Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Irving Park Lutheran Church in Chicago on October 21, 2018
I have not read the book and I have not taken any inventories, but I have been informed by reliable parties–namely my wife–that I have a Love Language. And that Love Language is “acts of service.”
You probably know the type. We’re not great at giving unsolicited compliments or buying gifts more than 24 hours ahead of time or remembering to pick up flowers as often as we should. But we’re good people to have on hand when you’re sick and you need someone to take care of you, when you need someone to cook dinner, or when your kid’s little league team is short one assistant coach.
Churches are full of people like me—people who want to show their devotion to God and to their community by bringing a casserole. Or taking a PADS shift. I didn’t grow up going to church, but I can remember this from the many funerals I was brought to at Bone Lake Lutheran Church or some other parish in northern Wisconsin: church ladies making enough open-faced sandwiches to feed Napoleon’s army, setting out salads, brewing coffee, cleaning up. I saw this with new eyes when I was in divinity school and I came up to church for my grandmother’s funeral, and all the old matriarchs were there. She was one of them. Now she was finally retired from the funeral luncheon team. And they were doing the thing they knew how to do to recognize her. It was deeply moving.
So we understand, in a pretty straightforward way, what Jesus is saying today to his needy and ambitious disciples. Or at least we can understand why the others are angry at them. Well well well James and John, look who wants to be so big. Too good to put on an apron and scrub a coffee urn are we?
And indeed it is very important to hear what Jesus says to them today: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” We know this only too well. Every day we see examples of worldly power that exalts itself. We see rulers large and small do whatever they have to do to get on top and stay on top—whatever abuse, whatever manipulation, whatever corruption, whatever violence.
More than that, many, or even most, people seem to be willing or even eager to have their rulers do this. Americans, maybe because of our history of rebelling against the King of England, don’t seem to realize this. But part of us likes and wants a strongman. Someone to cut through all the noise and mess and just take charge. Our world is very vulnerable to this dynamic. Strongmen and authoritarians and abusers have tools to manipulate and control that the Caesar of Jesus’s day could never have dreamed of.
So Jesus warns his disciples, and us: Those of you who want to lead will be tempted to lord it over your brothers and sisters. And those of you who need a leader will be tempted to let them. If it is not to be this way among you, both the leaders and everyone else will have to work at this. Those in positions of authority must know whom they serve, and why, and how. They must have good motives. They must resist the temptation to dominate. If they fail in these ways, they will be guilty of a grave transgression.
At the same time, those who are not in positions of authority must seek to keep their leaders accountable. They must support their leaders by insisting that they remain honest. They must resist the temptation to be dominated.
“It is not so among you,” Jesus says. I love that. You know very well how the world works, but it will be different for you. “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 be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus turns the world on its head. As he so often does. As the Law and the Prophets so often do. The great ones will be the servants. Anyone who aspires to greatness by any way other than serving is aspiring to a false and fraudulent greatness. The popularity that comes from manipulation is just weakness in a big cloak. The wealth that comes from corruption is just a refined sort of poverty. The security that comes from violence is just a puffed-up fear. The only genuine authority among Christians, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, is the authority of service. That means that the only genuine authority in the world, seen in the light of God’s Kingdom, is the authority of service.
So it would seem that those of us who live to serve are pretty well set, right? Us church folks who know that service is the highest, most human vocation? Isn’t it nice to know that when we’re offering to run out to pick up the baby’s prescription we’re imitating Jesus? When we’re unclogging a neglected toilet–that probably five people walked by without doing anything about–we’re acting as one of the secret rulers of the universe?
Well, fortunately or not, there’s more to these words of Jesus than this. If the whole secret to life were that everyone must be the servant of all, there would, after all, be no one to serve. We’d be like Minnesotans at a four-way stop sign—all of us saying, “no, please, you first.”
Jesus says that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. And that means that we who are saved by faith in him, and raised to new life by his grace, must allow him to serve us, too. If you know the power of service, you probably know also the mania that can come with it. The passive-aggressiveness–”it’s ok, I’ll just do it myself.” The resentment–”I work and work and give and give and no one thanks me.” If Jesus only wanted us to find the humblest task and do it for someone else, he’d be setting us up for a great deal of misery.
Because the truth is that we can never serve enough, we can never do enough good, we can never stretch ourselves far enough to escape our own need to be served, to be loved, to be healed. If we set out to make ourselves great, if we set out to make ourselves necessary, if we set out to make ourselves loved and accepted by our acts of service, all of our good deeds will just curve back into ourselves. All of our service will end in tears.
Instead it is Jesus who gives us this greatness, Jesus who makes us necessary, Jesus who extends this love and acceptance unconditionally as a promise. It is Jesus whose baptism by spirit and fire sets us free to really and truly serve, not for our own sake, not for our own needs, but for the sake of the brother or sister in front of us. And it is Jesus who gives us people who will help carry our loads, who will serve us in our moments of need, who will smooth the path for us. Accepting this service is not arrogance and selfishness. It is rather a true kind of humility. It comes from faith. Faith in the Lord who did not come to dominate but who gives his life as a ransom for many; faith in the Lord who did not give us each other to dominate, or to pity, but who gave us each other so that in serving and in being served, we would know him. Amen.