First Congregational United Church of Christ
September 27, 2015
Mark 10:35-45 “Servant Lesson Part II”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
As I was wrestling with this sermon, I thought about an educational weekend I experienced years ago put on by the Alban Institute, which has provided the mainline churches with superb church consultants for many years. During that weekend event those of us who gathered engaged in a variety of tests designed to help us understand ourselves within our local church context. At that time there was a newly designed testing tool developed by Oregonian, George Parsons, which was used to help us identify how we operate under normal stress, and how we operate under high stress levels. For most of us taking the test, we discovered that we were able to contribute most effectively when we were undergoing the usual stresses of life. I discovered that when I’m under a great deal of stress, I shift into a different mode of operating. And, when I’m totally whacked out with stress, I revert back to some historic family of origin patterns that do not serve me well. There are three occasions when Jesus discloses his forthcoming death. And, just as we reviewed in last week’s Gospel lesson, his disciples don’t get it. What we know about anticipatory grief is that it creates a great deal of stress. Mark’s Gospel gives us three stories around responses to Jesus’ movement towards Jerusalem, and ultimately his death. Last week’s scripture lesson was one of those times as is this week’s. In each one of them, there is denial about the reality of what is about to take place. In the verses which precede today’s lesson, Jesus has just laid out to his closest friends what they can expect in Jerusalem. It’s a grim picture—mockery, spitting, flogging and death. Perhaps James and John have moved into their operating style under extreme stress. Perhaps, like many of us, they are clinging to old familiar patterns even when it was not realistic or healthy. The whole discipleship team has heard Jesus’ words about what will be happening in Jerusalem, but the truth hasn’t sunk in. It is clear that every one of them would like some control, thereby assuring them that they will have a position of power and security.
It’s almost like they see themselves as Jesus’ campaign managers, and they are only focused on the goal of election—a win would guarantee the needed power to insure all their futures.
It appears that Jesus’ information seems to float over the disciples heads. I suspect that it is out of fear for their own safety that James and John began thinking about how they could get their names in lights and gain some of the privileges that come with power—power over. They didn’t get it. The other disciples are angry at the obnoxious behavior of James and John, because they recognized that these two brothers were attempting to place themselves in such a position as to be in control of the rest of them. In that brief roadside encounter, it was like all of Jesus’ teachings were dumped over the bank.
The truth is that fear can bring about old patterns of behavior. The reality is that we can’t always take in the hard truths all at once. And, in our humanness, we often look for easy solutions. James and John began thrashing around and got tempted by what they saw in their own society. They wanted Jesus to become a Messiah-king and set them up to become his Secretary of State and have the power that a key cabinet appointment would bring. They blocked out what they had heard– and clung to their belief that Jesus would still be setting up his kingdom on earth.
There is a great deal of compassion in Jesus’ response to the brothers. He does not enter into a diatribe beginning with, “”What are you thinking?” or “Haven’t you heard anything that I’ve been teaching?” There was no shaming these two Zebedee boys. Jesus seems to know that what has emerged has come out of a place of deep fear. And, every parent in this congregation is familiar with the response from the rest of the disciples. The other ten are angry because they too are living in fear, and by golly, if those two are going to have seats of power, then they’ll make sure that the rest of them get their fair share.
Jesus patiently moves into another teaching moment. He was not there to create the life that James and John wanted. He makes it clear that there is a cost to servanthood. It demands a child-like trust that enables one to be part of something that is bigger and beyond oneself.
The bottom line is that following the way of Jesus demands taking risks—risks around love, compassion and justice. The reign of God means more than life without suffering. Like the disciples, we too want our faith journey to be easier, don’t we? To be a follower of Christ is to choose a path that does not fit the norms of greatness in our society.
In the midst of a week that brought the death of baseball’s great Yogi Barra, the horrific news of the breach of trust by VW leadership (especially for those of us who own VW cars) the news of John Boehner leaving congress, and the horrific accident in Seattle leaving four International students dead, it has been the response to Pope Francis’ visit that has dominated all the headlines, TV coverage and editorials.
I loved the image of people lining the street waiting not for a sleek long limo…but waiting to catch a glimpse of the Fiat carrying his Holiness. I appreciated the throngs with their cell phones in the air patiently waiting for the white jeep to round the corner so they could capture a picture. I viewed a clip of Progressive theologian and activist Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, who was being interviewed on PBS. He talked about how whether we’re religious or not, Pope Francis is “the greatest conversation changer in the world today.” As Wallis puts it,
He is interested in encounters, not judgement.” He speaks about the threat of being a throw-away culture and the dilemma of not caring for our neighbor. In his encyclical about climate change, he teaches about three core relationships: God, our neighbor and our relationship with the earth. He made it clear that when we fail to do our part as stewards of the earth, it is the poor who suffer the most. As Wallis puts it, “Pope Francis’ is radical but not new. This goes back to Jesus.” This is the gospel, and what it says is what Pope Francis is teaching: we evaluate an economy by how it treats the most vulnerable. Pope Francis has broken through the barriers of Church being an enclosed community.
I am always touched by the stories I hear from family and friends when I am working to put together a funeral or a memorial service. I often find myself amazed at what people hold on to and cherish. These memories are often made up of small acts of kindness that are held in the hearts of those who sit sharing in my office. They often will tell me of memories of bigger events in the deceased’s life, but it is the moments of compassionate touch upon their life that they hold as sacred. Sometimes I’m shown a picture, like a wrinkled photo of a grandfather with his grandson and a string of fish being held between them. It’s the memory of baking Christmas cookies every year at Grandma’s and then going with her to deliver them. It’s the gift of a pocket watch passed on to the third generation with a message scrawled on a scrap of paper by a shaky hand.
This church has had a 127 year presence in the city of Ashland. Some church eras have lived out their faith with more strength that at other times. And, although I have spoken of this community having more traits of a new church start that a 127 year old church, I’m always aware of the power of history that informs the present culture of our community of faith. This church has a rich history of taking stands to follow in the teachings of Jesus. There are three stands that I have always found very powerful and have mentioned several times; a stand against the Vietnam War, a stand to become an Open and Affirming Congregation, and a stand to become a Sanctuary Church. And 12 years ago with a dwindling congregation of 55 –with fewer on Sunday morning, the community raised $250,000 to begin re-building this church.
This sanctuary has been the sacred space that serves as a container for people to worship and create. This is the place where issues within our world are discussed and where plans are made to take action in our world. This is where many have experienced support and room to name and claim one’s doubts, and to utilize one’s voice to try out new theology. It is a place that honors diversity and values inclusion. It has been a gift to me that I have cherished and have not taken lightly in this time of transition.
In this era when denominations are experiencing fractures over issues around homosexuality, and at the same time are seen as less relevant and are declining, it challenges us to celebrate the strengths of ordinary congregations seeking to follow the way of Jesus. Not an easy role for the disciples of our text, and not an easy role for us.
Although none of us are interested in maintaining a monument, we do cherish the mystery of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us who are still very much a part of our community. Part of our weekly gathering is so that we don’t forget…so that we don’t become complacent…so that we continue to open ourselves to being pushed and challenged by one another to take a stand by becoming servants.
We do long to make a difference in our environment, and to find more ways to combat climate change.
We support farmers who cherish and care for the land.
We place a high value on inclusion.
We seek to take a stand for our children and desire for them to be grounded in faith.
We are committed to social justice and to peacemaking.
We seek to make a difference.
We cherish the women and men who came before us who had a yearning for God and sought to live their lives within this faith community. They took on the roles of servant through serving on committees, boards, teaching Sunday School and singing in the choir. They were part of the changing culture of Ashland. They were teachers, librarians, city officials and they took stands for justice and peace.
Every generation of this church has had to take on new skills and new structure to help the church be relevant for the present season of the church’s journey. And with the growth of our church over the last ten years has come the need for new systems and structure.
Most of us have several covenants in our lives that we desire to serve. We seek God’s help in balancing our roles as partners, parents, members of our faith community and our world. If any of these are being shortchanged, we tend to get out of balance. What I am convinced of is that service is the vehicle to move us both individually and as a greater community towards transformation. Authentic serving is always a grass roots kind of endeavor. It is never easy work, but it has the potential of offering soul satisfaction. Maybe we need to take the Zebedee brothers’ question to Jesus and turn it upside down and ask, “What is it that Jesus would like from us?” May we be open to listening for the response. Amen.
“Grace is available for each of us every day—our spiritual bread—but, we’ve got to remember to ask for it with a grateful heart and not worry about whether there will be enough for tomorrow.” Sarah Ban Breathnach