10/21/18 Homily by Sarah Brock, postulant for Holy Orders
To Serve and to be Served
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
I can picture Jesus bracing himself at these words, preparing to hear what will come next. With a set-up like this, it’s hard to imagine anything good will follow. Sure enough, James and John continue on, proving that they still just don’t get it.
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
I can hear Jesus responding, Guys, you clearly have no idea what you’re asking! So, maybe I paraphrased a little.
This interaction is part three in a series of journies over the past several weeks that all follow a similar pattern: Jesus takes his disciples aside on the road and tries to tell them something about who he is, making a prediction about the coming passion. The disciples just don’t get it and Jesus patiently teaches them about discipleship, giving them tools for the days to come when he’s no longer physically with them.
- A few weeks ago we heard the story of their trip to Cesarea Phillipi. Along the way, Jesus speaks of how he will suffer, be rejected, killed, and rise after three days. Peter responds by rebuking him and Jesus commands his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.
- Then we heard the story of their walk to Capernaum when Jesus again talks of how he will be delivered, killed, and will rise after three days. This time, the disciples are afraid to ask questions and instead spend the rest of the journey arguing over who is the greatest. Jesus teaches them that the last will be first and to welcome him by welcoming children in his name.
- Today, we pick up just after Jesus tells his disciples how he will be delivered, condemned, mocked, flogged, killed, and will rise after three days. This time they are on the road to Jerusalem and the stakes are much higher. The events that Jesus predicts are quickly drawing closer. And, once again, the disciples just don’t get it. James and John display epic insensitivity by treating Jesus like a genie in a bottle, asking for power and glory. But, even as he is quickly running out of time, Jesus again takes the opportunity to teach about discipleship.
“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.”
At first glance, this seems pretty simple and straight forward: seek always to serve others and not to be served. Sounds pretty easy- especially in a place like this where there are so many opportunities to serve others. We got this! But, like most of Jesus’ teachings, it’s a bit more complicated and challenging.
Jesus succinctly turns the common power dynamic in society on it’s head, inviting the Twelve, and us, to seek a different form of glory through the power of reciprocal relationship.
While the dynamic of servant and master would’ve been a common cultural understanding of servanthood at the time, this is not the form that Jesus demonstrates through his life. Instead, Jesus models a form of servanthood that is about building dynamic relationships, especially with individuals we don’t instinctively view as our peers. He constantly meets people where they are- physically and spiritually, inviting some to follow him, sharing meals with others, healing many, while both teaching and learning from those he meets in his travels.
It’s been my experience that this is the form of service that many of us seek and find most rewarding. Opportunities to express our gratitude for all that we have by helping a group we view as less fortunate. We view our service to others as an expression of gratitude and humility rather than a means to acquire power and glory. We don’t want to acknowledge how our privilege allows us to serve in this way. It’s easy to associate glory with the attributes of royalty- wealth and political capital. It can be much more difficult to see the glory in offering a cup of hot coffee on a cold day. In our cultural context, it’s easier to see service as a form of humility and much more difficult to see it as a form of power.
This is one of the ways that working with Common Cathedral has made me more aware of my own privilege. Many of our community members who experience chronic homelessness express a deep gratitude just for the opportunity to serve others in some way. These individuals who are typically on the receiving end of such ministries revel in the chance to help others. I see them experience a power and a glory in preparing food for their peers at our weekday programs or in organizing their teams of youth at our monthly overnight program or in serving communion at Sunday worship.
But, the service that Jesus demonstrates for us is about so much more than giving material goods out of our abundance to someone in need. Being in relationship and building community, as we see Jesus doing throughout his ministry, requires a deeper knowledge of others. To know something about who they are and what they actually need. To let them know something about who we are and what it is we need. Jesus doesn’t go around feeding people who aren’t hungry or healing people who are well. He frequently asks or is told what the need is before he acts.
Likewise, my internship relationships have taught me how important it is to first learn from a community before trying to serve in and with them.
And, it is these relationships that have helped me to learn something else about service that seems much less obvious in Jesus’ lesson to his disciples, although it is evident in his own ministry. A dynamic relationship of service also requires a willingness to be served. There are moments in Jesus’ life where service means letting someone else serve him. You may recall the story of the woman who anoints his feet with oil in the home of Simon the leper. When others protest that the oil could’ve been used to aid the poor, Jesus defends her actions.
I find it much more uncomfortable in most circumstances to be served than to be the helper. Perhaps, it is also true for you. This is always made very clear to me when it comes time for the foot washing during our Maundy Thursday service here. I am much more comfortable washing the feet of others than having my own washed. It requires a good deal of vulnerability and humility both to ask for and accept help when we need it. But, this experience of accepting assistance is not only a critical part of being in a mutual relationship, it ultimately expands our capacity for empathy and deepens our relationships.
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Taken in the context of Jesus’ life and example, this command to seek glory through service invites all of us to be brave in our own way. Some of us are invited to boldly engage in service that not only meets a need, but draws us into relationship with others. Some of us are invited to courageously accept service from someone else, whether it is requested or simply offered. All of us are invited to seek glory not by lording over others, but in engaging in dynamic relationships as disciples of Jesus.
Although this invitation is challenging and draws us out of our comfort zones. I find comfort in the relationship that Jesus has with the Twelve. This is the third time in Mark’s gospel that the disciples respond to Jesus predictions about his death and resurrection with insensitive, egotistical remarks. “Grant us to sit… in your glory.” Even after this third instance of missing the point, even after they screw it up once again, even as they are almost to Jerusalem, Jesus patiently gives them yet another chance to get it. So it’s ok to screw it up as we seek to open up just a little bit more to our neighbors, bravely learning how to both serve and be served as little by little we get better at being in relationship with one another.