Upside Down: “Service”

Upside Down: “Service”
A Message on Matthew 20:20-28
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 18, 2018
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 20:20-28 (NRSV)

 

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

 

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There is a new television series that doesn’t air over the air or even on any of the cable or satellite channels. It’s called “Returning the Favor” and it is shown on, of all things, Facebook. It features Mike Rowe, former host of “Dirty Jobs” and the narrator of “Deadliest Catch,” who travels the country looking for “do-gooders” (their term, not mine). Mike and his film crew interview them, and then usually leaves them a big check to help with their costs of “doing good.”

 

The episode I watched Thursday had them in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania talking to Carol Stark, known locally as “The Crazy Lady.” She got that nickname because Carol spends her time, and her money, working with the street kids in that county. She works with homeless teenagers, teenagers who have gotten into trouble with the law, ones who have gotten kicked out of school.

 

And she doesn’t just work with them, she teaches them to work. One student talked about how he got in trouble with the law and owed a $5,000 fine. He was homeless at the time and there was no way he was going to be able to pay the fine. Then Carol went to the judge and talked the judge into having the young man work community service instead of paying a fine. (Mike asked the young man how much community service offset a $5,000 fine, and the young man replied, “A lot. A whole, whole lot.”)

 

Carol taught the young man how to work. He had never worked before in his life. She taught him the importance of work, the value of a job well done, and how work can develop self esteem and values.

 

And that was just one teenager. Carol had helped so many teens in that community. Hundreds. No one else in that community cared about these teenagers, but Carol did.

 

I bring up Carol as an example of service to others because we are continuing our sermon series “Upside Down” by looking at the topic of service today.

 

Today’s scripture from Matthew’s Gospel intrigues me in a couple of aspects. The first is that the disciples were being so competitive at… well… being disciples. There was one-upmanship going on among the twelve, pushing and jockeying for positioning about who was better than who.

 

It’s like elementary kids competing for who will be first in line. At Mini-Methodists on Wednesday the adult volunteers usually will alternate on who gets off of the bus or the people mover first. Last rows first, or first rows first. And the kids have figured this out, so when they get on the bus they choose their seats based on who they think will get off the bus first. (They hate it when I drive or ride because I will tell them “the middle” or the opposite of what they are expecting.)

 

Why is it in our human nature to be so competitive? And you would think of all people that the disciples wouldn’t have the problem, but they did.

 

Now here’s the thing I find humorous about today’s scripture. James and John are the sons of Zebedee who leave their father’s fishing boat to follow Jesus. Now it’s not the disciples themselves who approach Jesus asking that they be selected as better disciples than all the rest, but it’s their mother! It’s their mom!

 

These are grown men and yet here comes mom (I can just see her tugging on James’ earlobe to come on) asking Jesus to place her sons over the other disciples.

 

What I wonder is if it was James and John’s idea for mom to approach Jesus and ask him the question, or if it was mom’s idea? Was she wanting a bumper sticker to put on her donkey that said “My sons sit at the right and left hand of Jesus.” Was it her idea to do it so that she could have bragging rights about her kids?

 

Or was it the brothers’ idea to have mom approach Jesus and ask him because they were either two scared to do it themselves or thought that mom would increase their chances of being the “chosen ones.”

 

The great thing about the situation is Jesus’ response. Now I often wonder if he did this: (show photo of Jesus doing a facepalm). We don’t know if he rolled his eyes or did a facepalm or not, but we do know that his response was that the positions of prestige were not his to give, but his father’s.

 

Word gets back to the other 10 disciples about what ol’ James and John tried to do, and as expected they get pretty ticked about it. But then Jesus uses the moment to do a little teaching. “…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

 

This had to be so upside down, so different from worldly thinking, the disciples had to go, “Say what?”

 

It’s track season now. Jesus is saying that instead of giving the trophies and honors to the athletes that finish first, give it to the person that crosses the line last. Can you hear the announcer over the PA system, “… And in last place in the 1500 meter dash, with a time of 2 hours, 13 minutes, and 43 seconds, John James from Zebedee High School.”?

 

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Not from our worldly thinking, no. But when it comes to serving others, it makes perfect sense in heavenly thinking.

 

The last shall be first. The meek will inherit the earth. The greatest will be a servant. The first will be a slave.

 

Jesus said he came “not to be served but to serve.” As Christians, as followers of Jesus, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to do the same. We shouldn’t seek to be served, but should seek to serve.

 

My late mom not only believed this but she also lived it. There were eight of us in the family (6 kids and 2 adults) so mom had to cook a lot of food. When we would have fried chicken she would cut up and fry three chickens. (For you young folks, chicken didn’t always come already cut up.) Mom always chose what she called the “boney” pieces, the back and ribs and necks. She said it was because that’s what she liked, but I’m pretty sure she chose those so that her family could enjoy the more premium pieces of chicken. She put our needs before her own.

 

As Christians today, how are we living out servant leadership? How are we walking in the Jesus Way of seeking not to be served, but to serve? How many of us are sitting at the table waiting to eat instead of getting up, giving others our seats, and being servants and serving the Bread of Lifo to them?

 

It’s hard to be a servant in today’s world. We have become such a consumeristic society that even subconsciously we view the world in terms of what can benefit us, not how we can benefit others.

 

It has even infiltrated religion. We come to church with an attitude to get, not to give. We come looking to be fed, to see what we can get out of it, what’s in it for “me.” When we do we miss that worship is giving to God and giving to others, and that it is through giving that we receive, that we are fed.

 

We look inward in the church, instead of looking outward toward those in our community who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

To me on of the most beautiful acts Jesus did with his disciples is when he washed their feet. Found in the 13th chapter of John’s gospel, this act of service is so humbling, so condescending and self-effacing, that it’s hard for us to really wrap our minds around it.

 

The job of foot washing at that time in history was given to whoever was lowest on the social pecking order. Usually a slave or a servant, there was no prestige in washing the feet of people who wore sandals and walked around on gravel and dirt all day.

 

And yet that’s what Jesus himself does at the Last Supper. He washes the feet of his disciples, even the feet of Judas, the one he knows will betray him.

 

And then he gives them this command: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

 

Servanthood. It’s an integral part of being a Christian. Jesus came to be a servant, and was a servant. In the same way we should be servants, too.

 

So my challenge to you this week is to be a servant. Have a servant’s heart like Jesus does. Have a servant heart like “The Crazy Lady” Carol Stark of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We are surrounded in our community by people who are hurting because they don’t know the love that God has for them. Instead of being competitive about how good a Christian we are, like James and John (and their mother) did, let us seek to wash the feet of those in our community who do not know Jesus Christ. (Maybe not literally, but you know what I mean.)

 

“…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

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