Anyone here ever work as a waiter or waitress? As a chauffeur or maid or some kind of servant? Did you love it? Was it great fun? Or did you do it only for the money, and as soon as a better job came along you grabbed it?
“Gospel” means “Good News”. But I have a hard time hearing today’s Gospel as good news. That is because I am lazy, and I like to be waited on. I don’t want to serve, but rather to be served. I like going to a restaurant, have someone else clean the room, someone else cook the food, someone else take my order and bring the food, and then I especially enjoy getting up and leaving someone else to do the dishes. Now to me, that would be good news. But that is not at all what today’s Gospel calls us to.
The Gospel is challenging us to go deeper into the issue of service. You see there is service and then there is service.
There is service that is rather degrading: that is forced and coerced, that demeans and makes us less. This is always the case with slavery, with “involuntary servitude” to put a polite name on it. And that is why, in spite of the teaching of today’s Gospel, slavery and human trafficking are always moral evils.
But there is also another kind of service. Not one that degrades, but one that ennobles.
I will tell you a little story. My Dad Charlie is 91 years old. He is still active and lives in the same house I grew up in. He can do this because two of my sisters, Barbara and MaryJane, every Saturday get up early and drive an hour down to where he lives. They wash the dishes piled in the sink, do the laundry, vacuum the floor, fix little things that break, throw out stuff my Dad has been hoarding, and generally clean up. Now one of my sisters still works, and they have their own families, so they don’t have a lot of free time. But they choose to use their Saturday mornings in service of their Father because they want to. Because they love. Service like this is nothing more than love in action. Practical, actual, love serves. That is what love does.
This kind of service does not make us less human, but more human. It is the kind of service we see in the lives of people like Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King Jr., Kateri Tekawitha and Mother Marianne Kope who are being canonized today, and all the saints.
In Vatican Council II, this is what the entire church is called to. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, begins with these words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”
In examining this, American Catholic theologian Paul Lakeland states: “the Church that bears the name of Christ exists not for its own sake but for the sake of the world.”
As Church we are called to serve the world, to be a servant.
Most importantly, this is the way God serves us in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus did not do this out of some coercion, being forced to do it. Rather it was the compulsion of love for us that lead Jesus to serve. And in this way He raised loving service of others to the divine. Loving service of others is not degrading, but is the best of human actions. Indeed, it is God-like.
So, as Jesus succinctly tells us: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus turns all of our assumptions about privilege and rank and status upside down - completely reverses our normal human approach to power and to perks: In the Kingdom of God power is not for self-aggrandizement, not for self-promotion, not even self-preservation. Power is for service.
Clearly this is the mystery of the Cross - that the way to the fullness of life leads through death: that the way to wholeness and holiness requires letting go of ego and of dying to self.
Paradoxically, selfishness and ego are traps. If we live primarily for ourselves, then we live for something really rather small. And the more the self turns in on itself, the more it shrinks, the smaller it grows, till our soul nearly disappears: no matter how rich, or powerful, or famous we are.
Selfishness is slavery. Love is freedom. Therefore, “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
Still, that drive to promote myself ahead of others so clearly shown by James and John in today’s Gospel, that desire for glory of the sons of Zebedee, is deep, deep, deep in each of us.
Even now, as I preach, called to serve you by proclaiming the Gospel, called even more to serve the Gospel by proclaiming it fearlessly and compellingly, I am at least as concerned that I will look good, that you will be favorably impressed, that you will say “Oh, that was a great homily, Father”, that “you really touched my life,’ and ‘you really made the Gospel come alive”; and I will have the glory of looking great - and you will like me and affirm me: all that ego stuff - as much as I want to serve the Gospel and serve you.
Dying to our ego is difficult. Living a life of service to others, out of love, is not for sissies or the faint-hearted.
So how do we do this? We can only do it in Christ. More than our role-model, more than our teacher, more than our coach, He is our Saviour. He has gone before. He’s been there, done death, been raised to Life, and now empowers us. He lives in us, so that we can do it too.
As we heard in today’s second reading: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace in time of need.” AMEN.