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October 17, 2021

One of the most soothing television viewing experiences I had during the last year was watching the first season of All Creatures Great and Small.  It’s a new version of an old favorite, based on the autobiographical books by James Herriot.  They describe his life as a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, England, where he served for 50 years starting in the 1930’s.

In the pilot episode of the series, James shows up to be interviewed by experienced veterinarian Siegfried Farnon, the endearing but grumpy figure who will be his mentor. The interview turns out to be less interview and more actual vet visit.  They head out to a farm, where James, dressed in his nicest suit and fancy dress shoes, ends up having to slog through mud and manure, only to be kicked in the face by a horse…twice.  James is a recent graduate of veterinary school, and if he imagined having a glamorous life once he became a real veterinarian, he is soon brought face to face with reality.  Whether he is facing down a gigantic bull or has his entire arm inside a cow to help her give birth, he often finds himself in very…earthy situations.

We can probably all think of situations where our expectations of a role departed from the reality of it.  I often found that the new English teachers with whom I worked in California expected to become Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society.  They imagined that students would be inspired by their charisma to read poetry and study Shakespeare and jump up on desks quoting Walt Whitman.  As it turns out, that’s not really how high school English classrooms work.  Those of you who have played a sport have probably had visions of scoring the winning goal or sinking the three-pointer that would clinch the championship, and while that may have happened, you learned that much of playing a sport involves learning plays and running laps and executing drills and practicing the fundamentals, none of which is glamorous or dramatic.  It’s just work.  Hard work done far away from cheering fans.

When you hear today’s gospel, you can imagine that James and John are looking for the glamorous part of being a disciple to kick in.  They’ve seen what Jesus can do.  Jesus can heal people of anything – fever, paralysis, leprosy, withered hands.  He can cast out demons.  He can win any argument with the religious leaders.  He can feed thousands of people with just a few crumbs and calm a storm and bring a little girl back from the dead.  The disciples might have felt a little proud of themselves for having such proximity to the power of Jesus.  They got to see it all, right up close.  A little status by association. It’s reasonable to assume that they might at some point be given power of their own.

James and John come to Jesus with a particular request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  They want those coveted positions of honor next to a mighty ruler.  Jesus tells them that they don’t really know what they’re asking.  When he asks them if they’re prepared to drink the cup that he drinks, he’s talking not about the cup of glory, but about the cup of suffering. 

The rest of the disciples get mad at James and John for making this request.  I wonder if they’re mostly mad that they didn’t think of it first.

One of the weirdest things about James’ and John’s timing becomes clear when we hear what happened right before today’s gospel reading.

Here’s what Mark tells us:   

32They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; …Jesus took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

If it’s strange to ask Jesus for positions of honor and power, it’s even stranger to make that request just after he’s told you he’s going to be arrested, abused, tortured, and killed.  This is also the third time that Jesus has told them how he would die, and the third time that the disciples have failed to comprehend what he means.

In these terms following Jesus is more gory than glory.  There’s nothing glamorous about it.  Jesus contrasts his way of leading with the tyrants of the world, who will always exert power over others, crushing and belittling those who refuse to bow down to them. As Jesus says so pointedly: “43But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom to free us from our own sense of self-importance.  Being great means being humble.  Being great means attending to what others need more than what our egos need.

Like those scenes from All Creatures Great and Small, Jesus comes to get down in the mud and muck of life with us.  He comes to be with us where we need him the most.  He’s present wherever there is struggling or suffering, wherever there is pain or punishment.  He draws near to those who live lives of humble service with no concern whatsoever for recognition or honor or affirmation.  For Jesus, the work of bringing life out of death is not fancy work. It’s messy, bloody, difficult work that will land him on a cross.

And so Jesus teaches us that we don’t serve in order to get recognition.  We don’t do it so that other people will “owe us one.”  We do it because that’s what Jesus has taught us and shown us to do.  We do it because his own serving led to his death, which gave way to resurrection, which sets us free from being captive to the need for affirmation and attention in the first place.

As your pastor I know I don’t see all the ways that you serve, but I’m privileged to witness the ones that I do.  I see you preparing and poring over budgets.  I see you doing repairs and making this place more hospitable to the many people from our community who come here week after week.  I see you donating and sorting and distributing food each week at the Methodist Church.  I see you offering your voices to the choir, your leadership to various committees and Councils, your teaching to our children.  I see you looking out for each other in ways large and small.  Even now, looking out at your faces, I see how you are wearing masks as an expression of humble service to protect our youngest ones.

So much of your service is seen by no one other than those who receive your care.  No one else sees what happens as you prepare a meal or tuck in your kids or care for aging parents or give someone a ride to a medical appointment or prepare a card for a neighbor or pray for people facing challenges or text a friend who needs a word of encouragement.  But those things matter.  Those acts of humble service are expressions of God’s grace that hold the world together and bring hope where it is needed most.

I pray that this week you will be sustained by the Holy Spirit in this messy, unglamorous life of caring for others.  I pray that you will feel God with you in those unsung, unnoticed moments.  I pray that you, following the example of Jesus, might show up not to be served, but to serve.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!

Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.

Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm

Click here for registration form:

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