The Great Will Serve

Scripture: Mark 10:35-45

I just love the conversation Jesus and his disciples are having in this passage.

First of all, what a bold thing for James and John to say to Jesus.  “Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.”  You can almost see Jesus arching an eyebrow and saying, “Uh huh?  Go on.”

“Jesus,” they say, “we want to sit at your right and your left hand, respectively, in your kingdom.”

This is especially rich because they are on their way to Jerusalem for the last time with Jesus.  In fact, right before this conversation, Jesus has taken his disciples aside and said to them, “This is what’s going to happen.  We’re going to go to Jerusalem, and I’m going to be handed over and arrested and sentenced to death, and then they’re going to kill me, and then I’m going to rise again.”

You can imagine that this was followed by a brief moment of silence as those words sunk in, but a moment later, the disciples’ somber eyes brightened and they said, “Hey Jesus, dibs on the seat next to you!”

“Do you really think you have what it takes?” Jesus asks them.

“Yes!” they say.

“OH GOOD,” says Jesus, “I’m glad to hear that, because you’re going to go through a lot on my behalf.  Also, no, you can’t sit by me.”

Then of course the other disciples catch wind of what is going on, and they get mad, because they would have called dibs too, if they knew that dibs were being called.  James and John, always thinking they’re so great.  But of course, all of them are missing the point.  It’s comedy gold.

“You’re thinking about it all wrong,” Jesus tells the group, as the comedy transitions to teachable moment.  I like to imagine he has to yell this over their arguing, and they get silent again.  “I don’t care about the seating chart in the Kingdom of God.  You all want to be great?  Try being a servant.”

They just wanted to be great.

I thought about starting out today by asking you all what it means to be great.  But we just heard the answer.  It’s also printed in big letters on the cover of your bulletin.  So I think you’d probably get it right.  Maybe a more useful exercise would be to try to think back to how we might have answered that question out of context, on a random Tuesday morning when we haven’t just read this Scripture.

Even then, probably most of us still wouldn’t say the obvious wrong answers, like having a lot of money makes you great, or being very popular and influential makes you great.  Most of us don’t like rich, powerful people who aren’t nice to anyone (Donald Trump’s approval rating notwithstanding.)  Being successful?  Does that make you great?  I guess it depends on what it is you’re successful at.

I suppose if you had asked me this question on a random Tuesday morning I might have said something like, people who are great are people with a lot of power and resources that they use for great good. The kind of people who change the world.

Last spring I read about a girl who went to my high school who had just been accepted into all eight Ivy League schools, which I, by the way, was not.  By the time she graduated she had founded a national organization to encourage girls to get involved in math and science programs.  She also had apparently developed some app that could recognize the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and correctly identify it 96% of the time.[1]  It’s easy to read something like that and be like, oh man, what am I even doing with my life?  It’s also easy to read it and think, that’s the kind of girl who is going to be great someday.  Maybe she already is.

When I read that, what greatness meant to me was the ability to make a tangible difference in the world for good.

But as much as that girl sounds amazing and as much as I’m glad that there are people who make a real difference in this world for good, that’s also not quite what Jesus said.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

And I know that answer.  I know it on Sunday, but maybe not on a random Tuesday morning.  It’s the kind of thing where we can know what Jesus says true greatness is, and still not really believe it.

Because when we talk about the “greats,” we’re still so often talking about gifted athletes, brilliant thinkers, renowned composers, people who have made or are making history in good ways.  But that’s not quite what Jesus said.

We say, “Some people are born great, some people achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” and we are thinking of good leaders, people with authority who make the right decisions in crucial times.  And that’s also not quite what Jesus said.

Jesus says, I don’t care about the seating chart.  I don’t care about the Ivy League, or the Hall of Fame, or the Nobel Prize, or the New York Times Bestseller List.  The Gentiles care about those things—the rest of the world cares about those things—but that’s not the way it will be with you.

If you’re going to follow me, Jesus says, you’re going to have to stop striving for status altogether.  Do you think you can do that?

It’s funny how when Jesus asks James and John if they can drink the cup he is about to drink, they say proudly, “We are able!”  But when he puts it that way, maybe they’re not so sure.  They can accept danger and sacrifice—as long as it makes them great.  But then again, the rest of the world has some respect for martyrs and heroes.  Less so for servants.

Even we would sometimes rather tell the story of Jesus’ heroic death and miraculous triumph over it rather than the time he spent slumming it with the people no one else wanted to hang out with, but those things all go together in a life given completely for others.

I came across one example of greatness when Jon and I went on vacation to Hawaii earlier this year.  I went to Hawaii purely to enjoy the beach and the scenery, no real spiritual goals in mind, but it ended up being almost like a pilgrimage for me, because it was in Hawaii that I learned about a priest named Father Damien.  You might know his story—I had only ever vaguely heard of him.

Jon and I stayed on the island of Molokai, which is the least built-up of the Hawaiian islands.  On its north side, the island has some of the highest sea cliffs in the world.  Below those cliffs, there’s a flat peninsula called Kalaupapa that juts out into rough waters.  These two features made it the ideal place for a leper colony in the late 1800s.  It was too hard to climb up one way and too dangerous to escape the other.  It was a time when leprosy was ravaging Hawaii, and people who got the disease were shipped to Kalaupapa to finish out their lives in quarantine.

People could live for years in the leper colony of Kalaupapa, and with no system of authority in place and inhabitants with no hope for the future, it became a place full of alcoholism, gambling, abuse, and general lawlessness.  One thing the colony did not have was a priest.

Father Damien de Veuster was a young priest from Belgium who had been sent to Hawaii as a missionary and spent several years making the rounds of the Big Island.  When his bishop asked for volunteers to serve the settlement at Kalaupapa, Damien volunteered.  It was only supposed to be for a few months, and then another volunteer would take over—the bishop knew that to send one person there would be a death sentence for them.  So Damien went, but when his time came to leave, he asked to stay.  By that time, he couldn’t leave his people.

For sixteen years, from 1873 to 1889, Father Damien ministered, enforced the law, built churches, houses, a hospital, and a school, cleaned the wounds of his leprous parishioners and cared for them as they died.  Eventually, as fear grew, he wasn’t even allowed to return to Honolulu for confession.  He was as isolated as everyone else.

The inevitable end to that story is that eleven years in, Father Damien contracted leprosy himself, and he died the same slow, painful, disfiguring death that those around him died.  Father Damien, who I had barely heard of, became a hero to me for the way he served the people who no one literally wanted to touch—both in life, and in death.  Like Jesus.  That was a great man.

The imperfect part of this story, I guess, is that Father Damien did achieve fame during his life for his heroism, and he is now, in fact, Saint Damien.  There was some earthly glory to be found in this hard, dangerous, unglamorous life of service.  But it was a pretty high cost, and it was never guaranteed.

I think back to Jesus’ conversation with James and John and how they wanted to share in Jesus’ glory without sharing in his suffering.  They can’t do that: resurrection only comes through death.  But in this case, Jesus also didn’t promise that if they were able to share in his suffering, that they’d earn those prize seats in the kingdom of heaven.  He simply asked them to drink the cup he drank.  They wanted glory without the cross; Jesus gives them the cross and asks them to find glory right there, in that splintered wood.

Closer to home, I read a story about someone who had nothing in common with Father Damien.  He wasn’t a Belgian priest from the late 1800s, he’s a contemporary African-American NFL star.  His name is Jason Brown.  In 2009, he signed a five year, $37 million dollar contract with the St. Louis Rams.  He was the highest paid center in the NFL.

In 2013, four years and $25 million into that contract, Brown left the NFL and bought a farm.  He learned how to farm by watching YouTube tutorials.  His agent told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life.  “No, I’m not,” he said.

Today, he and his wife Tay use their 1000 acres to grow sweet potatoes and other vegetables and donate them to local food pantries.

One reporter asked him: If you’re doing this for God—God cares about the NFL, right?  Lots of people pray to God out there on the field.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of people praying out there,” Brown said.  “But when I think about a life of greatness, I think about a life of service.”[2]

I’m glad that Jason Brown got some publicity for quitting football in order to feed people.  For one thing, it’s great to hear some good news once in a while, and for another, that way I can pass his story on.  But most truly great people will never get their name in a newspaper, much less be canonized as a saint.  Most truly great people probably live wholly uncelebrated lives.  Maybe you know some.  A single mother who sacrifices for her family.  A teacher who devotes her life to helping children get a good start.  The grocery bagger who greets every customer with a smile.  The child who makes friends with the kid no one will play with at recess.  The homeless man who shares his meal with someone else in need.  There is little earthly glory in those things, but it’s possible that they mean even more to Jesus than the billionaire who gives lots of money to charity, or the politician who enacts good and fair laws.

The good news is that if we want to be great—and who among us doesn’t?—God sets a pretty low bar.

You don’t have to be a genius.  You don’t have to win friends and influence people.  You don’t have to make history.

All you have to do is live a life oriented toward others.

That’s not to say it’s easy.  It may very well involve sacrifice.  People may tell you you’re making the biggest mistake of your life.  But in the end, they’re not the ones who get to measure.  It’s not easy, but it does mean greatness is something we can all stop striving for.   We can stop competing with others, and start giving our lives for others, day by day.

If you want to be great, our culture says, make a bunch of money and give some of it to charity.

If you want to be great, our culture says, be the best at what you do.

If you want to be great, our culture says, change the world.

“If you want to be great,” Mother Theresa once said, “pick up a broom and sweep the floor.”

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virginia-student-earns-admission-to-all-eight-ivy-league-schools-and-others/2015/04/10/64e46100-df0d-11e4-a500-1c5bb1d8ff6a_story.html

[2] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/former-nfl-player-farms-for-good/

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This Holy Mystery

World Communion Sunday

Scripture: Isaiah 25:6-9

Sara Miles was a secular, lefty, lesbian, atheist journalist when she wandered into a church in San Francisco for the first time.  In other words, she was exactly the kind of person who she assumed had no business being in church—and for the most part, no interest, either.

She couldn’t have told you why she wandered into church that day, but she did.  And that day, she took communion, not having any idea what it was or what it meant.  And that day, Sara Miles met Jesus, and nothing was the same.

I read her book, Take This Bread, when I was in seminary, and I still consider it one of the two most important books on my spiritual and vocational journey.  Because even having grown up in the church, even having made the decision to go to seminary and prepare for a life of ministry of some sort, I didn’t really get communion either.

I mean, it was a nice symbol, of unity or something.  I told my campus minister that one time and he said, “Don’t discount the power of symbols.”  But mostly, communion meant a longer service once a month.  I was definitely horrified whenever I heard anyone suggest that maybe we should be doing it once a week rather than once a month.  “Then it wouldn’t be special,” I said, although I think what I meant is I was worried church would be long all the time.

But it was that first year of seminary when I started to regularly go to noontime chapel services and there was communion once a week.  And what I began to realize is that taking communion didn’t actually make it seem less special.  Actually, in a way, it made it seem more so.  It made it seem central to the reason we were in church, instead of just something we tacked on sometimes.  It also meant that even if the sermon was mediocre, you could still be glad that you went, because the power and significance of communion had nothing to do with the sermon.

I realized I loved that prayer that I would one day get to say: “God, make this bread and wine be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.”  That that seemed to kind of sum everything up: that we receive God’s grace in order to show others grace.  That God both gives us and makes us into the Body of Christ so that we can be the Body of Christ for other.

My guess is that pre-seminary me was not alone, and that a fair number of us, even if we grew up in church, would have a hard time articulating what communion actually means, or what it is, or why we do it.

You may know that different traditions tend to do things differently, and you may have been a part of different kinds of communion observances.  You may have sat in your pew at a Catholic mass while everyone else around you got up and went forward, because there you need to be Catholic and take a class.  You may have wondered what to do at an Episcopal church, not knowing that any baptized Christian is welcome to receive.  You’ve heard me emphasize that in the United Methodist Church we have an open table, and that anyone who desires a relationship with God is welcome at it.

If you’re Catholic you believe that that bread and wine really do turn into the body and blood of Christ, even if they keep looking like bread and wine.  If you’re Baptist you believe that it’s all just a way to remember what Jesus did for us.  If you’re Methodist, you believe that God is truly present in those elements somehow, though we can’t say quite how.

You may have taken communion drinking from a common cup and hoping it’s true that the alcohol really does kill the germs, or done tiny shots of the blood of Christ, or done this dipping thing we call “intinction” into chalice of Welch’s grape juice. You may have taken chunks of challah or some crumbly homemade gluten-free loaf or little Styrofoam-y wafers, which, as I’ve heard people say, barely lead you to believe they are bread, let alone the Body of Christ.  Once in seminary, when the African student group was leading chapel, communion was yam bread and honey.  If you ever went to church camp you may have even done communion with Oreos and milk or pizza and Coke, though I have to say, that is doctrinally stretching it, even for Methodists.

But the cool thing about communion is that we all do it.

Christians all over the world have this ritual that we repeat over and over, and even though we do it differently, and even though we understand it slightly differently, we all do it, and that’s something that unites all of us as the Body of Christ, which is the point of World Communion Sunday.

For us Methodists, true to our big-tent philosophy, we believe that there are a lot of different ways to think about what communion is and what is happening when we do it.  But they’re not options to choose from.  They all capture some aspect of what’s going on in this very deep, complex, mysterious, yet very simple thing we do.  I’m going to tell you about some of these ways to understand communion, and in case you’re curious, I’m getting these from a document called This Holy Mystery, same as the sermon, which is the definitive UM document on communion.

First of all, communion is thanksgiving.  That’s what the Greek word Eucharist means.  As the story goes, at the Last Supper Jesus took bread, gave thanks—eucharisteo—broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples.  It’s a pattern they have seen before—he did the same thing when he fed the five thousand with the loaves and fishes.  When the early church got together, they told the story again and broke bread and were thankful.  If you pay attention you know that when I get behind the altar there and begin talking, I invite you to join me in the Great Thanksgiving.  And together, in my parts and your parts, we tell the story of how God has been at work saving us since the dawn of creation and how God is still at work saving us today.  And hopefully, if we are paying attention, we are thankful.

Relatedly—communion is remembrance.  “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says to his disciples as they eat and drink.  And we remember, as part of that story we tell, that Jesus lived and died for us, that after that dinner we reenact, he headed to Gethsemane and was arrested and put on a cross.  We remember that he suffered at the hands of a broken world we helped create, and that he rose again proving that God’s love, not our brokenness, had the last word.   But when I say communion is remembrance, I don’t just mean like a Civil War reenactment.  I mean muscle memory.  I mean the kind of remembering that makes something real now and not just then.

Shortly after the resurrection, we read in Luke, two disciples were walking down the road to Emmaus, and a stranger joined them and started talking to them.  They didn’t know who it was, until they sat down to eat together, and the stranger took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.  And they went out and told all their friends how Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  They knew, because they remembered. (Luke 24:13-35)

We can look at communion as a sacrifice.  We don’t offer burnt offerings, here, like in Old Testament times, but we do re-present Christ’s sacrifice, his body and blood, given for us; we also join in it by offering ourselves.  “We offer ourselves as a living sacrifice,” I’ll say in the Eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving.  Coming to the table signifies our own desire to have a relationship with God, to be reconciled to those around us, to receive God’s grace, and to live by that grace.  We come to God’s table and we ask God to not only feed us, but use us.  That we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. 

As I alluded to before, communion is just that—union, unity, community.  Nora Ephron once said that “a family is a group of people who eat the same thing for dinner.”  We know—and this is true, I think, for all cultures and times—that eating together is a powerful thing.  Friendship happens over the table maybe more than anywhere else, and the act of eating together is kind of a social equalizer.  It’s not the popular kids and the band geeks in the high school cafeteria; it’s not one person at the hot new farm-to-table restaurant and another person picking up sandwiches from A-SPAN in the park; communion is all of us, eating together.  And it’s all of us, Christians around the world, eating this same meal, even in our different ways and places.  And it’s the same God who created all of us in God’s image, and the same Christ we strive to follow, and the same Spirit that makes us, out of many, one.

Communion is a vehicle of God’s grace.  Remember, back when I was doing the series on what it means to be Methodist, I talked about means of grace?  John Wesley said that although you could encounter God’s grace anywhere, in anything, but if you were looking for it, you might as well look for it in the places God specifically promised we would find it.  Those are places like worship, small group study, private prayer time, works of mercy, and, especially, the sacraments, by which Methodist mean baptism and communion.  A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

As Methodists, we don’t believe that a loaf of bread really and literally turns into Christ’s body, but we do believe that God is present in the bread and the juice.  They become Christ’s body and blood for us, and they become the grace that welcomes us, convicts us, forgives us, heals us, unites us, strengthens us, and leads us forward into mission and service.  And it’s something that happens little by little, as we receive this grace over and over, that as This Holy Mystery puts it, we are “progressively shaped into Christ’s image.”  Maybe that’s why John Wesley told us to partake of communion as much as possible.

My absolute favorite understanding of communion is that it represents something more to come.  When we think of heaven, I think the image that most often comes to mind is angels sitting on a cloud and playing their harps.  But in the Bible, heaven is depicted as a feast, which I think is much more attractive.  That’s why I picked the passage from Isaiah we heard.  It’s an image of what God has in store, even though all the hardships people are currently suffering, and it’s an image of God providing abundant food for God’s people.  Later, in Luke (14), we hear that the Kingdom of God is like a banquet, to which all the “wrong” people are invited.  To me, that takes the idea of unity and community one step further.  It’s not just an ideal we try to live up to now.  It’s how it’s going to be in the future.  It’s how God is going to make it: people of all different colors, from all different backgrounds, from all different places in the social hierarchy, eating together, and there is enough, and there is abundance.  That’s heaven—that’s the Kingdom of God.  And when we have communion, we’re practicing that now.  We’re getting ourselves ready.

Again, above all, communion is a mystery.  How is it that God come to be present with us in some bread and wine?  Well, God does.  It’s not necessarily something to try to wrap our heads around.  As the writer Shauna Niequist puts it, “Food is the thing we do when traditional language fails.”  Sometimes, when we can’t articulate anything, when we don’t even know what we believe anymore, the fluffy, chewy texture of bread and the sweetness of wine is all we need to know of who God is and how God loves us.

Sara Miles, that atheist who walked into a church one day and met Jesus, kept coming to church.  She kept coming back for more.  And then she thought that maybe communion didn’t have to end with the church service.  And she thought maybe it should extend to all of God’s children in need in the neighborhoods around them.  So she started a food pantry out of that same church.  It became a community, with rich and poor and black and white and Asian and Latino and old and young and male and female working and serving and feasting together.  She fed people, like she had been fed.  And they fed other people, like they had been fed, too.

And that was what changed my mind about communion, because that’s the kind of thing it has the power to do.  It can take people and catch them by surprise with the grace it offers.  It can recall and continue that story of salvation that has been playing out since the beginning of time.  It can take an unlikely group of people and sit them down at a table together and make them one body.  And it can make that body move together to take that same grace out into a world that needs it.

They may seem like simple things, a little bread and a little juice.

But for all of us, all over the world, with all our different customs and all our different doctrines, for all of us, they can become the body and blood of Christ, offered to us, that we may be for the world the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.