It occurred to be that our Gospel reading for today (Mark 10:35-45), or at least the parallel account in Luke’s Gospel, is often read at the ordination service of a deacon. And Jesus’ counsel to his disciples to become “servants” is one of the reasons the diaconate is often identified as a “servant”’ ministry.
Well, I happen to be married to a deacon, and Susanne always reminds me to be careful about using “servant” imagery when referring to deacons, or anyone else for that matter. It’s not just the mild irritation deacons feel when, at a clergy conference, someone will need a cup of coffee and say something like “Where’s a deacon when you need one?” or “That’s a deacon’s ministry.”
No, it’s really more than that: it’s one thing for the Church to challenge, say, a white, male, privileged person like me to “become like a servant.” That entails a real role reversal and perhaps the giving up of some of that privilege so that we might identify more closely with those on the margins.
But that challenge to become a servant may be heard quite differently by a woman…or a person of color…or someone who has lived most of their lives in poverty. I wonder how African American slaves in this country understood the words, “…whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all?” (Mark 10:44) I wonder how Black people hear it today!
Remember, Jesus said these words to ten of his disciples who were angry with James and John right after they had asked Jesus for the special privilege of sitting as his right and left hand when he came into his glorious kingdom. The other disciples were angry presumably because they also wanted to be in those privileged places and were afraid they were being given away before their very eyes!
So, while we need to be sensitive and careful about using this servant imagery, it is clearly part of the Christian calling. You even have it in your mission statement! And although deacons aren’t our servants, deacons do model something called “diakonia” for the whole Church. Deacons model what might be called the “diaconate of all believers” just like priests, at their best, model “the priesthood of all believers.”
As I thought about all that this week, it dawned on me that maybe the wonderful hymn by Richard Gillard which we will sing a little later in the service can help with all this servant-hood business. Pay attention to the words when we sing them:
“Brother, sister let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you/ Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Hear that? There is a mutual ministry there. Let me be your servant…and let me be humble enough to let you be my servant in return! And the hymn goes on to describe something of what genuine servant-hood looks like:
“We are pilgrims on the journey, we are travl’ers on the road/ We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” Again, there’s a mutuality there. We’re all in this together. It’s not a question of one person being another’s servant. It’s about being fellow travelers through the ups and downs of life.
“I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear/ I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.” The Christian faith is not a solo undertaking. There’s really no such thing as “Me and Jesus.” It’s always “US and Jesus.” When I have a hard time trusting, or even believing, in God sometimes, I know that you – and others in the Church – believe for me! You hold the Christ-light for me…even when I can’t hold it very high.
“I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you/ I will share your joys and sorrows ‘til we’ve seen this journey though.” One of the great Christian virtues is something called “compassion” which literally means to “suffer with.” We’re called to suffer with one another…but also to rejoice with one another. Because there will be joy and sorrow on the journey, and it helps to have someone to share both experiences with.
Finally, “when we sing to God in heaven, there will be such harmony/ borne of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.” What a beautiful description of our future! For the promise is that one day, it will all be set right – suffering ended, injustice overturned, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. Harmony! What better way to describe it than “harmony?”
Well, we’re going to turn now to receiving formally some folks into our midst as church here today. We’re going to welcome them more fully into this community as fellow “trav’lers on the road.” And we’re going to make them a promise:
Right after they reaffirm their renunciation of evil and renew their commitment to Jesus Christ, I’m going to ask this congregation a question: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”
In other words, will you serve them and let them serve you? Will you be their fellow pilgrims on the journey? Will you hold the Christ light for them in the nighttime of their fear? Will you weep when they are weeping and laugh when they are laughing?
And you’re going to answer, “We will!”
It’s likely the most important thing you’ll promise…all week!