers’ ambition and the disciples’ misunderstanding as worthy of redemption and gathers them around for yet another lesson in the nature and meaning of following him.
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
So – now we may be tempted to inch a bit in the disciples’ direction; to move ever so slightly away from such an odd and unappealing prospect.
Servant? Slave? What can you possibly mean by that, Jesus?
As citizens of a culture that places a sinfully high value on autonomy; that not only believes but reveres the myth of the self-made person, we find a lot not to like in this teaching. The concept of “servant and slave of all” seems bad all around. As success-oriented, can-do Americans, we’re certainly encouraged to avoid being servants, but we’re also conditioned away from accepting service or help. Consequently, we live within and perpetuate systems which push aside and ignore and reject and distort this image of discipleship.
But Jesus is pretty clear. He sets the expectation and he provides the model – himself. We are to be servant of all as Jesus has been servant of all.
Our culturally influenced definition of servanthood as subservient and self-effacing and self-denying and altogether weak and woeful couldn’t be further from the reality of Jesus. Jesus serves others out of the strength of who he is, the conviction of his belovedness. He serves others not out of coercion or requirement or indebtedness, and never from a position of inferiority. Serving others doesn’t erase Jesus’ identity, but reveals it.
This is our model for how to become great by becoming a servant.
Jesus isn’t exhorting the disciples – or us – to engage in a race to the bottom – to determine who can be most subservient, most self-effacing, most servile. Discipleship isn’t a call to relegate ourselves to the lowest rung on the ladder of power. It’s a call to put aside the ladder altogether, for a ladder of power has no place in the covenant community. A ladder by design establishes a hierarchy in which some “lord it over others.” But it is not to be so among us; there is to be no lording it over others either as a bullying tyrant at the top of the ladder or as an “Oh, look, I’ve given up everything for you” martyr at the bottom.
Discipleship as service moves us away from hierarchy toward mutuality. It eliminates levels and gathers us to stand together on the solid ground of Christ, rather than endlessly ascending and descending the ladder of success or of piety or any ladder at all.
And looking to Jesus as our model for servant discipleship frees us from the misconception that becoming servant of all requires us to diminish or relinquish our very real gifts and strengths, because it is those very gifts and strengths which allow us to effectively serve one another and God’s kingdom.
Among the Gentiles, skills and abilities, advantages and biases separate the leaders from the led; elevate some at the expense of others and are means of superiority by which the favored and fortunate exploit and oppress the despised.
Jesus acknowledges this reality and tells his followers it is not to remain their reality.
“But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
In this congregation of accomplished, capable leaders, those words would be a tough sell without the following verse to tie our understanding of such service to the life and ministry of Jesus.
With Jesus as our servant model, we realize we are called to live into the fullest possible expression of our identities as beloved, gifted, called children of God. We are called to nurture community rather than ambition. To celebrate interdependence rather than self-sufficiency. To be servants of one another in a variety of ways. We are never called to be less than who God has created us to be.
If you have the gift of discernment, please say “yes” when you’re invited to become a Ruling Elder, not so you can lord it over the congregation, but so you can lead us in faithful expressions of our congregational life. If you have the gift of compassion, please say “yes” to being a Deacon, not so you can be listed on the church’s website, but so you can be the hands and heart of Christ to those who need a meal or a hug. If you have the gift of hospitality, please say “yes” to hosting a seasonal meal, not to impress guests with the grandeur of your home or the beauty of your décor, but to offer a welcome and a place of warm conviviality. If you have the gift of teaching, please say “yes” to teaching a Sunday school class, or leading a Bridge to Worship lesson or assisting with the UKirk Bible Study; not to dazzle with your erudition, but to encourage and support your brothers and sisters
Whatever your gift of leadership – and each of you has such a gift – use it to lead. Being servant of all doesn’t mean denying the community your leadership. It means leading from among rather than from above. We are with one another, in covenantal relationship, leading and being led as we are called. Each serves. Each is served. All participate fully in a communal life that allows and promotes the flourishing of all.
For those of us who follow Jesus – that is how it is to be among us.