Serving the Servant King

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on June 5, 2011, the Sunday after Ascension

I have often quoted my mother’s definition of a family. She used to say that you don’t have a family until you have three children because you only have two hands and when you have three children there’s always one out of control. Now I suspect a lot of parents today would argue that given the world we live in even one child is too much to control. But be that as it may, come back to my mother’s definition of family and think about what it implies: that the essence of family is loss of control.  And then ask yourself this: if we assume that it’s good to be part of a family, are we being told that it’s good when things are out of control?  I’ve remembered my mother’s saying and quoted it for the sake of a chuckle, but now it occurs to me to ask, “What was she really saying?” Is it or is it not good to be in control?

Ascension Day was last Thursday and it marks a kind of formal end of Jesus earthly ministry.  He taught for perhaps three years and then was crucified.  And for forty days after that he appeared again to his disciples, risen from death, and giving them the confidence to go out and proclaim a gospel, to preach good news to the world of God’s victory over sin and death. And the message we associate with Ascension Day is one of victory, Christ is the King, Christ rules, the world is his kingdom.  The collect this morning uses terms like that: “O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven.  The key words are  “Glory” and “triumph” and “kingdom.” Now, does that sound like control or not?

But think about it.  I’m getting a very mixed message.  The message last Thursday and today is of triumph and glory, but I’m also remembering another Thursday back just before Easter when Jesus sat down to supper with his friends but then took a towel and went around the table washing his disciples’ feet. He took on the task of the servant and he told his disciples to remember that and to serve as he had served.  That was a lesson he tried to drum home often.  The disciples had another picture in mind.  They thought the Messiah was supposed to restore the kingdom of David, bring back the day of triumph when Israel for one brief, shining hour, had ruled the world. They quarreled over who would be number two in the kingdom, who would get to sit on the right hand of the Messiah in the day of triumph. And Jesus told them that’s how the kings of this world do things, but with you it’s going to be different; with you the one who is greatest is the one who makes himself least and becomes the servant of all. With you, he said, it needs to be different; you are to serve, not control.

“But listen, Jesus,” you might say; “there’s no way that will work.  In the real world, you have to have some control or you’ll get walked all over. I mean, how can you really hope to get the message out if you come on as a servant? Who’s impressed by a servant?  You have to make an impression, let people know who’s in charge.  If you can rally a million people in a public square in Rome, people will take you seriously; you’ll get media coverage; people will want to join up.”

The temptation of control is real.  I remember reading some while ago that the Vatican had forced the resignation of the editor of a major American Jesuit magazine because he had questioned some Vatican policies.  But of course. How can the church not speak with a single voice? Roman Catholics know that.  Southern Baptists know that. Over recent years, they’ve forced congregations to conform or get out. I mean, do Jesus’ followers have one message or two? Doesn’t it make you envious as an Episcopalian, divided so deeply over so many issues? Don’t you wish we had a Vatican to shape us up? Isn’t it logical, beneficial, necessary for Christians to control?

But Jesus said No.  “The kings of the Gentiles rule over them,” he said, “but it will not be so among you.”  And for almost three hundred years, Jesus’ friends didn’t have much choice. The Roman Empire kept them humble. The Roman Empire had control and meant to keep control. Subversives who didn’t worship the emperor were hunted down and dealt with. But Christianity kept spreading anyway.  It’s hard to put down an insurgency. Maybe there’s a lesson there!  There’s something in the human psyche that doesn’t love an imperial power.

Well, it’s all about control, isn’t it?  We may like to control others if we can, but don’t want to be controlled ourselves.  Try to control my life and I’m going to look for a way to defy that authority, to rebel against it. And for almost three hundred years, Christians did resist authority until finally the emperor gave in and made Christianity legal and respected and even at last the official religion of the Roman Empire. Centuries later, looking back, wondering what had gone wrong, Christians began to identify that moment as the one when the church had drunk poison. Constantine had given the church control, and life was never the same again.

Eventually, of course, other Christians rebelled against this new and powerful church and created the schisms and divisions we all know so well. Some parts of the church, of course, still had a good deal of control. The Roman part could still impose its will on millions of Christians and even the Anglican part was still established in England. And even in the United States where churches were theoretically disestablished, the churches kept a good deal of authority and politicians were glad to have their support. And it all seemed so logical.  Here we have a free and democratic country and surely part of the reason is that we take our faith seriously and look to God as the source of our freedom and prosperity, so why shouldn’t we try to control things – in the right way, of course? Why shouldn’t we use the power of government to shape our society in a godly way? And if we have all this power as a nation, why shouldn’t we use that power for good, to overpower evil wherever we find it, whether in Iraq or Iran or Libya?

I’m sure the disciples would have seen the point just as clearly as we do.  There’s evil out there and we have the power to do something about it.  Wouldn’t it be evil of us to stand idly by while others are threatened and tortured and murdered?  What’s the point of letting things get out of control?  It’s a seductive idea, isn’t it?  How often do we hear people telling us,  Take control of your life?  How often do we say to ourselves, Things are getting out of control?  So we come to church with the idea of getting a little peace and stability and here’s the preacher suggesting that maybe it’s alright to let things fall apart!

I think the problem is that there’s a very narrow line between a recognition that God is the ultimate power in the universe and the idea that we can serve God best by projecting that power ourselves.  But we are not God.  We are not God.  And God did not put us in charge.  God calls us to serve.  It’s worth paying attention to the fact that as the church has lost its primary position in society in recent years there has come an increased emphasis on the diaconate, on the servant ministry embodied in diaconate, on a ministry of humble service.  Deacons are to model another style of life, dedicated to serving, and the point is not to push off on them the role of a servant – they can do it; we don’t have to – no the point is to see them as a model for all of us, that we need to learn to serve and we need models from whom to learn.  Servant ministry: learning to serve, learning to yield control, allowing God to be in control; God, not ourselves.

What do you do when you’re a parent and don’t have three hands?  How do you learn to accept the fact that you can’t always impose your will?  Even if there’s only one child, you have to come to terms with the fact that you will not always be able to impose your will. The child will grow up, God willing, and learn to respond to you for love alone or not at all, and only love can bring forth the response of love.  It’s love, not control, that we need to use to shape lives.

God has placed us in a world of which we will never gain control. Not Bill Gates with all his billions, not the President of the United States with the world’s most powerful military at his disposal. In the Garden of Eden the serpent offered Adam and Eve the illusion of control: you will have knowledge, and you will be like God.  Well, we know a great deal but we are still not God, and we still haven’t quite learned that critical lesson: that we are not God and the world is not ours to control.  The glory and triumph of Ascension-tide are God’s: Jesus is King. Not a President or a Prime Minister with limited, delegated authority. He’s king, he has the ultimate authority. But that king is the one who came to serve.

What do you suppose would happen, if we were to take that seriously and – as they used to say – “let go, and let God.” What would happen if we learned to serve God and trust God to shape the world according to God’s purpose.  We do know that in the years when the church was persecuted it grew rapidly and was a place pf joy and freedom and peace even in the midst of persecution. We know that it gave the world a model that drew others in spite of the risk. We can see the same power at work today in China where the church is growing so rapidly it makes the government nervous.  We saw that same power at work in Poland and Russia in the communist years.  And maybe you’ve seen it at work also in a Christian congregation where the people that make the most lasting impact are not always the smartest and wealthiest and most organized and controlling figures but the weak and frail and elderly who exemplify a peace that the rest of us can only envy.

Think about that these things this Ascension-tide.  Our hymns today hail Jesus as king. Do we mean it? Are we really willing to let go of our constant scramble for control and let God shape our lives to God’s purpose?

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