True Mutuality

Sermon for Sunday, October 21, 2018 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:35-45

Today I’d like to talk about the concept of mutuality. In a world full of fractures and broken relationships – both personal and societal – mutuality stands as one of the ways Jesus invites us to shine our lights on the life-giving ways of God to a world that has lost its way. Living lives of true mutuality takes intention, selflessness, partnership, and good communication. With God’s help, we can model such mutually beneficial relationships, and in doing so, demonstrate just how joyful it can be to serve one another.

First off, what is mutuality? It’s not a commonly used word in our society. Only three examples spring to my mind. First is the symbiotic relationships between certain creatures in nature known as “mutualism.” They mutually help one another for the gain of both: the clownfish and the sea anemone protect one another; or a little closer to home, the microorganisms in our guts form a mutually beneficial relationship with us as they help break down our food. The second example is the term “mutual fund,” in which many people pool small amounts of their money in the market to gain access to wider ranges of investing opportunities. Those in the same mutual fund are in it together, and they share the ups and downs of that particular fund’s portfolio. The third example is “Mutually Assured Destruction” which somehow kept the United States and the Soviet Union from blowing the earth to pieces during the Cold War. But let’s stick with the clownfish and the sea anemone.

Mutuality is a way of living that equally benefits both parties to a relationship. If there is an imbalance of power in a relationship, then true mutuality is impossible. The parties might perform different tasks in the relationship – like the clownfish and the anemone – but they still serve one another in ways that equally meet the needs of both.

Living with true mutuality is an astoundingly challenging way for most of us to operate because it is not our default position. We might talk a big game, but in our heart of hearts we would all rather be served than to serve. Even we who hold mutuality as an important value fail to live mutually most of the time. Jesus has to teach the twelve disciples this lesson again and again. In today’s Gospel reading, two of his closest followers are having delusions of grandeur, which ticks off the other ten. So Jesus reminds them, “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.”

Jesus continues: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Here we can run into trouble because it sounds like Jesus is talking about just one of them running around doing everything for everyone else. But I don’t think that’s what he means since he’s talking to the group as a whole. Rather he uses his own example as one who “came not to be served but to serve” to show them how they all should live their lives. Jesus invites all twelve of them and anyone else reading his words to serve one another; that is, to live mutually.

History has shown us that power is so much more enticing than mutuality. And yet, those in power often think in terms of mutuality to convince themselves of their own rightness. For example, those who enslaved people in the United States convinced themselves of the preposterous notion that enslavement was for the good of the enslaved. But first they had to create a worldview that cast their victims in terms of uncivilized savagery based solely on their skin color and place of origin. This false mutuality fit the narrative the slaver needed to tell himself in order to make sense of his own barbarity, lest he view himself as the tyrant he truly was.

Wedding services used to have different sets of vows for each member of the couple. Brides were made to vow to “obey” their husbands. This due to the patriarchy that ruled and sadly still rules society. St. Paul drank that particular Kool-Aid when he wrote that wives are to “be subject to your husbands.” But even in his male-dominated worldview, Paul glimpsed the beauty of mutuality in the verse immediately preceding this when he wrote, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21-22). In another place, Paul says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” (Galatians 5:13) Thankfully, we have our modern wedding vows which are identical no matter your gender. And the wedding service begins with a beautiful invitation to mutuality: The union of a married couple “in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.”

Given one another. This is true mutuality – that the one we are thinking about, the one we are serving, is not ourselves. At the same time, that person is acting the same way towards us. This is not merely quid pro quo, tit-for-tat, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours thinking. True mutuality is a transformational way of life, independent of the simply transactional nature of most relationships.

Indeed, mutuality gives up the search for power in the assurance that both parties in a relationship are seeking the good of the other. In this way, the needs of both are met without the selfishness of “me first” thinking. Again, this ideal is so challenging because in most relationships the need for power creeps in and imbalances the relationship in favor of one of the parties. And yet Jesus shows us the better way – the way of serving one another so that each is both serving and being served at the same time.

My father likes to tell a parable about the difference between heaven and hell. In both places, a sumptuous feast is spread out on the banqueting table: all the most delectable foods imaginable are within easy reach. In both places, the people sitting at the table cannot feed themselves because, for some reason, their arms do not bend. But only in hell do the people go hungry, for in heaven they feed one another.


* Sunday afternoon after church, my wife Leah mentioned that mutualism in nature is entirely self-interested, and the benefit to the other species is secondary. Touché.

** Also, I say the word “anemone” right about 45% of the time, making it a bad word to put in a sermon. I flubbed it at the second service.

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