By The Rev. Sherry Deets
21 Pentecost, Proper 24 – October 21, 2012
Donald Meichenbaum, one of American Psychologist’s ten most influential psychotherapists, tells of the time that his car was struck by lightning while he was driving. Once he was safe at home, Meichenbaum began to share his ordeal with his teenage son, expecting at least some small degree of sympathy. Instead, his son interrupted, “Dad, let’s go buy a lottery ticket. They say the chances of being hit by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are every bit as self-absorbed as Meichenbaum’s typical teenage son when they come to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
In a time of crisis, when Jesus has just announced that he is going to his death, they react with the intuitive move to self-protection. Indeed, not only do they ask for seats of glory, but they do it apart from their companions, as if they believe there won’t be enough glory to go around and so they’d better get theirs first. No wonder the other disciples are angry; they see that James and John are trying to edge them out.
But, are we any different? When we feel under attack, or afraid, or anxious, isn’t the temptation always to move toward self-preservation, give into our fears about scarcity, and see our companions as rivals rather than friends? And of course it doesn’t work; it never does. But what’s the alternative?
That’s what Jesus articulates. As in the two previous scenes around these issues, Jesus invites them not just to re-imagine but actually to redefine their understanding of power, prestige, status, and leadership. In this case he defines leadership as serving the needs of another. Which means that glory comes not from individual accomplishment but from service.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Then why is it so difficult? Two reasons. First, given the witness of both Scripture and our own experience, I think it’s safe to say that as a species we are just insecure enough to believe that there is not enough to go around – not enough money, enough time, enough love, you name it – and so we seem hardwired to look out for ourselves rather than our neighbor.
Second, we are bombarded 24/7 with cultural messages that play upon this insecurity by asserting that glory rests in possessions, or wealth, or fame, or individual accomplishment. Why else would we pay professional athletes and movies stars millions upon millions while school teachers and nurses, such modest wages? Although we pay lip service to serving others, the fact of the matter is we have an entire culture encouraging us to “look out for number 1.”
How can we possibly combat these messages and our own proclivities? Well, if think about it, we each have had moments where we’ve experienced the truth of Jesus’ words. Moments, that is, where we have put someone else’s needs first – not because we wanted to please them or wanted something in return, but from the sheer delight of serving. Each of us has volunteered, or helped out a friend, or encouraged someone down in the dumps, or lent a hand to someone in need, and when we did, we experienced the joy of giving ourselves to another. Each of us, that is, has fought our insecurity about not having enough by making ourselves vulnerable to the needs of another and found that vulnerability rewarded not simply by the gratitude of the recipient but by our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, and courage.
Yesterday morning, as I was watching the news, I saw the story about a Target store in Oregon. Debora Durall, is a store employee who was working at register 11, when a customer’s credit card was denied. The bill was then quietly paid by a stranger. Durall said: “I’m like, ‘It’s a lot. It’s 161 dollars and 85 cents.’ And she says, ‘That’s OK, I’ve needed help before, and I want to help them.’” The generous stranger left before the family did. It was Durall’s job to tell them. “Your debt is totally paid in full,” Durall told the family. The wife started tearing up and she said, “Why would anybody do that for me?” It inspired that struggling family, and the kindness began to spread.
They gave $20 toward the next person’s bill, which turned out to be two teenage girls and they passed it on to the next person. And the money left over from that – $11.51 – went on to yet another person.
Durall shared the story with her Facebook friends and to the Target fan page. Nine days later, the story has gone viral. It has more than 242,000 ‘likes’ and more than 17,000 comments – numbers that are still growing. It’s overwhelming for Durall who feels she’s learned a lesson.
“They may not hit a ‘like’ button, they may not make a comment, but you’re really not as invisible as you think you are, and you can impact people,” she said. Simple kindness can go as far as that $161 one woman decided to pay.
“I will always remember her, and she had no idea the impact she made on how many people. She just has no idea,” Durall said. Durall said she knows not everyone can pay someone else’s $160 bill. But that’s not the point – doing what you can could have a long-lasting impact.
And here’s one story from our country’s Revolutionary War.
A group of exhausted soldiers were struggling and straining to repair a small defensive barrier. One of them shouted orders at the others, but made no attempt to help them.
Suddenly a civilian came by on horseback. He asked the soldier in charge why he wasn’t helping in the effort. The solider responded, “Sir, I am a corporal!”
The stranger apologized, dismounted, and helped the exhausted soldiers in their work. Once the job was done, he turned to the corporal and said, “Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief and I will come and help you again.”
With that, George Washington got on his horse and rode off.
Our country’s first president found himself in a situation that invited him to demonstrate servant leadership. You and I also face opportunities to exercise that leadership. It may be a casual encounter as it was for Washington riding by that day, or the woman who paid the target bill. Or it may be far more intentional, when we prepare ourselves arduously and over a long period of time for an opportunity to serve. But whatever form it takes, servant leadership happens when we place the welfare of others ahead of our desire for power or prestige or possessions. The servant leader places others before self and acts on that basis and thereby changes the world for good. And I would argue, the servant leader is changed for good. ‘For the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ Perhaps Jesus “buys us back” by showing us a way out of the devastating cycle of looking for glory, joy, and peace on the world’s terms by teaching and showing us 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. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
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