Tuesday, February 26, 2013

February 24, 2013 - Walking In the Way of Jesus: Service Over Power

Matthew 20:20-28

Perhaps you saw the recent news story about a pastor who wrote this note on a receipt at an Applebees restaurant in St. Louis.  The receipt generated an automatic gratuity but the pastor scratched it out and wrote I give God 10%.  Why do you get 18%.  Another waitress posted the picture on the internet and when the pastor became aware of it called Applebees to complain and the waitress was fired.

I think everyone would benefit from working a service-oriented job at some point in life.  If you do, or have, you know the many joys of working with the public.  And you know how difficult it is to be in a position of serving others.

In 1980 I was working in a business in Dothan, Alabama.  I can’t say I liked the job, but it was a good experience for me.  I was a floorman for a packing line. 

There were around eight to ten people on the line, packing items in boxes, and my job was to make sure they had all the parts to pack.  They worked on incentive – they were paid for the number of boxes they packed –so they became very unhappy if they ran out of parts and had to stop.  I would start at 5:00 in the morning and it was hustling all day to keep up.  Some of them were on my back all day long, but I learned more about people, and dealing with people, on that job than I did in seminary.  In seminary you don’t generally learn such useful things, such as dealing with people.  When I began the job I complained about it quite a bit, but when I left I thanked God for the opportunity and what I had learned.

This morning, as we continue our series Walking In the Way of Jesus we come to a passage that provides a rather unflattering portrait of two of the disciples of Jesus.  Listen to what Matthew 20:20-28 tells us –

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.
25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.
26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,
27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—
28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Talk about an outrageous request, especially at this point in the life of Jesus.  This was just a short time before his death, when he was trying to make sure his disciples had a grasp on the truths he had been trying to instill in them for the previous three years.  And now, when it his life was just days from ending, Jesus finds that two of his closest disciples – James and John – not only had missed some of the most important lessons, but were demonstrating an attitude that was in complete opposition to the spirit of Jesus.  This is a bit like being a teacher and pouring out your heart on an important topic and a student raises their hand and asks do we have to know this for the test or can we just ignore it?

The request, made on their behalf by their mother, was so extremely ill timed.  They came to Jesus looking for power.  To sit on the right and left hand of someone meant to be granted the most prominent positions, and they still assumed that the mission of Jesus was about political power rather than spiritual power.

So Jesus calls his disciples together – all twelve of them – and says you want to be great?  You want to be powerful?  Then serve others, because that’s the way it works in my kingdom.  My kingdom is not like those of the world, where people seek out power to lord over others.  My kingdom is about serving others.

That’s not very appealing, is it?  I mean really, do you want to serve others?  We want to be served, don’t we?

Jesus is calling us to do what does not come natural to us, turning accepted beliefs around.  He said things such as the first shall be last, if you want to save your live you must lose your life, and in today’s passage whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.

I think that far too often, the followers of Jesus are still missing this point about the kingdom of God – the kingdom of God is about service, not power.  Far too many times, the church in our society has been seduced by the trappings of political power and falling for the belief that political power is the way to the hearts of people.  If that were true, Congress would have a much higher approval rating.  Do you know what their approval rating is?  10%.  That actually surprises me, because I don’t think I know anyone who approves of Congress these days.  It’s not my intent to pick on Congress, but to say that if political power was the way to win the hearts of people it’s a lesson not yet learned by Congress.

And that’s a lesson the church must always keep in mind – it is not our task to exercise power over people, it is not our task to try and control the lives of others, it is not our task to try and manage what others do; our task is to love and serve others and to invite them to become followers of Jesus that they might love and serve others as well.

By most of our contemporary standards – and by the standards of his day – Jesus would have been judged to be a failure.  Only a handful of his followers stayed with him to the end. He was publicly executed in the most horrific fashion known to man.  His few earthly possessions were divided among those who carried out his crucifixion.  His closest friends had abandoned him, and one had betrayed him.  He had to be buried in a borrowed tomb.

But the ministry of Jesus was a success ultimately because of his love and service and because of the vindication of God.  That is our model, not the model of power and success that is so often held up for us.

When I moved to Louisville years ago to finish seminary, I had a hard time finding work to support myself.  I managed to get a job working for a cleaning service, and I was on the cleaning crew at an office building around 3rd and St. Catherine streets.  I was the new person on the crew so guess what job was given to me – cleaning the bathrooms. 

You haven’t really lived until you have cleaned public bathrooms.  I really mean that, you haven’t lived until you’ve cleaned a public bathroom.  If you want your thinking reoriented that’s a job that will work wonders for you.  Our crew was six people, and the head of our crew was a young lady who was probably about twenty-five.  She was a single mom struggling to raise several children on her own, and worked several jobs.  At the end of my first week, as we were sitting in the break room, getting ready to clock out, and she asked me so when are you going to quit?  You made it through a whole week.  Before I could answer she continued – we’ve had a lot of students from that seminary work here.  They don’t last long.  They always quit.  And you know why they quit?  They think they’re too good for this job.  Do you want to know how that makes me feel?

To be honest, I didn’t have a choice.  It was the job I was able to find, but I had been hoping to find another job but after hearing those words I wasn’t too sure.

I think that, far too often, the face of the church that many people have seen is one of power and pride.  Far too often people see churches as wanting to tell them what to believe, how to live, what to do, and what to say.  They have seen too many examples of churches filled with pride and a lust for power and control and too few examples of love and service.

Love and service are the ultimate power.

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