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September 24, 2006 (Sunday 25 • Time after Pentecost)—“A New Kind of Servanthood”
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he would not have anyone know it; for he was teaching his disciples....”
This is a time when Jesus needed to leave the crowds and pay special attention to the twelve. He had tried repeatedly to help them understand who he truly was and what was about to happen as they made their way towards Jerusalem. Yet even now they were unable or unwilling to comprehend the meaning of his words: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”—and they were afraid to ask him.
Did they have an ancient adage akin to one attributed to Abraham Lincoln I heard from a teacher many years ago? “It is better to remain silent and appear a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove any doubt.”
Or did the disciples perhaps understand enough to be afraid to ask to understand more...?
Some years ago I returned from a deployment aboard ship that had been particularly hazardous, and several shipmates had died in a variety of circumstances. As the senior chaplain, it was my responsibility to identify the bodies, deal with regulations in foreign countries, and sometimes question the circumstances of their deaths. I’m also the one who ghost wrote the letters to the families for the commanding officer and attended to the grief of crew members. I would be expected to call on families of the deceased and conduct memorial services and funerals. You can imagine what state I was in when I returned to our homeport and saw a familiar face on the pier.
Since I had no one aboard ship with whom I could share my own grief and pain, I was hoping for a chance to do that with someone apart from the crew who would just let me talk. I did not want to scare her, however, and dump everything that had accumulated these many months, so I decided to wait and just celebrate our reunion for awhile.
When we met on the pier, the first words I heard were, “You wouldn’t believe the day I had! The hairdresser was a disaster! Just look at this! I did everything I could to salvage it, but it’s still not right.” And on she went. When I was able to recover after a few minutes, I realized she knew very well what had gone on. There are no secrets among military families. The verbal onslaught let me know she was frightened and unable to handle any more details of what had happened on deployment. She understood enough to be afraid to ask to understand more.
The disciples’ response to Jesus’ prophecy perhaps also came from discomfort and fear. They argued who would take over when Jesus was killed. Each one likely interrupted and talked over the next, insisting what talents, experience, family background, or even miracles performed they brought to the table. Thinking they were out of earshot of Jesus on their journey, they are chagrined and embarrassed to respond when he asks, “What were you discussing on the way?” As if he didn’t know....
Instead of chastising them, he used this opportunity for a teaching moment. Sitting down, he gathered the twelve around him and, in a very different way, told them about God’s expectation of Jesus and those who would follow him. Yes, part of God’s plan was for Jesus to die for the sins of the whole human race and to rise again. But before that, he was to introduce them to another facet of God his people seemed not to have been seeing all these centuries—a God of immeasurable love.
Sitting on a throne demanding people worship and love God would accomplish nothing. God knew that we could only love that which we could get our arms around, so Jesus came from heaven as an innocent babe and wrapped himself in swaddling cloths. As he grew, he expended his life in service to God’s children and demonstrated His love and invited people to worship and love God. People then were able to say, “This is Emmanuel—God with us.”
Jesus tells the disciples they are to be servants of all. When we think of a servant, what comes to mind? Those who serve may have been forced into slavery, taught to believe it was their lot in life, or chosen it as a way to give of themselves. Needs and desires of others are primary. They put themselves out, sacrifice their own comfort or desires, sometimes go in harm’s way for those they serve. They are expected to overlook the other’s indiscretions or deplorable behavior when it occurs—even if it is directed at them—and still keep doing their best. There were and still are cultures where a servant may be given to receive the punishment due the master—even death.
In the culture of the day where servants and children share the lowest rungs of the social ladder, Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Even servant to the other servants? That’s the role he chooses.
It boggles the mind. The Son of the Creator of the universe does not expect to be revered and served as the greatest on earth. In fact, he rebukes any attempt to make him king. Instead he points to the “Father who sent me” as the one deserving praise and honor. As the servant of servants, the servant of all humankind, he chooses to take the punishment others deserve on himself, become the sacrificial lamb, and be killed to pay the price for sin.
This servant willingly seeks and follows the will of God all the way to the cross. He willingly puts himself into the hand of humanity—those he sought to love and serve (not the Jewish authorities or Gentiles), who kill him. All humankind is implicated in the death of the one who came to be sacrificed for all. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” is a question for every person in every time and place. The answer is yes, I was there, in that he chose to serve me and my need to be forgiven, to be in relationship with Holy God, to have life eternal.
It does not appear that servanthood was what the disciples had in mind anymore than it is popular today. From early childhood we are encouraged to excel, to be number one, told that there’s first place and losers. We are a nation “In Search of Excellence,” not servanthood.
Given the interests of a large number in this congregation, I’m sure many of you have heard of the TV interview with conductor Leonard Bernstein at which he was asked which instrument was the most difficult to play. “Second fiddle,” he replied. “I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet, if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
As a boy who used to enjoy our family trips to “Frontier Town,” I remember being told that the stage coaches of old had first-, second-, and third-class passengers. Inside the coach there was no distinction. But when the stage came to a hill, the first-class passengers remained seated while the second-class walked and the third-class pushed. I thought third class might be exciting—until I tried it.
We have seen the TV specials and read of the interest of today’s stars taking up the plight of the poor, displaced, and war-ravaged. One such star, encountering a missionary nurse at a hospital seriously hampered by meager supplies and outdated equipment, is reported to have said, “I wouldn’t do what you’re doing for a million dollars.” “Neither would I,” was her prompt response. The significance of her life and that which supplied her joy was in being enlightened and empowered by the servanthood of Jesus and the cross as to the meaning of greatness.
Perhaps closer to home, I was introduced on my first visit to Hawaii in the mid 70s to a Japanese American whose family had emigrated here just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were neighbors to a family who had worked for years to establish a nursery, and now they were going to attempt to do the same. Shortly after they cleared and prepared the land, then planted their first roses, the “day that will live in infamy” arrived and they were soon taken off to a concentration camp. Instead of rejoicing in the demise of their competition, the neighbor family arranged immediately to take over and operate the business for the absentee owner. Despite being called a fool, the neighbors toiled longer days. The roses grew to maturity and were harvested. Books were kept and profits deposited. Love bloomed and life opened up for the neighbor who was labeled a fool and a traitor. And he was. He was a “fool for Christ.”
When the war concluded and the imprisoned family returned, they expected to find their home and business in shambles from neglect. Instead they found a thriving business maintained and a neighbor who had almost worked himself to death guaranteeing the future of a neighbor. I was told that when people who knew the story passed by and looked through the greenhouse windows, they saw the crossed beams that marked the rows of plantings—and thought of the way the cross was preached in that place.
“And he took a child and put him in the midst of them; and taking him into his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me.’”
Trust him, allow him to hold you and love you and empower you that you may feel safe enough, loved enough, full enough, and free enough for a new kind of servanthood, children of God.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org