You Must Be Servant of All

Sermon Given September 19, 2021

I’m struck by Jeremiah and Jesus this morning.  

Jeremiah is a prophet who leans into the anxiety and complexity of his position, he calls out to God for relief from almost certain death. We don’t often read a whole lot  of Jeremiah, so it can be hard to picture what is going on without some context, but Jeremiah is a prophet to a suffering people,a people who are going through continual loss as the Babylonians take over, as the Temple falls in Jerusalem, and as they prepare for exile. Jeremiah’s affectionately called the “doom and gloom” prophet because that’s what he mostly sees around him. Destruction and despair. He doesn’t try to optimistically cheer everyone up. He sits in the dust and ashes, trying to figure out where God is and where they can go from here. Being a prophet, he often tells the people how they have strayed from God, tries to correct their way of thinking, and those methods usually don’t endear him to those around him. He had many enemies and people who wanted him gone. 

In our passage today, God has informed Jeremiah of a scheme against him, of a group looking to cut him down in his prime, so that he cannot prophesy anymore. He calls out to God to rescue him from this group. He seeks revenge, but is not going to lay a hand on them. Rather, he asks God to take care of the problem. He sets his case before God as one would set a case before a judge, seeking a righteous outcome. And indeed, a few verses later, we see that God ruled in Jeremiah’s favor. God protects Jeremiah, and punishes his enemies. 

This courtroom version of God, God the loving judge is nothing new. Many prophets and biblical figures lay out their cases to God and demand that the LORD do what is right and just, as is God’s nature. It’s like the show Law and Order, there was a crime, the culprits were found, and though it looks like they may get away with it, ultimately justice is served. I love this formula because it is comforting. The good people help the victims, the criminals are put away, and the judge enacts the proper punishment. It’s clean and tidy, clearing up the wrongs and allowing the right things to prevail. 

But we also know that the world is often messier and more complex than that. That’s where our Gospel lesson for today really stuns me. Because Jesus isn’t like Jeremiah. Jesus knows there’s a plot against him. He’s become too popular, he’s upset the status quo, and that’s very dangerous. The Jewish leadership walked a very thin line between being able to have their Temple and control their region and having everything taken away from them by the Roman Empire. An upset in the balance, like Jesus’ ministry, could cost them their way of life. So Jesus knew that the more popular he became, the more those in leadership would want to tamp him down and destroy his movement. He’s in a very similar position to Jeremiah. Jesus had said things that deeply disturb those with power, and he knows there is talk of killing him. 

But rather than appealing as Jeremiah does, asking for justice, Jesus takes a different route, and it’s one that still confuses us today. He tells his disciples openly, “The Son of Man will be killed, but he will also rise again.” He takes in the injustice that was to be laid upon him. He allows it to happen, but he also doesn’t let it have the last say. That’s confusing. To be honest, I think most of the time, I am there with the disciples, not really understanding that kind of talk, but being afraid to ask. Because what kind of God is that? 

What kind of God allows themself to be murdered? Where is the God of justice in this case? Where is the image of the judging God, who rules over the court proceedings of life and judges in favor of those who follow with all their hearts? That depiction of God is simply not present in the crucifixion. There’s a different image of God being shown to us, and what it is, not even I am a hundred percent clear on. But it compels me. 

There’s an acknowledgement within Jesus that the world is not just. That sometimes evil wins, that sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of good to be had. People get killed for reasons that aren’t fair. Those in power use corruption to their advantage. People die needlessly every day. The wounds of the world run deep. He knows who his people are and surrounds himself with them. The last, the lost, the least, these are Jesus’ people. And the cross, if I’m right, is an act of complete solidarity with them, with all who have been treated unjustly, unfairly, who have had their lives stamped out by a system that was never made to support them. He dies their kind of death, being killed for insurrection when all he did was make those in power nervous. It’s needless, avoidable, and happens all the time. The God of justice is killed by the injustices of the world. 

But that’s also not the last say, right? The one cut down for insurrection, rises again in resurrection. This judge God, this God that Jeremiah cried out to in his time of distress, still exists. The promise of justice, of equality, of dignity for all, still exists. It doesn’t die with Jesus. Rather it rises up from the grave. It calls us and begs us to look at the tombs in our world and dream of resurrection. 

But it’s hard. It’s confusing. Jesus’ disciples surely didn’t know what it meant or how to really do that. They walked with Jesus so long and still couldn’t get it. I think the church is in that place today. We’ve walked so long and sometimes it feels like the further we go, the less we grasp. So we look around and ask each other, “Do you get it? Do you understand this?” We try to find the greatest ones, the ones who have the answers, who know the most. We look for the best scholars, the most exuberant preachers and teachers, the greatest leaders. We expect to find our answers from those who seem to know the most. But what does Jesus say?

Jesus looks at all this, and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” We’re not going to find the answers by following those who claim to have it all figured out. We’re going to learn more and experience more by serving Jesus’ people. Yes, the experts are nice. Everyone has their place and space in God’s Kingdom. But we can’t truly grasp God until we’ve been in the servant role. 

In the summer of 2014 I went to Cape Town, South Africa for a summer with other grad students at Emory. I was on a team with public health students and a law student. They wanted a theology student to come along with them, so my friend somehow linked me in. Our whole summer was spent working with an organization that supported sex workers. My work was to study the religious experiences of sex workers, to talk with them about their faith and their lives. It was really my first go around at chaplaincy work, though I didn’t know it at the time. I collected stories of pain, of trying to get by, of deep poverty, of hopelessness. In an area with over fifty percent unemployment, where most of the people we worked with grew up in metal shacks at the edge of town, surrounded by poverty and violence, many made their own jobs. They created their own business and developed their own agency. The people I encountered didn’t have pimps, though they knew who the pimps were. They were mostly free agents, and they came together throughout the week to support and uphold one another. They worked together to say that they were still human, still worthy of dignity. 

I didn’t know what to make of all it. It still overwhelms me. I often feel their stigma when I share my stories of coming alongside them. There remains in me a fear that I will be thought less of because I spent a summer with these least among us. But I learned from them. I learned so much about poverty and what it takes to get by. I was a privileged white kid from the States who was given space to listen to their stories, to hear their experiences, and to recognize their humanity. I learned about how the Church both helped and harmed them, about too much rejection and too little embrace. I was taught the lessons of servanthood, of simply being with and doing what I can, even if what I can do seems so small. All I could really do was engage in conversation. Later, in chaplaincy training, I’d learn that simply giving an ear, actively listening and engaging with another is what I’m called to, though it often doesn’t feel like enough. But giving space for others to see themselves as truly alive, as worthy of being listened to, is often more than we give it credit for. 

At the end of our scripture today, Jesus takes a child, places them on his knee and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name, welcomes me.” He takes someone who has no agency, who needs guardians to look out for their best interest and care for them, and says, “Welcome them.” Some wonder whose child this was. Was this a child who would grow up and have everything at their fingertips or a child who would beg for scraps and never truly get by? Whatever their situation in life, Jesus says, “Welcome them.” Listen to them, honor them. Humanity is not something that increases or decreases in another based on their race, class, gender, economic situation, or anything else. I know this in my head and don’t always follow it with my heart. Because it’s easier to distance myself when I see extreme poverty and hunger, when I see abuse and neglect and inhumane living conditions. It’s easier to not listen. To not engage. Sometimes engaging with their humanity breaks me apart and I certainly don’t have the ability to end their suffering. But even if we can’t fix it, even if there is nothing in my power that can make it better, they still have dignity. They still have humanity. God gives that to all of us in equal measure. Even if I can only listen, I am upholding their worth. 

The promise of the cross is that God is with those who suffer. God is with those who experience injustice, who don’t receive the fair treatment we demand and want. God is with them. God dies their death. And then, God rises. God asks us to rise too. To see on the horizon a new heaven and a new earth, where sorrow and suffering are no more, where even death has passed away, to come alongside and together build something new, a world where crucifixion truly no longer has the last say. We’ve not been able to do it yet, we most likely won’t see it in our lifetimes, but we march with God on our side, believing that with God, maybe truly all things are possible. Amen.