Via Transformativa: From Glory to Glory
From Servant to Friend

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached on Sunday, May 13, 2012 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Isaiah 52:13-53:3: "My servant shall prosper"
John 15:9-27: "I have called you friends"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song this morning comes from the alternative rock group Sister Hazel. The band, from Gainesville, Florida, started in 1993, and was named for Sister Hazel Williams, a nun who ran a homeless shelter in the city. This song was on their 1997 album Somewhere More Familiar and hit #1 on Billboard's Hot Adult Top 40 chart. It's called "All for You." Let's try it:

(Verse 1) Finally I figured out
But it took a long, long time
But now there's a turnabout
Maybe cause I'm trying
(Pre-Chorus)There's been times, I'm so confused
All my roads, they lead to you
I just can't turn and walk away
(Chorus) It's hard to say what it is I see in you
Wonder if I'll always be with you
But words can't say, and I can't do
Enough to prove, It's all for you

Servant. It's seems like such a harsh word - and it can be. The original Hebrew word for servant is "ebed" - and it means simply "slave." Wow, now that word is even worse! For we Americans, in particular, that word conjures up the images of men and women of color in shackles, being ripped from their African homelands by slave traders and brought to America to be sold like cattle. Families were split up, lives were destroyed - all in the name of good old American greed.

The treatment of those slaves is even worse - housed in shanties, worked past the point of exhaustion, physically, mentally and spiritually abused. Oh, there were some slaves who served the master in the house and not in the fields. Their lives may have been marginally better, but they were still slaves. They were still not free to live their lives as they saw fit. They had no choice but to serve the master. They couldn't just turn and walk away. Their lives were all for the master - without a shred of living done just for themselves.

Thankfully, that system of servanthood is no longer the norm in America, but sadly, slavery does continue in our world, and as followers of Christ, the suffering of slaves all around the world should continue to be our concern. There is still much healing needed in our world, and still more slaves to be freed. I encourage each of us to educate ourselves about this ongoing need and get involved.

This morning, though, let us focus on the word "servant." Yes, it means "slave," and it can also mean "subjects" - like the subjects of a king or queen. It also can mean worshippers of God - we are all God's servants, after all. But, it can also be one of God's prophets.

This is the form of the word in our passage from Isaiah today. Here we find God speaking about her servants - her prophets.

"See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him -- so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals -- so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate."

That's a pretty powerful place for a servant to be - startling nations, shutting up kings and astonishing the people.

This is the definition of how a servant "prospers" - the words that they speak bring astonishment, they silence the powers that be make the nations pay attention to the words they say. Instead of being helpless, those who serve God, those who dedicate their lives to speaking the words of the Holy, wield great power.

(Verse 2) I thought I'd seen it all
Cause it's been a long, long time
But then we'll trip and fall,
Wondering if I'm blind
(Pre-Chorus)There's been times, I'm so confused
All my roads, they lead to you
I just can't turn and walk away
(Chorus) It's hard to say what it is I see in you
Wonder if I'll always be with you
But words can't say, and I can't do
Enough to prove, It's all for you

Ah, but lest the servant become to full of themselves, God has a warning for his prophets.

"Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account."

In short, servants - true prophets - suffer. You may make kings speechless and get nations to pay attention to what you have to say, but don't expect any of them to like you. Don't expect accolades when you tell the slaveholders to set their servants free. Don't expect parades when you tell the nations to treat their poor with dignity. Don't expect anyone to name a holiday after you when you insist not just on equity for all, but equality for everyone, regardless of any category we've used to separate ourselves from others.

Instead, when you speak God's prophetic words of love and mercy into a world of hatred and oppression, expect to be despised. Expect to be rejected. Expect others to hide their faces from you. Expect others to disrespect you. In short, if you take up God's call to be a servant in this world - expect to suffer. Speaking the truth does not win you friends or influence people. Instead it wins you nothing but scorn and rejection.

No wonder we don't want to be servants. If someone posted that as a job description, they'd never get anyone to apply. Who wants to sign up for a job that means you'll be universally hated by everyone?

You know what, though? That's exactly what we're called to be in this world - servants of the Holy. We are called to be bold enough to speak truth to power. We are called to be bold enough to tell it like it is. We are called to be bold enough to tell the lame that they can indeed walk, to tell the oppressed that they are indeed free, and to tell those who hold the power in this world that they are nothing when compared to the real power that the Holy has bestowed within each of us.

Oh, Jubilants, what a difficult job we are tasked with! We are called to the hard road of truth telling - to the difficult journey of suffering because we can't seem to keep our mouths shut and just go with the flow. We are called, in short, to suffer - because we cannot make ourselves sit down and shut up. The Holy tells us we will suffer because we can't stop ourselves from rocking the boat when we see injustice, or when we see inequality or when we see anyone robbed of their humanity simply for the greed of another.

God's servants aren't in this world to serve the wine at the tables of the wealthy. We're here to upend the tables of the money changers. We're here to disrupt the systems that keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor. We're here to tell the truth, even if it hurts us. We're here to put right what goes wrong, and we're here to love everyone - even those who may be the source of our own suffering.

There are times when we're all confused - when we'd rather not take this journey - but Jubilants, all roads lead to the Holy - and as servants, we are not free to simply walk away when see the injustices and inequalities going on in our world. As servants, we have a job, and we must be about that job - speaking the truth and gladly suffering the consequences. This is a glory, Jubilants! Though we may be cursed and rejected for our efforts - the Holy promises us that despite it all - we will prosper!

Breathe deeply.

(Bridge) Rain comes pouring down
Falling from blue skies
Words without a sound
Coming from your eyes
(Verse 1) Finally I figured out
But it took a long, long time
But now there's a turnabout
Maybe cause I'm trying
(Pre-Chorus)There's been times, I'm so confused
All my roads, they lead to you
I just can't turn and walk away
(Chorus) It's hard to say what it is I see in you
Wonder if I'll always be with you
But words can't say, and I can't do
Enough to prove, It's all for you
It's hard to say It's hard to say It's all for you

After World War I, Victoria Hughes found herself the sole breadwinner for her family. Her husband and been wounded in the war and could not work. The only job she could find was as a servant - but a very specific kind of servant. Hughes was a lavatory attendant. She worked at a public bathroom in Bristol, England, brewing tea and taking care of anyone who came through the door.

That particular bathroom was near a notorious stretch of road called "The Ladies' Mile." It wasn't called that because a lot of women lived along that road - instead, it was called that because a lot of women worked along that road. These women worked in the world's oldest profession - prostitution. Hughes, who kept journals of her daily work at the lavatory, finally realized just what work these ladies did - and she offered them more than a clean towel. She offered them money, advice, and sometimes intervention.

"I hope I showed some compassion," she wrote. "They in turn gave me a sort of companionship and warmth."

Hughes was recently listed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which details the lives of British heroes. Speaking at her induction ceremony, retired journalist David Foot, said: "She had this lovely ability to listen to them, to pour the tea for them and to encourage them to talk to her. She was a companion apart from anything else and a wonderful social worker without realizing it."

This is where the glory of being a servant transforms into the next glory - that of being a friend. Hughes was obliged to serve anyone who came through the door, but she was never obliged to get to know them or to care about their lives. What Hughes understood is this - we cannot simply be servants in this world, just doing our jobs without getting involved in the lives of the people around us. Instead, we must go further than just serving - we must befriend the world. We must go that next step, that extra mile, to extend the hand of friendship, especially to those others who have been scorned and rejected by this world, but also to those who do the scorning and rejecting.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from singer-songwriter Randy Newman. The composer and pianist is most often known for his satirical songs like "Short People," but he has mainly written scores for movies like "The Natural" and "Meet the Parents." This song was also written for a movie - the 1995 film "Toy Story." It's called "You've Got a Friend in Me." Let's try it:

You've got a friend in me.
You've got a friend in me.
When the road looks rough ahead,
and your miles and miles from your nice warm bed.
Just remember what your old pal said,
For you've got a friend in me.
Yeah, you've got a friend in me.

In our Jesus story, we find our guy continuing his conversation with his disciples, giving them a private teaching about love - and what it means to truly befriend the world. Now, if anyone fully understood what it was like to be a servant, it would be Jesus. In fact, the writers of the Christian scriptures would look back on that passage in Isaiah and read the life of Jesus back into those scriptures.

The idea of God sending the suffering servant resonated with them when they reflected on the life of their leader. They were convinced that Jesus was, indeed, the suffering servant - the Messiah - that Isaiah was predicting would come.

And suffer Jesus did. All he did was serve people. He taught them about God's amazing love and grace. He healed their illnesses, he healed their minds and their spirits as well. He pointed out the inequality and the inequity of his day and tried to make his world a better place by speaking that truth to the powers in charge.

What did it earn him? Scorn. Rejection. Betrayal by his own people, and finally death.

Jesus knew that serving people is a thankless task - and you easily make enemies when you serve the wrong people - like those that society has decided to label as "outcasts" or "unclean."

But, Jesus never once complained. He never once - in any of his recorded words, anyway - said "to hell with all this, I'm going back to making cabinets." Instead, he lovingly served an overwhelmingly ungrateful world. The people who received his help were grateful, of course, but overall, Jesus' mission did very little to change the overall living conditions of those he came to help.

Honestly, while this seems like really crappy news - it should make us feel much better about our own efforts. If Jesus, the guy who was proclaimed as the Messiah, cannot seem to make a dent in poverty or the oppressive systems that create poverty, why should we get discouraged if our own efforts seem to come up short? Jesus even knew his own attempts would prove ultimately futile. He told us that we would always have the poor with us. But, he also says we can, and will, do greater things than he ever did.

If we take this promise seriously, then we understand what Jesus knew - if we keep working toward equality and equity in this world - one day, we can, indeed achieve it. Like Martin Luther King Jr. has said, "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

I think Jesus hit on the right formula just before his arrest and crucifixion. I think he found the key to making those changes in our world real and permanent. What it takes is moving from the glory of a servant to the glory of friend.

You've got a friend in me.
You've got a friend in me.
You got troubles, then I got 'em too.
There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you.
If we stick together we can see it through,
'cause you've got a friend in me Yeah,
you've got a friend in me.

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Parent."

Love one another as I have loved you. These are the words Jesus spoke to his disciples, his friends. Even though he knew at least one of those friends would betray him, and the others would scatter and deny him when was arrested and crucified.

Still, he told them, love one another as I have loved you.

This is the essence of friendship, Jubilants - you willingly become vulnerable to others. You open up your life to another person. You share you true self with your friends. There's nothing in your life that's off limits. You share you most intimate thoughts, your most intimate feelings. You don't hold back anything.

As Caroline Simpson, a professor at Hope College in Michigan, writes: "A true friend knows me well enough to see me as I am, warts and all, but also knows me well enough to see me as someone whose best self aspires to be much more. Friendship affirms that a friend's view of his unfolding life story is substantially correct. Friendship commits itself to helping a person attain his vision of himself. Friendship involves not just endorsing someone's self-concept, but caring deeply enough about her aspirations to go out of one's way to help her achieve them.

A friend is someone who is on your side, someone who is willing to see the world from your point of view -- but not the point of view of your prodigal self, the point of view of your best and truest self."

"I no longer call you servants," Jesus said - and again, this is a word in Greek that means "slave." You are no longer slaves to the world, Jesus tells his disciples, but friends. Slaves don't know what their master is doing - but when we become friends with Jesus, and friends with the Holy, we know what our master is doing. Our master is about the business of befriending the world. Our master is about the business of committing itself to helping every person attain their vision of themselves. Our master - the Holy - cares so much for every person on this earth, that it is always actively working to help everyone come to the realization that they are loved, that they are holy, that they are originally blessed - and not ultimately condemned.

How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if you realized that the Holy is you friend - and calls you friend? How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if you realized that, in each moment, the Holy is calling you to live into your deepest, truest self? How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if you realized that the Holy is calling each of us, in every moment, to extend that same friendship to everyone we meet in this world?

Everyone - those we love and those we hate. Everyone - those we meet for a moment, and those we've known for years. Everyone - those who work for us, and those who work against us. Everyone - those who wear rags and those who wear the finest and most up-to-date fashions. Everyone - those who are nearby, and those who are far away. Everyone - no one is immune from our Holy friendship.

What will it take, Jubilants, for you to sing a song of friendship to this world? What will it take to move you to the point where you can see anyone in front of you and your heart will sing, "You've got a friend in me ..."

Remember, in the movie Toy Story, where our song comes from, the friendship between Woody and Buzz Lightyear is a rocky one. Woody hates Buzz at first sight, and would rather have Buzz just go away. But, when Woody and Buzz go through their lives together, they understand that, though they may not like each other all the time, they need each other. They come to rely on each other - and finally, they come to some sort of love for one another.

I imagine that Jesus didn't like his disciples all the time - and I imagine there are even close friends of your own that you don't like all the time - but I hope that you realize, as Jesus did, that we need our friends - and they need us. We are not made to walk through this life alone. We human beings are made for each other and made to connect with each other. It is that connection, that friendship, that allows us to grow in love, and allows our friends to grow in love as well.

I invite you, this morning, Jubilants, to make friends with this world. I invite you to love the world in the exact same way that Jesus loves you - unconditionally, without fail, and with a vulnerability that can be scary - but will ultimately be rewarding not just to you but to the whole world.

Hear the good news this morning, my friends - you are intimate friends with the Holy. Jesus urges you to share that friendship with the world, so we can all say: "Oh, Yeah!"

Some other folks might be a little bit smarter than I am,
Big and stronger too.
Maybe. But none of them would ever love you the way I do.
It's me and you boy.
And as the years go by,
our friendship will never die.
You're going to see it's our destiny,
You've got a friend in me.
Yeah, you've got a friend in me.
You've got a friend in me. You've got a friend in me.

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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