Our little family was out to eat recently, and our waiter got into a conversation with the people at the table behind us. It obviously wasn’t a private, highly personal conversation, so we felt free to eavesdrop. We learned that our waiter, a young man, was a combat wounded Army veteran who had been hit by shrapnel from an IED while serving in Afghanistan. He said he was trying to figure out what was next for him. So obviously waiting tables was not something he intended to do for the rest of his life, though he did say he was enjoying it for the time being.
Waiters and waitresses typically don’t make a lot of money. The average is somewhere in the neighborhood of $24,000 a year. I would imagine that this figure varies considerably, depending on where one is working. As a result, I would guess that waiters and waitresses tend to change jobs, at least restaurants, rather frequently, except perhaps those working at more high end establishments. You don’t often hear of young people who look forward to making a career of being a waiter or waitress.
If you’ve never been to Biltmore House in Asheville, put it on your bucket list. And plan to spend a whole day. By the time you tour the house and the gardens and what used to be the stables and the little village with the winery, you’re going to spend a day. On the house tour you get to see the Vanderbilts’ bedrooms on the second floor. Husband and wife had their own quarters. And they’re impressive. Very impressive. They’re about the size of half of this room, and have a fabulous view of the mountains, most of which they owned, as I understand it.
On the ground floor, pretty much the basement, are the servants’ quarters. They are, shall we say, more modest, compared to George’s and Edith’s. Yes, that tells us something that the Vanderbilts had servants living in the house. Surely most well to do folks of that or any era would have their servants living elsewhere and coming in for the day. But not at Biltmore. And somewhere in the literature it says that the servants lived well, compared to most people who did similar work in that day.
Servants are not the top of the heap when it comes to status in our world today. There’s no waiter/waitress hall of fame. There’s no plaque downstairs at Biltmore House listing those who lived and worked there in the kitchen and the laundry and the gardens and the stables and on the farm. Sometimes, if we become regulars at an eating establishment, we might have a favorite server. But do we think of that person as one of the most important people in our lives?
The same situation applied in Jesus’ day. There were classes of people, perhaps even more well defined than what we have in our society today. And at or near the bottom of the list were servants. Maybe the very wealthiest people had servants’ quarters in their homes, but I’m confident those servants’ rooms were nowhere nearly as nice as the ones downstairs at Biltmore. In the Roman world, servants were sometimes slaves. Sometimes they were people who had been captured in a war. Their lot would have been more like that of slaves in the antebellum south.
Also at or near the bottom of the list in Jesus’ day were children. Today we believe children are important. We understand that what we learn and experience in the first years of life is crucial to what kind of person we will become for the rest of our lives.
But in societies which do not have something like our social security and retirement accounts, a couple has children so that when they are old enough they can help the family economically and so that if the parents reach old age, they will have someone to care for them. Therefore children as such are not only of no particular value, until they can work they are a drain on the family’s resources. I would also guess that because the infant and child mortality rates were considerably higher than they are for us today, many families did not want to invest much in their young children. Sharon Ringe says that in biblical times, “Children and servants were of equally low status.”
All of this is the background to what we hear from Jesus in the reading from Mark’s gospel today. He discovers that the disciples had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. They thought Jesus was out of earshot. Don’t you wish we had that conversation? Peter and Andrew say, “We were the first two Jesus picked. That by itself makes us the most important.” Matthew responds, “Hey, I was a tax collector. I was a big somebody. You guys were fishermen. Who’s the greatest? Not you.” Judas chimes in, “Really? I’m the one who keeps our money. Case closed.” And so it would go on.
Jesus sits them down and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes “a little child” and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Really? Servants and children? We’re supposed to be like a servant and welcome children?
Apparently. Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, does he? It’s servants and children.
The world needs leaders. So does the church. We need people who can take charge and organize, people who can make sure that crucial tasks get done when and how they need to be done. Jesus would not argue. When Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus answers, “you are Peter, [Petros, in Greek] and on this rock [petra, in Greek] I will build my church.” With these words Jesus seems to designate Peter for future leadership. As best we can tell, all of the apostles become leaders in the early church.
But Jesus is clear that when it comes to being his followers, we are to be servants. The subsequent story of the church, both in-house and in the world, both in the rest of the Second Testament and in the history of the church, in its better moments, demonstrates how this instruction is lived out. In the book of Acts, for example, the earliest recorded church conflict concerns the care of widows. One group feels that their widows are not receiving their fair share of the daily distribution of food. They did what churches always do – they formed a committee to look into it. But perhaps the important lesson is not about church organization but about the fact that from its very beginnings the church actively cared for those among them with particular needs.
At the same time, Luke, the author of Acts, spends far more time telling us how the early church spread the gospel. In chapter nine a man named Saul becomes converted to Christianity, and has his name changed to Paul. The rest, as they say, is history. Paul and others travel around the Roman world proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in him is forgiveness of sins and new life. Paul never sees himself as anything other than a servant of God, a messenger who conveys the good news to all who give him a hearing. As such, his mission is to be a servant to all who give ear to his words and witness his deeds.
We are called to be servants. And we are. Every time we bring a meal to the Gateway. Every time we pack backpacks in Gladys. Every time we serve a lunch at Daily Bread. Every time we bring snacks to the cancer center. Every time we visit one of our own shut ins or take food or send a card to someone who has suffered a loss. Every time we go on a mission trip. Every time we contribute to the Week of Compassion. We can’t meet everyone’s needs everywhere all the time. But we can be servants. And so often we are.
We also welcome those who are often not valued or welcomed elsewhere. We already miss Adam. He has moved to Maryland. Adam is the young man who played the French horn at the eleven o’clock service a couple of times. He also sang in the choir. And played in the bell choir. And came to Sunday school. And joined in our prayer group. Funny thing is, we came in contact with him because he interviewed to lead music at the early service. Which he never did. But he said he felt comfortable and welcomed here, in a way he had not elsewhere. I dare to hope that he will remember his very brief time here in a positive way, and that the way he was welcomed and treated will make a difference to him.
Nowadays it can be hard to tell who does not feel valued and welcomed in other places. They may or may not look the part. Is it the poor? The stranger? The person who looks lost and out of place? The refugee from violence and abuse? Hebrews 13.2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It may not be children, but there are still those who are often less valued than others in our world today.
It’s our job to welcome them, to help them feel at home in our midst, to assure them that we are not their judge, that we are here to open our doors and our arms to them and remind them that they are loved by God and by us. Jesus says when we welcome those like children, we welcome him, and we welcome God.
Servants and children. Our example, our guests. Amen.