Return to Sermon Archive
Other Side of the Tray
December 21, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke chapter 1 and follow along as I read verses 46-55. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Reka Nagy recalls the time when she was waiting tables and had a tray full of drinks, and then had the misfortune of crashing into her manager, causing them both to tumble to the floor. Nagy, however, while falling, managed to keep the drink tray she was carrying horizontal, so that even as she lay on the floor, not a drop was spilled, not a glass was broken. It was such a spectacular performance that the customers, far from chuckling at her clumsiness, gave her a rousing cheer and round of applause.
Unfortunately, such responses are rare. Waitresses spend their shifts hauling heavy trays, crashing into co-workers, being poked and grabbed and yelled at. They learn to smile nicely at rude customers. They are accustomed to receiving lousy tips. It can be a brutal way to make a buck. Being a waitress is an honorable profession, and some wait staff make good money, but most work hard for their money with not much more than bruises and bunions to show for the effort.
Suzy Hansen in an article titled “Sunnyside down,” [Salon magazine, October 14, 2002, Salon.com.] argues that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those on the customer side of the tray, and those on the waitress side of the tray. On the customer side are the proud and the powerful; on the waitress side are the humble and the harassed. Far too many customers assume that waitresses are low-class women without skills, beneath conversation and consideration. Too often, they are snubbed, underpaid, and ignored.
But waitresses often see more than their customers give them credit for. Alison Owings is the author of the book Hey, Waitress! [Jackson, Donald Dale. Review of Hey, Waitress!, in Smithsonian Magazine, April 2003, 126.] . She observes that waitresses “watch, witness or are part of every upheaval, uproar, tradition, trend, debate and issue.” You might even say that everything that happens in the world happens on a waitress’s shift —business meetings, political conventions, wedding receptions, even protest movements. One of the first skirmishes in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s occurred at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, when black students defied the segregationist practices of the day by sitting down and ordering a piece of apple pie. I wonder if they tipped the waitress. From the other side of the tray, waitresses witness historical events and human conflicts, and through times of chaos and confusion try to remain good and faithful servants.
Just like Mary. Mary was all too familiar with life on the other side of the tray. Along with other women of first-century Galilee, Mary was a second-class citizen, deemed not worthy of conversation or consideration. She had little or no authority, virtually no rank or status in her culture.
When Mary races over to the house of her relative Elizabeth, she discovers that her encounter with the angel was no mere fantasy. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (v. 42). Elizabeth describes Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43), and adds in v45, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth is the wife of a priest, and herself a direct descendant of Aaron, the first high priest (Luke 1:5), but she does not hesitate to declare that she is honored by the visit of her rural relation Mary. She puts herself on a lower social rung than Mary by naming her the mother of her Lord and calling her blessed. Normal social convention would have called for Mary to defer to her elder and more prominent kinswoman. Elizabeth voluntarily humbles herself before the mother to the promised messiah.
And Elizabeth is a huge help to Mary, giving support, offering encouragement and sharing a sense of overflowing joy. Throughout the gospel of Luke, joy emerges again and again. The Christmas angels bring good tidings of great joy (2:10), Jesus predicts that his followers will leap for joy (6:23), seventy disciples return from their mission with joy (10:17), joy is felt in heaven over one sinner who repents (15:7), and the apostles return to Jerusalem after the ascension, “with great joy” (24:52).
So, two themes begin to emerge from out text today: servanthood and joy. The one follows the other.
On this Christmas Sunday, we are reminded that authentic Christian living requires a sense of service. Authentic Christian living will inevitably — if done right — put us on the other side of the tray, serving people, waiting on others, ministering to the needy, lifting up the fallen. But such a life will also bear the fruit of joy: the joy of forgiveness, of healing, of mission, of new life, of inclusion in the family of God. So often we forget this, especially at Christmastime, when our joy is swamped by the pressure to feel happy about parties and pageants and presents under the Christmas tree. Christian joy, when you think about it, is both more simple and more significant than Christmas happiness. Happiness is linked to festivities, while joy is tied to forgiveness. Happiness is about new things, while joy is about new life; happiness is about finding a way to keep the peace between assorted aunts and uncles after three days of Christmas togetherness, while joy is about finding our place in the family of God.
Joy is what Jesus came to earth to give us, and what Elizabeth helps Mary to feel as she discovers her destiny as the mother of the Lord. Not that we should be surprised that Elizabeth is in touch with joy — after all, she is rejoicing in the child she herself is carrying in the womb, believing the child to be a gift from God. There can certainly be joy on the other side of the tray.
Mary and Hannah
But notice also Mary’s servant humility. Elizabeth has made a startling declaration. Mary is the mother of the Lord. But rather than claim any personal honor for her newly exalted status, Mary responds by declaring God responsible for all such reversals of fortune. God is merciful; God lifts up the lowly; God displaces the powerful. Mary herself claims no virtue or special right that would explain why she has blessed by God. Everything that has happened to her, she asserts, is merely an outgrowth of who God is. God is the God of Abraham, who fulfills the promises made to Mary’s ancestors.
Both Elizabeth and Mary continue an Old Testament pattern of heroes being born miraculously to women who should not be able to conceive children. The Old Testament counterparts to Mary and Elizabeth are Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah and the wife of Manoah, Sampson’s mother (Genesis 17:15-21; 25:21; 30:22; Judges 13:1-24; 1 Samuel 1-2). Both John and Jesus, like the children of these miraculous mothers from the Old Testament, prove themselves to be worthy of the divine intervention that produced them.
It appears also that Luke intentionally draws similarities between Hannah the mother of Samuel and Mary the mother of Jesus. Many similarities exist between the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-50) and the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-2). Both songs begin by praising God;. Both songs portray God humbling the arrogant (Luke 1:51; 1 Samuel 2:3), disenfranchising the wealthy and enfranchising the poor (Luke 1:53; 1 Samuel 2:5, 7-8), and disempowering the powerful and empowering the powerless (Luke 1:52; 1 Samuel 2:4). If one major difference exists between the two songs, however, it would be that while both songs emphasize God’s power (1 Samuel 2:8-10; Luke 1:51), Mary’s song also emphasizes God’s mercy (Luke 1:50, 54). As for the similarities drawn between Jesus and Samuel, both are described as growing “in favor with God and humanity” (Luke 2:52; 1 Samuel 2:26), and both are portrayed spending time in the temple and demonstrating there a level of contact with the divine that the adults around them lacked (Luke 2:41-51; 1 Samuel 3).
But of course Jesus went far beyond Samuel and far beyond the Old Testament. In the Old testament, God’s promises were primarily in terms of land and progeny (Genesis 12; 15). Which is why many Jews thought that the Messiah would reclaim the land of Israel from the Romans and reestablishthe kingdom of David. Jesus emphasized that he was not interested in any of that. His kingdom was not of this world. Rather Jesus came to bring us salvation from our sins and reconciliation with God. He came to make us citizens of the kingdom of God.
Jesus the Waitress
That is the good news. No wonder then that Mary bursts into a song of praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (vv. 46-48). God could have selected a queen or a princess or an aristocratic heiress to be the mother of the Lord, but he did not. Instead, God chose for a weary teenager doing the swing shift at the Galilee Grill, trying to make her way through life the best she can.
The selection of Mary is surprising, but it shows God’s hand — it reveals the plan for God’s ongoing involvement in the world. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation,” sings Mary. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away” (vv. 50-53).
God has “filled the hungry with good things,” says Mary. It’s a fascinating line that suggests the image of God as Waiter, feeding those who are hungry and clearing the table of those who are already full. If you are in need, God will help you—he will be with you in a minute—but if you are self-reliant and proud and powerful, you are not going to receive any service from the Lord.
Jesus followed this same path when he began to wait on the spiritually starving people of the world. After he broke bread and shared wine with his disciples at the Last Supper, a dispute arose about which one of his followers was to be regarded as the greatest. In Luke 22:25-27, Jesus responds to this situation saying, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.” He said that the way the world is organized, the rich and the powerful rule. That is the way of the world, but then he goes on to say, that is not the way it should be with you; “rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” He then asks “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” Who is greater the customer or the waitress? Well, we all know the answer to that do we not? The customer is greater. But then Jesus turns our expectations upside down saying, ”I am among you as one who serves.” I’m a servant, insists Jesus, not a customer, and, he adds, that is what you are supposed to be. Disciples of Christ follow their master. Our master was a servant who calls us to be servants.
A. Roy Medley, in his address to the General Board of American Baptist Churches on November 16, 2001, [Medley, A. Roy. “As one who serves,” Address to the General Board of American Baptist Churches on November 16, 2001, Abc-usa.org. ] noted, however, that there is a difference between servanthood and servitude.
• Servitude is imposed; servanthood is embraced.
• Servitude enslaves; servanthood emancipates.
• Servitude denigrates; servanthood uplifts.
• Servitude crushes; servanthood fulfills.
• Servitude despairs; servanthood rejoices!
And there is the key to Christmas joy. The little-known secret of Christmas is that our joy is full when we learn to be servants, like Mary, like God, like Jesus. This is our call to serve others. When we do that, our joy is full.
This is what ministry is. Ministry is joyful servanthood in Christ. There is an old story about three stages a minister goes through in learning what ministry is. When he first begins, a young minister thinks that he is standing upon the bank of the river of life, shouting instructions to the swimmers who were down below. He is the expert. People should hear his instruction and obey. Then he realizes that is not going to work, that people in the river of life are not much inclined to listen to people standing on the bank. So he moves on to the second stage and thinks of himself as a rescuer. If he sees someone going down for the third time, he plunges into the water to rescue him, to get him started in the right direction again, but then he would return to the bank, but that still does not work very well. He is still on the bank most of the time, separated from people most of the time. Then he comes to the final stage, when he realizes that he is in the water with everyone else, that we are fellow strugglers with arms around each other, trying to help one another along the way. We are fellow servants, and our purpose and our joy is to help each other. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04