Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”
Today, we’re remembering one of our patron saints – St. James, the Apostle. He’s one of the three Jameses mentioned in the New Testament. Along with his brother, John, he was one of the disciples originally called by Jesus and was among the privileged group who were close to him. James and John were sons of a prosperous, Galilean fisherman, Zebedee. James witnessed the transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. He was the first disciple to be martyred – killed at the hands of Herod. Tradition has it that his body was taken to Spain, where he’s one of the most popular saints. The other two are James, the Lesser and James of Jerusalem, in case you’re interested.
Our James and his brother John, are the two disciples who feature most in our gospel reading today. Their misunderstanding of Jesus and the nature of his Kingdom is the opportunity for Jesus to teach them - and us - about servanthood. In so doing, Jesus does it again! He turns our worldly values upside down! As he did so often throughout the gospels, and wants to do in our own lives, Jesus reminds his followers that we have much to learn about the nature of his Kingdom. In Matthew’s version of our Gospel reading, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus to ask him for a favor. She wishes her sons to have a place of prominence in Jesus’ Kingdom. Like many of us, she wanted what, she believed in her heart, was the best situation for her children – but she misjudged the nature of the Kingdom. She and they are ambitious and thinking in terms of personal reward and personal distinction. Many of us tend to judge our accomplishments, our success in the world, or our place in society, based on the amount of money in our bank accounts, by how far up the corporate ladder we’ve climbed, the elegance of our home or what influence or control we have of those in our power. To that mother, to the other disciples and down the ages to us, Jesus said – “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” Jesus cites his own life as an example to follow: “...just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” Later, the apostle Paul wrote “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Phil. 2)
David Brooks, in his new book “The Second Mountain”, maintains that those who serve others, who become other-centered, rather than self-centered, exude joy in their lives. “The world tells them to want individual freedom” he says, “but they want intimacy, responsibility and commitment. The world wants them to climb the ladder and pursue success, but they want to be a person for others”. What might this kind of thinking mean for us and the way we conduct our lives? Does that joy become a part of us when we serve others? Jesus makes it clear what he calls us to do.
Just prior to our reading, Jesus and his followers are on their final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus takes the disciples aside and tells them that when he reaches Jerusalem, he will be handed over to the priests and scribes, who will condemn him to death. Surprisingly, immediately following this piece of shocking, unbelievable news, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus asking him for a favor on behalf of her sons – namely that they should be chosen to sit one at his right hand and one at his left in his Kingdom. Rather than becoming angry with her, Jesus kindly and gently asks James and John if they will be able to suffer in the same way that he is to suffer – whether they can drink the same “cup”. But then, Jesus lets them know that the granting of places of privilege in his Kingdom isn’t for him to give. That honor belongs to his Father.
Hearing the mother of James and John trying to curry favor with Jesus, the rest of the disciples are understandably angry and jealous for their own positions in the Kingdom. Their arguing catches Jesus’ attention, and he calls them all to him and explains what they need to do to become great or to become leaders. They need to serve others. He cites his own life as an example of a leader who is on earth to serve, rather than to be served – someone who will give his own life for others.
Greatness doesn’t consist of commanding others to do things for you, but consists of doing things for others. Jesus gives them – and us – a new set of values. How do we live out these values? How many people have we helped? It’s not the number of committees we’ve served on, how many material possessions we may have, or the number of people we may control. Jesus himself serves, as he calls his followers to do. He’s not the conquering earthly king or mighty leader reigning in despotic power. He demonstrates heaven’s greatness in suffering love and sacrificial service.
James and John say that they will be able to suffer, to “drink the same cup” as Jesus, and, in fact, they do. The experiences of James and John reflect the two levels of suffering involved in drinking that “cup”. James endured a short, sharp and bitter struggle. We heard in our second reading this morning how he became the first apostle to die for Jesus. John’s servanthood, or “cup”, is different. He lived a long life - it’s believed that he lived to be nearly 100 years old – survived threats on his life and exile to the island of Patmos. He’s an example of how service can build us, change us and help us bring joy to everyone we meet.
How committed are we to following Christ, to following his commands/edicts/rules for living, to being servants, giving of ourselves, being other-centered? Many of you are involved in a servant ministry – 2nd Helpings, Whitney’s Pantry, coffee hour, the gardening team and the Emmaus Companions are a few that come to mind. There are many examples of people here helping others or working for the good of the community. The diaconate is an example of a servant ministry. At ordination, the Bishop, speaking to the ordinand says “God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely”. Deacons carry out these commands in a variety of ways. There are those who minister to the homeless, while others have a prison, hospital or college presence. Still others work with veterans, the addicted and would-be immigrants. One of my tasks as a deacon, is to serve at the altar – prepare the table for the Eucharist, assist with the distribution of the elements and clean up afterwards. It’s a part of my ministry which gives me joy.
Serving others, as I’m sure you’ve found, brings its own special happiness and joy. David Brooks, again in his new book, maintains that “The more you are living a committed life well, the more joy will be your steady state, the frame of mind you carry around with you and shine on others. You will become a joyful person.” Brooks also maintains that witnessing someone else serving others brings a sense of joy to the on- looker. He tells the story of an incident when a group of people are riding home together through a snowstorm. They pass an elderly lady standing in her driveway, holding a snow shovel. One of the male passengers asks to be dropped off at the next intersection. Thinking that he must be near home, they let him out of the car. Instead of going into some nearby house, he walks up to the lady, takes her shovel and starts shoveling her driveway. One of the passengers in the car who witnesses this deed recalls that she –and I quote - “felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running or skipping and laughing; telling everybody about his deed. I was joyous, happy, smiling, energized.” – end quote – and this reaction was just from witnessing a kind and helpful action!
In this world, this culture, that judges success and happiness by the number of our material possessions, or by the power we wield in our family, neighborhood, job or society, we would do well to remember Jesus’ words to his disciples: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave”. Do we want to experience the joy that comes from serving others? Do we want to live a Christ-like life? Are we ready to have our worldly values turned upside down or do we want the greatness, prestige and accolades of the world? It’s our choice! AMEN
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