Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden, 19 October 2003 at St.Mark's and Putnoe Heights
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 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." When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
One of the things which I notice about conducting funeral for ladies in Bedfordshire in their 80’ and 90’s is just how many of them started in service as soon as they left school. The large house around Bedford which are now mostly converted into residential homes for the elderly or student flats, once had wealthy families with maids.
Now having a maid can surely be a good thing. It must have been marvellous to have somebody else cook, do the housework and all the chores which we wish we didn’t have to do.
I know that such help would be very much appreciated in the Vicarage. Corinne leaves the house for work each morning before 8am and often doesn’t return until after 8 9 or 10 at night. Which means that sometimes it is very late by the time she cooked my dinner!
James and John knew what it was like to have hired help around. They wanted to make sure that when Jesus established the new kingdom, they would have positions of power and prestige. They wanted to have places of honour at the right and left hand of Jesus.
The other disciples were understandably angry with this request by James and John, They were most likely angry that these two disciples beat them to Jesus with the request for the best seats. This episode is no different from any of the other ambitious attempts at self promotion which see around us in business and government every day. Our political parties are full of talk of leadership contests, our own Church of England has factions discussing how they might take charge and carve out pieces of a divided church.
This understanding of power is far removed from that of Jesus. Jesus had left he throne of heaven to become a Servant King. He knew that what lay ahead for him entailed voluntarily laying down his life, there were to be no places of authority or power to give away. What Jesus brought was not a revolution in which one group stole power from another. It was not a leadership contest in which roles were simply exchanged. Jesus was about to completely change the nature of true power itself. From now on those who sought to obtain status must become servants. The followers of Christ must not seek the best seats at tables, they must deliberately choose the way of servanthood. They must follow the example of Christ and be those who took the towel to wash the feet of others.
The story is told of St Theresa of Avila and other sisters travelling on a cart. The wheel of the cart becomes stuck in mud and Theresa and the other sisters push the cart in the mud. Encouraging the sisters Theresa said to them ‘come on sisters this is how God rewards his friends.’ One of the sisters replied, ‘no wonder he has so few friends.’ But Theresa had realised the truth that to share in the service of Christ was true reward in itself.
And so it is that they way is laid out for us also to participate in the work of Christ. We too are called to be servants after the example of Jesus.
Sam Cappleman told a modern parable yesterday at the diocesan study day. Four men help their wives with the shopping. One takes his wife to the supermarket and waits in the car for her to take her home. The second man goes into the supermarket and reads the magazines whilst his wife goes round the aisles. Then when the shopping is completed he helps her carry the bags back to the car. The third man goes around the supermarket with his wife and helps her pushing the trolley and carrying the bags. The fourth man leaves his wife in bed and goes to the supermarket to do the shopping for her. Which man truly served his wife? It may be best to obtain permission from your wife before attempting this!
Today's gospel opens our eyes to the true greatness that surrounds us in daily life. Those who seek satisfaction by climbing the ladder of ambition and self-promotion may be sorely disappointed unless they manage on route to capture for themselves a true picture of what greatness is really about. James and John did come to terms with the message of Christ, indeed we know that James did drink the cup of suffering of which Jesus spoke, he was the first to be martyred (Acts 12:2) when Herod had him executed by the sword.
A story was sent to me this week about an episode during the American Revolution. A man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, "Sir, I am a corporal!" The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job 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 back on horse and rode off.
That story is a good one for today' sermon but perhaps lacks on thing. I
would prefer it if George Washington had not said who he was! We know how
James died but not John. I like to think that John made his sacrifice
quietly without much ado. Being a servant does not mean shouting about it
and drawing attention to our willingness to serve, rather quietly just
getting on with it. We all need to look again at those who, in quiet ways,
behind the scenes serve without receiving praise; help without thanks and
remain faithful to daily responsibilities without trumpet fanfares and