Better Servants

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The Twenty First Sunday After Pentecost

Larry Litman
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
October 18, 2015

“God did not call you to be served, but to be servants.”

As an elementary school teacher my life is filled with kids who want to be first. Certain boys and girls always want to be first in line, whether it is to go to lunch or to go to the bathroom. Everyone will get lunch and everyone will get to go to the bathroom.
When we go to recess, there is a scramble to see who will be first to get a ball. Yet, when recess is over no one wants to be first to line up!

In today’s gospel reading we hear a story about two of Jesus’ disciples who want to be first, James and John. They ask Jesus to let them have important positions in the Kingdom: “Let one of us sit at your right, and one at your left in Glory.” (This request is also recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, but it is the mother of James and John who makes the request.)

The disciples’ lack of understanding is unbelievable. How could two people who were so close to Jesus miss the boat so completely? They had been with him since the beginning – they started following Jesus that first day when he was along the shore of the Lake of Galilee calling people to follow him.

And, did James and John forget what had happened in the days before?
– Did they forget the encounter with the rich man and the discussion that followed. (Just four verses before Jesus had said “Many who will be first will be last, and the last will be first.”)
– Or the encounter with the little children? (“Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”)
– And have they not heard three times Jesus’ own prediction of what was soon to happen to him? (Jesus tells his disciples in the verses immediately preceding todays’s reading: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him and spit upon him, and flog him and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”)

And the request of James and John to sit at Christ’s right and left angers their fellow disciples. But what seems to anger the other disciples is not so much that James and John have misunderstood Jesus’ teachings – but that James and John went to Jesus
requesting a place of power ahead of the rest of them.

The other disciples seem to be reacting because they are jealous. So Jesus huddles them together and sort of says “You don’t get it, do you? Do you think that my ministry is nothing more than doing things like the rest of the world? Have I ever seemed interested in Roman-like power and privilege?”

Today, there are examples all around us of a quest for greatness and often an accompanying fall. During these months we see political candidates in the United States rise to the top of popularity polls and then disappear. In Italy we have lived through the years of Silvio Berlusconi. Most recently our own mayor Ignazio Marino has resigned. Secular notions of power, wealth and greatness are so flimsy, so fragile, and so built on a false ‘confidence’.

In contrast to worldly greatness, to be great in God’s eyes is to be a servant modeled after Jesus’ own life of service.

For many, the story of James and John is disconcerting because if James and John, who knew Jesus personally, couldn’t incorporate his teachings into their lives, how on earth are we to do so?

These stories are a reminder that, try as we might, all too often our actions are more reflective of motivations based in the secular world than in God’s world.

So how do we become better servants?

One way is by making sure that the motivation for our service is love. Thomas Secker, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the American Revolution, said, “God has three sorts of servants in the world: some are slaves, and serve Him from fear; others are hirelings, and serve for wages; and the last are sons [and daughters], who serve because they love.”

We find ourselves sitting in a pew this morning at St. Paul’s for many reasons. It is good that we are here. But, why did we come to church today? Referencing Archbishop Secker’s “three sorts of servants” let me ask:
(1) Are we here as slaves to fear and guilt? Maybe we are here because we would feel guilty if we stayed home or in our hotel room.
(2) Are we here this morning as hirelings, people with jobs to do? Maybe we are here because we sing in the choir, serve at the altar or welcome people at the door.
(3) Or maybe we are here because we are brothers and sisters in Christ and have gathered together because we love.

As we live lives as servants in the world we should always seek to serve because we love. That is the way Christ serves us.

We can grow as servants by being mindful of who it is that calls us to serve. We should remember that in all things we serve God, and God alone. By becoming more aware of God’s presence in everyday life, we can strive to understand that all we do is somehow of God. With this approach, even the most ordinary tasks can be viewed as acts of loving service.

Another way to become better servants is by ensuring that our church is a “servant church.”
Theologian Karl Barth has written that the living church is one that: “proclaims the Gospel to every creature.” He says that The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message of good news. He goes on to say that the church is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in its shell that only now and then it sticks out its feelers, and in those moments feels satisfied because it has fulfilled its call to reach out and proclaim the gospel.

Is our parish a living servant church? Does it have a clear understanding that it exists in service to Jesus? Do all actions stem from Jesus’ commission to proclaim the gospel? Do our worship services, the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, concerts, and other activities all have the possibility to transform those they touch? If not, then how can we make it so, for, after all, the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ.

We are a missional church and we must be a beacon here on Via Nazionale motivated – each and every one of us – to mission. The Mission of the Church is the Mission of Christ.
It has been articulated by the Episcopal Church in five points:
* To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
* To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
* To respond to human needs by loving service
* To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
* To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

Yes, we in the church are called to serve God and the Kingdom. But we also need to be mindful that in the church God comes to serve us in the Word and the Eucharist.

I want to conclude by looking at a question Jesus asks James and John in today’s gospel reading: “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can” they replied confidently. Jesus responds to them: “The cup that I drink you will drink.” The disciples were thinking of a cup of glory and Jesus was speaking of his cup of suffering and humility. In a few moments we will gather at the table. Every Sunday we approach the Lord’s Table and that exact same cup of suffering and humility that Jesus spoke of when talking with his disciples is right before our eyes. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we take bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, and express that we believe in Jesus. “Take this, all of you, and drink from it.” And we do. We believe in his program. We believe in his gospel, We believe in being servants.

Christ has died.
Christ is Risen.
Christ will come again.


The sermon today was followed by a children’s sermon, in which Larry read a story from Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad All Year’ called ‘The Surprise.’

Here is a second-grade retelling of the story from YouTube.

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