21st Sunday after Pentecost Lectionary Reflection, Year B
October 18, 2015
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Mark 10:45
Service with a smile! All right, we sort of expect that, and it’s nice when it happens. Well, how about sacrifice with a smile? Not so much, right? In fact, even thinking about real sacrifice is not particularly pleasant. The disciples aren’t too keen on such gloomy affairs as sacrifice and suffering. Their Rabbi Jesus, after all, has come (at least in their minds) to restore a right order, to reign in glory, and to bring them along for the ride. So it’s no surprise that our gospel lesson opens this week with James and John requesting the places of power at Jesus’ side–one on the right and the other on the left.
What starts as a simple request soon turns into an angry confrontation when the other 10 figure out what James and John are lobbying for. Jesus has to settle them down by trying to talk some “kingdom sense” into them. To win, they have to become the biggest losers, and we’re not talking poundage here.
The reign of God is a place where “first rate sinners” are welcomed into the arms of divine love and mercy, only to be turned into “last place winners” whose job it is to serve and sacrifice–with a smile whenever possible. The great reversal that Jesus keeps trying to hammer into the gnarly noggins of his dearest dozen followers definitely runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of the “Gentiles” of that era, as well as to the notions of success and reward our culture preaches today. Not much has changed in that respect!
We know from scripture and tradition that this band of believers/brothers does go on to serve and sacrifice, enduring great hardships, persecution, and even martyrdom. Somehow, by walking the way of the cross with Jesus, they eventually “get it.” They do not stray from the faith but rather serve as faithful witnesses whose stories are passed from generation to generation of Christians even as they passed on the Good News to all whom they encountered. They truly become “last place winners” who store up treasure in heaven rather than continuing to grasp for all that glitters in life.
Perhaps today we’re sort of back in that first century space when it comes to discipleship. Most folks are plenty happy to jostle for a seat of honor, a position of power, or a mantle of prestige. Becoming “last place winners” takes marathon-like training. It just doesn’t come naturally, but it does come with practice and effort and real investment. And we get our “work-outs” and training when we gather for regular worship and leave to serve. We begin to see and experience real joy in unsuspecting places, and we learn to love lavishly regardless of whom we are called to love.
Before we realize it, the great reversal from “first-rate sinner” to “last place winner” has happened, and we’re invested as servants to one another. Granted, some days are definitely better than others, and we still sin boldly and fail frequently, but as the psalmist sings in this week’s appointed song “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent” (91:9-10). Yes, even though we may not fully realize what cup we’re drinking or what purifications we’re undergoing or what depth of suffering and sacrifice to which we’ll be called, we can be assured that God is with us, is faithful, and will not fail us. That means we don’t really even have to worry about where we sit in the kingdom. Our glory is found in giving, our strength in service, and our hope in Jesus. Last place isn’t so bad after all when you see it like that!
Photos: Georgi0, Kira Westland, and State Farm, Creative Commons License. Thanks!