Trinity 20 - Called to Serve

A sermon preached by the Rev'd Bertrand Olivier at St John the Baptist, 21 October 2012

Mark 10.35-45

This year, I have had the privilege of being asked to be a Sheriff’s chaplain.  No, it does not mean I run to provide spiritual advice to someone chasing criminals with guns and wearing a big yellow star.  For those of you not familiar with the historical traditions of the City of London – sometimes known as the Square Mile - the title of Sheriff goes back to Saxon times, and by the 11th Century, the Sheriffs were the most important city officials: they collected London's annual taxes on behalf of the royal exchequer and they also had judicial duties in the City's law courts, especially the Central Criminal Court Old Bailey.

Their role has evolved over the centuries, and nowadays, Sheriffs – who are elected annually - have only nominal duties, one of which involves them being resident at the Old Bailey during their year of office, so that one of them can always be attendant on the judges.  Being a sheriff is a prerequisite for being Lord Mayor of the City of London.

And the role of chaplain has also evolved, and while of course one of my duties is to be available for spiritual advice, preaching, taking services, and saying Grace before meals as required, a big part of it is representational, and allows me the pleasure of walking in big civic processions carrying a black tricorn while wearing a deep black academic gown.  And of course the real privilege of sitting in one of the carriages in the Lord Mayor’s parade on 10 November.  Do look out for me if you come and watch it!

And to be part of the pageantry of the City of London is not only a real privilege, but also a real eye opener on the hierarchies and etiquettes of the past, some of which survive to this day.  There is no doubt that it is all about privileges, wealth and power, and everyone involves knows where they are in the pecking order.  Wow betides those who breach protocol.

One such breech of protocol would be to ask for an exalted place before your time, say to be sat next to the Lord Mayor at a State Banquet.  As human beings, we instinctively feel that this would be a bad move, because we generally understand the ways of the world.  But we also know that we would probably feel very jealous of anyone who would be able to achieve anything quicker than us – even if what they got is only because they bothered to ask for it.

And in our gospel passage today, we have a good example of a situation which leaves us with strange and conflicting emotions.

Imagine the situation.  You have been travelling together with a group for years, and have shared in a wide range of tasks in a fairly non directive way: you have attended to the sick together, you have fed the hungry, you have listened and talked and had heartfelt conversations about matters of deep spiritual significance as well as basic pragmatic necessities, and together you have slowly been formed, enthused and changed by the ways of your charismatic and unusual leader into looking at a new way of relating to one another as a consequence of a new understanding of an unconditionally loving God.

You have sought to bring good news of salvation from the constraints and strictures created by human self-interest.  Along the ways, blind people have been granted their sight back, but repeatedly the core of your group has demonstrated its blindness.  Despite some moments here and there of apparent insight, the inner group fails to the get the point of what your leader - Jesus – is attempting to get across through what he says and does.

And suddenly, two of your group – out of the blue – ask for a special privilege: to be sat next to Jesus in eternity.  Imagine that!

Who do they think they are? Haven’t they seen and heard what has been happening around them? Did they completely miss the point when Jesus put the little child in their midst, or blessed the group of children who otherwise seemed a nuisance, or confronted the rich man with the need to break with his possessions?

Were they deaf to Jesus’ words about his own future and the risks of what following him would mean?  At least in Matthew’s version of this story, it is the mother of James and John who makes the request on behalf of her sons – at least that seems a little more plausible… but still.

In the event, Jesus does not rebuke the brothers, as we might have done, but instead tells them that they do not know what they are asking.  And he confronts them with the symbols of his own cup and baptism – the point is that the road of glory runs straight through the valley of suffering and death.  Even to get to ‘glory’, and even more so to get pride of place, one cannot bypass the events of Good Friday and their implications.

And this is what we are reminded of every time we gather for communion and share the cup, and every time we witness a baptism or renew our baptismal vows.  We are reminded of the dangers and risks of being Jesus’ followers.  The cup has a bitter taste, and the descent into the waters of baptism links us to the death of Jesus.

As for the rest of the disciples in the story, of course they are jealous.  How the very dare these two ask for a place of greater prominence than themselves?

Jesus does not chide them either, though, and instead uses the pagan authorities as models of how not to exercise leadership.  The choice is between tyrants or slaves, between domination and service.  The criterion for leadership is not who get the job done quickest, but whether one has followed the model of Jesus.

Such a style of leadership and life runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of the day, and thus may not make much sense to those whose eyes are only stuck on the bottom line.

There is here a great paradox about servant leadership – and one on which we might all reflect: of course, the servant gives priority to the needs of others, and how those needs can be met.  But we are not here in a Downton Abbey world, there is more than a tinge of ‘upstairs downstairs’ in what Jesus is trying to model.  So, as a servant in his image, we are not simply bound to do whatever is asked, to be at the whims of others.  Jesus is no less of a servant in driving the money changers from the Temple than in healing the sick.  His ministry and his self-giving death give to the term servant a new definition. 

This is the paradox of Christianity, and one which has both helped and hindered in its relationship with earthly powers.  Sheriffs’ chaplains may say Grace on demand, and understand their particular place in the procession of the City – but by their very being, they also speak of something challenging to those in power – as indeed should all Christians wherever they may be.

The final verse of our Gospel passage reminds us that Jesus is more than a model servant, more than an example to be followed.  As we claim to be disciples, we often don’t do a lot better than the twelve, and we often miss the point, and need to be served ourselves – something we instinctively do not like.

Benedictine communities are described as the ‘schools of the Lord’s service’.  We can understand that terribly easily as learning to serve.  But you may also reflect that it may also mean that they are places where we learn to be served by Christ and his followers, as indeed we should in any Christian community.  Because the son of man has come as a ‘ransom for many’:  the life and death of Jesus redeem all of us who have a hard time being servants.
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