Monday, October 19, 2015

Servant not Sensation

Sermon notes for Proper 24B, the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (10/18/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

When I was a kid, my family would sometimes go to the local homeless shelter to serve lunch to the men, women and children who would come. One Sunday as we were leaving church (I was maybe eight or nine years old) my mother and father stopped to chat with some friends. Their friends asked if our family would like to join them for breakfast at Pop’s. Since we were on our way to the homeless shelter, my mother politely declined. Excitedly, I jumped in, “We are on our way to the…” Almost immediately, I felt a squeeze on my shoulder. It was my father giving me one those “Dad Squeezes.” You might know that squeeze. It was used in public to gently indicate that I should stop whatever it was that I was doing. In this case, my father wanted me to stop talking.

When we got in the car, my dad turned to my brother I in the back seat – not in the least bit angry or concerned or embarrassed, but in that serious mode of him wanting to teach us something. "Boys, there’s no need to tell others that we go to the homeless shelter. We go there to be of service, not to be a sensation."

The story told through today’s Gospel lesson is quite a remarkable contrast between service and sensation. We hear James and John request from Jesus positions of power and prominence when Jesus is in his glory. Now, James and John are two brothers who have been with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus ministry. Called by Jesus as they were mending their nets, they "left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him" (Mark 1:10b). How could two who had been with Jesus so long, who had been so close to the Teacher, have missed the boat so completely?

Jesus responds to the two brothers but not with indignation or even a hearty rebuke; bu, rather, it is with loving concern. Jesus asks them a simple question. Ah, beware of the simple question from Jesus! If you look back at the Gospel lessons from the past few weeks, we have been hearing narratives from the tenth chapter of Mark. In each of the narratives Jesus asks what appears to be a simple question but each question turns into a larger teaching on the nature of discipleship.

The first narrative starts with Jesus confronted by some Pharisees about the question of divorce (Mark 10:2-12). Leaving marriage and divorce for another sermon, what is striking in the scene is that Jesus asks the Pharisees a question to which he must assume they already know the standard answer. But Jesus turns it around saying, “Because of your hardness of heart….” The people couldn’t accept the story as it was originally given, in which people (husband and wife in this case) lived the covenant life in harmony and love. So the story (i.e. the law) had to be re-written. The idea of “softening” one’s heart to the story of God is made more clear in the very next scene when Jesus welcomes the little children (Mark 10:13-16). On one level, it is fitting that the story of the children should follow the teaching on marriage/divorce, since women and children were especially vulnerable in first-century Palestinian society. On another level, the story of children is in direct response to the hardness of heart the Pharisees. In other words, as disciples we should approach the story of God and the life and love of God with open, contrite hearts.

The second narrative begins when a man approaches Jesus and inquires, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-22). Again Jesus responds with a question, but clearly one that requires no response, “Why do you call me good?” And Jesus proceeds to recall the commandments which the man claims to have kept “since [his] youth.” So, as with the Pharisees above, the encounter turns when Jesus says, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ “Come, follow me.” An invitation much like the one offered to Peter and Andrew, and James and John. But something is holding the rich man back and Jesus recognizes what it is so he tells the man to first “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…” But this was too hard for the man who “went away grieving.” The episode of the rich man is followed by two more episodes (10:23-27 and 10:28-31) that are joined together with the first episode in a teaching narrative on wealth as an obstacle to discipleship, God’s preferential treatment of the poor, and the rewards for voluntary poverty in the service to the mission of God. The basic principles of Mark’s narratives on poverty and riches must continue to provide a challenge to all who dare call themselves Christians and especially those who do so in the “rich nations” of the world today.

And now we have the third narrative, the one we just heard today. James and John asked Jesus a rather impertinent question. Perhaps they were afraid after what Jesus had just told them about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. In any event, like the episodes before, Jesus asks a question, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Personally, I think the question was rhetorical and didn’t really require an answer. James and John answer, however, that are able. Jesus assures them that they will be drink the cup that he drinks and they will be baptized with the same baptism but that the places they ask for are not his to give. Then, in the midst of the other disciples’ jealous anger, Jesus takes the opportunity to contrast earthly greatness with divine greatness. The Gentile rulers lord their power over others, acting as tyrants. But among Jesus’ disciples, those desiring greatness must “servant…and slave of all.”

There are a many examples of those who desire worldly greatness in our midst today. Take a look at the news: the financial barons of Wall Street, the energy moguls, and the arms dealers who prize financial gain over life, creation, and the common good. Consider, as well, the jockeying and power hungry attitudes found in the presidential primary. But they should not be our model so we will leave them be.

There are a great many examples of those who seek divine greatness, who seek to serve and not to be served. Indeed, a great cloud of witnesses testifies and gives example. Consider, Francis and Clare who forsook their wealth to care for the poor. Consider John Vianney, known for his compassionate proclamation of divine mercy. Consider Marin de Porres who founded an orphanage and children’s hospital and worked tirelessly among the mulatto of Peru. Consider William Wilberforce whose faith led him to use his power in England as Member of Parliament not to line his own pockets but to help abolish the slave trade. Consider Desmond Tutu who, as Archbishop of Cape Town, didn’t puff himself up but rather puffed up the people of South Africa, leading them to change.

To be great in God’s kingdom is to be a servant modeled after Jesus’ own life of service not to be a sensation only after self-fulfillment. As hearers of the Gospel today, the story of James and John is disconcerting because if James and John couldn’t incorporate his teachings into their lives, how on earth are we to do so?

So how do we become better servants? This is, of course, the long journey of the Christian life so let me share three thoughts with you today.

First, we can become better servants by checking our motivation. Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1758 until his death in 1768, once said,
"God has three sorts of servants in the world: some are slaves, and serve Him from fear; others are hirelings, and serve for wages; and the last are sons [and daughters], who serve because they love." (Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited {Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1988} 452).
In the week ahead, as you seek to serve God, check your motivation. Divine servanthood is always motivated by love – a loved “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). I was listening to music as I was praying the homily this week and as I was reading again the passage from Mark a great old classic came on:
Come, thou font of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace!
Streams of mercy never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! Oh, fix me on it,
Mount of God’s unchanging love.
Hear that: God’s unchanging love. God loves us, each one of us with an unchanging love. Yes, even in our sin God loves us. That is the love that should be our motivation to serve others in Jesus’ name.

Second, we become better servants by being mindful of the one who calls us. We should remember that in all things we serve because Jesus has beckoned us.

Moreover, we should remember that we serve God in all things. When we serve our beloved spouses, we serve God. When we serve our beloved children, we serve God. When we serve the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely, the sick, the orphans, and the widows, we serve God.
"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?"

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:34-40)
As we become more aware of God’s presence in everyday life and as we become more able to see Jesus in our neighbor, we can strive to understand that all we do is somehow of God and toward God. With this approach, even the most mundane tasks that might not usually be associated with our spiritual lives can be viewed as service.

Third, we can become better servants by ensuring that this church is a “Servant Church.” Karl Barth discusses churches dedicated to the mission of the Gospel, describes the living church as one that:
“...proclaims the Gospel to every creature. The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it that only now and then it sticks out its feelers and then thinks that the claim of publicity has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald. Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself.” (Barth, Dogmatics in Outline {New York: Harper, 1959} 147).
Is our congregation a living servant church? Do we have a clear understanding that we exist in service to Jesus and in service to the proclamation by word and example the good news? Do our actions stem from Jesus’ commission to proclaim the gospel?

Does worship ….
Does outreach…
Does common life….
Does our stewardship, our meetings, and even our disagreements….
….have the possibility to transform those they touch?

If not, perhaps it is time to begin a conversation about focusing more clearly on Jesus’ call to us as disciples and on our purpose as a congregation.

As hearers of the Gospel today, the story of James and John is disconcerting because even the most pious listeners can see a bit of themselves in the story. How many of us are able to truly base our lives and actions on the divine definition of greatness – servanthood?

Fortunately, the story closes with a message of hope and wonder. Jesus proclaims that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus promises us that although we will all fall short, through his death we are redeemed.

And that is the Good News, indeed.

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