Lay Reader = Luke 9:43-50
43And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, 44“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” 45But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. 46An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. 47But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” 49John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”
We are still in our series looking at how our spirituality can be life-giving. Last week we looked at life-giving solitude – listening for something new from God through sheer silence. This week we are looking at life-giving service.
In our first text today we heard that the disciples were wondering who was the greatest among them. And Jesus said the greatest is the one who welcomes a child in Jesus’ name. The greatest is the one who is the least. But apparently they didn’t fully get it, because right at the end when Jesus is about to be betrayed they still needed another lesson in true greatness.
John 13:1-5, 12-17
1Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Well it wasn’t a very good movie, but it did have some interesting scenes. Any guesses which movie I’m referring to? Troy starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. There’s a scene early on where Achilles sleeps in so the king will have to wait for him to start the battle – just to show who’s boss. There’s the scene where Achilles and his 50 men storm the beach of Troy and accomplish what the king thought would take tens of thousands to do – just to show who’s the best. There’s the scene where Achilles refuses to fight because the king had insulted him. Are you sensing a theme? If you want an object lesson in shallow, me-first, I’m the best pettiness, fire up Troy on Netflix. There’s also a lot of Brad Pitt without his shirt on if that’s your thing.
Achilles in that movie essentially believes that his greatness is summed up by reminding the king over and over and over – you need me, and I don’t need you. I am stronger than you. I am faster than you. I am more respected than you. I am more famous than you. I am more feared than you. I am the greatest.
I once heard two people who attended very large, successful churches debating which of their pastors was the greatest. One said their pastor was the funniest, the most engaging, the most relevant. The other countered that their pastor connected better with young families, and he could sing, too. In fact, they loved their pastor so much they put a larger than life banner featuring him with eyes closed, hands raised, praising God right before people enter their sanctuary.
But is that how Jesus portrayed greatness?
Jesus took off his outer robe – I can tell you right now you’re highly unlikely to see me strip down to my skivvies in church – that would be embarrassing! Jesus tied a towel around himself – the mark of a lowly servant or slave. He poured water into a basin and washed their feet – the lowest job. You know how interns often get the worst jobs? The ones no one wants? That’s foot washing in the servant world.
And he topped it off by saying, “You’re not greater than me. You’re not above me. And I’m not above washing your feet.” In other words, no manner of serving is “beneath” us as followers of Jesus. Even the job we make the intern do. If you think it’s beneath you, do you think you’re greater than Jesus? Are you above Jesus? It wasn’t beneath him.
So no task is beneath a follower of Jesus. What about a person? Are any people beneath a follower of Jesus? Well who did Jesus serve? He served children – we heard that in our first text today. He served lepers – people who if you touch them you could become sick and outcast yourself. He served prostitutes. He served traitors – people who were taking advantage of their own people. He served people of the wrong race and the wrong religion. He served women – including those considered “unclean” by the community.
He served “those people.” He invited “those people.” He formed a relationship with “those people.” He spent his time with “those people.” Are there any people you think aren’t worth your time? People who are beneath you? Not worth serving? Someone you want to avoid? Well no one was beneath Jesus. Jesus didn’t avoid anyone. Are you greater than Jesus? Are you above Jesus?
I have received a very interesting perspective from my friendship with a homeless man in our community. You’ve probably seen him hanging around the church or the gas station across the street. He has kind of long hair that’s a bit grey, a beard, blue jacket, a pair of pants that he has to hold up. His name is Brian. I have spent one to two hours a week with Brian since October, so I know him pretty well by now.
And in that time I’ve gained some unique insights. For instance, it irks Brian when someone tries to give him something without asking him what he wants. If you try to give him a new pair of pants, I guarantee you he’ll refuse. If you only had one pair of pants, wouldn’t you care how they fit and how they felt? Well so does Brian. I’ve seen him refuse money from people because he didn’t need any right now. People get a really strange look on their face when a homeless man turns down their offer of money and asks them to bring him a homemade sandwich another time. I’ve even seen people get mad at him because of it. His basic point is that he’s a human being with the right to have preferences. He’s appreciative when someone asks what he wants, needs, or prefers first.
Now with that said, it’s not easy to give Brian what he wants. He has the strongest case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I’ve ever come across. When he takes off his shoes and socks to let them air out, it’s quite a process to put them back on. He carefully puts on one sock, adjusting it about a dozen times to get it right. Then he does the same for the other sock. Then he carefully puts on one shoe, then the other. And then he takes off his shoes and socks and does it all again. And then he does a third time. Can you imagine if your brain pretty much forced you to take twenty minutes to put on your shoes? Everything is like that for Brian. Everything has to be just so or his brain goes crazy. It might take him eighteen tries to put down a cup of water perfectly.
So we can’t just give him a pile of quarters to go wash his clothes. The laundromat freaks him out. He has to wait until someone can invite him over to their house so he can do his laundry and shower in just the right way. That’s not an easy ask. He does make it happen every few weeks, but as you might guess it’s a bit hit or miss.
And that’s not my ministry with Brian. I felt that Jesus told me to help Brian have reliable access to some food, conversation, and a comfortable place to sit down. So if he wants something from the grocery store, he lets me know and the next time we meet I’ll have it for him. And he insists on paying me for it. If we just had a Community Dinner, we pack up a meal for him and I’ll sit with him as he eats it in our Welcome Center the next day. Most days we just make a couple of peanut butter sandwiches – heavy on the peanut butter – and we talk for a while before I let him finish his sandwiches in peace in the Welcome Center.
Now Brian and I have had our moments, let me assure you. Nothing happens quickly with him, so there have been some times when I have a sick kid and I need to leave in a hurry and trying to rush him just makes it take longer. I have had quite a few times where very unholy thoughts were steaming in my mind while I waited for him to do his repetitive routine to get out the door. There was a time he was depressed and didn’t want to leave – I was home a bit late that day.
Why am I telling you all of this? It’s not to say “look at me, copy me, I’m so great for serving a homeless guy!” No. I’m trying to share with you why it annoys the dickens out of me to serve Brian. I would much rather do almost anything else. I am not a good model of joyful service in this case. But I am a model of obedient service. I’m helping Brian because Jesus told me to. That’s it.
So first, I hope you get to know Brian as well. You don’t have to give him anything if you don’t want to. We’re taking care of some of that stuff already. But how about treating him like a person and talking with him? He’s nice. He’ll talk your arm off and you may just have to tell him, “Sorry Brian, I have to go now,” but he’s nice and interesting to talk to.
And if you see him hanging around church, I also want you to know what our community thinks of him being out there. We don’t get calls telling us there’s a deranged man outside. No. We get calls asking us if we’re helping that homeless man outside our building. We get calls asking if there’s any way they can help him, too. I think that’s a good witness to our community.
But I also tell you this to highlight a key point. There’s a giant chasm between choosing to serve and being a servant.
I would not choose to serve Brian. It’s inconvenient. It takes a lot of time and energy. It’s not on my terms. Now, I’ve learned how to structure things with Brian so it goes way more smoothly than it used to. I’m not dumb. But Brian isn’t how I would choose to serve. When we choose to serve, it’s on our terms. It’s deciding who we’re comfortable serving. In what way we’re able to serve because it’s convenient.
But being a servant means serving whomever God sends you. Being a servant requires seeing people as people – with real stories, real preferences, real goals. Being a servant is inconvenient. Sometimes it’s annoying. It requires a lot more time and energy. We don’t get to be Brad Pitt’s Achilles, picking and choosing our battles. We don’t get to say to our king, “I’m better than you. You need me and I don’t need you.” I mean, we have a lot of veterans here – can you imagine if your position came under attack and one of your fellow soldiers decided to sit out the battle because it was their lunch break?!? When you’re a soldier you don’t always get to pick your battles. When you’re a servant, you don’t always get to pick when and how and what and whom to serve.
But that’s the model of greatness that Christ gave us. The greatness of Jesus was demonstrated by him stripping down to his skivvies, putting on a servant’s uniform, and doing the lowliest intern-level task. How great are you? How great in the eyes of Jesus do you want to be? That requires not just choosing to serve but being a servant.
Richard Foster says we can become servants if we start each day praying, “Lord Jesus, as it would please you, bring me someone today whom I can serve.” How’s that for a morning prayer? God YOU choose whom I should serve today. God YOU bring me someone of YOUR choosing. I’m a servant, send me someone to serve. That’s quite a prayer. Are you brave enough to pray it? There are some days I’d rather not pray that. There are some days I have too much to do. That is a bold prayer. That is a prayer of true greatness.
In fact, immediately after I wrote that on Thursday, I went outside for a quick walk to clear my mind and God had placed someone ten feet from our door for me to serve. Her name was Lisa. Being a servant means you don’t get to control where, when, or whom you serve. God’s in control.
Another way to picture this is to imagine a party. Maybe it’s on Halloween. And this is a theme party – where everyone is encouraged to have a costume to go along with the theme. And this is a servant party – everyone’s supposed to dress like a servant. It’s a nice party – there are trays of hors d’oeuvres going by, and waiters to bring you little glasses of punch in creative swirly glasses. Got it? As you picture that party, are you in a servant costume enjoying the festivities? Or are you one of the people carrying the trays of food?
A Great Church
Maybe that’s a question for our church, too. Are we getting dressed up on occasion to go to the servant party? Or are we the actual servants carrying food and drink?
If we want this church to be great in the eyes of Jesus…is that something you want? I want that. I want to be able to say that First Pres Littleton is GREAT! But I want us to be great in the eyes of Jesus. And that greatness has nothing to do with whether I’m funny or engaging or energetic. It has nothing to do with what kind of music we play. It has nothing to do with our programs and events.
It has everything to do with whether we have servant hearts. Not just dressed up on occasion for the servant party. Actual servant hearts. We will be great when we are ready to follow Jesus – who stripped down to his skivvies, put on a servant’s towel, and lowered himself to wash people’s feet.
That’s what it means to be great in the eyes of Jesus.
There are people in our city, on our BLOCK, who are hurting. People like Brian. People like Lisa. And they don’t look like us. They don’t dress like us. They don’t smell like us. But will they FEEL like one of us when they come through these doors? Will they feel like one of us when we talk with them? If we can answer that with a resounding “yes,” then we’ll be great in the eyes of Jesus.
That’s not the greatness of Achilles, who wanted everyone to see how much they needed him. That’s not the greatness of that pastor with the larger-than-life banner before you enter the sanctuary. Greatness in the eyes of Jesus requires much more than that. It requires a servant heart. It’s one thing to dress like a servant from time to time to attend the costume party, it’s quite another to carry around the trays of food.
Let’s be great for the people who are hurting on our block. Let’s be great in the eyes of the Brian, and Lisa, and Jesus. I want us to be great. Do you? Try praying, “Lord Jesus, as it would please you, bring me someone today whom I can serve.” Amen.