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"Choosing to Serve" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on October 21, 2018 by Kathy Miller

Mark 10:35-45

“Choosing to Serve”

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

October 21, 2018

Well, here we are deep in election season yet again.  Although it seems like we are always in election season these days.  I know many of us are inundated with flyers, ads, people knocking on doors or calls during dinner.  It is hard to ignore the upcoming election, even if you wanted to.  Why all the frenzy?  Ultimately, it all comes down to power.  Power - who is going to control things, who is going to get to decide, who is going to “fix” everything. 

And it is easy to become cynical about it all, because there is a good argument to be made that no matter who wins, who is in power, there will just be more bickering, arguing, and little change.  Our low voter turnout is certainly in part because of this belief. Plenty of would-be voters look at the state of politics and see the perfect example of the saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

And yet, I’d be willing to bet most of us have, at one time or another, been inspired by someone running for office.  Maybe you didn’t leave everything behind to go campaign for them across the state or country, but you watched them on TV or listened to their speeches and had a glimmer of hope – maybe this person would be different.  Maybe this person really could bring about some change.  Maybe this person would use the power for good. 

And that’s what is happening to the disciples in our scripture today.  Now, of course, the disciples didn’t live in a democracy.  They’d never had any say in their long line of Kings and leaders.  There were stories of kings who were somewhat better than others, but there were plenty of examples of people in power using that power to gain more and more for themselves while oppressing everyone else.  But now, the disciples had a “candidate” they believed could change all that.  Jesus could be the new king.  James and John think Jesus is the one who will finally do things differently, finally be the King they’ve been hoping for. 

So, James and John come to angle for positions of glory.  We give them a hard time because we have the benefit of hindsight and we read how Jesus is trying to describe what is actually coming.  Just before today’s reading, Jesus had a third time, explicitly spelling out his coming condemnation including details of how they will mock, spit, and flog him before putting him to death.  Unable or unwilling to hear this, the disciples are still sure Jesus is going to be triumphant.  And for this, I’d like to give them a little credit.  They may not be listening, but they do truly believe he is the messiah, the savior they’ve been waiting for. The think Jesus can change their world.  They see a future where he takes Caesar’s place.  And they want to be a part of it.  And even with our benefit of hindsight, don’t we believe that if Jesus had wanted to be King, he could have been?  Don’t we believe Jesus had the power to upended the political structure of his time and become King if he wanted to?

So, let’s imagine for a minute that he did; that he did what the disciples wanted.  What if Jesus had gone to Jerusalem, called for an overthrow of the government, encouraged an uprising of the people.  Let’s even imagine he found a way to do it peacefully – very unlikely, but let’s imagine.  So, then Jesus would be King.  And he could teach and perform miracles and treat people well and fairly.  He could transform the way the economy worked so that there were no more poor or hungry.  He could free the slaves and make sure everyone knew more about God’s love.  Maybe in the greatest of all miracles, he could inspire everyone else from using their power negatively.   It would take a lot of miracles, but it would be amazing.  A utopia.  A paradise. 

And then he would die.  Even if he lived to a ripe old age, he was human and so eventually he would die.  And then what?  Would humanity be so changed by Jesus’ reign as King that we would still be living that way these 2000 years later?  Would Jesus’ reign as King – even a King who perfected an earthly paradise – carry on without him forever?  Could Jesus’ reigning as King, even as a perfect King, put an end to humanity’s unhealthy relationship to power forever?  Having seen power used well, could we all live that way generation after generation without anyone abusing it? 

Perhaps you’ll call me a pessimist, but I don’t think so.  At least not if we were still left with our free will.  Even Jesus’ disciples, the ones who knew him best, who walked this earth with him, were already angling for positions of more power for themselves before they’ve even reached Jerusalem, based only on the hope of triumph.

But with hindsight and if we really pay attention to what Jesus says here, it is plain that Jesus didn’t come to teach us how to wield power, even for good. What he really wants the disciples, and us, to understand is that the only way out of the cycle of power abuse is to step out of the power cycle.  The only way to create a world in which power does not run havoc over everyone and everything is to abdicate it and choose service instead. To choose to serve others instead of only our own desires. 

Jesus tells them, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We who follow Jesus are called to be a people of service. To work for the empowering of the Holy Spirit instead of the power of ourselves.  Because while it is easy to point at politicians or the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies and talk about how they have used their power poorly or wrongly, which there is no shortage of examples for, if we are walking in faith, we take a break from pointing fingers at other people and start to look closely at ourselves.  We need to ask ourselves, how do I use the power I have?  Because even if we are not counted among the people with great power to change the course of history, we would be wrong to assume we have no power at all. Some of us have power in our workplaces while others of us have power in our homes.  We all have power in our friendships and in our daily interactions with others.  Power looks like how we choose if we will use or manipulate, bully or pressure others to do what we want.  We have power in the way we use our money and resources and education based on who we share them with. Many choices we make each day come down to whether we are choosing service to others or power over them. Sometimes the distinction between power and service is very clear.  But often, understanding our motivations is really important because what can look like choosing service can actually be about power. 

Quaker author Richard Foster distinguishes between what is true service and what may be a disguised play for power by using the terms true service and self-righteous service.  He says, “Self-righteous service comes through human effort. True service comes through relationship with the Divine. Self-righteous service is impressed with the “big deal” and is highly concerned with results. True service finds it hard to distinguish the small from the large. It is not concerned with results but delights in the service itself. Self-righteous service is temporary, affected by moods and whims. True service is a lifestyle, ministering because there is a need. Self-righteous service requires external rewards. True service rests contented in hiddenness. … Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve, fractures community, and puts others into debt or obligation. True service is indiscriminate in its ministry and builds community, healing and drawing people together.”[1]

Jesus is calling us to true service.  Service which does not seek reward or accolades; service which does not try to control or manipulate others; service which is patient, quiet, and consistent.  This is service with God in mind, not ourselves.  

But, another important distinction is that true “service to others is also not the same as being a doormat, disavowing one’s own authority, or allowing oneself to be manipulated. Serving means being obedient to what God is calling you to be and do and making yourself available to be used as God’s instrument.”[2]

The disciples wanted to ride Jesus’ coattails into a place of glory and privilege, when Jesus is trying to get them to understand that to follow him is to be led into more and more humbleness where your gifts and talents can offer love and grace to others. 

There’s no perfect road map for growing in the ability to choose true service over power.  But there are some tried and true ways. 

One way is to find the time and space to get quiet with God. It is only in the quiet with God that we can ask and listen for answers to questions like: “who am I currently serving with my life?  Who would God like me to serve? What am I doing out of selfish motives or where is my ego running amok? What gifts is God asking me to use today?”  Sometimes we know the answer to these questions already and just need a little space to acknowledge it.  Sometimes we need to sit in the silence until God points us to what we need to be examining.  But a life without quiet with God is almost always one that ends up relying too much on our own ego and not enough on God.  Our own ego is rarely primarily interested in true service. 

The other thing we need to help us choose true service over power is practice --opportunities to serve.  Jesus suggested things like: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or imprisoned, welcoming the stranger. It’s a cliché to talk about how people who serve others often come away feeling as though they gained more than they gave, but being a cliché doesn’t make it any less true.  When we make time to serve in concrete, obvious ways, it almost always helps us to better examine how we serve in other ways – in our relationships, with our money and resources. 

These are not new suggestions to those of you who are long-time church attendees.  This should not be any great revelation – to get quiet with God and to serve others.  But, they remain a constant challenge to many of us.  As much as we’ve heard it, I don’t imagine anyone here today thinks they are doing this perfectly well.  So, we come to this sanctuary to be reminded.  We come to be with others who are working towards this goal.  We come to be held accountable and to find opportunities to practice these things. 

So, I invite you to consider the relationship in your life between power and service.  I invite you to ask yourselves the important questions about how you are choosing to serve.  I invite you to find some quiet with God and an opportunity to serve in an obvious way.  And my hope is that Covenant will always be a place where we can practice serving others and each other as much as possible, not for our glory, not for exalted positions in heaven, but as those who desire to be close to Jesus now and forever. Amen.



[1] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, pp. 132–133.

 

[2] Vicki Curtiss sermon

 
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