Not long ago, I went out to a restaurant for dinner. It was a busy place, so we made a reservation in advance. When we arrived, I have to say that the service was really good. “Welcome, Mr. Whittall, we have your table right here.” The server was friendly, showed us to the table, and did everything he could to help us enjoy a nice evening, definitely exceeded our expectations. At the end of the evening, we got the bill promptly, paid with a credit card, and I added the usual tip. When he saw it, an unmistakeable look of disappointment spread across our server’s face, though he hid it quickly. I guess he’d been hoping for a better tip.
A few days later, I went for a breakfast sandwich at my local Tim Hortons. There was a bit of a line-up, but finally I got to the counter and started to give my order. “I’ll have a medium coffee, with …
“Can you hold on for just a sec?” said the Tim Hortons server, and off she went. Puzzled, and a little bit annoyed, I turned to see where she’d gone and saw that someone had just sat down at a table behind me, a man who looked a bit rough, he had his head down on the table, he’d probably slept on the street the night before. The Tim Hortons staffer had spied him coming in, and had left me waiting at the counter in order to pour him a coffee and bring it over to his table. Then she returned to the cash register. “Sorry about the wait. What was it that you wanted?”
Now I ask you: which of these do you think is the kind of service that Jesus is talking about in the gospel this morning?
Today’s gospel marks the second of three times that Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to die. We’ve arrived at the heart of the gospel of Mark. Death is serious stuff. It gets our attention, which is good, because Jesus has some serious teaching to do here, so he needs our attention. But talk of death also tends to throw us for a loop. It’s too serious. Like Jesus’ disciples, we don’t understand, and we’re afraid to ask. And then we change the subject, and move off in a different direction. Like arguing about who is the greatest.
That’s the pattern each time Jesus predicts his own death. Often we call them the passion predictions. Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going to die. A period of confusion erupts after which the disciples start to go totally in the wrong direction. And then Jesus does some serious teaching, gets right to the core of the gospel message by doing a judo move.
Do you know what I mean by a judo move? Anyone do judo here? The idea is that you take advantage of where your opponent is going, using your opponent’s strength and momentum and then turning that momentum in the direction that you want to go. In judo it means flipping your opponent to the mat. In Jesus’ teaching it means taking our desires and expectations and flipping them in a new direction to teach us what it means to follow Jesus.
So last week, when Peter wanted to follow a Messiah who would defeat the Romans and lead his people to victory, Jesus tells him that anyone who wants to follow this Messiah would have to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Following Jesus means going beyond one’s own needs and desires, it means more than saving one’s own life. Jesus’ way is the path of death and resurrection. That’s hard, they don’t get it. But they keep following.
So in today’s gospel Jesus tries again. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
And still they don’t get it. They don’t understand, and they’re afraid to ask. And they once more they go in the wrong direction. They start to argue about which one of them is the greatest.
It’s easy, I suppose, to laugh at them. But we all do it. We want to be great. We all have a need for significance, to be considered of value, we all have a need for security. And usually we satisfy these needs by striving for more, by achieving. We compare ourselves with others, we associate with the right people, we scratch the back that scratches ours, we climb the ladder, we read books like “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. We like to brag that Canada is the best country in the world. South of the border they’re trying to make America great again. On the days when we’re honest with ourselves we realize that James is right in his epistle when he talks about the “bitter envy and selfish ambition” found in the human heart. We want to be great, we argue with one another about who’s the greatest.
And then Jesus does that judo thing again. He sees how we lean in the direction of greatness, and he flips it over. “Whoever wants to be first must be last. Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all.” Take all your ambition, harness your desire for greatness, and channel that energy into service.
Service. It is at the very core of the gospel. Here it is, the key teaching after Jesus second passion prediction, and just in case we didn’t get the message, we will get it again in the wake of Jesus’ third passion prediction, even more explicitly: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I don’t think it could be any more clear. If you want to be a follower of Jesus, you are to serve. Service is at the core of the gospel. Why did Jesus come? To serve. Why did Jesus die on the cross? To show us in the extreme what service looks like.
And just in case we might be tempted to twist this concept of service to our own benefit, to restrict our service to those who might then serve us in return, Jesus takes a little child into his arms. Why a little child? Because a little child can’t return the favour. Jesus can lift a little child into his arms, but the little child can’t lift Jesus into his arms. Jesus can welcome a little child, and don’t forget that in Middle Eastern culture to welcome is to feed, and to offer a place to stay. The little child can’t welcome Jesus that way, for little children have no food to offer, nor can they provide a place to stay.
The point is that the service that is at the core of the gospel, that is the hallmark of a follower of Jesus is service that is pure gift. There is no expectation of return, not even of a thank you. There is no quid pro quo. There is no understanding that someone will return the favour. It is pure gift. That is, grace.
And for a world that is so used to competition, and paying for things, and meritocracy, and keeping score, and power games, and getting what you deserve, grace is the most radical concept of all. When you throw a dinner party, as Jesus says elsewhere, don’t invite those who will invite you for dinner in return. Invite those who can’t possibly return the favour. Welcome those who can never do anything for you in return. For whoever welcomes one such as that welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
Homily: Yr A P25, Sept 23 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Jer 11.18-20; Ps 1; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37
Image by Neil Moralee, Creative Commons, flick.com