March 8, 2020

“Think Like Jesus:  Serve”

Mark 10:32-52

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

March 8, 2020 (Lent 2)


Have you ever had one of those conversations when you say something, maybe ask a question, and the response makes you go, “What???”  And you keep talking, but your conversation partner’s answers don’t make sense?  Then it dawns on one of you that you weren’t talking about the same thing.  The assumptions you made going into the conversation were different:  She was talking about apples, you were talking about oranges.  And the conversation turned out to be bananas!


It’s easy for us to read today’s Scripture and judge James and John for being a bit clueless and selfish.  The nerve they had, asking Jesus to be seated at his right and left when he came to glory.  And just after Jesus had told them that in Jerusalem, where they were headed, he was going to be handed over to the authorities, condemned to death, totally humiliated, and killed.  Oh yes, and three days later, he would rise.


As we’ve been reading through the gospel of Mark, we first noted that Jesus worked hard to keep his identity as the Messiah very quiet.  And in the past few weeks, we’ve seen how he let his disciples know who he really was.  While they may have been thrilled to know that their rabbi was the Messiah, it was clear that they didn’t understand what Jesus meant by it.  And so their conversations were based on different assumptions.  Jesus described a Messiah who would suffer, die and rise again.  The disciples could only think about a Messiah who would use power to lead their people out of persecution and oppression.  It was as though Jesus was talking about apples, and the disciples were talking about oranges.  


It could have been that James and John’s request for preferred seating came out of an uncomfortable feeling they had, not really understanding or wanting to comprehend what Jesus was actually telling them.  Their minds were so set on oranges, apples were not even in the picture.  So they kept operating from the assumptions of oranges.  They wanted to secure their places of honor.


This was not the first time the disciples didn’t get it.  This was actually the third time Jesus had told them that he was going to be condemned to death and would die and be raised again.  In our Scripture reading two weeks ago, just after Peter made his first confession that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus told them that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  Then there was the exchange where Peter rebuked Jesus, and Jesus called Peter Satan.


On Ash Wednesday we read about the second time Jesus told his disciples that “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.  They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31).  The disciples’ response was to argue about who would be the greatest among them.  Clearly, they didn’t get that Jesus was a Messiah—not of their own design, but one who would suffer and die, and then be raised again.  Jesus persisted.  He loved the disciples enough to keep teaching them, keep reminding them that the kingdom of God was very different from the world in which they lived.  


It’s difficult to change your way of thinking when it’s been set for generations.  The disciples had grown up under Roman rule, which dictated much of their lives.  They were familiar with hierarchy and the use of power to subdue those under you.  That was their default way of thinking.  Jesus acknowledged this way of being in the world:  “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them…” (v. 42).  Power was used to subdue people, make them do stuff for you.  That’s why you want to be in power.  So you can have the upper hand.  When Jesus announced and taught about the kingdom of God, the disciples envisioned the Roman system of power and authority, but with Jesus in the lead rather than Caesar.  


Naturally, James and John wanted to make sure their places at the lavish victory banquet of Jesus were reserved.  The other disciples probably got upset with the two brothers because they had beat the rest of them to ask for those two preferred seats, not because they understood the kind of reign Jesus was initiating.


Jesus introduced a whole new way of being in relation to each other and to God. “Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all… (v. 43-44).  It’s different in the kingdom of God, where Jesus rules, where he is the Messiah.  The system is turned upside down.  In the world, the great people are served.  In the kingdom of God, greatness comes from serving.  “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45)  Even Jesus himself came to serve, not to be served.  He served by giving his life.


As I have sat with this Scripture reading, my judgment of James and John has calmed down quite a bit.  Yes, they were very presumptuous in going to Jesus and demanding that he grant them whatever they asked for.  But they were just behaving like ambitious people behaved in those days and even today.  Ask for what you want.  Make sure you do it before anyone else thinks of it.  If we look honestly at our own lives, we will see areas in which we think and operate like James and John.


And Jesus is just as patient and gracious with us as he was with them.  He knew that, under this different way of thinking and living, under the values and priorities of the kingdom of God, his disciples would indeed suffer with him.  Nevertheless, the places at his right and left were not for him to determine.  And in fact, later on we will read that two criminals were on Jesus’ right and left as they all were crucified.  James and John had no idea what they requested from Jesus because they were thinking about oranges, while Jesus was talking about apples.


The writer was brilliant in this section of the gospel, showing us how different and difficult it was for the disciples and indeed for all followers of Jesus to really get the idea of servanthood as a major value and assumption in the kingdom of God.  Three times, Jesus told his disciples about the suffering and death that was coming because he was indeed the Messiah, and that was the way the Messiah would serve the people.  And three times, they didn’t get it.  Even today, we still don’t get it.


I’ve been wondering what it would take for us to really get Jesus’ idea of servanthood as a high value in the kingdom of God.  How could we operate out of a mindset of seeking to serve rather than to be served? 


I’m not saying that we don’t have servants here among us—we have an amazingly loving community here because you all are open to serving each other.  But are we servants like Jesus would want us to be?  Do we serve only those we like or those who are like us?  Can we open ourselves to serving to those who are not like us, who may have different ways of living, who may even take advantage of our generosity, who may not appreciate the ways we serve?


I was also thinking about our motivation for serving.  I will confess that my motives are not always pure when I offer to help others.  Do we give out of obligation, or to look good in the eyes of others?  Do we give money because we can get a tax break?  The tax code has recently changed, and the standard deduction has been raised by a lot.  Nonprofits were afraid that many of their donors gave because of the tax break that could no longer be assumed.


The corona virus has been top of mind all week.  I kept on thinking about how things might be very different if we all began operating out of a servant mindset rather than a fearful one.  We would be confident that we could weather the outbreak by putting others first.  We would be confident that supplies are sufficient, and those who needed masks and medicines would be able to get them.  There would be no need for hoarding.  There would be no price gouging on essential supplies.  We would put into place protections for the most vulnerable and not just those who could afford to buy protective gear.  We would offer to help those who might be quarantined at home, offering them food and running errands for them.  We would find ways to help those for whom being quarantined for two weeks would put their finances in severe jeopardy.  We would think about children whose parents couldn’t take time off to supervise them at home if schools were closed.  We would avoid going out in public if we were sick, so we wouldn’t spread illness unnecessarily.  I imagine a world in which cooperation and putting the needs of others first would likely tamp down the virus sooner rather than later.


As I was thinking about my motivation, our motivation for serving, I thought about how we can think like Jesus.  I realized that one of the things we need in order to have a servant’s heart is a deep assurance and knowledge of God’s love for us.  When we know deep in our own hearts that we are beloved of God, we can then serve others without condition or seeking reward.  We would be assured of God’s presence and power as we used our energy and resources to help and serve others.  Our identity as children of God would enable us to do the most humiliating tasks, and put others’ needs first.  Our self-worth would not be determined by what others thought of us.  We wouldn’t have to seek places of honor like James and John because it wouldn’t matter.  We would know that God loves and values and honors us just for being who we are.  Our service to our neighbor would flow from a heart that has been filled with God’s love.  So as you ask God to help you think like Jesus more and more, focus on the deep love God has for you.  Let God’s love guide you into servanthood.


It’s not easy to think like Jesus and live like him.  We continue to think with the values of the world, seeking power and prestige.  We want to be number one.  But Jesus’ thinking is different, and challenges us to let go and stop striving according to the world’s standards.  Jesus calls us to serve, not be served.  And when we get this, when we accept that this way of thinking leads him—and us—to the cross and resurrection, then we can truly follow him.  May God give us the mind of Christ, and help us to think like Jesus.