Grace and Peace to you, my sisters and brothers, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever listened to people who volunteer on a regular basis describe their experience of being in service? It’s really wonderful. People who have made a commitment to serving others almost universally talk about their decision with phrases like, “it’s the highlight of my week,” or “I get so much more out of it than I put in.”
Perhaps you’ve had this experience yourself at the end of a long day of work, or an afternoon of running errands, and you remember that you volunteered to serve a meal like some of us did this past week with The Night Ministry, or to spend the evening with the Boy Scouts, as Bill does most weeks, something like that. You’re tired and cranky and it seems like there are just more important things to do. But some ancient, reflexive guilt mechanism kicks in and you find yourself working through traffic for the fourth or fifth time that day.
There is often a moment of disorientation when you arrive in situations like these. People are moving at a different pace, and you aren’t always sure how to help, or why you’re even needed. It looks like things would run just fine without you. But you take your place in the serving line, or find a book and invite a young person to read with you, and quickly you’re in the rhythm of the place. Time moves at a different pace, and soon the evening is past. Families return to their homes. You say your goodbyes and get back in the car.
Now many, if not most, times you undergo recompression the minute you’re behind the steering wheel. Stop at the gas station, pick up milk, call sister, fold laundry, review notes for tomorrow’s meeting, check in with parents, brush teeth, set alarm. The press of important things fills your mind even before you turn the key in the ignition. But there are moments of grace that sometimes fill the space after a moment of service when you can notice that you aren’t moving as quickly. Moments when you feel more human. You think back to your hesitations about making the commitment to serve, and you think, “that was silly. I feel so much better now.” The act of ministry, taken on dutifully, transformed into a ministry to you. A chance to remember how delightful it is to give yourself to another person for something better than money. A chance to give yourself to another person for the sake of love.
This is the kind of reevaluation Jesus prompts in today’s gospel reading. Already in their travels Jesus has been named by Peter as the Messiah and revealed at the Transfiguration. He has performed miracles of healing and drawn crowds by his teaching, and once already he has declared that his path leads to the cross. Now, as Jesus and his friends wander along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, he tells them something they do not want to hear, that he is going to be betrayed, that he is going to die, and that three days later he will rise again. Really, there’s no quicker way to kill a conversation than to drop a bomb like that.
So the disciples do what I think I would do in a situation like that. They pretend not to have heard a thing he said, and they go back to more interesting conversations, like which one of them is the greatest.
When I was in seminary we had a bizarre social custom of counting and comparing our reading loads with friends. Whether at dinner or meeting at the mailboxes, our conversations went something like this,
“You would not believe how much reading I have to do. I have 300 pages for Old Testament and 250 pages of Ethics to read before I can go to bed tonight.”
Now, you were basically assured that if you were the one who opened the conversation, you were going to get something like this in reply,
“I know, right! I have to read 300 pages for Old Testament, 250 pages for Ethics, PLUS write a ten-page paper for my Preaching seminar.”
You knew what that meant. No one had to explain it to you. Your dinner date or mailbox buddy had just beat you at the “I’m-busier-than-you-and-therefore-better-than-you” game. And I wish that I could say that we all fall out of that habit when we leave school, but I don’t think we do. We meet friends for coffee or talk to one another on the phone and almost before we’ve finished saying hello we are comparing schedules. It’s part consolation, part competition – right? And as you sip your coffee or hang up the phone, you’re wondering, “How does she do it all,” or “did it seem like I was complaining,” or “why is everyone so busy?”
This may not be exactly the kind of comparisons the disciples were making, but I think it’s in the same spirit. No, I imagine they were jockeying for position in more overt ways, but the effect was the same: both we and the disciples are too discomforted by the strange news of Jesus’ self-giving love to understand the gift we are receiving.
Let’s not be fooled. When Jesus asks the disciples what they were arguing about, he knows the answer already. This is like when your Mom caught you up past your bedtime reading with the lights on and called through the door, “what are you doing?” She knew, and so did Jesus. Mercifully, Jesus does not come inside to scold the disciples. Instead, he sits down, the traditional teaching posture in those times, and corrects their proud and presumptuous competition.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says. Then he takes a little child and draws her into the circle of grown disciples, holds her tenderly in his arms. A little child, especially in the time of Jesus – but even in these days – a sign of powerlessness. A contradiction to the disciples’ desire for prestige and recognition.
Here’s the thing about prestige and recognition. Essentially they’re about setting yourself apart from the pack. Standing out. Being a cut above. They are seductive and alluring because they promise us a sense of strength and power, of worth and value, all coming from some merit of our own. Unfortunately, they also encourage us to think of ourselves as very separate from others, as independent people who live and die by our own hand, when if fact we are all, always, caught up in a web of interdependence that sustains and supports all our living.
Jesus sees that the disciples have fallen prey to this kind of thinking, and he directs them towards the path that will lead to their healing. Playing on their desire to be first, he points them towards lives of service. But here Jesus is being a bit tricky. Like the volunteer at The Night Ministry, the Sunday School teacher, the hospice worker, the mentor, the parent, the Boy Scout, the firefighter; like any person who lives a life of service in their relationships with others, whether personal or professional, Jesus knows that to be a servant to all is to be reminded of your humanity, to slow down the frantic pace of self-importance and to remember that life is a gift freely
given to each of us. Life is a series of moments in which we might choose to give ourselves to each other.
Episcopal theologian Carter Heyword speaks to the power of this delightful self-giving. She writes,
“We touch this strength, our power, who we are in the world, when we are most fully in touch with one another and with the world. There is no doubt in my mind that, in so doing, we are participants in ongoing incarnation, bringing God to life in the world. For God is nothing other than the eternally creative source of our relational power, our common strength, a god whose movement is to empower, bringing us into our own together, a god whose name in history is love…which is just, mutually empowering, and co-creative.”
“Bringing us into our own, together.” What a beautiful way of putting it. In a world that encourages each of us to “get ours,” where coming into your own is understood to mean coming of age, reaching maturity and self-sufficiency, Jesus issues a different call: to come into our own together. And through his own generous, self-sacrificing love he accomplishes this for us, bringing us into our own, together, as the whole people of God.
As we begin another fall, another school year, another round of preparations for the Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas that are all right around the corner, I am going to be looking for those opportunities for self-giving – not in order to make us busier, but in order to keep us more human. I want to hear how being a part of the community of St. Luke’s equips you for loving service to your neighbor. I look forward to hearing your stories of self-giving. I will also listen happily to your extensive reading lists, chauffeuring schedules and work loads. But mostly I look forward to discovering the opportunities for our delightful self-giving to address the world’s great need, extending our welcome to the one who sends salvation to us all.