The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Jesus’ disciples just don’t get it. This is the third time he has told them that his destiny – and theirs, by extension – is the cross. The last time he brought it up, Peter rejected it out of hand, and Jesus slapped Peter down, calling him “Satan.”
The disciples still clung to the idea that they would end up on top of the world with Jesus. In today’s gospel, James and John are blunt about it: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in glory.” In Matthew’s version of this, they get their mother to make the request.
What were they thinking? Jesus talked all along about the last being first and self-denial and becoming like children and taking up your cross and drinking the cup of suffering that he would drink. And they still thought would get a crown and a throne? What is their problem?
Finally Jesus spells it out. “Look. We’re not like the Gentiles. Your position as an apostle is not going to be one of authority and greatness. You are to be least of all, a servant. Haven’t you heard a word of what I’ve been saying all along, haven’t you watched me in action?”
It’s amazing how many of Jesus’ disciples today, especially clergy, still don’t get this.
We humans are drawn like a moth to the flame towards power, glory, and all things grand. Even in the church, where our whole purpose is to serve God and the world, we want to become successful servants.
We’re like the missionaries who went to do good and ended up doing very well. In serving God, we want to do big things, to make an impact. Little acts of kindness are nice, but come on, let’s raise some money, start a movement, and change the world!
But in talking about servanthod, Jesus points downward, to the lowly, the small, the invisible, someone like the guy sweeping the sidewalk in front of your hotel, that invisible nobody who doesn’t lift up his eyes when you pass by. He’s doing a small thing just because it needs to be done.
Jesus said if you give even a cup of water to another, you serve God. Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. Quietly visit a sick person, feed a hungry soul, or give clothes to someone in rags.
It’s not so easy to live this way. We’re so wired to think that bigger is better. It’s hard to accept ourselves as the least of all, doing little things that somehow still matter.
A group of us just got back from our annual diocesan convention in El Paso. There, I was reminded of what a small and insignificant group we are, but how seriously we take ourselves. In a world of nearly 7 billion people, we were a few hundred people in a room, that’s all, one diocese out of a hundred in a small denomination that most people don’t know anything about.
And yet in this hotel ballroom we obscure few get all worked up about little things that seem so important to us. It was a tempest in a teapot. And I was thinking “What difference can we possibly make in this world?” If we are called to be servants, and all we’ve got is this hokey, bumbling little diocese to work with, what’s the point?
We could say the same thing about this parish, our jobs, or our lives, for that matter. What difference can we make? What’s the point of small, insignificant servanthood?
You’ve probably heard the story of the two people who were walking along the beach, and there were thousands of starfish that had washed up in the tide. They would, of course, dry up and die.
As the two strolled and talked, one of them kept picking up the occasional starfish and throwing it back into the sea. The other asked “Why are you doing this? There are thousands of these, and this is only one beach. What difference can it possibly make?” As the other picked up another starfish and tossed it into the water, he replied “It makes a difference to this one.”
When one of you visits a parishioner in the hospital, you aren’t going to create a more caring healthcare environment for all. When one of you even goes to Ecuador or Haiti or Nicaragua and helps with a local project in some town there, you are not going to make much of a dent in the suffering of the world, or even in the suffering of that country.
But when we serve in our small ways, we make a difference where we are. This always matters to the person we help, the causes we support. We are not called to change the world, but simply to be faithful where we are, in our time in history, in our little corner of the world, and to leave the results to God.
What this means is that we must learn to serve without being attached to the results. After all, every improvement is temporary. The world is never all fixed up. There is no payoff, there is nothing we can point to and say “There, I did it. I improved the world.” There is only the serving. We have no control over the results of our service.
Something that helps us with this perspective is in the well-known passage of the 25th chapter of Matthew that I referred to earlier. Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, take in the stranger, or visit the prisoner or the sick, we have done it to him.
What does this mean? Is he saying that by serving others, we remember that God is there watching us and is pleased with what we’re doing?
I think Jesus meant exactly what he said. When we serve another person, that person is Christ. Not a reminder of Christ, but Christ himself. He inhabits the person who is being served. Every person, every worthwhile issue we get involved in, every ministry each one of you participates in here is God. God is not off in heaven somewhere, but incarnate, in the flesh, here and now.
So when I looked around the room in the hotel in El Paso, I was looking at God. When you take communion to an elderly member in her home, you’re looking at God. When you write a check to support this community, you’re giving money to God.
I don’t know about you, but when I look this way at other people, at the world I live in, I feel differently. No longer am I just seeing the other as someone with attractive or annoying personal traits, as someone who might or might not appreciate or benefit from what I’m doing.
Instead, I look through their outward form, as it were, into them, and see God. Then their face, their personality, even their faults and struggles become part of the complex and beautiful manifestation of God that this whole world is. All creation is God’s body, a glorious and complicated and interconnected body. And each individual is a part of it.
When devout Hindus and Buddhists greet one another, they put their hands together prayerfully and bow, saying Namaste, which means “the God in me reverences the God in you.”
If we can see the world this way, then we’re not serving because we think we can change the world, or because we think we should in order to be a good person. We serve others as an act of worship. Just as we might light a candle as an act of devotion, we touch another with kindness as an act of devotion to God.
This becomes an attitude, a reverent way of living, where it is natural to seek not our own will but the good of all, as an act of continual devotion to the One who is in all.
Can you try to look at the world this way? Can you look beneath the surface and honor the Spirit within? When you do, there is no longer any small or big, significant or insignificant. It’s all part of one divine reality.
There is no longer any question of whether it is more important to pass a bill in Congress or give a cup of water to someone who is thirsty. It is all the same thing. It is all worship. It is all service to God.
In today’s gospel Jesus strips away our aspirations of glory. He does not do this to condemn us, but to get us in touch with reality. He wants us to wake up and serve the divine presence that is everywhere, in everyone. He wants our daily lives, our every action, to be a humble act of worship. This is our purpose, and it is when we are most alive.