October 17, 2021 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
During the American Revolution a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help the soldiers. Asked why by the rider, the leader reported with great dignity, “Sir, I am a corporal!” The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. When the job was done, the man turned to the corporal and said, “Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.” With that George Washington got back on his horse and rode off.
Where did Washington learn such leadership skills? I have no doubt he learned them here. In these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant.” The young corporal had this concept modeled for him by the person at the top! The disciples, likewise, received from their leader a picture of servant-leadership. Jesus was teaching them through his own example that love does not conquer, but rather serves – willingly!
Jesus had been modeling servant-leadership for the disciples for some years now, so why do James and John ask for Jesus to bestow upon them places of honor when Jesus comes into glory? Well, we can only imagine how the tensions were mounting for Jesus and the disciples. Mark places this conversation on the journey to Jerusalem. As the text will continue to unfold, this takes place just a few hours before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Within the five following days, Jesus and the disciples will experience: the cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper in the Upper Room, the betrayal, arrest, and trial of Jesus; and then Jesus’ crucifixion. Although the disciples had no understanding of Jesus’ foretelling of his passion, they could certainly sense that something big was about to take place. And James and John wanted to get a head-start in seeking places of honor for eternity. In response to James’ and John’s request, Jesus once again must teach the disciples about how different the standards are in God’s realm. For there, the humble and willing servants will be exalted.
Some time ago, Talk Show host John Calloway interviewed the then editor of The Christian Century. Calloway asked James Wall, “What do you think made Jimmy Carter so effective as an international negotiator?” Wall replied, “Carter has the prestige and experience of the presidency without the political baggage. Furthermore, he is able to draw on his personal, deeply held religious belief that in talking with another person, one must be sensitive to the other’s perspective.”
Calloway responded, “You are really saying that it is the one without power who really has power.”
That is closer to what Christ taught, that power is sometimes manifested in weakness, in giving oneself to others. Authentic greatness is redefined to mean serving instead of being served, using the power of love rather than seeking the power of control. In God’s reign, we do not attain prominence by getting out bids in first, or by elbowing our way to the front. Prominence comes as we serve others with humility.
Jesus reiterates to the disciples here that glory in God’s realm does not come through conflict or political power plays. Jesus had modeled that in his contact with and compassion for the sinners, the diseased, those in need of physical and spiritual healing. He will soon model that concept more intimately with the disciples when, in the Upper Room, Jesus gets on his knees to wash the disciples’ feet before they dine together for the last time.
We all know it is true: power can coerce and often corrupts even the most well intentioned public servant. But caring service has the ability to transform the heart of the most callous sinner.
A room-service waiter at a Marriott Hotel learned that the sister of a guest had just died. The waiter, named Charles, bought a sympathy card, had the hotel staff members sign it, and gave it to the distraught guest with a piece of hot apple pie and a cup of tea.
“Dear Sir,” the guest later wrote to the president of Marriott Hotels, “I’ll never meet you. And I don’t need to meet you. Because I met Charles. I know what you stand for . . . I want to assure you that as long as I live, I will stay at your hotels. And I will tell my friends to stay at your hotels, too.”
When we see what an impact simple acts of caring service can have on others, it makes you wonder why our society still must spend so much of its resources on commodities and human resources that enable people to exert forceful dominance over others!
James and John needed their concept of power put into perspective. They thought they understood power, but Jesus shows them that real power resides in humble acts of service. Jesus calls the disciples around him and says, “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Promised One has come not to be served, but to serve—to give one life in ransom for the many.”
Jesus, in service to humanity, is going to offer his life as a ransom. It was an explosive idea. A ransom would be paid. You know what a ransom is . . . A price paid to release someone from captivity. Speaking of humanity in general, you and I are held in captivity to sin and we need to be freed. Sin has us trapped. Sin has caused our suffering. Sin has alienated us from God. James and John must have misunderstood. We don’t need a new city; we need a new soul. We don’t need an insurrection; we need a resurrection. We don’t need a coup; we need a cure. Position, power, and prestige won’t free us. We need someone who is willing to serve and heal us! We need Jesus!
I want to close by telling you a beautiful children’s story to which I was introduced several years ago. It’s about three trees. The trees were talking in the forest one day about their dreams for the future. The first tree said it would like to be made into a cradle, so that it might go on living as a support for the fragile life of a tiny new baby. The second tree wanted to be made into a big ship, so that it might go on living, carrying important cargo and influential people to exotic new lands. The third tree longed to stay right where it was, existing only as a tree, but growing ever taller, and pointing ever higher, to remind everyone that there is a God in heaven who loves them. Those were their dreams: One wanted to be a cradle, one wanted to be a mighty ship, and one wanted to be a tall tree, pointing people toward God.
But then one day, the wood cutters came and chopped down the three trees … and destroyed their dreams. The first tree was not made into a cradle, but into a simple feeding trough, a manger for animals. But the manger was sold to a family in Bethlehem, and on the night Jesus was born, that simple feed box became the candle for the Christ Child.
The second tree was built into a boat, but not the kind it had dreamed of – not a mighty ocean-going vessel – but a tiny inexpensive fishing boat. A man named Simon Peter bought the boat, and on one warm afternoon when the crowds pressed in, Jesus himself climbed aboard that small fishing boat that he might preach the good news to the multitudes.
The third tree also was deprived of its dream. It wanted to remain standing tall and pointing toward God. Instead, it was cut down and shaped into a horrible instrument of torture, a cross. But it was on that very cross that Jesus was crucified, transforming a symbol of cruelty into a powerful reminder of God’s eternal love for all the people.
The three trees were humbled in service, but in the plan of God, they were exalted. That’s the way it works: When we, in humility, give ourselves to God, God can do great things through us, and for us – greater than we can ever imagine.