Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not to be served, but to serve

Matthew 20. 20-28

It was a lovely sunny afternoon, that day.  The disciples and the crowds had been following Jesus all around the countryside, through Galilee and Judea, listening to his teaching, hanging on his every word.  Now, Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem.  Something had happened to Jesus.  He seemed, to the disciples, to be more sombre, more thoughtful.  It was as if a small cloud had settled over him.  He walked along in silence, staring thoughtfully into the distance, or watching his feet as they plodded along the road to Jerusalem.  Occasionally, he would look up from his deep thought, and would watch a bird as it flashed across the fields to the side of the road; or a bee as it buzzed from flower to flower.  Jesus was lost in thought.  Something was obviously preying on his mind.

Towards sunset, as the crowd started to cast about for places to camp for the night, Jesus motioned to his disciples.  Instantly, they stopped laying out their sleeping blankets, and clustered around him.  What did the Master want?  What did he need from them.

With a cock of his head, Jesus motioned his closest friends, his disciples, to follow him.  They moved off up a slope, a few hundred yards from the rest of the crowd, where Jesus pointed to a patch of shade under an olive tree.  The disciples sat down, teasing Peter as he lowered his slightly arthritic hip onto the dirt.  Matthew and Nathaniel leaned against the trunk of the tree.  And then all 12 pairs of eyes focused on the Master.  What was he going to say to them?  This was going to be interesting.

Jesus seemed hesitant.  What he was going to tell them was going to upsetting for them to hear.  It was going to shatter some of them...they would not understand it.  They would protest.  Some might even decide that they didn't want to follow him anymore.  Jesus took a deep breath, and began.
      "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said.  Judas and Andrew exchanged glances.  Yes, their eyes communicated.  We know.  We're not stupid.  Jesus went on,
      "And when we get there, the Son of Man is going to be betrayed to the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law."
      Simon began to protest.  "What?!" he said. "How can that happen?  You've got all these crowds...."  Jesus held up his hand, and Simon fell silent.
      "And..." Jesus went on, "They will condemn him to death"
      It was Andrew's turn now.  "No, Lord!" he protested.  "That's impossible.  Look how everyone loves you! Everyone is following you".  Jesus shook his head.  That sad look the Disciples had been noticing all day clouded his eyes again.
     "The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law will condemn him to death," Jesus repeated. "And then they will turn him over to the Gentiles - to the Romans - to be mocked and flogged and crucified."  The Disciples erupted.  Each one tried to out-do the other with protestations.  "No, Lord!  We won't let that happen!  It's impossible!  No-one could do that to you".
      Jesus stood back and watched.  He let them rail their incomprehension at him for a while.  And then, he started smiling.  A smile crept into his eyes, and then made its way down to his mouth, until it took possession of his whole face.  The Disciples' protests dropped to a low murmur, and then to silence.  "Why is he smiling?  Has he been winding us up?"  Jesus fixed the Disciples with his eyes, and finished his speech,
      "But on the third day, he will be raised to life!"
      There was silence.  Thomas turned towards Thadeus and mouthed, "He's cracked!.  Must be the sun.  Go and get him some water".  Thadeus, shook his head.  This wasn't the first time that Jesus had said this kind of stuff.  Though this time, it looked like Jesus really meant it.   Besides, Thadeus wasn't Judas' slave.  If Judas wanted to get Jesus some water he could do it himself.  Thadeus wanted to stay and see what happened next.
        But nothing happened.  Having said what he wanted to say, Jesus turned away from the Disciples, and made his way down the slope to the rest of the crowd.  The Disciples watched him leave...wondering what it all meant.
       Simon was the first to speak.  "Well, I believe him," he stated boldly.  "Everything else he has ever told us has been completely trustworthy, hasn't it.  He turned to James and John, the so called 'Sons of Thunder'.  "James, John, don't you remember how Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on that mountain the other day?  When only the three of us with were him?  If he can do that, I can certainly believe that he could rise from the dead."
       "Yes," replied James.  "But what happens then?  Once he's raised from the dead.  What is he going to do after that?"
       Matthew, the former civil servant, piped up.  "Well, I reckon he'll start a new Government.  I reckon he'll sort out the Romans, and then set up a new, holy Kingdom...you know, that 'Kingdom of God' that he's always been talking about.  I wonder who he'll ask to be Chancellor?"  Matthew suddenly had a far-way look in his eye.
       "And who will he make Prime Minister?" said Andrew.  "Simon...that's going to be you!"  Simon shook his head modestly - but he smiled as well.  Everyone knew that Simon was Jesus' right hand man.
       The Disciples continued to banter among themselves.  Who would be minister in charge of the drains?, they laughed.  Who would command the army?  But James and John, the Sons of Thunder, went silent.  They didn't like the way that their friends were talking.  They were not at all happy about having posts in the new Kingdom of God being carved up like this.  James listened for a while, but then decided he'd had enough.
       "See you later, guys."  he said.  "I'm off to bed.  Come on John."  John got up off the ground, and followed James down the slope towards the crowd.  When they got back to their pitch, their Mother was waiting.  Like many of the women-folk of the Disciples, she had tagged along on this expedition.  It was the most exciting thing to have happened in this part of the world for decades...and she wasn't going to miss any of it.  As her boys approached their little patch of ground, she pulled them into her tent.
      "Well?" she demanded.  "What did he want?"
      James looked at John, and raised an eyebrow.  Should they tell her?  Did Jesus want everyone to know what was going to happen?  Or had it been confidential?
      John made up his mind.  "Listen Mother," he began.  "I don't know if we should be telling you this - so keep it under your hat for now."
      "Ok Son," said his Mother.  "Just tell me what he said"
      "Well," said John.  "It was a bit weird.  He said that when we get to Jerusalem, he expects to be arrested, tried and crucified."
      "What?!"  said his Mother.  "That can't be right.  You must have mis-heard him.  I'm always saying you should pay attention when people are speaking to you!  James, you tell me.  What did Jesus really say?"
      "John is right, Mother" said James.  "That is exactly what he said.  But then he said something even more weird."
      "He said that after three days of being dead, he would rise to life"
      James and John's Mother didn't say anything.  She wasn't especially surprised.  She had seen things on this trip which had already blown her mind.  Nothing Jesus said or promised would surprise her any more.  She pondered for a minute, and then said,
      "And what then?"
      "I beg your pardon?" said John
      "What then?" said his Mother.  "What happens after he rises from the dead?"
      "Funnily enough," said James,  "That's what we were all talking about just now, after Jesus had left.  Matthew thinks Jesus is going to start a new Kingdom, with himself on a heavenly throne.  Matthew was wondering whether Jesus might make him Chancellor of the Exchequer...he used to be a tax-man you know!"
      John piped up. "And Andrew thought that Jesus would probably make Simon into his Prime Minister"
      John's Mother looked aghast.  "What!" she exclaimed.  "That bumbling fool!  I'll Prime Minister him when I get my hands on him!"
      James put out his hand and patted his Mother on her shoulder.  "Don't worry about it Mum.  We were only mucking around.  Just trying to use a bit of humour to lighten the mood.  I'm sure Jesus knows what he's doing...even if we don't.  Let's get some sleep.  Another long day tomorrow."
      At that, the three of them hunkered down for the night, and tried to catch some sleep.  Except for Sarah - John and James' Mother.  She lay awake, looking up at the roof of the tent.  I wonder, she thought.  I wonder.  If Jesus is going to set up a new Kingdom, what's going to be in it for my boys?  They've been with him right from the beginning.  I'll bet Jesus has got a plumb job in mind for them.  But what if he hasn't?  What if he's going to give all the best jobs to the others.  I couldn't stand it!  I'd be a mockery back in Galilee.  Everyone would say "there goes old Sarah who followed the King around for months with her two boys, and didn't get anything".  I'd be so embarrassed.  Maybe if I just have a little word with Jesus.  Maybe if I just plant an idea in his head...

      The next day, Sarah woke up early.  Her mind was made up.  She would talk to Jesus.  She quickly rustled up a couple of unleavened loaves for her sons' breakfast...and then poked them.  "Come on," she said.  "Time to get up".
      James opened one eye and moaned.  "It's too early!" he protested.  "Jesus said we would be heading off a bit later this morning".  Sarah plonked a bread roll on James' blanket, and went out of the tent.
      John rolled over and sat up.  "What's all the fuss?"  he asked.
      "It's Mother" replied James.  "She's hatching something.  I just know it."
      "Oh no." said John, tearing off a hunk of the bread and chewing thoughtfully.  "This is not going to be good"

     Five minutes later, Sarah came back into the tent, and pulled the blankets off both her sons.  "Come on!" she announced.  "We're going to see Jesus".  No son would dare argue with his Mother when she has got that look of determination in her eyes.  So James and John, reluctantly dragged themselves out of the tent, and followed their Mother as she marched determinedly up the slope to a large rock on which Jesus was sitting, looking out over the camp.
      "What's she up to?" said James
      "I've no idea." replied John.  "But its not going to be good."
      When Sarah arrived in front of Jesus, she knelt down on the ground in front him.  Jesus looked down at her, wondering, smiling.  "Hello Sarah", he said.  "Lovely day"
      "Rabbi", said Sarah, "I've come to ask a favour of you".
      "Oh yes?" said Jesus  "What is it that you want?"
      "I've heard all about what you said last night" Sarah began.  "I've come to ask you to grant me a great honour."
      "Really" said Jesus.  "What would that be then?"
      "Rabbi - I'd like to you grant that when you set up the new Kingdom, you'll let one of my sons sit at the right hand of your throne, and the other on the left".  There was a moment of silence, a pause while Jesus gathered his thoughts.  James and John stood stock still - like a couple of statues.  They couldn't believe their ears.  What was Mother playing at?  Smiling, Jesus looked down into Sarah's expectant face.
      "Sarah", he said.  And then, not unkindly,  "You don't know what you are asking".  Looking up at James and John, Jesus said, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"
      James looked quickly at John.  There was a chance here.  Perhaps they might just make it, and become Jesus' right hand men.  John nodded at James, and together they looked at Jesus with resolution and replied, "We can".
      Jesus looked disappointed.  He had hoped for better from these two.  He had hoped that perhaps they had begun to understand that his Kingdom was not like that at all.  He shook his head, and said, "You will indeed drink from my cup.  But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."  James and John were a bit puzzled, but they they were wise enough to know when to back down.  What did Jesus mean?  We will drink from his cup, but the places of honour are decided by God?  That was typical of Jesus.  He always talked in riddles.
      Sarah was still kneeling in front of Jesus, listening intently to all that was going on over her head.  James reached down and gently lifted her to her feet.  "Come on Mother," he said.  "Let's go".
      Sarah got up, looking quite a bit more pleased with herself than James and John were feeling.  She had heard Jesus promise her boys that they would drink from his cup.  She had no idea what that meant.  But it sounded good.  It sounded promising.  "Thank you, Rabbi", she said, nodding her head ingratiatingly.  "Thank you, thank you".  And then bowing to Jesus, repeatedly, she backed away from him, and allowed herself to be led away by James.
      As they threaded their way back through the camp, Sarah turned to John and said, "Did you hear that?  He said you would drink from his cup!  And he said that God would decided who would sit with him on his throne.  He didn't say it wouldn't be you though!  And he did say that you would drink from his cup!  There's still hope, there's still hope".
      By now the camp was starting to stir.  "Sshhh, Mother", said James.  "You mustn't go on like that.  People will start to think that you are asking for special favours".
      "So what if I am?" said Sarah.  "Can't a woman ask for favours for her own sons?"
      And sure enough, people in the camp did indeed think that Sarah was asking for favours - and even worse, that James and John had gone along with her.  As people began to come to, some of them heard this exchange going on between the Sons of Thunder and their Mother, and they began to gossip.  Neighbour began to wake neighbour with the news that James and John had been up to see Jesus and asked for preferential treatment.  "That's not right!"  "Who do they think they are?"  Within a few minutes, the buzz was round the whole camp.  Within half an hour, the news had reached the ears of the other ten Disciples - Simon, Andrew, Thaddeus, Judas, and the others.  They were livid!  After a quick discussion together, they decided that this would just no do, and they all strutted over to where James, John and Sarah were striking camp.
       Simon, ever the spokesperson, spoke first.  "What's this we hear?  Have you been up to Jesus to ask for a place on his right and left hands?"
       James looked at the ground, and shuffled his feet nervously.  "Wasn't us", he mumbled.  "It was Mother".
       "That's not good enough" replied Simon.  "Can't you control your Mother?  Call yourself men!  And you let you Mother go and do your dirty work for you!"
       Jesus, in the meantime, had been sitting on his rock, looking over the camp.  He wasn't surprised.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  He had watched the little trio going back to their tent very sadly.  He had watched as neighbour gossiped to neighbour around the camp - and he had smiled to himself as he saw Simon stride across the camp over to James and John with the other nine disciples in his wake.  Jesus made a decision.  It's time for me to intervene here, he thought.  It's time that the lesson they've been teaching themselves this morning was explained to them.
       Wearily, Jesus climbed down from his rock, and wandered down the slope to where the ten disciples were gathered around the other two.  As he approached, one of the Disciples, Philip, looked up from the argument, and saw Jesus approaching.  He nudged Bartholomew in the ribs and pointed at the approaching Rabbi.  Bartholomew nudged Matthew, Matthew nudged Andrew and in a few seconds, the little group of angry men had ceased shouting, and waited for Jesus to approach.
       Jesus walked up to them and stopped.  He looked around at them with love, but also a little disappointment in his eyes.  Into the anger in the air around him, Jesus spoke gently.
      "You know how the Gentiles do things, don't you?  You know how their rulers lord it over the rest of the people, and how their high officials dominate everyone else?"  A few of the Disciples grunted.  They knew what Jesus meant - they had seen how the Romans bossed everyone else around.  "Well", Jesus went on, "That is not how it shall be with you.  Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant - not your Prime Minister," he said, looking knowingly at Peter, "and not your Chancellor", he said, smiling at Matthew.  "And whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone else.  This should not surprise you.  The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.  The Son of Man came to give his life up, like a sort of ransom paid to a kidnapper, not to go lording it up over anyone."
     And then, the Disciples noticed that Jesus' eyes seemed to become distant.  He seemed to be staring off into the distance, over vast miles, and even through time itself.  And then, Jesus' voice was heard in a tiny little church in the heart of Portsmouth, in a little church named out of affection for another follower of Jesus, a man called Mark.  There was a congregation gathered that morning.  A congregation of ordinary people - people just like the Disciples and the other followers of Jesus.  These were ordinary people - but people who  had heard the call of Jesus, across the millennia - the call to live in ways that were life-giving; the call to live in love with God, and with each other.  These were people who longed to hear Jesus speak to them, and longed to hear from him how life could be richer, deeper, more meaningful.  And across time, and through the walls of the church that morning, the people of St Mark heard Jesus speaking to them.
     "In my service, there is perfect freedom.  By serving me, in your homes, in your jobs, in your schools, in your church, in your community - you will find me.  By serving me with your time, and with your talents and with your money, you will know me. When you serve others, you serve me.  When you reach out to others, you reach out to me."
     And all the people, in that little church in North End, said, "Amen".






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