October 17, 2021
Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45
In the name of God, Creator+ Redeemer and Sustainer.
A few weeks ago, I planned to preach about the recent death of a very influential person in the Church.
Sadly, I got sick and didn’t preach about him, although I published that sermon on my blog.
But I didn’t want to forget to do so.
I’m talking about Bishop John Shelby Spong, the former Bishop of Newark, New Jersey.
But he was also a very, very controversial person in the Church as well.
Bishop Spong was very much the personification of a “liberal” in the Church.
And through his many best-selling books, he laid out some very unorthodox beliefs.
He denied such things as a fundamentalist view of the Bible, bodily resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus, a theistic God, the traditional views of the afterlife, and the traditional concepts of heaven and hell.
Now for some of us here at St. Stephen’s these are not all that controversial.
And many of us loved Bishop Spong.
When I first came to St. Stephen’s, there were a few people here who quoted him often in their sermons on Sunday.
One time, one preacher even just read a letter of Spong’s as their sermon.
I certainly respected Bishop Spong.
I voraciously read every book he published as soon as it came the press.
And Bishop Spong in many ways introduced me to the Episcopal Church.
I first heard about him when I was in my early 20s.
I was working at a United Methodist Church in Arthur, ND.
And the pastor there, Pastor Ray Baker, had a bottom shelf of Bishop Spong’s book on a shelf that were hidden behind the door to the office.
I remember borrowing his copy Resurrection: Myth or Reality? And was legitimately shocked.
I was floored to hear Bishop Spong say that when Jesus died on the cross, his body was taken down and thrown to the dogs, and that is why there is any empty tomb.
I want to be very clear: I do not agree with him on this view.
In fact, I never agreed with him on many other theological points he made, which I often felt were sensationalist in certain ways.
But what was refreshing about Bishop Spong was that he would’ve respected that opposition.
Still, I was encouraged to pursue my interest in the Episcopal Church, knowing that there is a wide spectrum of belief here at that could enclose people to such an extreme as Bishop Spong on one end and conservative thinkers on the other, as well as those like me who were squarely in the center of it all.
I can say with all honesty, that I am thankful for Bishop Spong and his voice in the Church.
But as you can imagine, someone like Bishop Spong also had a few people who did not agree with him.
Actually, there were a lot of people who were downright threatened by what Bishop Spong wrote about.
And as a result, he made a lot of enemies.
There is a very famous story about one of these people.
At the funeral for Bishop Spong’s first wife, Joan, who died in 1988, he was shocked when, during the service, he felt himself being pummeled.
He turned around and realized it was an old lady hitting him with her purse.
She was finally subdued and escorted out of the church.
As she left, she was heard to say, “I wanted to do that to that SOB for years!”
No matter what you and I may have thought about him—whether you agreed with him or not—we all have to admit one thing:
Bishop John Shelby Spong was a true disciple of Jesus.
And in many ways he was needed in the Church.
Sometime we need people who can rile us up, who can get under our skins, who can nudge us out of our complacency.
Certainly, we find some of this happening in our Gospel reading for today.
Today’s Gospel story is one that 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.
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 Body and Blood of 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.
Bishop Spong certainly believed that with all his heart.
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 ourselves—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.
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”
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 daughters and 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 in the Eucharist, 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.
Let us pray.
Loving God, help us as we seek to quiet ourselves, as we seek to follow Jesus, as we seek to serve and not be served, for in doing so we know that your Kingdom will truly come and your Reign will truly begin. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen