Servanthood over Dominance

sermon on Mark 10:35-45; Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10
A Dorothy Day quotation to frame the day:  “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

I know people who just can’t believe in God, some of them are even in my family. I’m sure you can relate. There are folks who just cannot embrace the notion of an ancient grandpa-figure perched up on a cloud with a great big beard.

Or maybe it’s less of the feeble old guy they can’t quite imagine, and instead they have trouble with descriptions of a stern and vengeful God, the ultimate authoritarian trying to control and manipulate, eager to smite any who refuse to obey. That idea just doesn’t work for some people.

Or, to geek out a bit, from the original Star Wars movie maybe Han Solo speaks for macho atheists. Luke Skywalker says to him “You don’t believe, do you?” And Han Solo, the swaggering starship pilot replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.” That sort of rationality-focused, science-y explanation claims there’s no obvious facts and so that must prove there’s no God or divine influence.

Any of these images of God can indeed be tough to swallow. But that’s small potatoes. With that refusing to believe in God, what proves really objectionable or bizarre isn’t so much trying to conceive some vision of the invisible or version of the supernatural. Much worse is what Jesus has to say today: to be great you have to serve?! The best thing is to be enslaved?!

Thinking of those non-believers, this stuff seems like the really difficult thing to grasp. Way harder than just trying to believe in God, this is what’s complex, confusing, even offensive. In fact, it’s not just hardcore disbelievers who have trouble comprehending this. It’s for many in power in our society, and those who try to take advantage and get ahead, and those who are trying to get a leg up, and people who are seeking some small acclaim and recognition. You know, people like you and like me. This seems not at all what we expect or want or would think to choose.

Jesus says God doesn’t demand or even want our worship, but is all about service. And that couldn’t have surprised us more if he had claimed that God were a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex who’d come bursting out of a volcano and ravage the earth to swallow up everyone who had ever used a swear word. In fact, that’s actually more in line with what we imagine God to be. Not the dinosaur part exactly, but the one who is mighty and merciless, keeping track of our wrongs and holding to account, who has power over our puny, insignificant, little lives. If we were trying to guess our way to God and blessing, we’d get this completely backward.

To put it in more human terms, think about those we look up to and those we think of as pretty great. Think even of those terms—looking up to someone versus looking down on them, being great is mastering your abilities, being better than your opponent. We’re trained to think of power as “power over.”

To put more flesh on this, let’s zero in on one person: the President. In these days of politics and fierce debates, an old rarely used term is of “public servant.” That title seems in line with what Jesus is commending, the important role of assisting people. Now think about that title of “public servant” with another frequent notion that the President is the most powerful person on earth. Would we say that power is because of being the Commander in Chief over the military with the most nukes and highest firepower and biggest budget? Or is the President powerful in regards to being so responsible for the care and wellbeing of so many people, both citizens in this country and those in need around the world? Jesus seems to say that one of these is the right type and role of power, which means the other is not.

But these words from Jesus on servanthood don’t affect only our views of or expectations for political leaders. It hits closer to home, too. Next Sunday, a half dozen of our 10th graders will be affirming this faith we share. They’ve put in the hard background work of the Confirmation program and will be looking forward with an understanding that this faith shapes our attitudes and behaviors, our worldview and what we do with our lives. But are we actually interested in that for these young adults, whom we’re preparing to send out from here?! Isn’t what we normally plan for them to be successful and achieve their dreams, to go to college and do well?

How do we square any of that in the frame from Jesus? We can continue to strive for wisdom and education and a degree, but it’s with the question of how what we’re learning will be able to benefit others. The shared benefit is the same for what we consider a good job. And to do well isn’t just about how big of a paycheck to expect, but is then further backed up with how wealth and income is released, is given away, is a tool not for self-gain but for helping others. Even notions of career advancement or security aren’t analyzed in isolated individualism.

Now, before we claim it’s too counter-intuitive and that our minds don’t work that way, we should notice natural ways this does occur. Mothers cradling babies, caregivers in times of dementia, nurses responding amid sickness, firefighters encountering danger and risk, teachers who forsake salary for students, stopping for an accident, giving blood, offering forgiveness, listening, all of the volunteering that radiates out from this place—these are a few among many obvious examples of un-coerced serving, of responding to a calling, of living out vocations that are about striving for the greater good.

More broadly, recall trees that give us air to breathe, soils that filter groundwater, the pollination of plants by bees (who, in the words of the Easter Vigil service, are precisely labeled as “servants” who give us candle wax and so follow the will of God). So we can observe how giving away our lives for others may be an obvious or, indeed, natural part of our identity. God-given, we might say.

But we also probably find it is countercultural, since we’re surrounded by settings and stories of aggression and violence and competition, in awe of celebrities while denigrating those in prison or on welfare. We buy into that dominant version of our economy and we hypothesize wildlife is “red in tooth and claw.” We may feel that’s what shapes most of what’s around us. And Jesus himself says that we know the way of the world is for rulers to lord it over and act like tyrants.

Not so among you, he says. And not so for him, either. He is Lord not as master but as servant, not as high and mighty but stooping to serve and wash feet. With that, we should notice this isn’t only a rigorous expectation for our lives. It’s not only to redefine cultural standards. It’s not just challenging us to examine how we live. Most fundamentally, this is not counterintuitive or countercultural but counter-theological. It is against faulty statements about God.

Even within our Bible, this still, small voice of lowly serving continues calling out against those others threatening to overtake it and drown it out. Take, for example, our Hebrews reading that marked Jesus’ suffering. It rightly proclaims that he came to know our weakness and cry with us in the face of death and even that he was willing to die for our sake. But Hebrews labels this as a result of “reverent submission.” That subverts the whole thing Jesus actually came to reveal among us. Rather than wanting to give himself for our sake, that verse tries to say Jesus only did it because he obeyed when his big bossy heavenly Father told him he had to do it. That undoes the whole notion of servanthood, again trying to put some ultimate divine master in charge. What Jesus says today argues with that claim from Hebrews. Jesus calls that wrong, a bad understanding, not the truth about God! He embodies and reveals for us God’s motivation not out of fearfulness but because of love and devotion.

The same problem shows up in our Isaiah reading. It’s an amazing passage that we use on Good Friday, words we apply to Jesus as one who suffered on our behalf, “crushed for our iniquities,” wounded because of our sin, a punishment that strives to be for our healing and wholeness. That’s very fitting with how Jesus describes serving, of laying down our lives for each other.

But the Isaiah reading slips in a phrase that undermines it, the insidious assertion that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.” Again, that is wrong. Out of a hard but beautiful reading on willingness to suffer and intercede for the sake of others and trying to make bad situations better, with all of that gets added one lousy phrase. But to crush someone is not the God of Jesus. That is not God’s will being done. That is not how the Spirit of the Lord is operating.

That’s the final word for today: in the all-too-many times when the world seems to be about dominance and oppression, or about hurting someone before they hurt you, or about getting ahead at any expense; for the perspectives that even pop up in faith claiming that God is removed from any sorrow or suffering, much less that God takes sides with the mighty and against the weak or that a terrible thundering God goes about causing pain and destruction, over and against all of that comes Jesus and this amazingly beautiful and caring truth of the God who shaped the world for loving service, a God who serves, who gives God’s own self for you, for the sake of life, through death, and beyond.

Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW #659)

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