A Servant to All Who Come in Need

The Rev. Dr. Matthew PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

In the name of God whose love brings us into being and redeems us and sustains us, amen.

Since I became your minister at the beginning of September or I started preaching for you anyway, I've been complaining about these lessons from Mark, the escalating difficulty of each of these challenges that Jesus gives to the crowds around him and to the disciples following him. In many ways, today's lesson is a culmination of all that discomfort. When James and John come to Jesus and ask him to do something for them and He says, "If you want to be great, you have to be a servant," in some ways I think that maybe this teaching doesn't unsettle us as much as it ought to or as much as it did to the first listeners of it. I think you can take a workshop at the business school on servant leadership.

We can recognize the scandal of it if we pay attention to the second half of that teaching, "Whoever would be first among you must be a slave." I have to and want to acknowledge in this moment how this line from the Gospel of Mark and the other versions of it in the other gospels have been used throughout the ages to justify and vindicate forms of servitude and slavery. I know Jesus rejects and I know He rejects it because of this line in fact. He says, "I go to give my life as ransom." The word which is translated as ransom from the original Greek is ýtron and that doesn't really mean ransom. It actually is a manumission fee. It's the price paid to free a slave. So in this very line, Jesus is saying, preaching freedom to the oppressed and an end to slavery.

So what is this teaching about service then, being of service? The word translated as servant here is the Greek word diakonos which is the word we use to source our own word deacon. So in the church, we have deacons. We have student deacons here at the Memorial Church. After service today, we're going to do some deacon training and I'm going to have lunch, Anna and I are going to have lunch with the deacons today. But this moment when Jesus says, "To be truly great, you must be a deacon. You must be a servant," really is the culmination of all these different privileges that Jesus is disdaining. When I first preached with you, I mean preached for you at the beginning of September, the religious leaders came to Jesus and Jesus disdained all religious privilege. Then the Syrophoenician woman came to him and his disdained ethnic privilege. Then children and people who were divorced came to Jesus and Jesus disdained social privilege.

Then last week, we heard from Khalil and we heard from the Quran, but the assigned text was about rich people not being able to get through the eye of a needle. Economic privilege was disdained last week and this week, it's political privilege. James and John come to Jesus and say, "When you come into your kingdom, do something nice for us. Give us a share of your authority and your power." I want to contextualize this question a bit because there are some verses prior to this that I think are really important, verses like 32-34. This reading today starts at 35. Just before James and John ask this question, Jesus is going with the crowds and He's going towards Jerusalem. This is Chapter 10 and Chapter 11 is Palm Sunday. Chapter 11 is a triumphal entry. Jesus is on his way to this climactic moment where He will give his life to set others free and everybody kind of knows it.

It says in Verse 32 that the crowds are afraid and I think they're afraid because He's going to Jerusalem and they know a confrontation is coming and they're afraid because He keeps saying all these wild things about all the forms of privilege that people need to give up. He knows they're afraid and He turns to them and in response to their fear, the fear of the crowds that follow him, Jesus tells them that they are going to Jerusalem and He is going to die. That is the consolation He offers in Verse 34. Then in Verse 35, James and John turn to Jesus and say, "Okay, but when you come into your kingdom, do something for us." James and John are spirited characters in the gospels in the New Testament. Mark says their nickname was sons of thunder. In the Gospel of Luke, they ask Jesus if they can call down fire upon a Samaritan village that irritates them. These are spirited brothers, the sons of Zebedee, but they're also central and crucial to Jesus' ministry.

In every one of the synoptic gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- when Jesus goes up onto the mountain and is transfigured before He heads to Jerusalem, as He is doing now in this lesson, there are only three disciples with him. It's Peter and it's James and John. So it's maybe not unfair that, in this question, James and John feel like they're important, feel like they have a claim upon the kingdom into which Jesus is coming. This reads, I think as we read it and as I've been presenting it, this reads as a power play, James and John wanting to assert something of themselves, take their place at the right and left hand of Jesus. The other disciples, we know, read it that way as well because the 10 are mad. They're mad at James and John for making this request.

But I wonder if we ought to read it that way. All these teachings, this line of teachings that I've been up here in this pulpit trying to explain and apologize for, this is what they have been hearing on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to this confrontation with the Roman Empire. The gospel tells us that they are scared, that the disciples are scared. He's just told them that He's about to die. Maybe this isn't a power play. Maybe it's an act of faith. They're saying to Jesus, "Okay. Jesus, okay, but tell us this is going to be worth the trouble. Tell us that, for all this, we are going to receive some comfort, some compensation for all that you're asking us to give up." As much as we might want to disdain James and John as these fiery disciples who ask too much or ask for power, I don't know, that sounds like prayers that we make all the time.

When I invited us to give the peace, I said, "Bring us to that heavenly city. Give us peace. We are in discord down here, God. Give us peace. Please tell us that you will bring us there." We say it in our public prayer and we say it in our private prayer. I can't tell you how many times over the last two years I have prayed in my private prayers, "Just tell me it's going to be okay, God. I know it's hard now. I know there's hard things to go through. Tell me it's worth the trouble. Tell me we'll be okay." Then Jesus makes this odd response to James and John's question, "You will have my baptism and you will drink from my cup." Traditionally, this answer from Jesus is read, is interpreted as sort of a knowing and maybe even slightly cynical sign that James and John are going to suffer like Jesus is going to suffer. I'll tell you I don't like that reading because as hard as the Jesus is in the Gospel of Mark, that's too hard.

Also, it's not especially accurate. We learn in the Book of Acts that James is killed by King Herod Agrippa in the 44th year of our Lord, but John, tradition has it, lived to a ripe old age ministering in the church. In fact, when Jesus does come into his kingdom when He is crucified, there is one on his right and on his left, but neither of them are James or John. James and John have run away. I think there's something else happening in this response from Jesus. It's not a harsh, judgmental statement, "You will suffer like me whether you know it or not." That's not, I don't think, what Jesus is saying. I think James and John come to him like many of us come to Jesus so often and say, "This is hard and it doesn't look like it's going to get better and we are scared. Can you do something for us?"

James and John, in particular because of their fiery temperament, ask in particular, "Can you do this for us? Can you give us worldly power," and Jesus says, "No, I can't give you worldly power. What I can give you is my baptism and my cup. What I can give you is this community that we are forming together. What I can give you is the church. What I can give you is one another, all of you in service, servants of one another. You're right. I am going to Jerusalem and I am going to die and I am doing it to set you free to love one another and to care for one another and to be the community of Christ, to be the church to share in the baptism and the cup that I have given to you." James and John, the sons of thunder, come to Jesus and they ask him for comfort and I think Jesus offers it to them, not as worldly power. His gift to them, his gift to us is his ministry to one another. His gift to them and to us is community. It's the church. It's all of you, you here in the pews, you listening on the radio or online, all of us bound together in Jesus' name and by his baptism and by his cup.

But if that's true, then the church needs to live up to that commission. I want to tell you about when I was ordained as a deacon. In the Anglican tradition, in the Episcopal tradition out of which I come, to be a deacon is an ordained vocation. Every priest before they become a priest, I'm a priest, before you can become a priest, you have to be ordained a deacon. I was ordained a deacon in the summer of 2009 back in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I'm from at the kind of big, prominent Episcopal church in Grand Rapids, the seat of the diocese there. Being ordained is something I had wanted for as long as I could remember. I always wanted to serve in the church. I always wanted to be a minister, an ordained minister. I always wanted to be a priest and so this was a big day for me and for my family and for my friends. It was a beautiful day in June in Grand Rapids and it was a church maybe not quite this size, but pretty close, and it was full of friends and family.

The bishop was there and it was this beautiful service and we were just kind of robed in this bright crimson. That's what you do for ordinations, bright crimson and gold vestments, and the bishop had his big hat on and it was the whole nine yards. Right? It was a beautiful service and it was a moving service and within the Episcopal tradition, giving communion's a big thing. So at the communion service, I stood next to the bishop and he gave me a plate of the bread and I handed out bread and then next to me was a woman I had worked with when I did my hospital chaplaincy training, another deacon, a permanent deacon in the church named Cindy, Deacon Cindy. She stood on my left and she gave out the wine and I gave out the bread and there was this long line of the people who had loved me and supported me all through my aspirations to become a minister coming up to me and receiving communion from me. It was such a beautiful moment, one I cherish still.

The line was dwindling and right towards the end. This is a downtown church in the middle of a city. Right towards the end, a man who appeared to be homeless walked through the back doors. I saw him because I was at the front of the church handing out communion and he got in the back of my line. He came up to me and he was the last person to receive communion, I remember. I remember knowing that I'd just been ordained by this bishop as a deacon, a servant in God's church, and I handed him that wafer. The vocation felt true to me and I was so grateful for it and he took the wine from Cindy and he went into the back of the church and sat down. I gave the final blessing and everyone said hooray. I walked over. There was a reception after the service and I walked over with the bishop into this little area, kind of a side chapel on the way to the parish hall, and the bishop said, "Okay. Everyone want to take pictures of Matt now. We're going to take pictures of Matt and the bishop." Right?

So I was standing next to the bishop. Again, all our crimson and gold everywhere, looking fancy in a crowd of folks who love me taking pictures and flashbulbs and all this. Right? This wonderful moment. I was feeling the moment and as I was feeling the moment, through the heads that were angling for the good shot, through the heads, I could see into the back of the church and in one of the rear pews, that homeless man to whom I had given communion was slumped over in a pew. On one side of him were some EMTs and they'd put an oxygen mask on him. On the other side of him was Deacon Cindy, the person who had given communion with me. She was holding his hand and she was rubbing his back and I could see that she was saying or praying something into his ear. In that moment with the flashbulbs going, I asked myself, "If Jesus walked into this church right now, whom would He recognize as his minister? Whom would He see as a servant? Would it be me, newly ordained deacon Matt, or my friend and teacher Cindy sitting at the side of a person in need?"

We in the church are not immune to the temptations of James and John, those sons of thunder. Our world is hard and we are scared and we seek an answer in our prayers to our prayers, but Jesus' response to our prayer is the same now as it was then and it is just as clear now as it was then. That word of his, that word made flesh, it suffers out in our world. It walks in off the street and slumps down in a pew. It waits for us to take its hand and rub its back and be of service. May we sit at the right and at the left of all those who come to us in need.