A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials;and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
So, over the course of my time here, I know I have mentioned my friend James on a few occasions. Although, to be honest, I’m not really sure I can call him my friend anymore, as we don’t speak. We don’t keep in touch. Because James doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t even have an address – at least, he didn’t when I left St. Louis back in 2012. And no matter how many times I gave him my phone number so he could get a hold of me, I always had to give it to him again the next time I saw him, because he had lost it. Really, the only way to truly keep in touch with James was to go by the Starbucks on Delmar every so often and see if he was there – outside if the weather was nice, inside if it was nasty. So, now that I live in Winston-Salem, and St. Louis is a bit of a hike, I haven’t spoken with James in over three years. To tell the truth, I don’t even know if James is still alive. You see, he had congestive heart failure, and I would often find myself driving him to the VA hospital, standing by his side as they drained excess fluid from his stomach, and wondering every day that I couldn’t find him, especially when we had arranged to meet up, whether or not he made it another night. James, as you may have guessed, is homeless. Of course, there are a number of other descriptors I could use for him: he would be 54 years old now; he was 51 when I left. He is a black man with dark, wrinkled skin and short, graying hair, which he usually hid under a baseball cap. He is short and stocky, and his stomach was often bloated when I saw him, due to his condition. He told me that he was stationed in Germany during the Gulf War, if I remember correctly, and so he is a veteran. He is a father, a brother, a son, an ex-husband, a friend, a Christian, a child of God; but the one descriptor with which the world is most apt to label him – the one thing that jumps out no matter what else he does or who else he is – is homeless. I mean, how often do we tend to define people by their worst quality?
Well, I found out why James was homeless in the first place. When he came home from Germany, he worked as a stocker for a local grocery store; but when he began to develop CHF, he was no longer able to lift heavy objects, and consequently lost his job. Of course, he should have been entitled to disability benefits as well as VA benefits, but despite his multiple meetings with social services, he was unable to obtain either of these. His wife had left him, and that was probably his fault, but his kids had all moved away. He had family, but no way to get in touch with them, really. He was willing to work down at the small food market on the Loop on weekends in exchange for a few apples and potatoes, but they didn’t always need his help. And any other work he could have done was out due to his condition. He couldn’t lift things; he couldn’t walk very far; he couldn’t do manual labor. He didn’t have transportation or a place to stay, to shower, to clean himself up. The one saving grace he seemed to have was that – due to his status as a veteran – he was able to visit the VA hospital and receive treatment for free.
When I met James, I saw it as an opportunity for me to be the Christian I felt God was calling me to be. This was a pretty clear instance of me following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25 – to serve the least of these. A group of guys in my campus ministry group decided we would do something called a “Spiritual Eyes Trip”. We decided to take a walk down Delmar one night and talk to random people about God and Jesus, presumably so we could have some kind of impact on their lives. By and by, we met James, standing on the corner of Delmar and Skinker, asking passersby for loose change so he could get some dinner at the Church’s Chicken across the street. So we took him to dinner. We sat and we ate with him. We listened to him tell us his life story, and about how hard it was to be homeless. And we thought what good little Christians we were being, helping someone in need, going the extra mile and sitting with them to eat together.
In a way, we were kind of being like the disciples in our passage for today. Actually, we were being more like the kings and benefactors Jesus refers to here – those people who pretended generosity (and probably felt pretty good about themselves), but in reality held all of the power, and could very well take their money and their time away from those who needed it at the drop of a hat. We were not disciples – how could we be? We attended one of the richest schools in the country. We held all of the privileges afforded to straight, white, protestant males, and we could walk up and down that street with impunity, spreading our money where’re we wished. We weren’t richrich, certainly, but we generally held on to a higher status. We were, by the world’s standards, great. And we thought that meant we had more to offer. We thought it meant we had the obligation to give back, to drop scraps off the table after we had eaten our fill and feel good about the fact that at least we didn’t gorge ourselves while others lay on the sidewalk, starving. No. We were there to do good. Isn’t that what God expects from us?
It’s understandable why we would want to hold on to our position in society. Why we would desire power and prestige, and think that the more of it we have, the more we will be able to help those in need. The more we will be able to serve the least of these. This is a well-intended quest for power, to be sure. Perhaps that’s why the disciples sought to be great. Perhaps they thought that palling around with Jesus was supposed to raise their station, that being a part of his movement would somehow gain them fame and acclamation, and who, they wondered, was going to be the greatest of them all. But Jesus, they didn’t realize, picked them for a reason. The Jesus movement was started by a bunch of nobodies, the riff-raff of 1stcentury Palestine, fishermen and tax collectors, the people whom you would never in a million years expect had anything substantial to offer to this world. That is who Jesus chose, and he was going to remind them of it. “Do not be like the kings of the Gentiles and the benefactors, the rich, white college students of this world, upon whom lay the greatest of expectations,” he says. “Instead, you must be like the youngest, the smallest, the least, the one who serves.” And this does not mean that, while standing at the top, you toss down scraps to those beneath you, however large and/or countless those scraps may be. That is the definition of a benefactor, and make no mistake about it, there is a difference between a benefactor – one who is great in stature yet gives freely and generously – and a servant. There is a difference, as Jesus shows us, between doling out charity and getting on hands and knees to wash your friends’ feet.
I never washed James’ feet. But over time my sense of superiority did slowly begin to erode, as I got to know James better and listened to his stories. That night we first met him, he told us about what it was like to sleep on a bus bench. When it was cold, he said, he would have to get up every few hours and stand, walk around a bit, just to get his blood flowing enough so he wouldn’t freeze to death. A few weeks before there had been a dreadful storm, and he told us how he got up in the middle of the night, terrified, and shook his fist at the sky shouting, “My God is bigger than you!” – which is quite a theological conundrum if you think about it, but, to be honest, faith is full of those. A few months later, I witnessed him hand a friend of his – also homeless – the only dollar he had in his cup, and when I asked him about it he told me that if he was generous with what he had, God would provide for him. Over the course of our friendship, I learned about how much he loved comic books, and how excited he was for the new Avengers movie, which we took him to go see. I learned that he had a falling out with his wife, and he had six kids that he didn’t know where they were anymore. I learned that he had a family who let him stay with them on occasion, and he wanted to buy their kids Easter baskets with chocolate bunnies in them for Easter, so we took him to Walgreens. I learned that it didn’t much matter what we gave him, because he couldn’t hold on to things for very long without it getting lost or stolen. I learned that he really likes the hymn, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”, and he would sing it out as loud as he could whenever it came up in church on Sunday. In short, I learned that James had an incredible faith, that he had a lot more to offer than I expected, and, in truth, that he probably helped me more than I helped him.
I don’t know that I ever became a servant. I think I’m still more of a benefactor. It’s really hard, when you start out at a certain position in life, to voluntarily drop a few rungs on the ladder. It’s really easy to want to climb to the top instead, despite how difficult it might be to actually do so. Jesus told the disciples, “You need to stay where you are on that ladder. Don’t try to climb any higher; in fact, it would do you some good to slide down a bit. Because, a time will come when that ladder flips, does a complete 180, and all those great things you thought you were pursuing earlier will suddenly look exceedingly small from the top.” Jesus confers upon the disciples this kingdom, the Kingdom of God, and the disciples are the ones, by virtue of their “least-ness”, who will judge – that is, rule, or preside over – the twelve tribes of Israel, which is basically a metaphor for “everyone else”.
I don’t know if that’s fair. I don’t know what that means for you or for me. But I do think we need a new paradigm of Christian service. I do think we need a new attitude toward “the least of these”. Perhaps we ought to stop calling them that, for one. But if this passage is any indication, those who we consider “least” by the world’s standards are in fact “greatest” by God’s standards, and Kingdom come, they will be the ones judging us. Maybe we ought to start treating them like it. Maybe we ought to start treating them like respected human beings, instead of problems to be solved, people to be fixed, fulfillments of our Matthew 25 injunction to serve the least of these. Maybe we shouldn’t think that the rugged man who wonders in off the street wearing tattered clothes and a distinct lack of deodorant has nothing significant to offer our church. Maybe we shouldn’t assume that we are here to help them, and not the other way around. And maybe, as we discuss the gifts of the spirit in the life of our church, we shouldn’t think that just because we are good, educated, well-intentioned and somewhat-well-off Jesus followers, our gifts are somehow greater or better than those of the aforementioned homeless man, the death-row inmate, the drug-addicted teenager, the starving immigrant child, the corner prostitute, the lowly fisherman, the despised tax-collector, or James. Maybe we should have more than the least expectations for the spiritual proficiency of the so-called “least of these”. After all, Jesus certainly does. Amen.