“Servant”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 18, 2015 – The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10:35-45

 

You can serve a tennis ball, or a volleyball, or a badminton shuttlecock. You can serve a warrant or a subpoena. You can serve communion. You can serve a meal. You can serve time. You can serve a master. You can serve a customer.

See, it turns out that Bob Dylan was right:

 

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

 

No matter who we are, no matter what we do for work or play, no matter how we spend our time or our money, the truth is that we all serve someone or something. We all spend our lives in the service of some goal, some purpose, some ideal. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord—and sometimes it’s not always obvious which one is which. But Jesus gives us a pretty clear instruction in today’s scripture reading.

He and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. They have been traveling around Galilee and the surrounding areas for some time now, healing the sick and feeding the hungry and teaching everyone who will listen about the kin-dom of God. Three times already, Jesus has explained to them that his path will not be an easy one, that his way is the way of suffering and self-sacrifice, of betrayal and rejection. It is the way of resurrection, yes—but first, it is the way of the cross.

The disciples have no ears to hear this truth. It does not fit with the kind of Messiah they had expected. It does not align with the kind of upward mobility for which they had hoped. It does not match the glorious future they had imagined.

The first time Jesus says it, Simon Peter rebukes him openly. The second time, the disciples do not understand but are afraid to ask Jesus what he means. The third time, which takes place immediately before the passage we heard this morning, they don’t respond at all. They just keep on their merry way, and then James and John come forward to cozy up to the teacher and make their request for glory and status.

Then, as now, downward mobility was not exactly encouraged. James and John’s father, Zebedee, surely did not imagine his boys growing up to be servants. He surely did not hope that his sons would become slaves. Don’t you think he imagined a bright future for them, just as most parents do for their children? Don’t you think Zebedee worked hard at his fishing nets so that his sons would have more opportunities than he had had? Don’t you think he did his level best to help them get ahead in life in whatever way they could?

Then, as now, many people aspired to a better life. And then, as now, what counted as a better life was often defined in terms of money, and power, and status, and all the material things that go along with it. A bigger house, a nicer car, a newer iPhone… a better-paying job, a more widely-known name, a more important-sounding title… All the things that make us look more like the people in the TV commercials and the magazine ads—radiant and glowing and well-dressed and well-equipped and, to all appearances, happy as can be.

Then, as now, there was nothing wrong with aspiration. There is nothing wrong with hoping that the future will be better than the past. In fact, this is a fundamental claim of our faith—that the way things are now is not the way they will be forever, that bad news is not the end of the story, that a new and better way is possible for us and for our world. But where we get into trouble is in defining what “better” means, and for whom “better” exists, and what that implies about what and whom we serve.

Because Jesus made it very clear. When James and John came to him asking for glory and status, and then the other disciples got angry because these two had tried to usurp a special position of privilege, Jesus said this: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” You can serve yourself, or you can serve others. We can serve ourselves, or we can serve God. We can be as the rulers of this world, who lord it over others tyrannically—or we can be servants of all.

And the mystery of the gospel is that in becoming servants of all, we find our own welfare not diminished, but advanced. In giving ourselves away, we find our hearts not deflated, but expanded. In pouring ourselves out in the service of others, we find our spirits not emptied, but filled.

If you were here last week, we heard Kat Bottieri share how meaningful and important service opportunities have been in her journey of faith. If you’ve heard from Brittany LaFleur, who’s away at college, then you know that she is finding all kinds of fulfillment in the various forms of community service in which she’s involved. If you’ve spoken to Bob Kirk or Bruce Lyman, or if you’ve been to the Community Kitchen on a Monday at noon, then you know about the joyful spirit that pervades the people who are volunteering their time and effort to serve our guests.

If you’ve ever been asked to help someone with something that you’re particularly good at, you know how good it con feel to share your gifts with others. If you’ve ever taught your child to play your favorite sport, or helped your student figure out a difficult problem, or repaired something for a friend, or connected a colleague with exactly the resource they needed, then you know how sharing your talents can itself feel like a gift. My guess is that if you asked any one of the people sitting in the pews around you, they would be able to tell you many such stories of times when serving others brought them joy, and purpose, and a greater connection with others, with themselves, and with God—times when what they gave turned out to be greatly exceeded by what they received.

As we enter this year’s stewardship season, when we make our financial pledges to support the church for the next year, it is my belief that the same is true for the ways in which we spend our money. It is my belief that if you stretch yourself to give in new or expanded ways, you will find this very same sense of greatness that comes from the choice to serve others above yourself. It has been my experience that giving away time and talent, while wonderful, is not the only way to know the joy of discipleship, and that giving away money is another such opportunity. It has been my experience that giving away my money is one way to ensure that I am not trapped in serving myself, but that my money and I together are serving God. It has been my experience that when I give more than I think I can sensibly afford, and when I do it off the top, from the first fruits instead of the leftovers, out of a sense of abundance and trust instead of a sense of obligation and scarcity, I find that I feel not poorer, but richer.

This is why stewardship season is not merely an awkward-but-necessary annual routine so we can keep ourselves running, but an opportunity for spiritual growth and even transformation. Because it is in giving our time, our talents, and our treasure—all the resources we possess, and our very selves in the bargain—it is in giving ourselves away that we come closest to the way of Jesus. It is in pouring our lives out as an offering that we discover the newness of life God has in store for us. It is in becoming servants of all that we find true greatness.

If that sounds pretty good to you, then say Amen.

 


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