Covenant Service

Jesus walked with his disciples going to Jerusalem. Twelve guys, plus the women who supported their ministry, walk in clusters or pairs or sometimes solitude to ponder the day’s events and make meaning. Maybe 20-25 persons in this entourage travel down dirt roads and up hilly embankments. They pause in the shade for a bit, and Jesus calls the twelve over to him saying something like,

“Hey guys, you need to know, see, when we get to town, to Jerusalem, I’m gonna die.”
It ain’t gonna be pretty- crucifixions never are.”

Then, the mother of two of the disciples approaches Jesus. It was James and John’s mother. She says, “I have a favor to ask.”

Jesus asks, “What do you want?”

The Mother asks, “Declare that my two sons will sit high on the throne in your kingdom.

Give them power and prestige in your reign.
Let one sit on your right, and one on your left.
Maybe one could be the Vice-Messiah and the other Secretary of State Messiah?”

This is no small request, but it’s not for herself; it’s for her sons. We want what’s best for our children- even our grown children. I think she might be the original “helicopter parent” for she hovers around, trying to pull strings to manipulate things for her sons. Interestingly, the story indicates that Jesus responds to this request, by turning to her sons- grown men, James and John. The plural “you” is used in his reply. The guys must have been close by when Momma made her pitch for them. Jesus spoke to her sons, “You don’t know what you are asking. Things don’t work that way in my WAY.”

About that time, the other disciples lounging beneath the next tree overhear what’s going on. James and John and their mom trying to wheel and deal with the boss to secure privilege? To get special favors? Like small children, they cry out, “Hey, that’s not fair! We want to be special too.”

Jesus responds, “You guys, none of you get it. How long have you listened to me teach? How long have you watched me? Here we are coming to end of our road together, and you still don’t get me? You are thinking the way the world thinks- seeking power, authority, prestige, living out of self-centered naïveté and self-aggrandizing delusion, that is not The Way I live, not The Way I teach. If you want to be great, you must be a great servant. If you want to be first, you must be first to serve others. Follow me, do as I do, I came not to be served but to serve.”

The Way of Jesus is radical. The CEO of his operation doesn’t sit in a fancy leather chair surrounded by a team of well-groomed executives and secretaries. The leadership in his movement better have dirt beneath their nails, sweat on their brow, and patches on the knees of their garments. Jesus shows the Way, the Truth, and the Life that leads to union with the holy; it’s a way of servanthood.

We are in covenant with one another and with God. Gods covenant comes to us through thousands years of our faith tradition. Hebrew people knew it from Abraham, and when they forgot their ancient prophets proclaimed a message from God, “thus says the Lord, I will be your God and you will be my people.” It is a promise of our prayers and God’s presence always with us. It is a promise of giving and service and sharing. We share that covenant with one another in God.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, heard a covenant prayer in another church. He adapted it and adopted it and created a Covenant service around it. The Covenant Prayer embraces the whole of life, in all its parts. It asks questions of our faith and demands that we examine our relationship with God. The prayer represents a commitment to being a disciple and putting God first in our lives and in everything about our lives: what we do, what we say and who we are. It is both a surrender to, and a trust in, God.

Most people find it quite tough to say this prayer and really mean it. It is uncomfortable and challenging. It prods our egos to resist and our fears and insecurities to speak out. I invite you to ponder these words again—-close your eyes and just hear them with open hearts, and you might hear another voice within that struggles against them as well. That voice must be named as well.

Holy Divine,
I am no longer my own, but yours.
(what does it mean to relinquish myself as God’s? to let go of all that I grip so tightly? To let go of all that I pretend or I wish was under my control…?)
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will
(but I really want to be ranked with the powerful, the popular. It’s really nice to sit with the special seated ones)
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
(O God, please don’t let me suffer!)
Let me be employed by you or laid aside for you exalted for you or brought low for you.
(I don’t want to be sidelined. I don’t want to be brought low- is that humility? Sounds like failure, to my ego.)
Let me be full, let me be empty.
(oh wow, empty is scary. Let’s just skip that part.)
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
(nothing? But I have wants, commitments, responsibilities…)
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
(well, maybe not all things, there are a few things I want to keep, somethings, ok, maybe… most things?)
And now, O glorious and blessed God, you are mine, and I am yours. So be it.
(You are mine, and I am yours? You are mine and I am yours.)
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

We want to offer this prayer, but it is a struggle. Our ego resists, and our fears rise. We want to place conditions on who we serve and how we serve. We want to offer our service, but it might be risky. We don’t want to let go.

Now, when I preach on serving, I do so with caution. Mostly because those who don’t need to hear the message- take it to heart. Those whose calendars are already full with good deeds- who are up here serving day after day- they hear a call to service and they give themselves away in selfless service all the more. I fear they will serve until there is nothing left of them- till they are used up and empty or resentful.

I give caution against preaching a service message because those who need to hear it don’t. Then some try to serve out of guilt, not joy. Some try to serve in desire for personal gain, for prestige and power and recognition and gold stars, for self-worth, for a seat of honor like James and John.

We need to serve – to grow – to connect – to be more Christ like – to connect with the Christ in those we serve – to learn from them – to serve as a response of gratitude – to serve to make a difference – to bring forth God’s realm of justice and care and compassion. We need to serve not to be loved more, or be more worthy, but to become who God would create us to become.

Serving God, serving as Christ served, takes sacrifice and setting priorities. It takes rearranging our calendar a changing our commitments. It is offering our talents to be strengthen so that we might grow in humility and patience, and gentleness and kindness. Serving helps us grow in self-control and peace of spirit. It means that we are invested through our time and energy in making a difference. It means that we are nurtured and fed through our service.

Serving Christ, serving God, serving as the church does not mean that we lose ourselves or that we use service to feed our frail self, it means that we can shed our pride and ego and finally find our true self – followers of the Way of Jesus who came to serve, not to be served.

May it be so.