Sunday, October 21, 2018

Being Servants, Being Church: Sermon for Proper 24 B

Sometimes you just have to shake your head at the apostles. Do they even listen??? As a former teacher, I know this feeling well.

Jesus has literally just gotten finished predicting again what lies in store for the “Son of Man. Here are the two previous verses to this pericope: Jesus said, “‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’”

The words are literally sting hanging in the air, and James and John apparently have been nodding absently while cooking up a plot to grab the seats of honor “in glory.” Yet for weeks now, we have been hearing Jesus not just predict his passion and death, but also telling his disciples that those who are on the top will be on the bottom, and that those on the bottom will be on the top. One also wonders if they were thinking that the coming of Jesus’s kingdom is going to be as the result of an actual political coup. For the third time, Jesus tells what awaits them in Jerusalem, and for a third time the disciples miss the entire point.

For those of us who know what’s coming, there’s some irony here: we know who is going to end up on Jesus’s right and left at the end of this road: it leads to Calvary, to Golgotha, with thieves and rebels hanging on a cross on Jesus’s right and left. Mark picks up on that irony. Jesus then asks if they really think they can “drink the cup that I drink”—a reference to a cup of suffering that Jeremiah foretold, the cup that Jesus will pray to be taken from him in Mark 14:36 when he is praying on the night before his betrayal. It also recalls for us the cup of sour wine offered to Jesus as he hangs on the cross. The baptism that Jesus will undergo is likewise one of fire and death and betrayal through which he will pass to resurrection. James and John affirm that they can—perhaps a bit too quickly. Again, it seems that they are not really listening, that they do not really understand Jesus.

And then, as soon as the other disciples hear of what James and John are attempting, they get upset—but not because they have gotten Jesus’s message about service, but because probably they too were dreaming of asking for those positions of power and glory.

Now, don’t think I am using the lucky gift of hindsight to make fun of the disciples or mock them. Instead, I think about how lucky we are to see that the disciples were, really JUST LIKE US.

Jesus has laid out for them three times exactly what risks they are taking following him, and exactly what risks he is taking for himself. Someone who goes around criticizing the power structures of the world ends up very often at the very least unpopular and at the very worst dead—because even people who get abused by those same power structures nonetheless often support them, because they can’t imagine there being any other way being any better, or they think, “Well I may be struggling, but this system at least ensures that I’m not on the absolute bottom, because I HATE those people on the bottom”—fill in the blank with any likely group—the poor, the refugee, people from a different country or race, whatever.

Maybe the disciples DO have a sense of impending danger, even while they seem to not fully understand what Jesus is saying. And it’s a common thing that when we feel endangered, we try to take care of ourselves, first. Let’s be honest, don’t we feel grateful when we’re on a plane and the flight attendant tells us that, in case of emergency, we should put our own masks on first? Yay, that’s what we wanted to hear anyway!

Yet that is exactly the opposite of what Jesus has been urging for these many weeks. When we think there’s not enough to go around, our first reaction unfortunately is not to share what we’ve got but to hoard up resources for ourselves—which further multiplies the suffering if there truly is a shortage of resources.

There’s a really interesting cartoon that is getting passed around among some of my friends. It shows a line drawing of a busy city square—people on buses, in cars, in shops, sitting in a park, walking on a sidewalk, washing or repairing a window, working in an office, even looking out from a jail window with bars on it. A variety of buildings surrounds this city square—store fronts and even skyscrapers are in the distance. The top caption for the cartoon asks, “Where is the church?” Look closer, and you see no familiar steeple rising up anywhere, no bell tower looming over the scene. Instead the cartoonist has drawn a bunch of arrows pointing to every single person in the cartoon and written, “here,” “here,” “here,” and “here.” Each person IS the church in the world.

The challenge facing all of us is not in coming to church—I hate to tell you this, but that’s the easy part. We live in a society in which no one is going to murder you in this country for being a member of a church. That’s places like South Sudan and Syria and Egypt and Afghanistan. The challenge facing all of us is in BEING the church out there, where we are exposed and vulnerable not to persecution so much as exposed to ridicule for challenging the powers and values of our world today—if we take Jesus’s gospel seriously.
To serve the world, rather than to seek power for our own ends. To challenge exploitation or neglect of the weak or the sick or the ignorant or the oppressed.
To challenge the idea that a few people are meant to lord it over the vast majority of others.
To refuse to get comfortable with the idea that some people deserve to suffer based on who they are or what they’ve done or where they’ve come from, and get numb to that very real suffering with the idea that we can’t do anything about it rather than admit we “won’t” do anything about it, no matter how small.

Or we may think that if just more people CAME to church, these problems would be solved. But that also is addressed by this cartoon. There are too many other things competing for people’s time and attention today. Many people would be hard pressed to tell you where the nearest church is if they don’t attend one. Churches have become invisible—hiding in plain sight. And in some cases, the face we present to the world as Christians has not helped make the case that Jesus is part of the solution. Instead, too many people see self- professed Christians’ activity in the world, and conclude that Jesus is part of the problem.

We can no longer just expect people to walk in or seek us out. Once again, this is where we have to remember that a parish church is not a building but people. It’s like that game we played with our hands as kids: here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and here are the people.” Do you remember that game? Because here is a key truth about that game—eventually we pull our hands apart, and the people go out into the world. But they’re still the church. In fact, that’s where they are the best church of all—embodying Jesus’s loving, transforming, hopeful message in a world desperate and starving for all those things.

Jesus is trying to explain to us this fact: that as his followers, who share in his baptism and his cup, we both live in the heart of God and in the broken places in the world. We are the church of St. Martin all together here, worshiping and giving thanks, but that we also have to be the church of St. Martin out there, where people need us to show us who God is in the face of poverty, exploitation, fear, and division. We discover who we are called to be in being brave enough to turn the values of the world on its head to reflect the love of God in a world that thirsts for it.

The way of Jesus is the way of service, community, and healing. That’s why we shouldn’t say that we take communion, but that we share communion. Jesus asks us to share in his cup—and by his willingness to lay down his life for us, he has transformed a cup of suffering and death into a cup of blessing and community. Jesus asks us to share in his baptism—and his baptism is the transformation of our lives into lives of purpose. Jesus calls us into community and fellowship with him, so that we may extend that fellowship with the whole world.

As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “If we ask the question, ‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ one answer is ‘In the neighborhood of chaos.’ …Christians will be found in the neighborhood of Jesus- but Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering, defencelessly alongside those in need. If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led toward the chaos and neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.”(1) We know this is true, because, let’s face it, isn’t in the chaos and the suffering where we have encountered Jesus ourselves? Either in a feeling of comfort, or in the words or actions of an actual person who WAS Jesus for us in our chaos and suffering?

It sounds daunting. How can we be strong enough to do this? Because of our participation in the life of God. Archbishop Williams continues: “The baptized person is not only in the midst of human suffering and muddle but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. That surely is one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian. We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the ecstatic joy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin, and death.”(2)

Our challenge is to BE the church in the world, each and every one of us as individuals, in what we say and what we do, and how we live, in serving the many people who need help or protection or community, so that we can make the case that the church IS visible and relevant in the issues facing the world today. That our paradoxical values are exactly what is needed in offering hope where there is despair, a willingness to engage in the questions alongside people rather than pretend we have all the answers, in being willing to love those who are ignored or overlooked or isolated, in willing to serve rather than to be served.

Being Christian is not about influence—it’s about living the best life we can live because that in and of itself is a blessing. May we declare ourselves able to share that baptism and that cup.

The world will never be the same.

Preached at the 505 on Saturday, October 20, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on Sunday, October 21, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

1) Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, p. 4.
2) Ibid., p. 8.

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