PROPER 24 B
Today we arrive at the very heart of the Gospel according to Jesus – the demand that we become servants.
Let me do a quick recap of events to set the context for this lesson. Jesus and his disciples, after three years of ministry in Galilee and surrounding areas, are on their way to Jerusalem for Passover. In the course of this trip there are three times when Jesus tells his disciples what is going to happen – that he will be killed and rise again. Each time they either ignore or misunderstand what he says.
The first time Peter takes Jesus aside and attempts to rebuke him. Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Then he tells Peter that he is thinking as men do, not as God does.
The second time, the disciples fall to arguing among themselves about who is the greatest among them. Jesus tells them “if anyone wishes to be first he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
Today we see what happens the third time. Jesus says to the disciples, “Behold, 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 and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise.”
Immediately James and John ask Jesus to give them the places of honor – ahead of the other disciples. “Hey, Boss, if you’re going to leave us soon can you at least promise us the top spots in heaven?”
Clearly, James and John don’t listen any better than we do. So once more Jesus gathers the disciples together to explain. “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.”
Jesus then heals the blind man, Bartemaeus, and they enter Jerusalem for the passion week. The trip to Jerusalem starts and ends with healings of physical blindness, highlighting the blindness of the disciples, which seems much harder to cure.
The disciples continue to look at the world in the way of men of the world – an eye for an eye, look out for #1, the Messiah will destroy the Romans. Meanwhile Jesus is preaching the way of peace over war, the way of nonviolence over violence, and the way of servanthood over the way of domination.
When we look at what Jesus taught in today’s lesson and throughout the Gospels, it’s hard to imagine how the church could justify, much less sponsor, such endeavors as the crusades, the inquisition, slavery, witch hunts, anti-Semitism, racism, —and the list goes on.
It’s no wonder then that it’s hard for us to get the message too. What Jesus teaches is still counter-cultural. It doesn’t match the values of the culture around us. Our culture says the same kinds of things the disciples thought, perhaps even more so, since the idea of rugged individualism is embedded in the American dream. Add to that the conviction of American exceptionalism and you have a perfect storm of ‘Us against THEM.’
Granted, it is difficult to serve people who don’t serve back. Clearly, Jesus’ teaching works best when everyone follows it, but the action and the example has to start somewhere – which means to me that we are called to serve others no matter how they behave. How else can we teach new ways of being and seeing?
Twelve years ago I quoted to you all the lyrics of a song by Peter Mayer called The String. This time I’ll just quote a few, because they seem to explain so well how we are all related, which is why we are called to serve each other.
I have found a hole in the center of the heart
Through which a thread goes, enters and departs
It’s fastened in the middle to inside of me
From where it then continues through the heart of
Everything’s connected like peas are in a pod
Or beads upon a necklace, decorating God
Going around the rosy, we’re all in the ring
Hand in hand, like a strand through the heart of everything.
Think about this image of a physical connection between each of us and everyone else – even the inanimate creation. It seems to me that this is an apt metaphor for the Holy Spirit.
Unlike the disciples, unlike us most of the time, Pete Mayer seems to “get it.” All of God’s creation is interconnected. When we serve others we are, in a sense, serving ourselves. This might explain why so many volunteers claim to get more out of their service than they put in. When we help, heal, love, or embrace another, we are serving all of creation and helping more than just the person we serve.
Think about this, just in the context of this small community where we live. Suppose some day I decide to make a choice for the dark side – to lie about a friend, to seek revenge for some wrong done to me, maybe to embezzle funds from my employer. My actions probably would not make a tree fall in the rain forest, but the ripples would certainly be felt around this town.
I believe kindness and service do exactly the same thing, having a ripple effect. Sadly they don’t get as much attention as the negative ones. Look and listen this week for the ripples of kindness and service around town and at home. Then tell someone about it. Point it out. We can all help to keep the teaching of Jesus alive. And we needn’t preach or even mention Jesus to do it! AMEN