When I read this passage, it makes me think about lunch at Eat-N-Park. As many of you know, we usually make a stop at the brunch buffet on our way home from Church on Sunday afternoon. We don’t eat out frequently because it’s expensive for a family of five to eat out, so when we go for our weekly brunch buffet (or burgers at Red Robin, if we’re feeling particularly extravagant), it’s a big deal for the kids. And very often when we are seated, the kids fight over who gets to sit by me. Moms are frequently accused of being the worst mom ever by their kids – or at least I am - but when it comes to seating arrangements at restaurants, everyone wants to sit by Mom. This is a little difficult to manage when there are three kids. I only have two sides to sit on.
It’s annoying, but sweet. I get where they are coming from. I’m Mom. No matter how many times they get mad at me for revoking screen time or not buying them an iphone or feeding them something that isn’t their favorite meal, I’m still Mom. It’s human nature to want be next to the person who takes care of you, even if that means pushing your brother or sister out of the way to be the first one to the chair. We want to be by those who take care of us.
If I have trouble managing three kids wanting the prime seat by me at a special meal out, it’s easy to see where James and John are coming from when they want seats next to Jesus. There were 10 other disciples following Jesus with them and this is Jesus! He is their teacher, he’s changed their lives in ways they haven’t even begun to process yet, but they can feel that there is something amazing happening.
I have a feeling there was nothing malicious in their intentions when they wanted to sit next to Jesus. But there was also nothing terribly thoughtful about their request either. They didn’t think about how many other people there were that wanted to sit by Jesus or deserved to sit by Jesus and they didn’t think about what sitting there really meant. These are really hard seats to sit in, Jesus says. You need to think about what you really want in asking this. You are asking to sit next to the one who will be giving up everything for the sake of everyone else.
We do this ourselves, in many ways. We jockey for the best seats – the seats closest to Jesus without thinking about what they really mean. Sometimes we say that all Christian denominations are equal in the eyes of God, but we hold onto stereotypes or underlying bias against people from other churches. “Those Methodists and Catholics are fine, but we’re the ones who REALLY get it.” Or maybe we say we’re not racist and we don’t tell racist jokes or use slurs, but we still look at that person on the street a little differently because of their color than we would someone who looks more like us or we assume deep down that they aren’t as well off or as good of a person as we are. We’re like little kids with no concept of why someone else might be just as worthy as us to sit in the primo seat next to Jesus at the dinner table.
Most of you have hopefully notice by now that it’s presidential election season. And I haven’t been a preacher through one of these yet, especially one without a recumbent candidate. Things are getting heated out there and as the person who has been made responsible for the spiritual direction of this family, I feel that it’s important for me to address things that are going on in the world. But this is a hard one to untangle appropriately. It’s not even remotely my job to tell you who to vote for. There is no one “Christian candidate”.
As Presbyterians, we are taught to vote our conscience in everything from congregational meetings and session meetings to Presbytery and General Assembly Meetings, to local community elections and presidential elections. We are called to stand up for what we believe that God is calling us to stand up for, regardless of what anyone else tells us we should be standing up for or voting for. What we are meant to do is to always move forward in anything with caution and purpose and to rely on our conscience and prayer.
This is hard to do when we’re inundated with people all across the political spectrum who are saying stuff just so they can be the person in charge. They will say whatever it is that makes us feel taken care of, that makes us feel important so that we want a seat next to them.
Because here’s the thing. . . people are going to let us down. They simply are. Because people are always fighting to be first. Beware of putting too much trust in anyone who claims to be the way to salvation from anything. From poverty, from injustice, from being taken advantage of, from another group of people, from whatever. We have only one savior and that’s Jesus Christ.
When we approach things like elections and civic duty and our roles in the community, we often do so by thinking about what puts us in the best seat rather than thinking about how many other people there are who need a good seat too – often people who have never even been offered a place at the table. We don’t generally do this maliciously or purposefully or even consciously. But Jesus says in the text today that leaders often prey on that.
I’m not saying that Jesus was an anarchist or that I think we should all give up on the government of our country or stop doing our civic duties. In fact, I’m saying exactly the opposite. We need to care enough about those things to vote and to serve on juries and to volunteer in the community and in the church, but we need to do so cautiously and with a great deal of thought and consideration not just for our own seat at the table, but for the seating arrangement for all those who are invited. . . which for the record. . . Jesus says is everyone.
Our hope isn’t meant to be put in any person other than Jesus. As one of my commentaries said this week, “We should be careful, for example, not to pin our hopes for salvation on those who cannot bear the weight of our expectations. Any human being who is a self-appointed savior is likely to be a disappointment.” Anyone who makes it seem easy to get a good place at the table is either fooling themselves or you or possibly both. To really sit at the head table, Jesus tells James and John, you’re going to have to sacrifice your life.
The great ones are those who give up their seats for others, Jesus tells us. The servants are the ones who will be first to their seats when it really matters. Those who have rushed to their seats forgetting about their brothers and sisters will be the last. Those who have fought over the seat next to Mom will find themselves at the kids’ table. Those who have served their own purposes in life, ignoring all their brothers and sisters – all their fellow disciples – will not find themselves in the seat they hoped to score.
To some of you, this is going to sound like good news. To some of you, this is going to sound wrong and terrible. But to both those who have been left in the dust and pushed aside and forgotten about time and time again and to those who have worked tirelessly for the good seat and don’t want to let go of that, the message is the same: Be cautious and thoughtful about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, especially when it comes to power and leadership and authority. Think about the implications of fighting over the best seat in the house.
This is hard. Serving the interests of others is difficult work. Thinking about all the seats at the table is not easy to do. It’s a great deal of work to really think about and research and figure out how our votes, our shopping habits, our interactions with others and the things we say about them really pan out when it comes to what matters – the Kingdom of God. And when we turn our thinking on its head and start to consider the least, the ones we never considered identifying with, those who are weird or different or on the sidelines of society, we are often surprised by what we find. Jesus hung out with the people who were thought to be “the least” and “the last.” If we’re to meet with Jesus, what better place to find him than with those who the world doesn’t give a place at the table? And what better way to meet with them than to offer them a place at our table?
One thing that strikes me about this congregation is the willingness to serve. Not with a grumble, not with a complaint, but joyfully. It’s frustrating sometimes, but overall the attitude is one of gratitude for the opportunity to do something good in the community, to do something for the church, to love one another. My challenge to you all this week and moving into the holiday season – we’re only 5 weeks from Advent, my friends – is to start thinking carefully about how to think outside the box when it comes to our service. We have some really great things that we do that we should keep doing, but it’s important to also be open to new ways to invite people to the table. Why are we serving? Are we serving because it makes us feel better? Are we serving because that will get us a better seat? Or are we serving as a way to invite everyone to the table? How do we invite the whole community to the table? How do we care for the powerful and the powerless alike? I don’t have all the answers to this and I don’t think there is any one right answer other than to remember how Jesus’ way is often uncomfortable. It’s an exciting, abundant, wonderful form of discomfort, but it’s hard nonetheless. What a joy to be invited into Jesus’ upside down world! That how we can smile when we serve others – both directly by feeding and clothing and loving, and indirectly by the ways we vote and shop and live our lives. What fun to follow the one who shakes things up wherever he goes!