We’ve been hearing for several weeks now on Sunday mornings about how in the Kingdom of God our expectations will be reversed. Think back over our recent gospels and you’ll hear it loud and clear. If you want to be first you have to be last. If you save your life you will lose it. If you don’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child you will never enter it. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. It’s almost as though Jesus were trying to tell us something.
And hearing this week after week, the message may begin to sink in. Perhaps it began to sink in for the disciples: the last shall be first and the first shall be last. This is an extraordinary promise for all of us who feel that we are lost or losing, who are excluded from what looks like a position of importance. It’s great news for all of us when we have nothing special to recommend us, no great power or strength or even virtue to call our own.
But how often are we able to consider these gospel words as something more than a fallback for people who don’t get what they want in this life? How often are we able to consider the possibility that, instead of being a consolation prize for us when we don’t have power, these gospel promises are actually sources of power? Can we contemplate the idea that the only real power we may have in this life comes from the paradoxical grace God gives us in the act of surrendering?
Another way to put this: if you had wealth and influence and strength in abundance and could dominate others when you wanted to, would you turn to service anyway? Would humility look like your greatest strength?
I think that’s something of what Jesus asks of James and John and the disciples who resent them in today’s gospel. Notice that he doesn’t really challenge them when they say that they are able to drink the cup he is to drink. He doesn’t put them in their places, as indeed he could. He doesn’t roll his eyes, as I surely would. No, Jesus lets their arrogant statement fall by the wayside. It’s not important, I guess, to get into a contest of strength and will with James and John. It’s not important to Jesus to teach them that he is more powerful than they are. Though he obviously is. He just lets all of that go.
Instead, Jesus teaches them what power is. He teaches them that power—God’s power—is closely linked with the ability to serve and maybe the desire to serve. That’s it. Not the ability to serve more heroically or more humbly than another person. Not the ability to get our needs met by serving others, though some of our needs may be met that way. Not the ability to endure more suffering than anybody else —Jesus sort of concedes that to James and John. It’s just service. It’s identifying with the needs of other people, for their benefit.
It’s like what a teacher does when the teacher’s focus is on learning rather than on winning followers or looking smart. It’s like what a musician does when the musician’s focus is not on the sound of her own playing. It’s like what parents do when they let go of the desire to see themselves reflected well in the accomplishments of their offspring.
If you’ve had one person in your life who listened to you without jumping in to correct you or to tell you what to do or to deny your perspective, you’ve known real service. Which is to say that you’ve known God’s loving care. God’s loving service, in Jesus, has filtered down into all of our acts of care, all of our acts of creating and sustaining. If someone has treated you with genuine respect, in ways that are large or small, you’ve known service, and you’ve known something of the kingdom of God. If space has been made for you to participate in a discussion, or your experience has been valued, you know something about the kingdom of God.
It’s funny how this kind of power works. It’s almost invisible. In a world full of puffery and self-marketing, the kind of power that has nothing to prove and no desire except the flourishing of God’s kingdom can pass unnoticed and can certainly go uncelebrated. It’s almost uncelebrated by design.
Jesus is talking about a kind of power that makes us completely free, from the need to be recognized, from the need to feel invulnerable, from the need for approval. Jesus is talking about the ability to enter a room without being acknowledged, make sure everyone in that room has enough to eat, and leave that room without resentments or expectations. In other words, the kingdom of heaven is close to the condition entered into by any number of skilled restaurant workers, every day, and it’s an exalted state of being. And it gets a lot of people fed.
Jesus is not asking for a false identification with martyrdom. Jesus is asking for our true identification with God’s wonderful abundance. If you have God’s energy and God’s sustenance and God’s love in abundance, giving it away might be a joy. It’s the joy of coming in second or third or fifteenth and feeling no sense of loss. It’s the day you don’t notice that no one is noticing you. Not because you have an unhealthy need to be ignored but because it’s so great not caring about that stuff. It’s so great to be free to go where God sends you. It might be such a relief, on that day, just to do the work of the kingdom without being bound by the need to get something “back.”
Imagine walking with Jesus on his earthly pilgrimage and being all caught up in a discussion about whether you’re going to sit on his right hand or his left hand at the end of time. Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?
It is a waste. It’s the same waste we are all still experiencing when we accompany our friends on their pilgrimages, worrying all along about whether they like us enough, whether we look good walking next to them, whether there is another friend who might make us feel better. It’s the waste of a marriage that has been consumed by anxiety about whether there is someone better out there. It’s the waste of a career spent working for prestige.
While all this waste goes on around us, we are nevertheless surrounded by the power of the God who puts us first. It’s quiet, unobtrusive, and life-giving. If you want to experience it, go to lunch after Mass and watch how a server or a cook works. Go to coffee hour, and receive a cup of coffee from the hand of a volunteer whose desire is to work for the life of this parish. Eat the cookie someone brought, made, shared, just so you would have a moment’s joy in the company of other believers before the cookies vanished. Better yet, come put out your hands at the communion rail, and receive the very body of the one who died to set us free.
It’s easy to believe, in this noisy world, that the ones who make themselves stand out are the ones who hold the keys to the kingdom. It’s easy to believe that belligerence is power. It’s easy to believe that competition is what brings us the things we need. But all over the world, often without a sound, the servants of God are performing acts of redemption. When you need to remember that, look around you and give thanks for the love of God that sustains you and surrounds you.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
21 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia