by Pastor Sarah Stadler
In 2011, I attended my first meeting of CORA, the Council of Religious Advisors, for the downtown ASU campus.
A table full of pastors and campus ministers, and we all wanted college students to be part of our ministries, me included. We gazed expectantly at the ASU liaison assigned to us, the gatekeeper for things like tabling space and event space and student email lists. She didn’t fulfill our wishes. But we continued to come to these meetings, hopeful that one day, we would be given the key to college student involvement at our own churches. In those days, we put on events for students and excitedly invited the five students who attended to give us their names and email addresses and handed them our church flyers. I don’t recall the moment when we finally understood that the point of the Council of Religious Advisors was not to get students to come to our churches but rather to provide for and support the spiritual needs of the students on campus, regardless of their involvement in any one of our churches. But whenever that moment happened, we laughed at ourselves. Ha!
We had been looking to build up our own power and glory, our success as we defined it in the kingdom of God, just like James and John from our gospel. Today, the CORA group tables on the downtown campus to give students an opportunity to be heard and to share prayer concerns, to grab water and a snack. One of the pastors brings his dog, Einstein, who may be the most effective minister among us. We’ve also put together food boxes for students struggling with food insecurity and made ourselves available for pastoral counseling. With high anxiety and stress common among the student body, these simple things are what students actually seem to need, what serving them means. And of course, if a student is looking for a church home, we have that information available too.
Today, James and John make the silliest request of Jesus: Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory. Ha! They thought being disciples of Jesus meant power and glory, good seats, reserved seats in God’s kingdom. In response to their power-seeking request, Jesus shares a lesson on true greatness, namely that greatness is found in service. While we may laugh at James and John and their theologically ridiculous request, we understand the underlying desire all too well, a desire for power and glory, or in a more generous construction, a desire for success in God’s kingdom.
Ever since James and John followed Jesus there has been confusion about why we do what we do as followers of Jesus. When Jesus encountered crowds of people seeking healing, he healed them. Those who were hungry, he fed. Those searching for hope and spiritual nourishment, he preached and taught about the kingdom of God. Jesus saw what the people standing in front of him needed and served them. He loved the people. He didn’t heal and feed or even preach and teach in order to be successful, to be powerful, to gain authority or celebrity status. Jesus taught the disciples: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Serving others means that we meet other people where they are, opening ourselves to assisting others in ways they truly need. Where we so often get stuck as Christians, as people in general is using someone else’s perceived need as an opportunity to serve our own needs for recognition, for success, for power. One really difficult but truthful aspect of this is that we sometimes pity people or even use people to meet our own needs. In the first scenario, we might see someone as weak or without any gifts or resources to share. When we help someone we pity, that serves our own sense of power. When we see the person we’re helping as less than us, us giving to them accentuates our own power. And when we use people for our own ends but disguise it as service, whether that’s to have a church program succeed or to show others that we’re a nice person, we aren’t really concerned about the effect our giving or serving has in their life. We aren’t really interested in the actual person, just what that person represents. Of course, we hate confronting this in ourselves, including me; to acknowledge how we demean people hurts. And interestingly, in a good-hearted way, we will teach children to adopt this view of “helping” by, for example, teaching them to befriend the kids who don’t have friends. Now, there’s nothing bad about befriending people, but would you want a friend who only befriended you because they pitied you?
When we serve others but without preserving their dignity, we end up like the rulers Jesus describes in his conversation with James and John. We misuse our power and fail to recognize the worth of the person we are serving. What does service look like that respects the dignity of each person? Actually, I think it looks like our community building goal for this month. Recognizing that each person who partakes in any aspect of Grace ministry is a part of Grace, that for each person, Grace is their spiritual home, that each person here is a valuable member of this community. As valuable members of this community, God calls each one of us to use our God-given gifts in service to one another and the larger community. No matter our age or race, whether we are an official member or not, no matter our socio-economic status or religious background, we are all valuable members of this community with gifts to share in service to one another and the larger community. So, let’s remind one another, again, that we are valuable members of this community by getting up and sharing those very words with a few people around us. You are a valuable member of this community!
You are a valuable member of this community, and God has called you to serve, following the example of Jesus.