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Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost, October 18, 2015

When I was 12, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was fascinated by this family and all its troubles. I even wrote a note of condolence to them and got a black-rimmed note back. That Christmas, when my mother asked me what I wanted her to get for me, I said I wanted Kennedy memorabilia. Mother didn’t say that I did not know what I was asking for, but she steered me along another path toward my usual Christmas gifts of a book, some clothes, a stocking filled with goodies and other small gifts. She knew what I was asking for was hero worship and she didn’t want that for me, especially since it was about a family who had experienced so much tragedy. Gifts featuring the Kennedys wouldn’t do me any good; they were not what I should have.

The disciples come to Jesus and ask him to do whatever they want. He is not about to agree up front and asks, like my mom, what they want him to do for them. They want to sit at his right hand and his left hand in glory. They have dreams of power and prestige. They want to be up front to show that Jesus values them and that they have served him well. The disciples have not been listening to Jesus talking about the kingdom way. He has mentioned welcoming children twice. To welcome the weak is not about power, but about service. They also have reacted badly to Jesus’ passion predictions. After the first one, Peter rebukes Jesus. After the second one, they argue about who is the greatest. And just before this exchange Jesus has presented his third and most graphic description of his passion.

Jesus knows that what they ask is not good for them – a free pass to greatness that doesn’t lead through suffering and Good Friday (Charles Cousar). It will block them from being good disciples. So what he does for them is tell them the truth – only they still don’t see what it means. When he asks them if they can drink the cup he drinks and be baptized with the baptism he is baptized with, they respond without thinking that they can. And Jesus gives them what they need – an assertion that as his followers they too will face the suffering and death he faces as Messiah. If Jesus had put the message straight to them, they might have drawn back, but they still think that they are getting what they want Jesus to do for them. In fact, the other 10 disciples are mad because they didn’t get there first.

So Jesus says the disciples will be able to follow him and do as he does, but he cannot grant who sits at his right and who sits at his left. That is God’s decision. And since Jesus’ moment of his greatest glory was his moment of greatest weakness, he was flanked by two thieves, one on his right and one on his left.

Jesus has followed each of the disciples’ inappropriate actions after the passion predictions with a teaching and this is no exception. Jesus talks about the difference between the gentile rulers, who lord it over their subjects and expect to be served, while those that are headed toward life in the kingdom of God are to be servants of all, even slaves of all. Jesus never once asked to be served in his ministry. His great deeds of power were all done in service to others and his teachings were to prompt people to change their views and do the same. Because the disciples would be leaders and the challenge was to servant leadership (James J. Thompson). This servanthood was not a lowly position, but it was to be done with humility. The disciples who would become apostles would do miracles for people and that would give anyone a heady feeling of power, but Jesus reminds them that even the big things are about service to the world, about getting people to accept the kingdom of heaven.

Servanthood is about taking care of people’s physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs. It is about healing them and returning them to their community. It is about accepting them as they are. It is about leading them to the kingdom of God. In other words servanthood is about wholeness, and the disciples have to lose their need for power and glory to be whole themselves before they can help anyone else.

Jesus’ particular form of service was to give his life as a ransom for many (Clifton Black). He came to go through the baptism of death and drink the cup of suffering to give us new life and liberation from all that binds us to this world. Participating in the sacraments of the church is a joyful thing, but it is also a time to remember Christ’s suffering and death and be thankful.

What do we want Jesus to do for us? It is the human condition to want to be recognized, to be in the spotlight, even if it is just our 15 minutes of fame. We want to be important to someone who is important to us. Jesus doesn’t give us up front power and glory; we get that from our work of serving the world – and often suffering – for his sake and the sake of the gospel. But Jesus’ love for us makes us feel loved and cared for in a way no earthly relationship can do. We are loved and accepted without reservation, just as Jesus loved the disciples, even though he got exasperated with them when they didn’t understand so much.

What do we want Jesus to do for us? We might want a peaceful life, free of worries and concerns, free of the nagging anxiety that causes us to be up at night pacing or makes us worried during the day, not able to be our best selves. Jesus reminds us that his presence is what we need to have peace. Jesus is there to cast our burdens on. If we have a worry or concern, we give it to Jesus and he will help us make a decision. As a card on my bulletin board says, “If it matters to you, it matters to him”.

What do we want Jesus to do for us? We might want to be delivered from a crisis situation, such as a job loss, but Jesus does not always work in the way we expect him to. We may not get a job when we want one, but Jesus will be in the midst of that with us, helping us be the people God wants us to be, even in our serious situation. It is hard to come to grips with the way Jesus works in these situations. But Jesus is constrained by the situation in the world and cannot zip a job on our desk right away if there are no jobs. He can, however, hold us up as we look and can send people our way to be with us.

What do we want Jesus to do for us now? We may have a sick relative we want Jesus to heal. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But we know that whatever happens, Jesus makes us and our loved one whole in this life or in the age to come.

What do we want Jesus to do for our church community? We want to be the people God wants us to be, to do whatever we discern God is calling us to do. We want to reach out into the community and be servants – servants who spread the message to those inside and outside the church that Jesus Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many, and that we can lead new and better lives through God’s grace. To do that effectively, we need to step up and give of our money, our time and our talent to help this church continue its ministries that have so much impact on the community and begin more. We need as much energy as you can give, as many hours as you can give and the generous contribution of your dollars in thanksgiving for God’s work among us. As the St. John’s collect says “we want to welcome all who enter here so that Saint John’s may grow and accomplish all you have for us to do”.

Servanthood is the key to the kingdom. When we serve others as Christ served us we are doing as Jesus would have us do. We are shaping a new world, not based on tyranny or oppression but on inclusion and love for all. “What do you want me to do for you”, Jesus asks. “Help us serve” is our answer.

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited:
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), p. 555
James J. Thompson, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 190
Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4, Exegetical Perspective, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 193