May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
In our Gospel reading this morning, James and John want something from Jesus which is not for him to give – to sit at his right and left hand in glory. But the most puzzling piece to this is why they would ask this question of Jesus in the first place. Immediately before their question, Jesus for a third time foretells to the disciples the purpose of their trip up to Jerusalem, and the purpose of his entire life and ministry actually. It is to suffer and to die, and on the third day to be raised from the dead. It is almost as if they were talking too much to catch the “suffering and die” part, and heard only his promise to be raised from the dead.
This conversation brings anger from the rest of the disciples, and it leads Jesus to share some words that tend to make us a little bit nervous: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to serve but to be served, and to give his life a ransom for many. It makes us nervous because Jesus is essentially asking his disciples (including us) who we will serve.
Yes, in the words of the Bob Dylan song, “You gotta serve somebody.” Have you ever heard that song? It was written and recorded in 1979 during a time when Dylan was openly Christian in his life and songs. It has many verses to it and each one is filled with examples of people in all situations of life – The first verse goes like this: You may be an ambassador to England or France, you may like to gamble, you might like to dance, you may be the heavyweight champion of the world, You might be a socialite with a long string of pearl. One verse says: You may be a construction worker working on a home, you may be living in a mansion, you might live on a dome, you might own guns and you might even own tanks, you might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks. The refrain at the end of each verse brings it all back to perspective though: But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes you're gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.
While Dylan's song was very popular and won a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Male, it had its detractors, even in the rock music scene. John Lennon wrote and recorded the song, “Serve Yourself” in response to You Gotta Serve Somebody, a parody that mocked the injection of religion into Dylan's songwriting. In Lennon's diary, he said this of the song, “The backing was mediocre, the singing was really pathetic, and the words were just embarrassing.” Shouldn't surprise us coming from a guy who once claimed to be more popular than Jesus, I guess.
I agree with Bob Dylan and the lyrics of this song even though I don't like it. As a culture and species, we tend to prize freedom and accomplishment and autonomy and many other things thanks to the fact that we live in a free country. This is the reason why, if we don't slow down and take the question of, “Who will you serve” seriously, we'll recognize how it grates against our deeply held belief and culturally formed sensibilities. And yet, isn't it an illusion of our culture that we are indeed totally free, autonomous beings who can live independent of all bonds of loyalty, devotion, service and boundaries? I buy into this illusion as much as the next person, but things happen along the way that remind me that I am accountable in my life to someone or something – I serve somebody! This coming Tuesday I have my six-month doctor's visit. Even the fact that I have to go to him every six months is a testimony that over the years of my life I have served something that isn't the most healthy thing, that is eating and drinking as I want and not exercising enough, so that now I take medications to regulate cholesterol and blood pressure. I know that when I go to him my numbers are not going to be stellar because during these last six months I have served that part of me that says I don't have to be accountable to anyone in my lifestyle more often than I have served that which says, “Do what's best for yourself, your health and your family.” I don't want to admit it, but I have to serve somebody or something every day of my life and it isn't always the best one!
According to Jesus, the best place to put your service is other people. Whoever wants to be great must be servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. Not only does Jesus teach us this truth about life, but he gives his life a ransom for many; in other words, he serves us all in life and especially in death. Who do you serve most often during the day to day choices and actions of your life? Our choices and actions have consequences on people around us, and sometimes we don't always even know or see it happening. For example, one of the reasons that we have available the fair trade coffee, tea and other items is that many times farmers who raise these crops in other countries are kept in deep poverty by the extremely low price that their crops receive. We want to help people to become sustainable themselves and if that means spending a little extra on our coffee and tea then so be it.
Also, some charitable organizations that send food or other items don't realize that their very actions (which often make them feel good) can hurt the very people that they want to help. We often respond with food to places experiencing drought or natural disaster that ruins crops and that is a good thing, but when folks send food to poorer countries just because they are poor, then it takes income away from the farmers who are trying to sustain their own livelihood and be productive members of their own culture. In addition, some of the plastic bags and containers in which the food is shipped often get left in the streets for animals to eat, thus making their milk and meat not as nutritious for the population who consumes them. It is important that we always ask who are we serving even when we are doing something out of love for others.
A life of serving others is a life that requires sacrifice, and that is not something that is attractive to anyone. When James and John asked the question of being able to sit at Jesus' right and left hands in his glory I am sure they had in mind an eternity where others sacrifice for their comfort and glory. But leading the way as servant of all, Jesus went willingly to the cross in the ultimate act of sacrifice for us. Jesus served and still serves us, children of God and joint heirs of God's riches.
For whom do you sacrifice in your life? Your kids and grandkids? Your parents? Your neighbors? Who do you serve in life? Those close to you who are able to return the favors? Strangers in another part of the city, country or world? The reality is, you're gonna have to serve somebody, and Jesus wants that somebody to be God. Serving God is lived out by serving others whenever we see the opportunity to help or give to them. Maybe the goal to which we press is not to be as independent as possible but to serve as many as possible. All the while we are doing this the most important thing to remember is that Jesus still serves us, sinners that we are. That is the good news of the Christian life – that our ability to serve others as Jesus calls us is based upon the best and most perfect servant of all. May you know the love of Jesus always so that you can serve others with that same love which saves all of us from our sins. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.