First, a little contextual help: The book of Hebrews (this week we read Heb. 5:1-10) is theologically rich, spiritually profound, and deeply invested in a lengthy discussion of Jesus as the ultimate high priest. If that makes your head hurt, WorkingPreacher has a great, accessible discussion of what that metaphor means in the historical context.

And then thoughts on the gospel reading, Mark 10:35-45. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the climactic week we now call holy, and he’s been trying to explain to his followers what’s going to happen. As is characteristic in Mark, they don’t get it. Instead, two of them ask to be seated in places of honor with Jesus. He not only disclaims the authority to draw up the heavenly seating chart, he says something radical about greatness: “If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all.”

That word ‘servant’ is the root of our word ‘deacon,’ as in the group that provides care, support, and hospitality within the church. Literally, it meant server (waiter/waitress), like the person in the apron who brings your entree to the table and tops off your beverages. I was ordained as a deacon before I became a teaching elder, and I like to remind myself that my first ordination was to this under-appreciated service role. Tonight I’m thinking less theologically and remembering my work as a server en route to this full-time ministry gig.

Having worn an apron and stood behind a counter, I certainly get what Jesus is getting at with this contrast of greatness and servanthood. We like to think we don’t have servants and other class distinctions in America, but try telling that to someone who has worn an apron with a name tag. Class is perhaps a more flexible thing today than it used to be, but it exists. Just watch how easily otherwise polite and friendly people will mistreat their server or their cashier (“their” person, like they own them for that little snippet of time). The guest/server dynamic comes with an automatic power differential that has nothing to do with the relative worth of the people involved.

On my good days at the Olive Garden, I could take offense at this power dynamic and the way it tended to play out in the lives of my colleagues, especially those who had few other good career paths available. I could see people come to work on a slow day, give their best effort, endure grief from strangers all through lunch, and leave without enough tip money to pay for child care. That’s a broken system, and I could give myself a little gospel credit for voluntarily spending time in it.

More often, my offense was on my own behalf. On behalf of how much I could be doing with my time if only I weren’t putting up with all the garbage people threw at me. On behalf of my own need to justify the accomplishments and the ego that I had so much investment in. “How could someone treat me like this? I have a master’s degree! From Harvard!” I didn’t say that out loud, and certainly not to the guests, but boy did I think it.

It’s fashionable among a certain set of young progressive Christians to say negative things about institutions: the ways they tend to consolidate and safeguard their own power; the ways they tend to privilege certain people and exclude others, especially women and minorities; the extreme wealth they tend to embody. We often think that Jesus would have nothing to do with an institutional behemoth like Harvard University (of which the Divinity School is a drop in the bucket). I can tend to denigrate myself for being such a fortunate product of two very wealthy institutions, Harvard and Grinnell College, and being a middle-class, straight, white, Christian male at that.

Those anti-institutional voices ring in my head as I think about this passage in the context of our Heritage Sunday. Can I preach servanthood on a day when we celebrate an institution with the kind of cultural sway we’ve had? Am I in danger of glorifying something that Jesus didn’t want to happen in his name?

In her book Reframing Hope, Carol Howard Merritt (who spoke at Synod School this summer) argues that institutions don’t have to be seats of power to be lorded over others; instead, they can be platforms for empowerment, able to use their resources to give power away to others. For example, I received an education far beyond my means because a college and a graduate school spent endowment income to open their doors exceptionally wide. At Hope, we invest our physical and social resources in projects to build bridges with others in our community – the college student dinners, SWOP, the Billy Bell Bakery. We came by these resources because “our people” were traditionally of a certain socioeconomic class, but we’ve tried to use our resources in a way that reaches across those boundaries.

Now tell me a story: when is a particularly meaningful time when you’ve experienced our church (or another institution) reaching out to share our power and status with the community? Leave a comment below.

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