There are lots of things going on in the Gospel passage assigned for today from Mark chapter 10. Any number of potential sermon topics. But, this morning, I would like to spend a few minutes thinking with you about an idea that appears most clearly toward the end of the reading.
And that idea is the concept of “service.” I’m inspired to talk about the topic because of the last verse in today’s gospel reading. It really is a quite striking thought that Jesus offers the disciples: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”1 And this morning I want to explore this idea in two respects: first in the idea of public service writ large, and second in regard to how we approach our individual Christian responsibilities for service.
Now, in one sense, we all live in the one part of the United States where the idea of public service ought to need little examination. We live in the Washington area, the nation’s capital, and that means for many of us, the concept of service is baked into our professional lives. Seemingly, we are living at ground zero of the concept of public service.
In many families in our area, more than one person is a member of the federal civil service. Or works in state or local government. Or is a service member in the military, active duty or reserve or retired. Still others of us work in non-profit organizations that serve government and the public by exploring innovative solutions for public problems. Many of us teach, which is obviously a direct service to the public.
Most of us, unlike the brothers James and John in today’s gospel reading, do not do this work for personal recognition. And goodness knows we don’t do it to get rich. Instead, the motivation for many is the idea of owing service to the community. To give back. To help others.
This perspective is clear in the oath of office that every federal civil servant takes. We swear to support and defend the Constitution, that we will faithfully discharge the duties of our office, and that we take that obligation freely and without mental reservation or purpose of evasion. We are servants to the people, not vice versa.
But the idea that institutions serve people rather than people serving institutions (and especially those in positions of authority) is relatively recent. It certainly was not an accepted principle in biblical Palestine. Just ask Pontius Pilate if Rome served the people or the people served Rome. That’s why Jesus’ teaching in Mark (and in Matthew2) was so revolutionary. It’s why Jesus, and then the early Christians, were so threatening to the power structure.
Jesus’ message was the spark. It was fanned into flame on the Cross and carried forward by successive generations of disciples from the early church through the Reformation and into modern society. It forms the basis of our understanding of the concept today of public service.
Except that lately, it seems that acceptance and commitment to the idea of institutional public service is eroding. Civil servants are distrusted, even ridiculed. It prompts the question: are we as a society losing the capacity for collective action toward the common good?
What should we as Christians think about this? Mark gives us a starting point, both in chapter 10 but also later in chapter 25. And the key thought is that our contemporary understanding of the concept of public service is too narrow. It is too centered on those directly in government or associated institutions. It does not speak to the fact that Jesus has called us all to service. The task to all of us is clear in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for those who are ill or imprisoned. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”3
Now in a minute, I am going to talk more about how we as individuals can respond to the call for individual direct service. But responding to many of today’s enormous challenges requires a commitment to collective and institutional action as well as individual service.
This means that we as Christians also have a responsibility to strengthen those institutions and do all we can to ensure they are led by individuals committed to the greater common good. Jesus puts the problem succinctly in the translation of the Bible called The Message: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he says, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads…. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.”4
So, what can we do to help? Fundamentally, as Christians, we can participate in enabling collective action. First, and foremost, vote! Vote for people who express commitment to the idea of public service. Vote for candidates who express commitments to meeting basic human needs. Vote for candidates who will protect and nurture institutions serving the public.
And, above all, vote for candidates who understand that both individual as well as collective action is required.
I bet for many of us, involved as we are in institutional public service, it can be challenging to work in that milieu for eight hours a day and switch gears nights and weekends to focus on what we are doing personally regarding service.
I know this is true for me. I work in the US defense establishment. It is the largest organized human activity in the world, and capable of astounding feats in the face of natural or man-made disaster. Think of the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 and Katrina in 2005. No matter what you think about the overall policy in Afghanistan, the American and allied militaries just flew 124,000 people to safety in a matter of days.
Very impressive. And I am proud to play a small part in that, helping to better plan such operations and, importantly, how to pay for them. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”5
But what if there is no Buck Rogers? There is no getting around it. Providing service to others requires involvement from each of us. It might be a commitment to personal individual action. Carrying dollar bills to give to people in need when they ask. Or carrying comfort packs in your trunk.
But it might also be volunteering. In community organizations. In church. On governmental organizations that need volunteers. In Fairfax County alone, there are more than 30 programs and 85 Boards, Authorities, and Commissions that need volunteer members.6
Indeed, the sheer number and variety of choices can seem daunting. How can those of us who are naturally introverts become comfortable in offering our service? We read in James, “God gives grace to the humble.”7 Great. How about giving us some courage?
Well, here is some good news. The church can help. The genius of the idea of the Christian church is that we come together to help each other do things that we ourselves would find intimidating. We are a community and a church family. We can lend each other support. In many cases for the shy amongst us, that is easier than focusing on ourselves. And note that such mutual help is an important form of service as Christ defines it. It was the basis of the early house churches in the first century after Christ.
And the second way the church can help is by providing organized and direct opportunities for you to contribute service. Holy Cross is typical of many churches in that regard. Broadly speaking, we offer three avenues for direct service. Outreach, service to the community beyond Holy Cross. Inreach, service to our own parish community. And support to Worship, a service to our individual and collective spiritual selves.
There is an annual opportunity to consider opportunities for service through or for Holy Cross each year during the Stewardship campaign. Frankly, Holy Cross needs help in this regard. Do we need financial pledges? Yes. But equally important, we need your time and talent. Please volunteer.
I’ll close on that note by quoting Galatians: “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”8
1 Mark 10:45. Emphasis added.
2 Matthew chapter 20 essentially repeats the story from Mark 10 of James and John jockeying for position with Jesus. But in Matthew, the boys’ mother (“mother of the sons of Zebedee”) meets with Jesus to press the case for her sons. I claim this is biblical justification for the concept of helicopter parents. Matthew 20:20-28.
3 Matthew 25:40.
4 This is The Message’s translation of portions of Mark 10:42-43. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, 2005).
5 Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979). Who knows the page number; my copy
is long lost. Trust me, the quote is accurate.
6 See the discussion at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/topics/volunteering, accessed October 15, 2021.
7 James 4:6.
8 Galatians 6:10.