Called to Serve

       Several weeks ago, I preached a sermon about how the disciples, and we, routinely miss the point of what Jesus came to do.  You might not remember the sermon, that’s ok, but you might recall the concept of Face Palm Jesus that I introduced during it.  It’s the idea that Jesus often looks upon how people who carry the title Christian profoundly and, often, proudly, completely miss the whole point of it all.  In the case of the disciples in Mark chapters 8, 9, and 10, the recurring theme that elicits Face Palm Jesus is his three Passion Predictions.

Once in each chapter, Jesus clearly tells his disciples what is to come.  “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.”  Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity in what this trip to Jerusalem would bring, and yet, each time he tells this to his disciples, they fail to hear it.  The first time, Peter took him aside and rebuked him, “God forbid it, Jesus, we won’t let this happen.”  The second time, Mark tells us that the twelve didn’t understand what he was talking about, were too afraid to ask him, and so instead, they began to argue with one another about which one of them was the greatest.  The third time leads us to our lesson for this morning.

       Jesus has just finished once again telling the twelve that he would be betrayed, mocked, beaten, killed, and rise again when James and John run up beside him and say, “Teacher, would you mind giving us whatever we want?”  What strikes me here is that Jesus doesn’t go straight to the face palm, which would certainly be in order, but rather he engages them where they are.  “What is it you want me to do for you?” he replies.  “Oh, you know, just to sit at your right hand and at your left in glory.  No big deal.”  *Face Palm* Quickly, the other ten got fired up as well, and the whole group was right back to arguing over which one of them was the greatest.  *Double Face Palm*

       “Look,” Jesus says, exasperated, “the leaders of this world lord over their followers and the greatest among them are nothing more than tyrants, but that isn’t the way it is in God’s Kingdom.  Those who want to be great,” he goes on to say, “must be your servant.  The one who wishes to be first should be a slave to all.”  For Jesus, this isn’t purely theoretical teaching; every part of his life, death, and resurrection are the example of what true greatness looks like.  It is the Messianic Mission Statement in Mark’s Gospel.  The crux of who Jesus is and what he came to do.  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

       It is so easy to fall into the same trap as James and John.  The world in which we live rewards those who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  As I think I remember hearing in another sermon recently, the self-help section of Barnes and Noble carries hundreds of books on leadership, but not a single one on being a follower. Certainly no one is making any money publishing books on servitude.  The fights on social media and in the news throughout this pandemic have been about these very same questions.  Misinformation aside, the struggle, even among Christians, has been about where do “my rights” end and the good of the whole begin?  We have seen, firsthand, what kind of damage is wrought when we seek after only our own self interests.  Instead of assuming that our Jesus card gives us permission to do whatever we want, today’s Gospel lesson, and in fact the entirety of Mark’s Gospel, invites us to consider how we can follow the example of Jesus in seeking not to be served but to serve.

       For Jesus, this life of service took him all the way to the cross and an excruciating death.  Of the twelve to which he spoke these words, one bailed out and became the one who betrayed him, ten were killed for their faith, and one, John’s, end is pretty uncertain.  Two thousand years later, it is highly, highly unlikely that the life of Christian service to which we are called will put us in harm’s way, but it isn’t impossible.  Our calendar of saints, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, is filled with names of people who lived as recently as the Civil Rights Movement whose faith in Jesus and love of neighbor put them at odds with the powers that be such that they were killed for their faith: Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Janani Luwum, just to name a few.  Others, like Francis Perkins, Anne Braden, and William Wilberforce put their livelihoods at risk for the sake of the Gospel.  And, lest we forget, the Martyrs of Memphis lost their lives serving their neighbors during a Yellow Fever epidemic.  Through the course of the last two thousand years, Christians of all races, genders, and backgrounds have chosen to follow the example of sacrificial service that our Lord named as his mission in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and as the next generation of Jesus’ disciples, we are invited to follow him in the same way.

       Since the start of the pandemic, however, ministries of service have been hard to navigate.  Prior to the vaccine, many of us weren’t comfortable in face-to-face interactions with strangers.  In those early days, it was the generosity of so many of you that allowed Christ Church to continue to radiate God’s love by investing funds in organizations that were able to do the work.  Since last summer, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry and MEALS INC have been up and running, and I am so very grateful to the volunteers who have been able to serve.  More recently, the Wednesday Community Lunch restarted, and more than a dozen disciples show up each week to meet our neighbors, feed the hungry, and care for the marginalized.  I cannot express how proud I am of this community of faith for its willingness to step out in faith to follow in Christ’s mission of loving service.

       As we look to the future, and God-willing, a return to less dire COVID numbers, two more opportunities for service are close at hand.  This morning, our faithful Godly Play Teachers are back in their classrooms, masked, vacc’ed, and ready to engage the children of Christ Church in the story of God’s never-failing love for the created world.  As we commission them, along with Miliska and Ken who are leading the Conversations with Scripture class, we will pray God’s blessing upon them and their work, that they might be protected and strengthened, as well as grow in their faith.  New this year, as you might have read in my Window article, is the Stephen Ministry.  These lay ministers will serve members of our community by providing pastoral care to those who have experienced some sort of difficulty such as illness, job loss, or a death in the family.  If you are watching this sermon at home, you can learn more about Stephen Ministry in a video that will play after the service.  Here in the pews, check it out in Surface Hall.

       Every ministry of service requires sacrifice.  Some are huge and life changing.  Others are small and just a slight inconvenience.  All are important.  I pray that as things continue to slowly creep back, each of you will find a way to follow in the example of Jesus in loving service.  As I said a few weeks ago, each day, we have the opportunity to focus anew on following Christ, listening for the calling of Jesus in our lives, and seeking the Kingdom of God so that one day, the whole world might be at peace.  That, dear friends, is the point of it all, and very good news indeed.  Amen.

Mark’s Key Verse

I was still in seminary when I last tackled the key to understanding Mark’s gospel.  According to the Rev. Dr. John Yieh, Mark’s gospel message can be summed up in one verse, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  This passage has found new meaning for me thanks to Facebook and my seminary classmate, the Rev. Allen Pruitt who shared this gem of a meme.

There is so much to love about this picture

The interested part of that verse from Mark’s Gospel is actually the double conjunction that the NRSV misses in its translation.  In Greek, the sentence begins with a “kai” which means “and” and a “gar” which means “for.”  Each of my go-to translations in BibleWorks keys in on this two-word phrase, except for the NRSV.

  • For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (NRSV)

  • For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (KJV)

  • For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many. (NLT)

In the NRSV, this sentence seems like a non sequitur from Jesus’ teaching on the pattern for service that should define his disciples, but in reality, Jesus is using himself as the example of faithful leadership.  Note also that Jesus declares himself the Son of Man.  For a Gospel obsessed with keeping Jesus’ messianic secret, this verse really does unlock everything we need to know.

Jesus is the Son of Man, the anointed one for whom the world had been waiting.  He came to earth not as a god who is to be worshipped and adored, but he deigned to be like us and to show us how to live lives of humble service.  Finally, as the Son of Man, his life’s end (no pun intended) would be to die that we might have life abundant.  To paraphrase Thomas Cranmer, Mark 10:45 contains all things necessary for salvation, which makes it vitally important for the preacher to study it carefully and to take the time look beyond the Biblical text that comes printed on the lectionary insert from Morehouse.

We are able

The Sons of Thunder

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, James and John, the two sons of Zebedee whom Jesus, earlier in Mark, named the Sons of Thunder, speak three of the most dangerous words in all of Scripture.  In fact, they are three of the most dangerous words in the life of faith in any age.

“We are able.”

Perhaps the only thing that could have made these words more dangerous would have been replacing the plural pronoun, “we,” with its singular version, “I.”  Throughout the course of human history, it has been in those moments when a person or a group of people think that they can go about life on their own, that the spiral into sin begins.  This is why Moses was so keen on having the people of Israel remember that it was God, and not him or them, that brought them out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land.  It is imperative that we remember that it isn’t I or we that can accomplish anything, but instead, as our Baptismal Covenant says,

“I will, with God’s help.”

Of course, we all know how hard this is to remember.  The people of Israel forgot with regularity, which is why God gave them the Judges.  The disciples, even as they walked alongside Jesus, forgot.  They argued over which one was the greatest.  They failed to heal because they forgot to pray.  They ran in fear when the going go tough.  And, in this week’s lesson from Mark, they point blank told Jesus, “we are able.”  Truth be told, I’m pretty good at letting God know that I don’t need his help in my life as well.  When things are going well, it is so easy to think that you’ve done it on your own.  Even when times are tough, it is tempting to think that God has let you down.  The reality is, that everything we have, even the very breath within us, is a gift from God.  Everything we do is done with God’s help.