Sermon for 21st Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Today’s gospel lesson from St. Mark includes these wonderful words from Jesus, “You know that among the Gentiles those who they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all.”
One of my favorite hymns, sung at my installation here at Mt. Olive last year, is “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” also known as “The Servant Song” (ELW #659). We are singing it as our “Hymn of the Day” today after this sermon.
The first verse goes something like this:
“Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.”
Today’s Gospel lesson includes another “dumb disciples” example. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples just do not understand Jesus’ life and ministry. Instead of celebrating their time with him, they begin to argue among themselves about who will sit on his right and left hand in heaven, although I’m guessing that they may have even been thinking that this will be a heaven on earth not some glory after their earthly demise. Anyway, Jesus quickly counters their foolishness. First, he tries to tell them that what is coming for them here on earth will not be easy or simple or glorious, but will be difficult, complicated and maybe even painful. Then, Jesus goes on to make his most important point: The disciples’ ministry is not about who sits at what table and where. The disciples’ ministry, our ministry as followers of Jesus Christ, is about servanthood, servanthood. Their ministry, our ministry, is about serving others. It is as simple and complex as that.
Remember that sign from a US Presidential campaign some years ago, “It’s the economy, stupid!”? Well, we can almost imagine Jesus holding up a sign for his disciples, “It’s about serving others!” (Jesus probably wouldn’t use the word “stupid!”)
Jesus asks his disciples the question, “Who will you serve?”
Jesus asks us the question, “Who will we serve?”
Scholar David Lose, whose work permeates this sermon, notes that, as a culture and species, we tend to prize freedom and accomplishment and autonomy and self-determination and the list could go on and on. Which is why, if we slow down and take this question seriously, we’ll recognize how much it grates against our deeply held belief and culturally formed sensibilities.
Perhaps one of the most widely held illusions of our culture is that we are, indeed, free and autonomous beings who can live independent of all bonds of loyalty, devotion, and service. Think of how much time and energy we spend thinking that we do not have to serve anyone.
But Jesus’ assertion – that you will always serve something or someone whether you know it or not – is at the very heart of not simply today’s passage but much of Mark’s Gospel.
Mark’s Gospel carefully structures Jesus’ march to Jerusalem and Jesus’ three predictions, announcements, of his impending death.
First, in chapter 8, Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida. Then comes Peter’s declaration and Jesus’ first announcement of his impending death. But Peter doesn’t get it and rebukes Jesus. And then, Jesus rebukes Peter right back.
Then, in chapter 9, Jesus repeats his declaration that he will die in Jerusalem, a pronouncement that terrifies his disciples into silence until, that is, they begin arguing with each other about who is the greatest because, again, they don’t get it. So Jesus tries again and puts before them a child and tells them that leadership and greatness are about welcoming the vulnerable.
In chapter 10, Jesus says once more: In verses just before today’s Gospel, Jesus states again that he is going to Jerusalem to die. And, again, the disciples don’t get it. First, James and John ask for special places of honor and then the rest of the disciples resent their self-interested pushiness. Jesus’ words still haven’t sunk in and taken hold yet, so he says as plainly and clearly as possible that to be great is to serve others and that to be first is to be last. And then comes another healing of a blind man, Bartimaeus.
Lose notes that it is interesting how healings of blindness bracket Jesus’ three pronouncements of his impending death, the disciples’ failure to understand, and Jesus ongoing teaching about what constitutes greatness. Mark tells the story this way because he knows that Jesus’ words, Jesus’ entire life, run contrary to our natural tendency to think about power, leadership, and all of life in this world’s terms. And Jesus’ words take time to sink in.
In today’s reading James and John think greatness comes from status and power. And in response Jesus points out that there is no escaping service. You will either willingly, even joyfully, serve others, or you will become a slave to your illusions that you can be free and secure your future through status and power (or, in our day, wealth or youth or fame or possessions).
Who will you serve – will you serve the voices of the culture that say that you can be free on your own and at any cost, or will you serve the voice of Jesus that calls you to find your freedom and, indeed, your true self, through service to neighbor.
Perhaps that’s also how we might hear Jesus’ description of his life as giving himself “as a ransom for many” – not as Jesus buying us back from God (or the devil), but instead as paying himself out in order to rescue us from our delusion that we are somehow self-sufficient, independent, self-made men and women.
Jesus’ whole life – including his self-sacrificing death – challenges not only our assumptions but the very powers that be with the surprising and life-giving revelation that as we lose ourselves in service we find ourselves living more fully than ever before.
When we lose ourselves in service to others, that is when and where we find ourselves living life to its fullest.
“We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road, we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.”
Who will you serve?
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sermon for 21st Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
October 17/18, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California