A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on September 9, 2012.
Good morning! I want to introduce myself to you. I’m Michael Cheuk, the new senior minister here at University Baptist Church, and it is my privilege and honor to be here sharing my first sermon with you this morning. As I began work this week, everyone has been so accommodating and helpful. Our Tuesday staff meeting ended with a little cake welcoming my arrival. The next day, the Wednesday morning crew unpacked and shelved all my books within an hour! Now whether I’m able to find a particular book . . . well, that’s a different story! But that’s not the fault of the Wednesday work crew. On Thursday, Sarah Buchanan brought up the leftover fried chicken from Wednesday night supper, and I enjoyed that for lunch. All week long, everyone has been very welcoming and helpful, and Ed Smith, our church administrator, told me this week: “We just wanted to make sure that the boss is happy.”
“Who’s the boss?” That’s a question I’ve been asking myself during my first week as senior minister here. During my first week, many of the staff have called me “boss.” And so, for my first sermon, I thought it might be helpful for me to share briefly how I see my role as “boss” based on the scripture lesson from the Gospel of Mark.
Our Gospel Lesson this morning takes place in the context of Jesus making his way to Jerusalem in the events leading up to Easter. Jesus had just told his disciples that he was going to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes and be put to death. It is at this point that James and John privately asked Jesus a question. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” I don’t know about you, but when people come to me and make a request in this way, warning bells usually go off in my head. Whenever my kids ask, “Hey Dad, can you do something for us?” my first response is, “Well, that depends. What is it that you want me to do?” Jesus answered James and John in the same way, and the Zebedee brothers replied, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
The right hand side of a head of state is usually a highly exalted position of honor, power and prestige. There is no definitive interpretation regarding what it means to be given a position at the left hand side of a sovereign. But I think we can safely assume that if you were invited to a formal state dinner and you were seated either on the right or left hand side of President Obama, you would see this as a great honor . . . unless you were Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. But in general, who doesn’t like to be near a celebrity? Who doesn’t like to be associated with a person of power? If we are chosen to be near powerful and famous people, there’s always the hope that some of their splendor, magnificence and honor might rub off on us. Maybe we might even get some of the privileges and perks that come with being the boss. And I think that was what’s going on with James and John. Despite what Jesus was trying to teach them about his pending suffering and death, James and John still saw Jesus Christ as a superstar, and they were jockeying to be Jesus’ super groupies: “Jesus, we want to be your right and left hand men.”
“You do not know what you are asking,” replied Jesus, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Obviously, Jesus was hinting that following him to Jerusalem was not that going to be a walk in the park. There will be challenges, hardships and suffering all along the way, so it’s best to count the cost. There’s more to being the boss than just the perks and privileges. Sacrifices, hard decisions, and long hours can accompany the position of the boss. Those of you who own small businesses know that sometimes, the boss is the first person to be blamed and the last person to be paid. Jesus was about to pay the ultimate price to purchase the salvation of sinners, but James and John still had no clue regarding the cost of following Jesus, much less doing what Jesus was about to do.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus asked. Incredibly, James and John replied, “We are able.” We human beings have a tendency to overestimate what we’re able to do. When I was in college, I often bit off more than I could chew, and toward the end of the semester, I often discovered that there just wasn’t enough hours in the day to do everything that I had signed up to do. Now that I’m older and wiser (ha ha!), I’m still tempted to believe that behind these glasses and mild mannered behavior, there is one who is “faster than members fleeing from a Stewardship Sermon, more powerful than a secretary about to tow your car, and able to avoid conflict in a single bound. Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s Super Minister! As the boss, it is tempting for me to fall into the trap of the “savior complex,” thinking that it is solely up to me to save and fix problems in the world, which is ironic, because the last time I checked, according to Christian tradition, there’s only one savior and his name is not Michael Cheuk.
Finally, a boss is often tempted to act as lord over others and tell them what to do. When the ten disciples heard of what James and John were trying to do, they got angry with them. I can imagine them talking to each other: “Wait a minute! Who do those Sons of Zebedee think they are, trying to pull rank over us? Don’t they know that they are just disciples like us?”
So, in the midst of these visions of grandeur, over-inflated egos, jealousies, and insecurities, Jesus finally stops to instruct his disciples. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Here, like so many other times, Jesus turns upside down the conventions of the day to show His disciples and us the way of the Kingdom. Instead of being tyrants and lording it over others, followers of Jesus who desire to be great must be servants of all. In general, we would much rather be the boss and be in charge than be placed under someone else’s authority. But the fact of the matter is, no matter what position we find ourselves, we will always serve somebody.
Bob Dylan recorded a song in 1979 called: “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” In the song, Dylan listed all sorts of people – preachers, politicians, barbers, rich people, poor people. And in the chorus, he reminds us that no matter who you are,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Bob Dylan is right. We’re gonna have to serve somebody. The question is whether we will serve the gods of this world or the Lord of heaven and earth. In our Old Testament lesson this morning from Joshua 24:15, the Israelites had finally entered the Promised Land, and Joshua gathered God’s people to renew their covenant. The people of God were liberated from Egypt – they didn’t have to serve Pharoah anymore, but Joshua reminded them that they would have to serve somebody. Joshua challenged them to “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Who’s the boss? Not the Senior Minister. Nor the chair of deacons. Nor the big tither. No, the boss is Jesus Christ Himself. All disciples of Jesus are called to serve the Lord. The way I see it, the Senior Minister is the boss only in the sense that he or she is the first among equals in the congregation’s service to the Lord. The Senior Minister strives to lead like Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve. As members of the one Body, we all serve Christ, the head. We are all on the same team, advancing God’s Kingdom to witness and to share the love of Christ to all who would hear and believe. When Jesus is our Boss, then we are freed to have an attitude of cooperation instead of competition, encouragement instead of envy, and support instead of suspicion, regardless of what Bible study class we’re in, what small group we’re a part of, and regardless of even what local congregation we belong to. We’re all on the same team.
Peyton Manning is one of my favorite football players, and in a recent article on ESPN the Magazine, Ryan McGee wrote about Peyton’s transition to the Denver Broncos, practicing with his new Broncos teammate, cornerback Tracy Porter. Back when Porter played for the Saints, as some of you may remember, he intercepted Manning for a 74-yard touchdown to ensure the Saints’ victory over the Colts in Superbowl 44. At a practice in spring training earlier this year, Porter picked off Manning again. A few plays later, Manning burned Porter deep. At the end of the practice as Porter walked off the field, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Manning, who said: “You tell me what I did wrong on that first play and I’ll tell you what you did wrong on that next play. That’s the only way we’re going to get better. Deal?” Months later, Porter still shakes his head while telling the story. “Dang right, that was a deal. He wants me to be better so he can be better. And he wants to be better to help me get better. I’ll follow a man like that into any game, anywhere, any way.” 
As your senior minister, here’s my offer to you: you help me be a better servant of the Lord, and I’ll help you do the same, so that together, we’ll follow Jesus Christ our Boss into any situation, anywhere, any way. Deal?
Let us pray: Gracious God, grant us servant hearts, minds and hands as we seek to please our boss, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.