It was one of those moments that preachers hope for; that flash of insight, the sudden revelation, the line that connects all of the dots that have been dancing around in your head. And it was one of those moments that preachers dread. It came at 11:00 on a Saturday night as I was struggling with a sinus infection and trying to fall asleep. You look for these moments on Thursday morning, when there is still plenty of time to pull it all together. Saturday night is really pushing it.
I record my sermons now so that I can transcribe them and post them to my blog, so I know that I didn’t do a great job of incorporating this last minute insight into the sermons that I preached this past Sunday. It wasn’t until after I was home from the doctor on Monday, antibiotics on board and neti pot in hand, that I felt like I was doing this justice. So, with apologies to all of you who sat through the drafting process on Sunday, here is the Sermon that I would have liked to have preached!
This Sermon is based on the Gospel reading for Proper 24 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.
All week long I have been wrestling with James, John and the rest of the disciples. How could they be so blind? How can they not see? Why don’t they understand what Jesus is saying to them? This is, after all, the third time that he has told them that he was going to be handed over to the authorities, crucified, die, and on the third day rise again. How many times does he have to say it before they catch on? What does he have to do to make them see?
It’s hard to watch. Here he is telling them who he really is and what is going to happen to him and what happens? James and John come to him, like two little children, and try to trick him into making them a promise. “Teacher, we want to you to do whatever we ask of you.” It seems so surreal! Now granted, we have a little bit of an advantage over James and John. We know the end of the story. We know that when Jesus asks if they can rink from the same cup as him he is talking about his suffering on the cross. And we know that the baptism that he is referring to is his passing through death into life. The Disciples haven’t experienced Jesus’ resurrection, his ongoing presence among us but Jesus has told them three times. Shouldn’t they be getting the idea by now?
All week long I wrestled with this dimwitted bunch of followers, trying to figure out how to make their story, their lack of understanding, their lack of, ok… if we want to cut them a little slack… their lack of experience and historical perspective, with regard to Jesus’ vocation and mission relevant to us today? We know how the story ends. In fact, Mark told us right at the very beginning of his Gospel who Jesus is, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There’s the rub. The preacher is supposed to help us all understand how this story about people and events some two thousand years ago is actually about us, is actually our story? How does the story of the Disciples lack of understanding become our story? It was 11:00 on Saturday night when it finally hit me. I had been focusing on the wrong part of the story. I was focusing on the set up and not the punch line.
The first time that Jesus tells the Disciples that he is going to die Peter begins to rebuke him and Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The second time that he tells them that he is going to die the Disciples get into an argument on the road about which of them is the greatest. Now that he is told them for a third time James and John come and ask to be seated at his right and left hand in his “glory!” I don’t think that the Disciples were stupid. I think that they were afraid!
They had their minds on “human things…” the things of the flesh, this stuff that we are made of, this stuff that wants its own way, that is always looking out for itself first, this stuff that, even when we are operating out of the best of intentions wants to be recognized, affirmed, and held up. James, John and the rest of the Disciples weren’t stupid. They heard what Jesus was saying and it frightened them. They were looking for an earthly “glory,” an earthly kingdom where their positions would accrue some significant benefits. That’s not what Jesus was offering them. Jesus has told them three times that he is going to suffer at the hands of that earthly kingdom, that he is going to die on a cross, and that he is going to be raised again. In some ways this passage is a reiteration of that theme. As it turns out, that reiteration of the theme isn’t the point. It is the set up. The real point, the punch line is the last line of today’s Gospel: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
A servant? Slave of all? Following in Jesus’ footsteps, participating in his kingdom means serving others and not being served? James, John and the rest of the Disciples found what Jesus was saying to be so abhorrent that they were trying to remake the kingdom in their image. They were trying to shift it back to the model that they were familiar with. They would have preferred a kingdom of “glory” where their place in the hierarchy assured them of status, rank, privilege and power. They weren’t stupid. They were fighting against the model that Jesus was proclaiming, and they were fighting with all they were worth.
I told you that all of this started to unfold in my head at 11:00 on Saturday night. I am going to admit to you now that this isn’t the first time that this has happened to me. I won’t say how exactly how many times it has happened, but it has happened more than once. Usually I am pretty good at synthesizing the new idea, incorporating the inspiration, weaving in sudden revelation in a way that allows me to go back to sleep. That wasn’t what happened this time. The idea that the Disciples were trying to remake the Kingdom of God into an earthly kingdom was troubling enough that it kept me awake for most of the night.
We tell these stories, we stand here in church on Sunday mornings and we “proclaim” the Word of God as our own story. We tell these stories because they help us to know and understand the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. We also tell these stories because they reveal deep truths about who we are, about the people God created us to be, and about the ways that we have fallen short of God’s dream for us. So this story about James and John is a story about us. This story of the Disciples wanting something other than what Jesus was offering is about us. This story of the Disciples trying to twist God’s vision for their lives into something they wanted… tells us something about ourselves. This story is our story and we tell it to remind ourselves that we are called to sacrificial living and that we are called not to be served but to serve.
I may get myself into hot water here, it wouldn’t be the first time, but I found this to be very troubling and with your permission I am going to trouble you.
I wonder what Jesus would say about the ways that we, his Disciples, have built and structured his church? I wonder what he would say about the ways we fight with one another over who is in and who is out. I wonder what he would say about our need to manage, control, and “protect” the gifts that he has given us.
I am troubled by the possibility that we have created the church to our own ends in an effort not to serve but to be served.
We need some structure. We need some order. We need a framework that will allow us to explore our scripture, our tradition and our experience of God and the world. We need a common language and some common understanding about the ways that we will be in relationship to and with one another.
But when that structure, order, framework and language cease to be our “means” and becomes our “end,” when we use it as an excuse to point at people and treat them as “other…” excluding them from full inclusion and participation in the church and its sacraments, this Gospel passage calls us out and asks us who is being served? Are we serving in the way that Christ calls us to serve, becoming the servant and slave of all, or are we seeking to preserve our position, to secure at place at Jesus’ right and left hand so that we might be seen in the light of his glory?
This summer at General Convention, at the first gathering of the movement called The Acts 8 Moment, we were asked to finish the phrase, “I dream of a church…” I sat and listened to people stand at the microphone and respond to that prompt but couldn’t quite get find the words… or maybe it was the courage that I couldn’t find, to express what I was thinking. I had it the next morning though…
I dream of a church where we have the courage to give ourselves away.
I dream of a church that has the courage to stop being defensive, to stop trying to protect God as if God were somehow vulnerable and at risk of becoming dirty by association with some of us. I dream of a church that is ready to offer itself on the cross, a ransom for many and to shine God’s light and love into the world. I dream of a church where we can stop looking for reasons and ways to keep people out and begin to look earnestly for ways to fling wide the doors and bring them in.
I dream of a church that seeks not to be served but to serve.