Serving is a tough way to make a living. Hauling around heavy trays. On your feet all day. Trying to avoid spills, burns, and co-workers. Getting poked, grabbed, harassed and yelled at. And smiling! No matter how rude the customer.
Suzy Hansen, who has studied the restaurant business, argues that you can divide the world 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 other side are the humble and harassed. Dependent on the attitudes of others as much as their own skill. Vulnerable to the strength of someone else’s business, capricious customers and often with a precarious perch on security.
The other side of the tray is where Mary, the mother, of Jesus, lived. Along with other women of first-century Galilee, Mary was a second class non-citizen, deemed not worthy of education, compensation, conversation or consideration.
From the other side of the tray, servers have been present in the midst of chaos and confusion and have tried to remain good and faithful servants. Even when that seems impossible.
It’s what Mary does. A messenger of the Lord appears to Mary and asks her to take on an impossible task – conceiving a child, whose origin will be misunderstood and conjectured about, even as she prepares to marry. Mary is invited not just to bear the child and to bear up under the challenge of living on the tough side of the tray. She is invited to be at peace there.
The gospel of Luke uses the word peace more often than the three other gospels combined. God’s peace is a message that begins and ends the gospel and is threaded through the story of Jesus. When Jesus’ cousin is born, his father sings that the faithful will be guided in the way of peace. Jesus teaches his followers to proclaim peace, live in peace and offer peace. Peace is granted to those who kneel in faith before Jesus and those who receive the message that God’s kingdom is near.
In the gospel of Luke two themes emerge: servanthood and peace. The one follows the other.
It may help to notice that there is a difference between servitude and servanthood.A. Roy Medley, in his address to the General Board of American Baptist Churches on November 16, 2001, noted:
• Servitude is imposed; servanthood is embraced
• Servitude enslaves; servanthood emancipates
• Servitude denigrates; servanthood uplifts
• Servitude is stressful; servanthood brings peace.
The God Mary gets a message from leads by serving. Mary knows this God who comes to her in her servanthood. Mary sings of a God who fills the hungry with good things and sends the full away empty. God is paying attention to those living on the wrong side of the tray. God is clearing the tables of those who are already full.
Jesus will follow this same path when he matures. He waits with great attention and care on spiritually starving people. He tells the contentious, overstuffed, demanding that the only way to peace is giving their lives in service. In his final gathering with his disciples, Jesus puts on an apron, wraps a towel across his arm and serves his disciples. Jesus tells them: I am among you as one who serves.
Jesus was born to a woman on the other side of the tray, and he wants us to carry on the family tradition and find our peace is serving.
You know, we tend to go one direction or another when we think about peace. We think about a personal sense of peace or the hope for peace in the world. The longing for each runs deep in most of us, and gets keener as we lean into the darkness of winter, preparations for Christmas and wondering about a new year. We want to feel that inward calm, release from anxiety, that sense of wholeness that is a personal peace. We also want the violence of war to end, the injury of injustice, the suffering of sexual abuse and trafficking, the inequity of what appears on each person’s table to come to an end. Often we may feel that placing ourselves in the suffering of the world will disrupt our personal peace and we are tempted to turn off the news, shut out the media, and hunker down with a cup of cocoa and a Hallmark movie. We feel as if it is impossible for us to do anything to bring about peace in the world.
In the tradition of Mary and Jesus, service is the place where our personal peace and the peace of the world meet. This is the message that Mary received from the angel: do not be afraid; in serving God, there is peace. When we work for God, fear is cast out. We serve God’s cause, and we find peace.
All authentic, faithful service put us on the other side of the tray. But, all service isn’t about putting food on the table, as necessary as that is. We serve by helping people cultivate personal peace, humanizing justice systems, providing education, empowering communities, fostering international relations, by hearing each other into wholeness.
The Nigerian peace activist Hafsat Abiola says: Peace comes from being able to contribute the best that we have, and all that we are, toward creating a world that supports everyone. And it is also securing the space for others to contribute the best that they have and all that they are.
There will be peace in the world, after all, when everyone is sitting at the same table, and the waitress has as much to eat as the Wall Street banker and the server has as much to say as the senator, when the everyone takes a turn at carrying the tray and feels cheered for doing the best they have to offer.
Until then, it is possible that our small and determined, daily and persistent acts of service are making the impossible possible. We are making way for the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts and in the world.