Sermon 1/29 & 2/5/17
How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Serve
We’ve been spending the last couple of weeks thinking about how we measure our lives: How the world asks us to measure ourselves, how we think of ourselves, how God measures us. One of the ways we measure “success” is by how much power we have. We think about how much power we have over others and how much power others have over us. We use phrases like power suit and power walking and power lunches and power foods. Many of us might have an initial impulse to say that we don’t have any power. But we all have power. Power is the ability to do things, the ability to control things or people, the ability to direct or influence things. We all have some spheres in our lives where we exercise power. And we also have a deep desire to not being under the power of others. It’s a part of our national identity, in fact. We want to be self-determined people, in control.
Pastor Adam Hamilton suggests that the more power we have, the harder it is when others try to control it. He recounts two situations where a person’s power was demonstrated in their insisting on their own way and refusing any restrictions on that power. He went to lunch with a man who insisted to the host that they would sit in a section of the restaurant that was closed off for the evening already. He put up a fuss until the host gave in, and Hamilton found himself embarrassed and worried about what the restaurant staff would do to their food! Another time, Hamilton was standing in line at a store behind a person who was trying to return an item but they didn’t have the receipt. They wanted to get cash back, but the store policy was to give store credit when there was no receipt. The person berated the cashier until the cashier finally gave in. Hamilton asks, “What price does your character have, just so you can get your way?” The world teaches us to seek after power, but it isn’t a very good measure of our life. We don’t want to measure our life by how often we’ve gotten our own way, and how often we got to be in charge, and by how many people we get to boss around. (1)
So how will we measure our lives? Today we’re thinking about what it means to measure our lives by who and how we serve. Just like we do, even Jesus’ closest followers, the twelve disciples, struggled with their desire for power. In fact, the scriptures tell us that they were regularly arguing with each other about which of them was the greatest! In chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel, just a chapter before today’s text, the disciples are fighting over who is the greatest. Jesus, overhearing, says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he takes a small child and puts the child at the center the group of disciples, telling them that to welcome a child is to welcome Jesus, to welcome God into their lives.
Just before our text for today begins, a man approaches Jesus asking what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus talks to him about the commandments, which the man says he keeps, and then Jesus tells him he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the man goes away grieving, since he was very wealthy. Jesus then talks about how difficult it is to enter God’s kingdom, and the disciples wonder how anyone could enter the kingdom. Jesus tells them that with God, nothing is impossible, but that the last will be first and the first will be last.
And somehow, just after these scenes, apparently not absorbing anything from the previous conversations, we encounter James and John saying to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Wow – the boldness of the request! But we shouldn’t blame James and John alone – clearly all of the disciples were interested in these seats of power. Jesus presses them, asking if they could really handle all that is implied – if they could face what Jesus will face in order to claim those honored seats – and they insist that they can. Naturally, their claim to seats of honor causes a fight among the twelve, who are mad at James and John. But Jesus says to them, ““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. 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 slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about these role reversals, about flipping things upside down in the expected order of the world. The exalted are humbled, and the humbled exalted. Last first and first last. And here, Jesus, the teacher, the master, comes not to be served, but to serve, to give his life. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant, he says.
Jesus calls us to something different than a quest for power and control over others, which is amazing, because Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the son of the Creator of the Universe! Jesus has the ultimate power! But again and again he astonishes his contemporaries and astonishes us by showing that true power, true strength is found in serving, not being served. Some of my clergy colleagues and I were talking about how hard it is to do the right thing as pastors when people come to the church seeking financial assistance. Often people seek help from the local church – if you can’t go to the church, where can you go? – and it is hard to know what to do, what to give, who and how to help, how to help in ways that will really transform people, rather than leave them in the position of needing to ask, to beg really, again and again. We talked about how it was hard to serve others well in these situations. And I began to wonder why Jesus never seemed to run into struggles like this. We never see him trying to decide whether or not to help someone. And then I realized why: Jesus never had to make these kinds of decisions, and didn’t have folks asking him for the same kinds of material help, because Jesus had already completely poured himself out as an offering to others. He’d opted out of having the power of giving or withholding charity. He’d decided already that he would be the one relying on the welcome of others, rather than being the one with the power to invite or not into his home. No one asked him for things because Jesus kept no things, nothing, for himself. Jesus tells us that to be great, the way God sees it, we must be servants, not those who seek to be served, seek to be masters, seek to have power. We must be servants. Jesus does this to the extreme – he gives his life as a ransom for many. He even gives away his very life. We’re called, too, to give our very selves away as we serve others. The less we hold onto, the less we’ll struggle with how we’re best supposed to serve, because what we’ll have to give will simply be ourselves, and that’s the very best we have to offer.
As much as we like to think we’re completely independent, completely self-sufficient, we’re all living our lives in service to something. Sometimes we’re serving the notion of power, or the quest for status or things or money. But we spend our lives serving whatever we’ve made most important. (2) The questions we have to ask ourselves is who and how will we serve?
Several of us have been participating in a book study these last several weeks focusing on Michael Slaughter’s book Dare to Dream. The aim of the book is to help participants create a “God-sized mission statement for [our lives].” In the most recent chapter we ready together, Slaughter says that we go through three phases in our life. In the first, our prayer is “God bless me.” When we realize we can’t do it on our own, that our own power isn’t enough, we pray, “God save me!” But our aim, Slaughter says, is for our prayer to be “God use me,” where our lives are focused on doing God’s will, serving God and serving others. Slaughter writes, “I don’t want to play at being the church; I want the real thing. I would rather die at age sixty-two knowing I have been about the work and purpose for which God sent me, than to live to age ninety asking what it was all about. …No matter where we are on the ladder to God’s dream … we can’t take anything with us except what we have done for God. What you have done toward your unique God-purpose is the only thing that will live beyond your earthly existence.” (63) He continues, “Your life mission will always be connected to God’s redemptive purpose, not your own self-interest.” (62)
The most common prayer of our faith is the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it in worship on Sunday, and many of us probably pray this prayer in other places and settings throughout the week as well. It was certainly part of my prayer routine from childhood. How many times have you prayed that prayer? Every time we pray it, we say these words: “You kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, over and over, for God’s will to be done. Do we mean what we say? Of course, I hope and pray that sometimes, many times, our will and God’s will are one in the same. That, I think, is the goal we aim for in our Christian life. But sometimes, our will, what we want, is different from what God wants for us. Sometimes this isn’t just because we want something that’s wrong or bad or evil, but because God has something in mind for us we haven’t even imagined yet. When we claim the title of disciple, when we say that we’re servants, when we pray for God’s will to be done, I want us to be fully aware that what we’re saying is that God’s will is more important to us than our own, that we’d rather see God’s plans carried out than ours! It is in fact the very prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested – if it be your will God. But not as I will, but your will be done. God’s will be done. We pray it over and over. I hope, I seek for myself and for you that we learn to live it, to embody it more fully. We are servants not because God is a tyrant over us, but because we follow this Jesus who shows us that strength and power come from humble service, and deep relationship with God is born of learning to let God’s ways be our ways.
The difference is choice. God never forces us to be obedient, to choose to place our will below God’s will for us. But God does ask us to do so. God asks us to choose to let God’s will be the guide of our life. God asks for our servanthood. And God doesn’t ask something that Jesus doesn’t model himself. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus lives as a servant, placing our lives before his own life, obedient to God even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus chooses. He chooses servanthood. He chooses God. He chooses us.
Now it is our turn to choose. Who and how will we serve? Our answer and our commitment to our answer are measures of our lives. Let me close with the prayer Adam Hamilton uses to begin each day: “Lord, I am your servant – what do you want me to do today? Send me! My life belongs to you – do what you want with me today! Where do you need me today? I’m yours!” Amen.
(1) Hamilton, Adam, http://cor.org/leawood/sermons?q=&year=2014#d/sermon/1545/cor_l
(2) Lose, David, "Pentecost 21B Who Will You Serve?"