Freed for Service
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 20:20-28, Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Sept. 28, 2014
Audio not available for this sermon.
For the past several weeks we have explored what it means to be the people of God, using some of Paul’s letters to the early churches that were also trying to figure out who they were, who they should become, and what they should do. In Ephesians Paul claims that it takes imagination, allowing the Spirit of God to work in us and gently lead us to dream and to envision beyond where we have been or where we are now to where God is leading us to be. In Philippians he states that it takes compassion, the willingness to draw close to another and to enter in to their situation. And in Romans he writes that it takes creative maladjustment, the ability not only to define and call out what is wrong, but also to be able to live into the solution even when it is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and difficult.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul tells this little church that it takes asserting the freedom given to them by Christ. This is a particular kind of freedom. Not the freedom of autonomy, of self-rule, to do whatever they want to do, free from the restraints of anybody or any law; not a freedom they have won through their own efforts or their own merit. But it is the gift of freedom; the freedom to serve, to give up autonomy for the sake of others. Freedom to love and to be in relationship and to act responsibly towards others.
That’s a hard sell. It is countercultural now; it was counter cultural then. Two up and coming disciples, James and John, had all kinds of leadership potential. You could just ask their mother! And in case Jesus hadn’t fully recognized her boys’ potential, she went to Jesus to ask an itsy bitsy favor. And he was nice enough to listen to her request. Then she laid it on him – “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Upward mobility! Promotion to the head of the class! Be first in line! It must have seemed like a good time for the request because Jesus was headed towards Jerusalem and would soon make his move and put his plan into action, so it’s now or never to take the opportunity before Peter and the others made their own claims for leadership positions. After all, they believe, there’s not a lot of room at the top; there won’t be enough glory to go around, so they’d better get theirs first. James and John had spent a lot of time with Jesus; they’d left their family and work behind to be his disciples. Using their mama as their spokesperson, they were looking forward to the payback. Their unspoken question was “What’s in it for me?”
And Jesus answer was not what they anticipated. “You do not know what you are asking . . . Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” “To drink the cup” is a colloquial expression, an idiom that was used occasionally in the Old Testament to refer to accepting one’s inevitable destiny. In other words, to drink the cup would be to accept the same fate that Jesus was about to accept—his self-emptying, sacrificial love, giving his own life for others. Jesus would later use the same phrase in the Garden of Gethsemane when he struggled to accept his imminent death, and prayed to God: “remove this cup from me.”
Also, in Jesus’ time, baptism meant more than the cleansing of sin and the renewal of life that it has come to mean for us. It literally meant being overwhelmed, drowning, dying to the old life before rising to the new. When Jesus spoke of his coming baptism, he was referring to his death on the cross. The baptism into which he was baptized was the burial of the old world with its obsession with power and prestige and position – Just what James and John were after – and the rising of God’s reign of justice, generosity, and joy.
Jesus spelled it out for all of the disciples, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you, must be your slave.” To have honor and privilege in the kingdom of God means being a servant. Leaders sacrifice, give themselves away for others. Leaders drink the cup; get to be baptized; get to die.
This is what Paul is trying to teach the Galatians who didn’t understand any better than the disciples did. Freedom is not about moving to the head of the line, be first, being in charge, making all the decisions. Freedom comes through servanthood. Freedom comes through loving and helping others. It is being liberated from the prison of the self, to be able to act and to move beyond the self into the risk of love and the gift of service without thought of status, power or safety. Just the opposite of what we have been taught by the world to believe.
What does this mean for us today as Oconee Street United Methodist Church, to this relatively small band of disciples trying to be faithful here in this corner of God’s world? What does it mean for us as we try to discern where God is leading us in this new phase of our lives together ? A couple of things come to mind.
And it starts close to home. Before we can serve folks out there – in whatever mission effort we as individuals or as a church seem to fit our gifts and graces and abilities, we have to serve one another. Paul stresses the difference between a life of selfishness and a life of selflessness and how we can choose to be led by the Spirit or be entrapped by the desire to get our own way all the time. I am truly thankful for how our building committee, our church council, and our congregation acting as a church conference, as well as in all our other interactions with one another, we have been able to work through various issues with love and with patience. There have been times of stress, times of disagreement, times of misunderstanding, but as I read Paul’s letter I can see evidences of what he calls the fruit of the Spirit at work in you, and I give God thanks for it. Beth read earlier (from The Message) what this looks like: affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. He says, “We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
JoBeth said it best in the poem she wrote and read to us on Friday night:
We are comfortable with who we are, comfortable in our skin,
Comfortable even when we are uncomfortable
Because we can dialogue through adversity
Because we are a family with ties stronger
Than political, theological, or even budget disagreements.
We are the hands, feet, and body of Christ.
We experience God’s love and try to live it
By listening to each other,
By listening to the cries of those in need
By stepping in and stepping aside.
This kind of commitment to each other enables us then to move out of our doors and into the community as we look at ways to be the body of Christ for the world. This love that we share, this desire to serve rather than be served opens our hearts and minds to find ways to make a difference, to be, whether we verbalize it this way or not, the tangible embodiment of God’s unconditional love. I don’t know anyone in this church who would respond as one member of an Atlanta Presbyterian church is reported to have said that he was willing to be of service anytime at all as long as what he was asked to do did not involve physical effort, financial aid, or moral support!
Next week we will have our Missions Fair. As the time gets closer, I am getting more excited about it. We will have the opportunity to re-visit some of the representatives who have spoken to us throughout the past year; we will meet some new people who will bring information about other areas of service, and we will be reminded of what our church is doing through our United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men’s groups to make a difference in the lives of people near and far. I hope that your imagination will be kindled and you will find something that you would like to give yourself to.
I believe that God made us as one human family and that we are bound to one another in God’s heart and mind, so that the need of the other becomes our own need and the suffering of another is in a real sense our own suffering. The writer Frederick Buechner has said that “if you have not cried for someone other than yourself in the last year, then the chances are you are already dead.”
Crying is a good place to start, but then it’s time to actually do something to make whatever has touched our hearts better. As Paul says, the only thing that matters is faith working in love as freedom and responsibility work together in our lives individually and as a church.
Even though our cultures tells us that we have to beware of giving too much of ourselves away, If you’ve ever volunteered for anything, you know as well as I do, that you sometimes feel that you have received much more than you have given. It seems like a contradiction, but when our aim is to serve, we find we are being served. It really is true that we receive more when we concentrate on giving. And that is what Jesus showed James and John and you and me – how to receive by giving, how to lead by serving, and how to find our lives by losing them for the sake of the people around us that God loves so much. Thanks be to God. Amen.