We are coming to the end of the story. Jesus takes His followers aside to tell them what is going to happen. He has not done this much, but as the time of his death is drawing near, he must tell them in plain language what is going to happen. Soon, He will travel to Jerusalem for the last time. They will stand on the streets with Palm Branches, as we will next week, and sing songs of praise to Him, then a few short days later, they will be calling for His death. It is all part of the plan and Jesus does this willingly.
We read, in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.” Jesus was reacting to the question of the brothers, James and John about who shall sit where. They wanted to sit in the place of honor, but by all appearances, they did not know what that would mean for them. Jesus tells them simply that in order to sit with Him in paradise they must be willing to face the same trials that He is about to face, and indeed they do.
In Jesus day, as he makes reference in the Gospel today, those placed in leadership would lord it over those that they were appointed to lead. This was pointed out by Jesus as a warning to His followers of the day, but also as a warning to His followers today. When we, as followers of Christ, are placed in leadership, be it lay leadership or clergy leadership, we are not to lord it over those we lead. We are to set the example of those we lead and we are to lead in humility and love, as Jesus did. We are to be servants of those we lead not the other way around. What the word needs, and what the church needs, is more servant leaders, not more leaders with servants!
This past week, we experienced some of the most horrific things the human mind can comprehend. I will never understand evil and the power it has over people. The seduction of the evil is so powerful, so great, and it sneaks up on us in the most unsuspecting places. People are not born evil, evil is taught, evil is fostered. Human beings are born with a propensity to sin and we have to work hard to throw off the vices and hang on to the virtues, that is what Lent is all about, but we have to be ever vigilant against the evil one who will seduce us if we are not watchful.
In each Presanctified Liturgy, after the readings from the Old Testament, I sing, “Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” This is then repeated by the cantor. As I incense the four sides of the Holy Altar I ask God to “Set a guard at my mouth and to keep watch at the door of my lips. I then ask “Let not my heart turn to wrong, to making excuses for sinning with the wicked.” I am asking for the help and protection of God not just during Lent, but at all times. We need his help to guard what we say and what we do so as not to fall prey to the evil one.
But what of this idea of being servants?
Not only did we see atrocious acts of violence and hatred last week we saw genuine acts of being a servant and in many cases laying down of one’s life. While the smoke was rising, police, fire, and EMS personnel were rushing in to save lives. Volunteer doctors and nurses, ignoring the potential harm to themselves, rushed in and by all accounts saved countless lives by doing so. Everyday citizens, seeing their fellow citizens in danger, stepped up and helped out in many ways. Some along the marathon route, opened their doors and provided food and water to complete strangers, some allowed runners to use their cell phones to contact loved ones to alert them know they were alright, and others just hugged people to let them know that it was going to be okay.
On Friday, like many, I was captivated by what was unfolding on television. A man hunt had begun. One suspect was dead and the other one was on the run. Thousands of uniformed and non-uniformed police were placing their lives at risk for you and for me. I can only imagine the numbers of people praying for their safety and I have to imagine that they were joined by a company of angels as they risked their lives to keep all of us safe, they were truly servants on that day, they were serving all of us by protecting our lives by placing theirs at risk. This is what it means to be a servant. We have to be willing to lay down our lives if that is what it is going to take.
Scripture often uses the image of the shepherd when speaking of leaders in the Church. The shepherd has to be willing to guard his flock, day or night, sometimes risking his own life to protect them because they cannot protect themselves. Church leaders must be willing to do this, we must be willing not only to guard the people we have been entrusted with, but we must be willing to guard the very idea of the Church, even if it means giving up our lives in the process.
The shepherd is called upon to keep those who seek the lives of his flock away; he is called to protect them at all times and in all places. He keeps constant watch over the flock providing food and water and yes, when one goes astray he leaves the others to go after that one and bring it back to the fold. In a few moments we will pray for those who have strayed from the faith, that is the one who has been lost and those are the ones who need to be brought back.
We are drawing close to the end of the story. In the coming weeks we will experience the entire range of emotions from Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection. We will follow Jesus as He takes His final steps, we will be right there with Him as he is humiliated and nailed to the cross, not for what He did, but for what we did! We will see, played out right before us, the ultimate act of leadership, we will see what it truly means to be a servant leader in the drama of Holy Week.
There is an ancient ceremony that has fallen out of use in the Orthodox Church that will be restored this year here at St. Michael and other places. On Great and Holy Thursday the washing of the feet with be reintroduced into the Liturgical cycle of the Church. I will be asking the leaders of the Church, the parish council, to come forward on that night for me to wash their feet. This service is a reminder to all of us that if we want to be in a place of honor we have to be a servant of all. The person who washed the feet of guests in someone’s home was the lowliest of servants and Jesus did this as a reminder to all of us.
We saw evil unleashed on us this past week, and I am sure it will be a long time, if ever, before we get over the images that we saw. But we also so great acts of love and it is that love that will make us strong, love and service to others is at the very core of our Christian life and it is what will, and has, sustained us when times get difficult.
“but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”