SERMON ~ 10/17/2021 ~ “Service”

READINGS: 10/17/2021 ~ Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24) ~ Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45.


“Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Promised One has come not to be served but to serve—….” — Mark 10:43a-45. [1]

In my comments today I will sharing two very personal stories about my family. But you need to hear some background information for these stories to make sense. I am the first of three children. My brother is 14 months younger; my sister 4 years younger.

The stories: my mother died at a relatively young age, 58. I was 35. She had cancer of the bladder which, even when she died in 1983, was fatal only 10% of the time. She simply was on the wrong side of the bracket when it came to those odds.

Not long before Mom died, and she knew she was dying, she had a conversation with me which I think was cathartic for her. My judgment is she felt had to say this to someone. In the chat my mother described her three children in this way.

She labeled me, her firstborn, as her experiment. She had not seen a child being raised as she, herself, was the lone child of a single mother, so I was her experiment. She said my brother, the second child, was her baby. Then she said my sister, the third born, was her enjoyment.

I am not saying that any of this was good or even healthy. But I am convinced she was trying to explain how she related to us as individuals. I think what she said illustrates how much she loved each of us differently and loved each of us deeply. (Slight pause.)

Here’s a second story about my family background. When I was five or so my father had what they called in the early 1950s a nervous breakdown.

Today we would have recognized this as the onset of a mental illness known as Passive Dependency or Passive Aggression. As can be the case with mental illness, he remained functional in society but he was clearly hurting.

One consequence of this was, as the next oldest male in the family in this very different era, the 50s, the family members looked to me for leadership. Or at least they invested me with and groomed me for that role.

I could tell tales about what that looked like. Suffice it to say Mom chose to have the aforementioned conversation with me. It illustrates my place in this family structure.

But my place in that structure is not the point. The point is in this structure I fulfilled a leadership role. That was certainly true by the time I was in my early teens.

I need to be clear— I am not saying any of that was good or healthy when it comes to family dynamics. I am offering these stories to illustrate two aspects of family dynamics. And not just in my family but in any family, family dynamics develop.

One aspect of these dynamics could be labeled as relationship— that story about my mother. A second aspect of these dynamics could be labeled as structure, the story about my father and leadership. Relationship and structure are present in all families. In fact, relationship and structure are present in any organization and in any church.

That opens this question. “Which will be the driving force in any family, in any institution, in any church— relationship or structure?” (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Mark. “Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Promised One has come not to be served but to serve—….” (Slight pause.)

There are three scenes in this reading. First, there is the request of James and John for prominence. There is also the anger expressed by other disciples at this audacious request. Last we have Jesus. (Quote:) “Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest;….”

Please note, Jesus does not rebuke the brothers. We might want to— not Jesus. But Jesus also confronts them with reality.

And then there is the anger on the part of the other disciples. It’s likely this reflects jealousy rather than indignation— jealousy about the proposed structure.

Again, Jesus resists a rebuke. Jesus instead uses the pagan authorities as models of how not to exercise leadership. So Jesus does it again: confronts with reality.

You see, the criterion for leadership is not effectiveness of structure, who gets the job done the quickest, who has the better program. Rather, in the Dominion of God we are called to be faithful.

The text even says faithfulness is a style of leadership, a style which runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of the day. I would suggest it also runs counter to the prevailing wisdom today since effectiveness, speed, programs are highly valued.

This may not make much sense to those who are stuck on effectiveness, speed, programs. And these all consider the bottom line… but we need to realize all these go no further than the bottom line.

In the Dominion of God the needs of people and how service can be rendered to meet those needs are vital. In short, priority is given to relationships. (Slight pause.)

I want to go back to the earlier discussion about my family. Clearly there was structure. But the problem with that structure was not even the fact that when I was young the family turned to me.

The problem with that structure is my family was not looking for a leader. The problem of any structure which does not rely on relationship is that structures which rely on effectiveness, speed, programs are simply in search of a fix. Structures which try to find fixes also try to find someone to fix things. These are structures in search of a hero.

Let me substitute a theological term for the word hero. To be searching for a hero, searching for someone to fix things, is to be looking for… a savior. Jesus does not have a hero complex. In fact what makes Jesus Savior is a willingness to be a servant.

We call Jesus Savior because of the willingness displayed by the Christ to concentrate on relationships, explore relationships, be in relationships, a willingness to say we need to support one another. The reason we call Jesus Savior is because of the willingness displayed in the Christ to not be served but to serve. (Slight pause.)

I have one more observation. Did James, John and the disciples completely miss the point of the preaching of Jesus or the actions Jesus took? Did they completely miss the point when Jesus blessed the children who seemed a nuisance, miss the point Jesus made when Jesus spoke to the rich man about the need to break with possessions?

My answer is ‘no,’ they did not miss the point. Rather, they willfully ignored the point. Why? You see, we are human.

We are imperfect and in our imperfection we believe structure is or at least can be a perfect solution. The very thought of structure gives us great comfort. We assume structure will be a solution for everything.



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