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.

Ignorance isn’t always bliss

You know that nightmare?  The one where you haven’t gone to a single class all semester, but find yourself sitting in the final, panicking because you have no idea how to answer any of the questions?  It is a classic stress dream.  Along the lines of showing up at school in your underwear or, for preachers, not being able to find your sermon text amid reams and reams of paper in the pulpit.  We know dreams to be the subconscious working things out sideways, but there is usually a bit of truth, even in a nightmare like the first example, from which we learn the deep truth that ignorance isn’t always bliss.  We learn the same thing in our rather pointed Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Since last Sunday, when we last heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, a few things have happened to Jesus and his disciples that the Lectionary skips over, all of which are based in misunderstanding.

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First, Jesus ends his teaching about what it means to call him the Messiah by telling his disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  This promise is nothing to sneeze at, and it will be the source of consternation and confusion for the early church through the entirety of its first generation.  How do we handle the reality that people are dying and the kingdom of God is not fully inaugurated?  We will have to save that for another post, when/if the Lectionary decides to include 9:1.

Next, and more importantly, comes the Transfiguration, which in Mark’s Gospel includes the detail that Peter’s suggestion that they build some houses is based on the fact that he was terrified and didn’t know what to say.  Finally, as Peter, James, John, and Jesus come down the mountain, they find the rest of the disciples scratching their heads over a boy who is possessed by a demon that they could not cast out.  A rather lengthy story, given Mark’s aversion to details, this passage shows us that nobody, as of yet, really understands what this traveling Rabbi, miracle worker, and, hopefully, Messiah, was really about.  “Why couldn’t we cast the demon out?” the disciples as Jesus.  “Because you have no idea how this stuff really works,” Jesus intimates in his reply.

Which brings us finally to Jesus predicting his death and resurrection for a second time.  Mark flat out tells us that the disciples did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask.  The Greek word that is translated at “did not understand,” carries with it the implication that not only did the disciples not get it, but it is likely that they lacked the capacity to ever get it.  This becomes abundantly clear when the disciples next action is to argue over which one of them was greatest.  Jesus just told us that the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the greatest human being to ever live, was gong to be betrayed and killed, and their response is to try to figure out who will be there to take his place?  No, this sort of ignorance is not bliss.  This ignorance is totally missing the point of who Jesus was and what he came to do. This ignorance is Calvin flying blissfully down the hill in his wagon, ignorant of the likely painful ending to his ride.

It strikes me that many who claim to follow Jesus in 21st century America are suffering from the same sort of ignorance – following Jesus assuming it brings with it some sort of major award at the end, rather than the truth that Jesus exemplified in his life, that the kingdom of God is where the first are last and the last are first.  Following Jesus isn’t about securing celestial fire insurance or making your country greater than all the rest or about safety, comfort, or security.  Following Jesus is, as we heard last week, about denying yourself and taking up your cross.  Following Jesus is about laying down your life – literally and figuratively – for the sake of the other.  Following Jesus is about embracing vulnerability and trusting fully in God.  To misunderstand this reality is to fundamentally miss the point.

Who is Jesus?

Last week, in a real change of pace for this blog, I spent the whole week dealing with the lesson from Romans 12.  Conveniently, the Gospel lessons for last week and this week actually work better together, so this week I’ll get to deal with them both all at once here.

To review, last week’s Gospel lesson was from Matthew 16:13-20.  There we were in the third week of trying to answer the question “Who is Jesus?”  On Proper 14, we heard the story of Jesus walking on water in which Peter twice calls Jesus “Lord.”  The first time it is with some level of suspicion, “If it is you, Lord…” while the second time it comes in the voice of sheer terror, “Lord, save me!”  We also are told that once Jesus safely the boat, the disciples worshiped Jesus calling him “the Son of God.”  For Matthew, who is careful to not upset the Jewish Christians in his Church, who always talks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” rather than the “Kingdom of God” this title is very important.  Jesus isn’t just any old Messiah-type person, and there were more than a few of them running around, but Jesus is the Son of God.  

On Proper 15, the Canaanite Woman calls out to Jesus with still another title.  Yes, he is “Lord,” but for this Gentile woman, he is also the “Son of David.”  Here too we see Jesus being given a Messianic title, but this time it about the fulfillment of prophecy.  As the Messiah, Jesus will restore the throne of David and God’s steadfast love will remain upon it forever (1 Chronicles 17:13).

Proper 16 begins the two-part story of Peter’s Confession, Jesus’ Passion Prediction, and Peter’s Rebuke.  Here we see Jesus called not just Lord, but “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  While the Canaanite woman is praised for her faith, as an outsider, she didn’t quite have the big picture of who Jesus is.  Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples who have followed Jesus, more or less faithfully, for roughly two years, gets it perfectly right.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Son of Man, who has come to bring salvation to the whole world.

Which brings us to Proper 17, and our Gospel lesson for this Sunday, in which Jesus goes on to elaborate on just what it means that he is the Messiah.  Being the Messiah means upsetting the status quo.  It means being betrayed and arrested.  It means enduring great suffering at the hands of the religious leaders.  It means being killed by the Gentile occupiers.  It means a bunch of stuff that Peter and the gang don’t want it to mean, but it also means Resurrection.

Jesus is the Messiah and the Messiah has power even over death.  That’s who Jesus is, hard as it may be to hear and understand for Peter and, quite frankly, for us.  As the story unfolds, we’ll learn more about what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, but for this week, we’ll have to sit with the confused disciples and try to understand how the Messiah can be killed and still be God.