Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Serving Others Isn't Easy

A few weeks ago, fitness guru Ogie Shaw came to our Rotary Club to talk about his plan for ending the obesity epidemic in our nation. Perhaps you've seen his TED talk. He said several interesting things, but my favorite thing that he said is this: the biggest mistake fitness instructors have made in the last few decades is to convince you that exercise is supposed to be fun. It's not. If you're having fun exercising, then you're not doing it right.

Our Monday-morning bible study is reading Kee Sloan's book Jabbok, and there's a part in the book in which a wise old man shares his perspective on the Christian faith with a senior class of seminarians. Jake, a retired black tent preacher, has been challenged by a curmudgeonly seminary professor to teach his students what really matters in ministry. In response, he delivers a sermon about the centrality of God's love, in which he sums up his wisdom with a long list of proverbs, including one that I particularly enjoyed: "If you ain't joyful being a Christian, you ain't doing it right."

The gospel lesson appointed for the feast of St. Bartholomew (Luke 22:24-30) is a familiar passage in which Jesus confronts the disciples about who is the greatest. We know the story. They were arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest, and Jesus responds by telling them that "the greatest must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves." I think we've become so familiar with Jesus' servant-leadership model that we've forgotten what it's really about. I think a second look at this passage--and at the nature of Christian discipleship--teaches us that, if being a Christ-like servant isn't hard, dirty, exhausting work, then we're not doing it right.

The phrase in the gospel lesson that stuck out to me this morning is Jesus' response to his own rhetorical question. He says to the disciples, "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." Who is greater? We all know where this is headed. We know what the "right" answer will be before Jesus even finishes asking the question. Jesus is a servant, and we're supposed to be servants, too. Because of that, I have a tendency to jump over the intervening statement, but I think it's worth pausing long enough to embrace the counter-cultural reality that Jesus' servant ministry represents. Who is the greatest? It's the one at the table. It's the one who sits and enjoys a fine meal with his friends. It's the one who places the order, waits for the meal to be delivered, asks for more wine, enjoys the food, and then pays the bill before leaving to go on to whatever evening activities await him. The servant has to stay behind and clean up the mess. Who is greater? There really isn't any doubt. There's not supposed to be.

But Jesus doesn't sit in that place. He is among us as one who serves. Unfortunately, the exalted status with which we hold Jesus makes it hard to remember the basic, simple, nitty-gritty nature of servant ministry. When following Jesus, it's a lot more fun to pursue the resurrected, triumphant king than the table servant. We cloak ourselves in mock-humility because we know what the ultimate outcome will be--a seat at the banquet table. But using servant ministry as a way to follow the victorious Jesus into God's kingdom is a lot like clamoring for the seats at his right hand and at his left.

I don't really know what you're supposed to call a step-cousin, but I didn't like mine very much. After my father's mother died, my grandfather remarried. His wife became my grandmother, and eventually her daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy a year or two younger than me. We didn't spend much time together, but, when we did, we were competing for our grandmother's affection. We raced to see who would open the door for her. We bumped each other out of the way to see who would help her with her chair. We fought for the opportunity to set the table and take out the garbage. Neither of us really wanted to be helpful, but we did it to win her esteem.

These days, service work is the cool thing to do. Servant leadership is a popular philosophy taught in management courses and leadership seminars. If you want to get into a prestigious college, you need to have some service work on your resume, and, if you want to be revered as a top executive, you'd better figure out how to show your shareholders that you have a servant's heart. But Jesus didn't come to transform servanthood, somehow making it chic and glamorous. He didn't give his life for the world so that executives could climb the corporate ladder until they ascended to a corner-office throne room. In the incarnation, he gave up his position and status as Son of God to become a slave to the whole world, and he did it to show us who God really is--the one who gives all he has for the sake of the other. God's nature is to care for the needs of the world. Paradoxically speaking, God's nature is to be servant of all.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus isn't simply a journey towards paradise. It's a path that leads to the recovery of our true nature. There is a banquet table prepared for us in heaven, but our servanthood is more than a means to an end. Jesus shows us that our true place is not at the table but as the servant of others. We are baptized into his death and sacrifice not so that we can be transported instantaneously into heaven but so that we might die to the world--yield all we have in the service of others just as Jesus did. This is where we belong.

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