Does anyone still eat together? We (I mean my family)try to. Who do you eat with when you eat together as a family? Remember, I’m talking about times other than Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. It could be a Tuesday or a Thursday. Who is there around the table? Do you have a favorite place to sit when it comes to such dinner times? Are you always across from somebody? Maybe you’re to someone’s left? Or do you get shoved to a table in the other room? Did your place just become your place because that’s where you were told, a long time ago, to “sit there”?
From where you’re sitting things have always been a little different. By the time the butter for the potatoes gets passed to you, it’s all but gone. Salt and pepper are hard to come by. You might as well launch an expedition to the kitchen rather than ask someone at the next table to pass them on over. Yes, it’s on days like this that you’ve dreamed about moving on up to the head table, somewhere close to Mom and Dad, to a seat where the ketchup bottle is full, and everyone has a fork. You want a seat at the big table, where manners might be required, and seconds are only “seconds” away. What must one do take their place at this most important place of family eating? Maybe you’d like to call “shotgun” when it comes to sitting around the table?
This is the kind of day some of the disciples were having. They felt neglected, rejected, dejected, and just plain down! It was just like the one I’ve described. In at (or had any Jesus family gathering) they decided to ask Jesus for a promotion. Eventually, after a long time of working and practicing their speeches, they approached Jesus to say: could we move up? They wanted to sit at the big table but not at just any old big table. Two of them, named James and John, were so tired of sitting at the kid’s table. So they asked, whenever Jesus did whatever big thing he was going to do next they wanted a guarantee they would get the chance to sit at the big table. We’ll gladly sit at the back with Matthew and Thomas for now. But when the time comes and you do that big thing in Jerusalem, whatever it is, the one you keep talking about, can we sit right beside you?
Can you imagine how this sounded to Jesus? I’ve tried to think, “What must Jesus have thought?” I guess Jesus was pretty confused. Did James and John not understand what Jesus was doing? Did all they care about was getting a good seat?
Jesus tries to tell them. “You don’t know what you’re asking!” “Are you able to do all the things I’m asked to do?” They said yes, which meant they still didn’t understand Jesus’ question. Sitting at the big table comes with a lot of responsibility. First, you buy the food, cook the food, clean up the meal, host the dinner, and provide for all who attend. It’s a great deal of love and care. The guests only see a small portion of the work, no matter the table. Jesus is trying to say to them: you can’t fully grasp, right now, all the things I’m asked to do or will be asked to do. Because some of those things, Jesus is trying to say, will get much harder down the road. I need you right here and at the table where you are. Don’t worry about where you’re sitting. Focus on the small things and the big things will work themselves out.
Do you know what happened next? The one predictable thing you can always count on in these situations. Someone got on their Instagram and did a story which said: “OMG can you believe what James and John did? They had the nerve to go straight to Jesus and asked to be moved to the big table once Jesus brings glory about and totally restores the Kingdom of God. Can you believe it? They are such backstabbers.” In case you need me to translate that means the other 10 disciples were angry. Everybody wanted the head table. What gave those two dunderheads the right to ask for special treatment in God’s kingdom where everyone was supposed to be treated fairly?
After this one simple question rooted in better access to ketchup and mashed potatoes, look at the chaos. Jesus ministry appears to be on the verge of falling apart. James and John asked if they could move up, Jesus handled it well, word leaked up on social media (complete with pictures of the asking), and now the remaining 10 disciples are angry with James and John. What’s the solution? Everyone has to go to the principal’s office. Jesus has to clean this up before the whole thing collapses.
He starts to tell them a little story about how they should see the world around them. He asks them to think about the people in their lives who are great and important? Who are the ones with all the power and control? Who sits at the big tables? So they sit there for a second and think. Who do you think of? Is it people on television? Maybe you picture people with money? Could it that star with a certain look?
What if it is none of those things? Jesus tells them this most crucial point: “But that’s not the way it is with you.” What does that mean? For Jesus’ disciples, it’s never about where you sit but are you sitting with someone who needs to be served. Serve those people. If you are a follower of Christ, greatness is not measured by location (sitting at the big table, where we live), whether people think we’re cool, and our choice of fashion, owning newest phones, but by how we serve other people.
Do you ever wonder why United Methodists put so much emphasis on helping people after storms or merely doing stuff in the community? It’s because it’s the right thing to do and verses like this give us a great deal of encouragement. Here’s how Jesus puts it, “For the Human One (that’s Jesus) didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and give his life to liberate many people.” Like Jesus, we didn’t come to be served. Everything we do is a form of serving others. Worship is service. That’s one reason we refer to worship as a “Worship Service.” Sunday School is service. Music serves and blesses. Service is everywhere.
Service is at the heart of everything we do. We, like James and John, sometimes want to be a little closer to the action. It would be nice to know how all of this is going to pay off when Jesus accomplishes the big win. To that question, Jesus tells us to have faith. When we get a little ahead of ourselves we take a moment to remember; being a disciple is about serving and giving. The best way to remember is to step into this place. Stand outside and look at the steeple. There’s something about being here, in the presence of God, which pushes us toward others and reminds of needs which are calling out to be met, service to be done at the table near the back of the room.
Richard Lowell Bryant