Sermon: Choosing Service over Power

“A Peculiar People: Choosing Service over Power”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 6, 2019

1 Kings 3:8-12a
Solomon said to God, “Your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your request.


Matthew 20:20-28
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

This morning we are continuing our sermon series on A Peculiar People – God’s invitation to us to become God’s own particular people, but also to maybe be a little weird as we do it, a little countercultural, to go against the grain. 

Today we’re looking at choosing service over power.

The first person I thought of after reading this morning’s Hebrew scripture was Jimmy Carter. You may or may not have cared for him as a president, but the man created the role of former president as we know it. After leaving office, he could have become a highly-paid consultant or speaker, leveraging his vast political contacts and high profile to become rich; instead, he and his wife Rosalynn founded the Carter Center to focus on eradicating treatable diseases, bolstering democracy around the world, and building decent, affordable housing for those in need. 

We used to live just a couple hours from President Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia, and a few years ago we drove down to hear him teach Sunday school at his home church, as he does every Sunday that he is in town. Maranatha Baptist is not a big place; quite a bit smaller than our sanctuary, in fact. No TV crews show up, no heads of state gather there; yet each week, President Carter gives an informed and heartfelt reflection on the morning’s scripture, before worshiping in the congregation and then, with Rosalynn, posing for pictures with every single person who has waited to greet them. They then head back to their home, a modest house not much changed (apart from Secret Service accommodations) since their pre-presidency days.

Can you imagine: the former “leader of the free world” chatting with worshipers and well-wishers at a small country church, his Secret Service agents so well camouflaged that you might spend five minutes swapping sleep training tips for your young kids before you realized he was there to protect the Carters? 

Can you imagine him speaking, as he does each year, to a small roomful of seminary students about the importance of faith in community leadership; or donning a bandanna alongside Rosalynn to hammer nails at Habitat for Humanity builds around the world? 

Can you imagine, a man of immense power and influence using it for good instead of for personal gain – having so little ego that he’s constantly redirecting the people who look to him for inspiration to the needs and resilience of others?

Then there are the disciples, fighting over who will get to sit next to Jesus when he begins his reign in the kindom of God. James and John appear to have put their mother up to calling divine shotgun, and the other ten, instead of seeing their arrogance for what it is, get mad they hadn’t thought to ask first.

Talk about an unfavorable comparison!

But as much as we might laugh at their obvious, almost comic wrongheadedness, the disciples are actually a caricature of our own egos’ tendency to run a bit wild with concern for our status, our pride, our self-preservation. It’s not so much that they’re arrogant; it’s that they’re so very human. 

Having abandoned their livelihoods to follow their itinerant master as he wanders the countryside, the disciples are understandably worried about what will become of them when Jesus’ ministry shifts into high gear. Just a chapter earlier, Peter says to Jesus: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. If rich people have less chance of entering the kindom of heaven than a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, what hope do we have?” (Matthew 19:27) “Don’t forget about us!” they seem to say. “Take care of us!”

It’s a fear we all know, at some level: that we will lose what we have, that we will go unnoticed, that we will become unimportant and that no one will remember or value us. This fear stems from our ego – from that part of our minds focused solely on protecting us from any and all perceived threats, from scarcity of food to loss of identity.

And when our ego feels threatened, it grasps for whatever will make us feel more secure: power, money, validation. Evidence of this looms, larger than life, all over the headlines. But lest we fall for the illusion that power corrupts only those with a lot of it, by the world’s standards, let’s remember that it looms, in less dramatic ways, all over our lives, too. 

I’ve shared before how, when I worked at a day shelter for those experiencing homelessness, we would assemble shared meals from donated food. At that time I ate vegan, meaning no dairy, eggs, or meat, so I would scour the mealtime options for vegan-friendly items, setting aside a portion for myself first, because I was worried that the non-meat, non-cheese stuff would get eaten up and I’d go hungry.

At first my habit of squirreling away food made me feel safe and in control – I had the power to keep myself from going hungry at a meal, and that felt good.

 But after awhile I noticed that it was also making me anxious and, frankly, ungracious. I would hover around the food table, strategizing how to fend off others and secure my meal without looking like a glutton.  

On some level, I knew it was silly, maybe even small-minded; but I justified my behavior by telling myself that it would look snobbish if I ate a “special” meal from home instead of making do with donations as our guests did; or I’d think about how much more present I could be to our guests’ needs if I had eaten properly instead of letting my blood sugar slip into hangry territory. 

Telling this story again, I’m tempted to feel embarrassed – I was working at a homeless shelter, for Pete’s sake! How on earth could I have rationalized getting first dibs on the donated food?

But I share it to remind us how easy it is to misuse even a relatively small amount of power in the name of protecting ourselves, our image, our possessions; or in the name of furthering our own agendas – well-intentioned, often, but still our own. 

Jesus invites us, by contrast, to figure out how to further God’s agenda: one where we’re not first so much as faithful. How can we advance justice, compassion, reconciliation, dignity?

Jesus knows that when he is gone, the disciples will wield lots of power as the leaders of this fledgling movement. So it’s critical that he teaches them what it means to be “first” – to be powerful – in his kindom: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants. It will not be so among you; instead, whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give the ultimate sacrifice in love to liberate many.”

In case it’s not immediately clear how to go about this, Jesus gives us a cheat sheet, a shortcut: when in doubt, serve others. Put others first and act, yourself, like the least and the last. It’s the surest way to get our own egos out of the way and open the door to the building up of God’s kindom. 

It definitely worked for me; I started going last in the food line, making sure those who were truly hungry got their fill first; and it wasn’t long before I realized that no matter what was left over at the end, I’d be fine. It turns out there isn’t much an emergency jar of peanut butter won’t cure.

I want to be clear: Jesus isn’t telling us to be doormats. Consistently setting aside your own wellbeing to cater to everyone else’s demands isn’t building up the kindom so much as propping up others’ inflated sense of themselves. As one observer put it, “There is a big difference between serving the needs of others and being a servant of others’ needs.” 

How do you tell, then, if you’re serving the needs of others or being a servant of others’ needs – fulfilling others’ demands to everyone’s detriment? How do we discern how to choose service over power with integrity?

Prayerfully ask yourself this: will the course you want to take fuel your need to feel important? Enable you to see yourself as a martyr? Cause you real harm? Keep someone dependent on you? Allow you to pity someone else so you can feel better by comparison? 

Or, will the course you want to take free you from your own smallness? Let you laugh at yourself? Help you grow? Bolster others’ dignity? Remind you of God’s great love for the ones you serve – and for you?

If you can say “yes” to the second set of questions, chances are you’re headed in the right direction.

Do you remember how, at the Last Supper – the last time Jesus would interact with his disciples during his earthly ministry – he dresses himself as a servant would and washes their dirty feet? Peter is so taken aback at Jesus’ abject humbling of himself that he refuses to participate. He cannot wrap his mind around his revered rabbi, the One he has come to know is the Messiah, doing this lowliest of tasks, acting as a literal servant. Yet Jesus tells the disciples that this is precisely what a leader does: “You call me ‘Teacher’; well, here’s what I’m teaching you: serve one another as I’ve served you. That’s where your real power will come from: from laying down your notions of what’s important so that you can take up God’s notion of what’s important.” 

It’s why we give to Neighbors in Need, handing our resources over to people who know best what their communities need instead of throwing money at what we think will fix a problem. It’s why we receive communion from each other each month, in community, instead of being able to buy single-portion communion packs at the grocery store and just check that spiritual care box off our list at home by ourselves. It’s why we participate in the Neighbors Eating All Together (NEAT) dinner, requiring no proof that we’re serving the “right” people – the “poor enough” people – because we want to value our guests’ dignity over our own need to feel like we’re serving in the most “impactful” way. It’s why we observe World Communion Sunday, reminding ourselves of the millions around the world who might do this Christianity thing differently from us – and whom we might be tempted to label as “wrong” – yet who all follow Jesus’ command to share the cup just as we do.

I have a spoiler: none of us is going to sit on a throne and judge the twelve tribes of Israel next to Jesus. And the only ones among us who might end up being president are downstairs (our children). But we all hold power: as parents, as colleagues, as neighbors, as citizens – in all sorts of ways. And so we have opportunities every day to decide whether we’re going to use that power to further our own agenda, to better our own outcomes, to feather our own nests.

Or, whether we might use that power in the service of God, in love for others. And I hope you try giving that a chance, because that is where you will find, counterintuitively – peculiarly – that you feel the most secure of all: rooted in the certain and sure knowledge of God’s love for you and for the world. Amen.