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Our scripture reading today tells a familiar story of the disciples arguing over who is the greatest. The story today in the Gospel of Luke parallels similar stories in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. However, in the gospel of Luke, the dispute happened at the table of the LAST SUPPER! Jesus has just broken the bread and blessed the cup, he has invited his disciples to do this in remembrance of him. And Jesus has said that someone at the table will betray him. THEN the disciples begin to argue about who is the greatest, the disciples who have been with Jesus throughout his ministry, who have seen the miracles, listened to his preaching, been taught to care for the marginalized, those disciples closest to Jesus now argue about who is the greatest right there at the dinner table at the LAST SUPPER! Imagine our Deacons sitting at the communion table and arguing over who is the best deacon!
Listen now for the word as inspired by God.
Luke 22: 24-30
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28 You are those who have stood by me in my trials. 29 And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Here ends the reading, thanks be to God.
Anthem “In Christ- A New Community”
A Sermon Rev. Lucia Anne Jackson
Ah, the age old game of “who is the greatest”? Another form of king of the mountain! Look around us today, we live in a culture of people playing “who is the greatest” all the time – from celebrities to sports figures, politicians to entreprenuers – all trying desperately to prove that they are indeed “the greatest”. Was anyone really surprised by the scandal that broke just this week about the wealthy cheating to get their children into “elite” schools? Isn’t that just emblematic of a culture stuck on the “greatest”?? Elite schools that lead to elite connections and elite professional placements all to be “the greatest”.
But the greatest at what exactly? By whose definition? And at what cost?
And Just watch the current political campaigns. A multitude of individuals running for President of the United States. Some are hopefully motivated to “serve” the country, but most are motivated by the grand prize – becoming one of the most powerful people in the world. Every sound bite, every photo op, every outfit, carefully chosen to say “look at me” “Listen to me” “I am important”. The political candidates posturing about who is the greatest obscures the true significance of a presidential run, the reality of the president’s affect on history and human lives. What if the sound bites and photo ops were focused on the candidates heart for service? Willingness to be humble? To care for the most vulnerable in our country and the world? What are those candidates really like in their relationships and daily lives?
The disciples started playing the game of “who is the greatest”, and you see, that was the heart of the problem, really. Who is first? Who is greatest? Who is best? Who is Jesus favorite? His BFF? Who is most important? That is what the disciples were doing, which is why Jesus had to interrupt them give them a leadership seminar right then and there. His response must have stunned them into silence. Because Instead of playing along, Jesus says 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
Well that is not the image of greatness that the disciples had in mind!
How about you? What is your image of greatness?
You see, we are called to be servant leaders regardless of what other people seek to be. Servant leaders practice greatness by being givers who serve together through shared leadership, responsibility, compassion, connection and accountability. Servant leaders are not concerned with who gets the credit.
Servant leaders – think of President Jimmy Carter who has garnered more positive publicity in his years since being president by his personal work with Habitat for Humanity. The recurrent image of a former President of the United States and the former First Lady together swinging hammers and sweating alongside other volunteers for Habitat for Humanity is startling and will be the image that stays with me. President Jimmy Carter also spends his Sunday Mornings teaching Sunday School at his church. Servant Leaders practice greatness by being givers who serve together through shared leadership, responsibility, compassion, connection and accountability with no regard for who gets credit.
Martin Luther King, Jr said in his “The Drum Major Instinct’ sermon:
“That’s your new definition of greatness . . . It means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve . . . You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
And you can be that servant.”
Jesus came to serve and so we too are called to serve. Such an image flies in the face of all that we have been taught and that we teach our children about greatness and success. Rev. Kate Matthews (UCC WeeklySeeds) writes: “The reign of God is so very different from our conventional way of doing things, and our conventional beliefs about what is best. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that Jesus calls us and teaches us by example to “transform the world, not from the top down but from the bottom up. The ultimate trickle-up effect.” (“The Trickle-Up Effect,” Bread of Angels) That’s the power the God gives us in abundance, “the strongest stuff in the world: the power to serve”
Which brings us to the question – what does it mean to serve?
My dear colleague Rev. Paul Sawyer, has taught me so much as we have partnered in ministry working with our youth. On the youth mission trips, Paul introduced the language of service. He has taught the youth and me, the idea that “we come to serve”. That having an attitude on the mission trips that we are here to serve is very different from arriving at a job site expecting “to fix” people, or even to “help. It is easy to arrive at a job site and say “oh, I know what you NEED here” or “I know what would make this work better” or “you don’t want to paint your room that color” or “washing the basement floor doesn’t change people’s lives”. Those are attitudes of fixing. “We are here to serve” is deeply spiritual approach. It comes from a place of gratitude, connection and willingness to do what needs doing whether or not I think it is the most important thing to do.
The disciples don’t seem to get the difference – do we?
In her article “Helping, Fixing, Serving” Rachel Naomi Remen writes: “Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.”
“Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.
Service rests on the premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.
Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality. The danger in helping is that we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.
When we help, we become aware of our own strength. But when we serve, we don’t serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves, and we draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve. My pain is the source of my compassion; my woundedness is the key to my empathy.
. . . Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude.
[Remen concludes] Fixing and helping create a distance between people, an experience of difference. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. Fixing and helping are strategies to repair life. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy. Serving requires us to know that our humanity is more powerful than our expertise. Service is not an experience of strength or expertise; service is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. Helpers and fixers feel causal. Servers may experience from time to time a sense of being used by larger unknown forces. Those who serve have traded a sense of mastery for an experience of mystery, and in doing so have transformed their work and their lives into practice.” (Helping, Fixing or Serving? By Rachel Naomi Remen)
I’ve been thinking a lot about serving and service, particularly since our trip to Puerto Rico in January. In each of the houses where we worked, the homeowners prepared a meal for us. We didn’t ask them to, we had no such expectation, but it was important to the homeowners. Here we were, with all of our privilege and planning and good intentions, being served a delicious, loving prepared meal by people who have so much less than we do. And yet, their meal, offered in gratitude, and our receiving it was a deep connection of equals – each doing what they could to serve the other. Serving is mutual. The attitude of service opens the door to connection and relationship.
During my low point on the Puerto Rico mission trip – a low point of logistical frustration and exhaustion and wanting everyone to have a good trip and trying, in my usual Lucia way to control it and make it happen because, you know, if the world would just function the way I think it should, then the world would work a whole lot better – during that low point when I felt that we could accomplish a lot more if our hosts were better organized (because you know, I could organize them much more efficiently) – it was then that one of our young adults, a youth mission trip alum – looked at me with love and said simply,
“Lucia, remember, we are here to serve.”
“You are right. Thank you”
We are here to serve. “Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. . . . .in serving we find a sense of gratitude.”
I guess Jesus knew what he was talking about.
In the greatest of hope, thanks be to God. Amen.
*Hymn 495: “Called as Partners in Christ’s Service” NCH