Back when I was in seminary, I was placed in a small group of people I barely knew and asked to share in a discussion about our respective calls. Each member of the group was asked to share a brief story of his or her call and his or her perception of how that call would be expressed in future ministry. During the course of that effort, one of the seminarians joyfully expressed her call in terms of a wedding. She was so looking forward to that day in the future when the choir would vest and line up, the acolytes would get themselves lined up, the music would start, and every head would turn to see her resplendent in her chasuble and simply be touched by her presence among them. She had obviously given a lot of time to the consideration of this image because the detail was amazing. Believe it or not, my pastoral sensibilities were even worse back then (truth be told, I was probably trying my hardest to get drummed out of the ordination process so I could go back to work and make money, all with the sense of “OK, God, we tried it your way and it failed), so I asked the question on the minds of several in the group (I know this because I was thanked for asking it afterwards). “How is God honored in your vision of your call?” Clearly, at least to those who listened to her vision, she had never once considered how God figured into her call. That is not to say that some of us were not naïve at this point in our journey and in our discernment. Some of us were going to build, with God’s obvious blessing, a mega Anglican worship church to rival Willow Creek. Others were simply hoping to draw incredible numbers of unbelievers or unchurched to the love of Christ. A few just wanted to speak the language just so they could blog intelligently about growing the Church of God and laboring in His fields. Most were centered upon doing great things to honor God, and most had a need to stand before Him hoping to hear the “well done, good and faithful servant,” but not her. She wanted to be the focus of her perceived call.
At first, stories like this might initially surprise and disappoint us. We have high expectations for our clergy (rightfully so), and the thought of them being concerned about such perceptions ought to offend us. Heck, my seminary’s name included the words “for ministry” in its name. You would think that every student that went to school there would have a love or a call “for ministry.” But no. Each of us gathered here probably has horror stories about bad clergy. Many of us can probably name clergy who really liked to be served rather than to serve; who liked to spend time on the golf course, not in an effort to reach the other three members with whom they were playing, just so they could say they had played and tell us what they shot; or who expected always to be treated as special wherever they went, rather than be bothered to be a servant of all. Knowing some of your stories, I know a few of you were told cruel things, simply because the clergy in your lives did not want to put in the work or did not want to empathize. For a time, at least, terrible burdens were given you to bear with no thought to the consideration that He had already born those burdens. Yes the Church of God is full of such “leaders.” But it comes as no surprise to God, and it really should not surprise us.
In our lesson from Matthew this week, Jesus points out this tendency to His disciples and crowds. He points out how the religious elite wear big phylacteries, have long tassels, love to sit at the head of the table and in the important seat at synagogue. These are the same leaders who go about moping while fasting, who make sure that everyone knows how holy they are, and are warned by Jesus that they have already received their transitory reward. You and I, however, are cautioned not to be like them. We are to remember that we all live on a level playing field. I am loved no more or no less by God than any of you or any of those men and women we serve each month or any slave or slaver we encounter in our life. He walked that path of Holy Week which ends within a couple days of today’s story fully aware of the cost to Him and of our need. He also teaches us that leadership among His disciples is radically different from anything God’s people have ever expected. Those exalted by Him among us, He says, will be those who serve Him by loving God and their neighbor, who truly die to self and allow Him to call them to a new, Risen life which glorifies Him.
To be sure, it is a temptation for each of us. How many of us really want to serve others? How many of us cannot relate to the Pharisees and the Sadducees and want what we think are the spoils of a righteous life? How many of us really want to believe we are special, and unique, knowing all the while that He thought everyone was special and unique? It is not an easy walk with our Lord -- that much is certain. But then again, nothing worth while is ever easy. Egos are hard to crucify, particularly among those of us who have been set aside to lead us. What we must remind ourselves each day is the fact that our Teacher wants to be everyone’s Teacher, that our Father, wants to be everyone’s Father, and that our Savior wants to be everyone’s Savior. Anyone who models or professes anything else, might ought to be heard, but they ought not to be followed. Armed with that knowledge and certain of His power to redeem, you and I are sent out to assist in the building a of a kingdom not transitory, but eternal. It is a kingdom built, not of our doing or effort or design, but of His grace poured out and through our lives. It truly is only by His gift that we offer Him true and laudable service. So, in which part of the story do you find yourself? The crowds and the disciples? Or the “leaders”? Do you wish to be served and find yourself apart from Him and His teaching, or do you seek to serve? They are simple questions, truly. But the answers speak profoundly to whom or what we serve and hold dear.