Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45
+ Well, we can close the book on another Diocesan Convention. Yes, yesterday, Leo Wilking, John Baird, Sandy Holbrook, Donna Clark, William Weightman and Gin Templeton, and me, were in Bismarck, doing what we sometimes do best—representing St. Stephen’s.
Compared to some, it was a very quiet, very uneventful convention. One might even say it was a bit…boring.
I was expecting…I don’t know. Something. But no. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Give me this kind of convention any day over some of the conventions I’ve been to in the past.
Let me tell you, I’ve seen some difficult conventions. Conventions in which there has been bickering, in which there was arguing, and, of course, when there was much jockeying for positions.
This, as we all know, is sometimes what the Church is, whether we like it or not. And such behavior is nothing new.
In our Gospel reading for today, we also see some jockeying for position. I think we can all somewhat relate to this story. We have all had our own Jameses and Johns. We’ve all had them as co-workers, or fellow students, or simply fellow parishioners. I’ve definitely known some priests like this.
They are the ones who—while we quietly labor, quietly do our duties—they sort of weasel their way up the ladder. They jockey for position. They are the ones who try to get a better place in line by butting in front of everyone else. They are the ones who drive us—who work and sacrifice and try to do the good thing—they drive us crazy.
Or maybe…and maybe none of us want to admit it …maybe, they are the ones that we relate to the most in this morning’s Gospel. Maybe we are ourselves at times are the James and the Johns. Maybe we ourselves are the Sons or Daughters of Thunder.
Whatever the case may be, the fact is James and John are really missing out. Like some of the other apostles, they just don’t get it. They don’t quite understand what Jesus is getting at when he is talking about the last being first. They don’t understand him when he says that we are called to serve and not be served. They just don’t understand that simple virtue of humility. Their view of Christianity—their view of where they stand in relation to Jesus—is a constant jockeying for position. And many of us to this day feel the same way in our own lives, in our work and in our faith lives.
There are many people who look to the Church in this way. For many people in the Church, the Church is simply a place that is here to serve them. They feel that Christianity is all about being served by the Church.
Guess what? I hate to break the news to you. It is not. The Church is not here to serve those of us who are in the Church. It is our duty as followers of Jesus, as members of the Church, to serve.
What today’s Gospel shows us is that Jesus is calling us to something much bigger than we probably fully understand. I think a lot of us—even those of us who come to church every Sunday—sometimes look at Christianity as a somewhat quaint, peace-loving religion. We dress up, we come to church on Sunday, we sing hymns, we hear about God’s love, we receive Jesus in the Bread and Wine, and then we go home and…and we don’t think about it again until the next week.
But the Christianity of Jesus is not soft. It is not just a whitewashed, quaint religion. The Christianity of Jesus, as we hopefully have all figured out here at St. Stephen’s, is a radical faith. It is a faith that challenges—that makes us uncomfortable when we get comfortable, that riles us when we have become complacent. It is a faith that works well here in church, on Sunday morning, but also should motivate us to get up from these pews and go out into the world and live out the faith we have learned here by serving others. And it is this fact that many of us might find a bit frightening.
Like James and John, we all want to gain heaven. We all want a nice place beside Jesus in that world-to-come. I want that place!
But few of us want to live out our faith in all that do and say right now. And even fewer of us are ready to be servants—to be slaves for others. We don’t always want to serve the lowliest among us. We don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered. We don’t want to taste from the same cup of anguish that Jesus drank from on the night before he was murdered. And we sure don’t want to be humble sometimes.
I will admit, I am in that boat a lot. I sometimes don’t want to be a servant or slave to others. I don’t want to suffer like Jesus suffered. And although I might try—and not always that hard—I am not so good at being humble sometimes.
But we all, I think, at least here at St. Stephen’s, are trying. We all making the effort in some way. As followers of Jesus, we are reminded that we are called truly to be servants to each other and especially to those who need to be served. We are asked as followers to do something uncomfortable. We are asked to take a long, hard look at the world around us and to recognize the fact that there are people living in need in our midst. And we are called to serve them. And in those moments when we ourselves may need to be served, many of us have discovered that serving others is sometimes the best antidote for that need.
What we cannot do is ignore those in need. When I ignore those in need, when I don’t serve, when I don’t stand up against injustice—I am made very aware that in that moment, I am not following Jesus. If I don’t do those things, but I still stand up here and call myself a Christian, then I have truly become a “Son of Thunder.” And, for most of us, that is exactly what it sounds like when we want the benefits of our faith, without making the sacrifices of our faith. In those instances, we truly do sound like a low, distant thunder.
We cannot bulldoze our way into heaven by riding roughshod over those we should be serving along the way. For us, as followers of Jesus, our job is simply to love God and love our neighbor as yourselves—and when we do, in our lives, in our work, in the way we perceive the world around us, then a natural humility will come over us. In those moments, we do recognize that God is in control. Not us. What is more humbling than that realization in our lives? We are not in control of anything ultimately!
Again, here is another example of this radical Christianity. It carries through in how we serve each other. Christians are not expected to bring anyone to God through an arrogant attitude. We are not expected to come charging into people’s lives, making them tremble before us in fear. We are not expected to thump our Bibles and wave the Words of Jesus before people in a desperate attempt to win souls for God. We aren’t forcing God on anyone, nor should we. In doing so, we dominate people. We coerce them into believing.
But if we simply serve those Jesus calls us to serve, with love and charity and humility, sometimes that says more than any Sunday sermon or curbside rant.
Think of the words Jesus could use. He could use, “power” to mean “dominance,” or “oppression” or “force.”
But he doesn’t. Rather, Jesus uses the words “serve” and “servant”
Certainly we are given plenty of “power” as Christians. In our baptism, we are given power—but this power we are given is the power to die in Christ and to be raised into a new life with Christ. That is what we celebrate every time we celebrate a Baptism and renew our baptismal vows. That is what we celebrate when we think back to what happened at our own baptisms. We celebrate and we live out in our lives this power—this power that we are dead to our former selves and alive—alive in a powerful and amazing way—with Christ.
Baptism empowers us—it makes us something more than we were before—but not in the way we think of as empowering. It empowers us by making us true servants to each other. It is not a strength that overpowers others. It is rather a strength rather that empowers us to serve each other and God. It strengthens us to bear the anguish and despair of this life. It strengthens us to persevere and to live our lives fully in Christ.
In all of this, Jesus is telling us that we are to be servants—servants not only to God, but to each other as well. I, as a priest, who stands here at this altar at each celebration of the Eucharist —I am not the only one called to be a minister of God. We are all called to be ministers of God. By our very baptism, by the Eucharist we share at this altar each Sunday, we are called by God to serve each other.
We are not here on Sunday morning to be served—to be waited upon, to be lavished with gifts. We are here to serve. And it is this sense of service that we must take with us out of here into the world.
James and John eventually figured this out. They went on from that day and served Jesus in the world. Eventually , they would both die for Jesus as martyrs—as very witnesses to Christ by their deaths.
So, for those of us who get angry at the sons of thunder in our lives—let us be patient. For those of who recognize ourselves as a son or daughter of thunder—just relax. God always finds a way to break through our barriers—if we let God. It is this breaking through, after all, that makes our Christianity so radical.
So, let us serve God. Let us serve each other in whatever ways God leads us to serve. By the very fact that we are baptized and fed with Jesus’ Body and Blood, we live out our service in the world. And when we do, we just may find that the thunder we hear is the thunder not of arrogance or pride, but rather the thunder of the kingdom of God breaking through into our midst.