St Andrew's, Edwardsville--Mark 10:34-45, Isaiah 53:4-12
For seven years of the first decade of this century, there was a TV show that became pretty much the highlight of my week whenever it came on. It was The West Wing, and most of you are probably familiar with it. The ensemble of characters were all members of a fictional White House staff, plus Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett. There was one particular episode that featured a great deal of flashback material, and let the viewers in on what the lives of these people had been like before Bartlett became a presidential candidate. Then it showed them all meeting for the first time as they were recruited, or volunteered, to work on his campaign in the early stages of the primaries. They worked hard for him, put their “real” lives on hold for him, sacrificed comfort and security and took great risks for him. When Josiah Bartlett became president, they were understandably rewarded with challenging and powerful jobs in the White House—the roles in which viewers of The West Wing had already come to know them.
This is essentially the kind of reward that the apostles James and John were seeking from Jesus as they took him aside one day along the road to Jerusalem. They had thoroughly cast their lot with Jesus. They had walked away from a prosperous commercial fishing enterprise. They had put family relationships and friendships on hold while they barnstormed through the Galilean countryside with Jesus. They had risked everything for him. Now, by their reckoning, the time was drawing short. Election Day was fast approaching. Jesus would make his move, and usher in the Kingdom of God by establishing himself politically, by delivering the Jewish people from the oppressive domination of the Imperial Rome. The time seemed to be ripe. James and John just wanted to make sure of their position: “Teacher, we want you to grant to us to sit, one at you right hand, and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus is, shall we say, “not amused” by this request. In fact, I would suspect he was a little annoyed. They obviously didn’t get it. They didn’t get the fact that the Kingdom of God is not about human political power structures, and that there would be some considerable suffering and dying before anyone was going to sit at anyone else’s right or left hand, in any degree of glory. Jesus corrects his disciples’ thinking without ambiguity: “...whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
Well, slavery has been totally disgraced as in institution in civilized society, so the idea of being the “slave of all” is not something we can easily relate to. Even the word “servant” carries demeaning overtones. A couple of generations ago, it was not uncommon for more affluent households in this country to employ individuals to do cooking, cleaning, driving, gardening, personal care, and various household administrative chores. These individuals were routinely referred to as servants. Nowadays, for even a very wealthy person to refer to such an employee as a “servant” is scarcely imaginable. And it isn’t that we no longer pay people to do domestic work—if anything, it’s probably more widespread than it was 50 and 75 and a hundred years ago. But instead of butlers and maids and valets we have housecleaners and home healthcare providers and personal shoppers. Instead of cooks and chauffeurs and gardeners we have caterers and drivers and landscape maintenance contractors. The same work gets done, but the attitude is different. We’re comfortable “providing services,” but we don’t want to be “servants.” A service provider has a client; a servant has a master. Providing a service is something we do; a servant is something we are.
So why does servanthood have such a bad rap? There are several reasons, and they are complex. First, there is the implication that a servant is somehow inherently inferior to the one who is served. A 45-year old master sergeant with a quarter century of experience has to snap to attention and salute and say “Yes, sir” to a freshly-commissioned second lieutenant young enough to be his child. Why else, we might ask, would age and experience have to bow and scrape like that, if the officer were not inherently superior? Then there’s the notion that to voluntarily take the servant’s role implies a low degree of self-respect that is not at all healthy. If we put ourselves last, doesn’t it say that we think we deserve to be last? When I was in seminary, every day the whole community prayed that our lives would be characterized by “true humility and self abasement.” This is very old language, and it perhaps didn’t strike people the same way when it was first written, but to my modern ears, it struck a discordant note. In this society that values self-esteem so highly, why would anybody pray for self-abasement?
Another reason that servanthood is such an off-putting concept is the assumption that servanthood is the result of victimhood. Those who are servants are servants because they are made to be, either overtly, or through being oppressed into a fatalistic resignation. The stronger in this world—meaning the educated, the connected, or the otherwise privileged—the stronger in this world naturally rule over the weaker in this world —the poor, the illiterate, minorities, all of which breeds a seething resentment that is potentially dangerous as it grows in strength. Yes, servanthood as a nasty reputation, and it’s not hard to see why.
As friends and followers of Jesus, however, we do not get caught in these traps. We have the opportunity to grow beyond inferiority or self-hatred or victimhood into the sort of servanthood of which Jesus is the true example and model. And Jesus himself had a model; his experience was prefigured in the moving poetry of Isaiah, in what are known as the Servant Songs. In the well-known words of chapter 53, we get a glimpse into the authentic character of servanthood:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows ... he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and upon him was the chastisement that made us whole ... He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth ... he was numbered among the transgressors; yet he bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
The Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and Jesus in fulfillment of the prophecy, was a servant, but not a victim. He offered himself voluntarily. He was a servant, but in that servanthood revealed himself, not as inferior to those whom he served, but as vastly superior to them, able to bring them to salvation. He was a servant, but it was not because he had a poor self image or low self esteem; rather, he was the only human being ever to have an unblinkingly accurate view of himself. His servanthood was rooted in purpose and mission, not in self-hatred or fatalistic resignation.
True servanthood is ordered toward specific goals: the glory of God and the salvation of humankind. Christian leaders are servant leaders. Servant leadership is humble, but not servile. It is gentle, but not weak. It is never trivial or obsequious, because it is driven by mission. Jesus is the model of servant leadership, and he invites his disciples—his friends, his followers, all Christians, in other words—to imitate his example.
The West Wing staffers whose earlier lives we were allowed to sneak a peak into were all in an unusually reflective and introspective mood in that season premiere episode. There has been an assassination attempt on President Bartlett; the president was only slightly injured, but one of his aides is seriously wounded by gunfire. His life hangs in the balance. Everyone is traumatized. The intoxicating joy ride of working in the very seat of world power has come to a halt. Reality has intruded. They indeed got their reward for serving on the campaign, but there is risk even in the reward; sacrifice and suffering remain on the menu.
This is precisely the lesson that James and John needed to learn when they made their audacious request of Jesus. Amazingly, he resisted the temptation to indulge in sarcasm. Instead, he tried to give them an idea of the implication of what they were asking: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” The way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and so the way of following Jesus is also the way of the cross. There is no immunity from the intrusion of reality. There is reward, but there is vulnerability. There is joy, but there is sacrifice.
Jesus’ pattern is our pattern, and therein lies our hope. It begins with voluntary servanthood—an availability to become possessed by and passionate about God’s purpose and activity in this world, the church’s mission of restoring all people to unity with God and one another in Christ Jesus. The servant life continues in sacrificial suffering, identification with the redemptive self-offering of Christ on the cross. And it culminates, then, in transformation, joy, victory, and vindication. This is the way of servanthood; this is the way of life. Amen.