“So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:42-45)
I heard this story a while back. I was sitting in a hospital waiting room with a woman while her 89-year-old husband was in surgery. And she was telling stories about him. This one still brings tears to my eyes to remember it.
Apparently there was a young friend of the family who was going through a difficult time — so much so that he made an attempt on his own life. When he came home from the hospital she said her husband knew his young friend would be alone much of the time. So every day for the next six months this retired farmer picked up lunch and took it over to share with him. I’m told they spent more time in silence than in conversation. But the young man who was so cared for in such a basic way would now do anything for this one who showed him kindness day after day. Indeed, I expect he knows he owes his life to him.
I heard another like it yesterday as I visited with a man whose 94 year old mother has been in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s Disease some time. It appears she will soon die and so her son called to begin a conversation about the shape of her funeral. Since I have been serving as pastor here for only a short time, he was seeking to tell me something of what her life looked like before this devastating illness took so much from her.
Apparently his mother was on the original auxiliary of our local county nursing home — the same one which has offered her such excellent care in these last years. As a volunteer she interacted regularly with the residents. He told me then of one his mother spoke of who, shortly after her admission to the nursing home, her husband had divorced her. She had no other family. She would spend the next twenty years flat on her back… with few other than his mother to visit her day after day, week after week.
These are small things, I suppose, and maybe that is why these sorts of stories of servant-hood often go unrecognized and untold. Indeed, they are precisely the opposite of what we know leads to status and success — at least by the world’s standards. In fact, it is also so that for many of us this way of acting doesn’t come with intention, without effort. Perhaps that is why they are precisely what Jesus speaks of today.
I almost hate to admit it, but I understand James and John in our Gospel lesson far too well — and certainly, in some ways, I relate to them more deeply than I do the two examples I offered above.
Oh, I do make nursing home visits and hospital calls. I always have and I expect I always will. For I know how much they matter to those whose worlds have shrunk to the size of a single room, whose schedules now revolve around the next treatment, the next pain med, the next time the doctor will stop in to offer a diagnosis or prognosis. Still, it doesn’t come easy to me.
So in a spirit of full confession here, I tell you the truth. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I can remember coaching myself to slow down as I stepped into the room of a woman who has Parkinson’s Disease. Her speaking has become more and more halted and every time I see her it seems it takes her longer to say what’s on her mind. I, on the other hand, am all too often in a hurry, always thinking ahead to the next task, the next person, the next… As I remember it, I sat in her wheelchair as she lay in her bed and I consciously forced myself to just sit still, vowing I would not rush her or make her feel more uncomfortable than she already was. She spoke to me of her transition to the nursing home. She spoke of the toll this disease has taken on her. She spoke to me of her gratitude for the care of her daughters. It wasn’t easy for me to hold myself still in those moments as she struggled to express herself. In the end, though, I found I wasn’t sorry that I made the effort.
It was on a similar afternoon that I had one more stop to make. This time, the woman in question has long suffered from dementia. I do not know if she remembers I’ve been there even moments after I’ve left her room. I’m not always certain she knows who I am when I am there. Sometimes, if the afternoon is full and I am especially tired I am tempted to skip that visit altogether. I mean, who would know the better?
I thought better of it though that day and so I stopped in anyway. When I stepped into her room, Ruth was sitting in her chair facing the small CD player that sits on her bedside table. And she was listening to opera. As a beautiful soprano voice soared through the room she sat there with a smile on her face that told me she was at home. I’m told it was not long ago that her lovely voice soared, too. No, she may not have known who I was, but she recognized the gifts of God, all the same. When I left her a while later I found I was not sorry I had paused with her before heading home.
It doesn’t come naturally, answering the call to servant-hood which Jesus places before us now. Wherever we go, the world will push us to be about something different from this. Indeed, I would rather be known as an excellent preacher, an insightful writer, an inspiring teacher than as one who serves those who hardly know I’m there. I mean, one never gets ‘known’ for that. There is little reward in that at all. And while I’m doing that? Well, other important things — the things people really notice — well they don’t get done — or at least not done as well.
Remember, I’m simply telling the truth today. I’m not proud of where I am in all of this, but I do recognize that I am, perhaps, moving in the right direction. For I find myself thinking of a retired farmer who stopped every day to spend an hour with a fragile young friend and of a woman who saw another abandoned and alone in her illness and who refused to also leave her untended. I think of these servants and realize that they know something I am somehow still only beginning to learn about what matters most of all. And I suppose that’s something.
Oh, I do understand James and John far too well, to be sure. That may never really change. And so it is that my prayer every single day for me, for all of us, is that the day will come when we will discover that the invitation to servant-hood Jesus offers now is the only one that matters.
And between now and then? Well, in those moments when I do pause to hear and respond to that call? By God’s grace from time to time, I will step into a room to find one of God’s own listening to opera and smiling. And along with her I will also know then that I am in the presence of the very gifts of God. And I expect because I am so very human, that will serve to prod me on to servant-hood on yet another day when I am tempted not to because so often it goes unrecognized in this world’s eyes.
- Can you relate to James and John? Why or why not? What are the measures of ‘success’ or ‘status’ which call you to choose something other than servant-hood?
- What does ‘servant-hood’ look like in your world? What examples of servant-hood can you think of which demonstrate what Jesus speaks of today?
- What experiences have encouraged you to embrace Jesus’ call to servant-hood? Where are you on this journey?