This should have been an easy sermon. I should have been able to crank it out in an hour on Tuesday afternoon over a tall (meaning “small”) cup of Starbucks coffee. Why should it be easy, you ask? Because Jesus says this, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” It is the perfect text to tell all of you about the power of service. About doing good things for others. How it’s better to give than it is to receive. That Jesus doesn’t want you to be selfish and greedy, Jesus wants you to be generous and willing to serve others. It was supposed to be an easy sermon.
The problem is…we already know this. In fact, we know it too well. We’ve figured out how to take this sage wisdom and use it to our advantage.
In elementary school, when it was time to line up for a snack, everyone would race to the front to try to be the first one in line. But what happens? The teacher takes pity on those who were slower to the line and says, “Okay…those at the back of the line get to go first.” “Awww, man!” those of us at the front of the line say. Well, it didn’t take long to figure that system out. Be slower. Don’t be the first in line, be the last. Let others go ahead of you. And then you are more likely to get to go first.
A couple of years ago when I worked a different church, there was one youth who had really figured this out. You see, her body wasn’t like everyone else’s. It demanded that she walk with a walker. And she knew that being a kid with a disability meant that people felt bad for her and she knew how to use that to her advantage. One time at a lock-in, when the late-night pizza was delivered and every one gathered around to eat, she pushed her way to the front and proclaimed, “I get to go first!” “Oh yeah, why is that?” I asked. “Because I’m handicapped!” she said.
Whoever wishes to become great among must be a servant.” You see, we are too smart for such simple wisdom – we know how to work that system. Businesses know how to be generous with their money so that it is a better tax write-off for them. Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates (all of them) know when to show up at the soup kitchen and wash a couple of dishes, so that it shows their humanitarian side and encourages voters to vote for them. And high schoolers know that a summer of volunteer work looks great on a college or job application.
So this should be an easy sermon about how we all need to go out and serve our community like Jesus asks. But it isn’t an easy sermon and it didn’t get finished until yesterday evening. It haunted me all week long, because service in the name of Christ has been taken hostage. And it is being used to benefit those seeking power, rather than to care for those who are powerless.
And if there is any comfort in this, it is that we aren’t the first to do this. James and John, sons of Zebedee and disciples of Jesus, were guilty of it too. In the verses leading up to our Gospel text, Jesus has been telling his disciples all sorts of outrageous things. He has been saying things like, “The kingdom of God belongs to those who are vulnerable. It belongs to those who are weak and powerless, like little children.” He says the way to inherit the kingdom of God is to go and sell all of your stuff and give it to the poor. He says that those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last. And he tells them three times that the road he is on leads straight into Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the place where a couple of pieces of wood and a handful of nails are waiting for him. Jesus tells them straight out, “I’m going to be killed. That’s how this thing goes.” And that to be a follower of Jesus is to follow him to that very same cross.
But then in our text, James and John stumble in. The first thing Mark reminds us of is that James and John are the sons of Zebedee. Do you remember Zebedee? He goes all the way back to chapter 1. He was fishing with his boys, James and John, back then when Jesus came and called them to follow him. This little detail reminds us that James and John have been with Jesus since the beginning. Since chapter 1. They’ve been followers of Jesus for a very long time.
But they still don’t get it. They don’t get what Jesus is about. They say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” A bold statement. It isn’t unlike many of our prayers – God, we want you to do as we say. But still…bold. It is a dangerous statement. Built into it is the desire for power – we want you to do whatever we want. The disciples want to control Jesus. The disciples want power over Jesus. And when people get too much power, there is a tendency for others to get hurt.
But Jesus obliges. “What do you want me to do?” he asks.
“Gives us the best seats in the house,” they say. “When you come into your glory, make sure we are sitting right next to you.” They are like the friends of a 25-year old lottery winner being interviewed on TV. Standing in background right next to him, waving. Holding up signs that say, “Hi mom!” They just want their own piece of the pie. They want to ride the coat tails of Jesus all the way to the end where they will be richly rewarded.
We can see what they are doing. They are cozying up to Jesus. They are figuring out how they can be the winners in this deal of following Jesus. They are the ones walking slowly up to the snack line. They are the ones demanding that they get the pizza first because they deserve it. And the other disciples get mad at them, but only because they didn’t think of it first.
They don’t get it. They still don’t get it after all this time with Jesus. And so Jesus has to break the news to them…again. His path does not lead to glory. It leads to persecution. It leads to the cross. It leads to death. Not exactly the best ad campaign for the church, is it?
But it’s the truth. To be a follower of Jesus doesn’t make your life easier. It makes it harder. Shane Claiborne, a theologian and social activist in Philadelphia, learned this the hard way. He says that he never got arrested before he was a Christian. Only after he became a Christian. You see, Philadelphia in the last couple of years passed some awful laws aimed specifically at the homeless – like they made it illegal to sleep in public parks, illegal to lie down on the sidewalks, and then they banned all outdoor feeding of the homeless. It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t live in Philadelphia, or those 5,000 people he fed outside on the hill would’ve gone hungry. So Shane and his group of friends decide they needed to do something about this. They held a big party, worship service in the park and they invited all of their homeless friends. And then they did something kind of sneaky. They knew they couldn’t feed the homeless there, so instead they served communion. And none of the police officers wanted to arrest anyone for taking communion. So they pushed a little further continued the breaking of bread by ordering in some pizzas. This worship went on for days and days, with all the people sleeping out in the park, until finally the police were ordered to arrest them for disorderly conduct. For sleeping. Sometimes to be a follower of Jesus to care for those whom Jesus calls you to care for doesn’t make your life easier. It makes it harder.
The road that Jesus is on leads straight to the cross. There is no throne waiting for him there, only a death sentence. And there are a couple of spots next to Jesus up there, one on his left and one on his right. But by then, James and John are nowhere to be found.
Now, I don’t know what you are supposed to do with all of this. It is up to you and the Holy Spirit to decide how to respond to these hastily crafted words. All I know is that Jesus calls us to follow him and to be servants in this world. And if we really are being servants in the name of Christ, it will feel like risky business. We will be more likely to lose something than actually gain anything. But if our service becomes a stepping stool for something greater for us, then we’ve missed it and we’re no longer following Jesus. And if there is any good news in this story, it is that if the disciples don’t get what it means to follow Jesus, then we aren’t the only ones if we don’t either. And Jesus never asks his disciples to leave. He still invites them to the table with him for bread and wine. Which means Jesus never gave up on them. I guess he’ll never give up on us either. AMEN