May 6, 2018 – Covenant Living: Serve Willingly/Mark 10:35-45
They had gathered to celebrate the Passover feast. Before they could dip the first piece of bread into the date charoset, Jesus stood from the table, removed his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. He filled a basin with water and, kneeling at one of the disciple’s feet, began to wash the dust and dirt of the streets from them. He was their teacher, their leader – their Lord! But in those minutes, he became their slave, placing their feet carefully in water, washing them gently, then drying them with the towel around his body.
Peter would have none of it. “You will never wash my feet!” he declared. Because if Jesus were to wash his feet, then wouldn’t that mean that he would be asked to go out into the world to wash feet himself? “You will never wash my feet!”
Time and time again Jesus demonstrated to his disciples what it would mean to follow him. Through his own actions he illustrated the call to service rather than glory, to servanthood rather than power. Then the two brothers approached him. “Who will get the best seats, Jesus? Who will get to sit by your side? Do whatever we ask of you, Jesus.” And again, Jesus reminded them of their call to service. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
That rings harshly in our ears. We don’t want to be anyone’s slave. Like Peter, we take offense at Jesus’ idea of service; it contradicts our idea of authority. And we’re fairly certain that if we do help folks out, they’re going to take advantage of us. Quaker theologian Richard Foster points out that our fear is rooted in our need to be in control. “When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us.” But there is something we can do to rid ourselves of that fear. “When we choose to become a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable. … The fear that we will be taken advantage of and stepped on is justified. That is exactly what may happen. But who can hurt someone who has freely chosen to be stepped on?”
Jesus certainly didn’t seem concerned about whether the crowds of people were taking advantage of him. A time would come when everyone would turn away from him – when the religious and civil authorities would leave him broken and bleeding. Jesus himself would be the suffering one with outstretched hand, but no one would offer him help. Catholic priest Henri Nouwen writes:
Jesus, God-made-human, falls so that we can bend over to him and show him our love and compassion, but we are too busy with other things to even notice. God, whose hands molded the universe, gave shape to Adam and Eve, touched every suffering person with tenderness, and who holds all things in love, became a human person with human hands asking for human hands. But those very hands were left open and pierced with nails.
Jesus calls us to become servants. Pope Francis says that “every Christian community is called to go out of itself and to be engaged in the life of the greater society of which it is a part, especially with the poor and those who are far away.” In true service, we reach out in ways both small and large. We celebrate the little gifts of service that go largely unnoticed but that ease the way for others. Foster tells the story of being interrupted from his studies by a friend who needed a ride to perform several errands. Foster agreed to help, but made each stop with growing resentment until he read these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:
The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entails is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.
“Large tasks require great sacrifice for a moment; small things require constant sacrifice.”
Servanthood connects us to the world around us in a way that nothing else can. When we come before others as servants, we tear down the walls between us. We learn that we have more in common than what separates us. When we cultivate compassion, “we don’t dismiss entire groups of people for any reason, and we don’t let cynicism guide our actions and speech. … When we learn about the horrific journeys that refugees, survivors, and prisoners have made, we remember that we are capable of helping – and we are in a position to help in a particular way.”
We don’t become servants overnight. Our egos are too big; they continue to get in the way. Like Peter, we expect the Jesus-following business to give us an advantage, not cost us our lives. But then we remember what Jesus said. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” If we’re lucky, we begin to see “God’s powerless hand reaching out [to us] from everywhere in the world.” The hands of a homeless man standing along the roadside, the hands of a child hoping for a bit of food, the hands of a sick woman longing for human love.
And little by little we begin to learn. We cannot fix everything; we cannot do everything. But the many small things we can do right here in our community might bring a renewed spirit to someone who longs to feel the compassion of others. The small bags of food that we pack might say love to a hungry little boy at East End Elementary School. The blankets we carefully knot might say love to someone who is suffering in our midst. The food we gather for the local food pantry might say love to a mother wondering what she will feed her family tonight.
Each step we take in service to others brings us closer to God. St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, prayed: “Grant that your love may so fill our lives that we may count nothing too small to do for you, nothing too much to give, and nothing too hard to bear. … Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give, and not to count the cost.”
In community, all of our little efforts combine to reveal Christ’s love to a world that hurts. So I invite now you to lift your hands as an offering to God, as a pledge of your commitment to service. Raise them high to heaven, and pray with me.
Gracious Lord, give me eyes to see that You are the person in front of me who is hungry. When I fail to see my neighbor as myself, cure my blindness. When I fail to hear Your voice when a friend is speaking from their brokenness, give me ears to hear. When I can’t feel empathy for a stranger who is afraid, kindle my heart to comfort. In all things, mold me to be more compassionate as a follower of Your ways. Remind me again that in loving one another, we all find our way to You. Amen.
 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 136
 Foster, 132
 Ibid., 133
 Henri Nouwen, “Jesus Falls for the Third Time,” All Shall Be Well, 274
 Pope Francis, “Message for Lent,” All Shall Be Well, 122
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 99
 Foster, 135
 Becca Stevens, Love Heals, 53, 56-57
 Nouwen, 275
 Stevens, 58
 Stevens, 52