Sunday, October 17, 2021

21st Pentecost, 2021-B: Servants of all

Lectionary: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45  

How well do we listen? So often when we have conversations, we can tell the person we’re talking to isn’t listening as much as preparing their response or formulating their next point. You can see it on their face. They’re looking at you, but not really listening.

Servant listening, as I call it, is listening deeply, with the speaker as the priority. Servant listening is listening attentively, taking in what the speaker is saying, even when it’s hard to hear or accept.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus has already told his disciples of his coming suffering and death three times. This last time (in vv 33-34) Jesus goes into horrible detail about being condemned to death, mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed, then after three days rising again (10:33). He had also just taught them - twice - what greatness is in the kingdom of God, both times saying, the first must be last and the last must be servant of all.

It appears, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, weren’t listening. Maybe they were listening - the way so many listen to the voice of God even today: “yeah, but not really.” Love your enemies: yea, but not really. Turn the other cheek: yeah, but not really. The first will be last and the last will be first: yeah, but not really.

Glory and honor, position and prestige are still things we strive for – just as the disciples did. As one commentator said: “Personal ambition did not start with James and John, nor did it end with them.” (Source: Dick Donovan)

Every time I read this passage, though, I wonder why no one asked for a pause or explanation after Jesus said: “and after three days he will rise again.” We read that knowing he’s referring to his resurrection at Easter, but the disciples didn’t know that was coming. How could they have? Who could have imagined the resurrection?

So, listening with their “yeah, but not really” ears, James and John skip right over that intense statement and drop back into planning for the Messiah they still hold onto – the one who will defeat the Romans, giving the people of Israel a military victory and freedom from occupation.

Make us your top brass, James and John say, and we’ll do right by you. Never mind that their request squeezes their friend, Peter, out of his top-ranked position among the twelve.

Will you, Jesus asks? Can you? You have no idea what you’re asking. You still don’t understand me or what Messiah means. Can you drink the cup I will drink? The one I just described: the cup filled with shame, torture, and death? Will you allow yourselves to be submerged in this path of Messiahship, giving up your life as I am about to give up mine?

Yeah, but not really, right? Sure we can, they reply.

Interestingly, what the ten took away from this discussion wasn’t about Messiahship or servanthood. They skipped over Jesus’ powerful, tragic statement and instead, focused on James’ and John’s subterfuge, and the new pecking order that might create.

You can practically see Jesus rolling his eyes and sighing as he called them together – again – to clarify his teaching on greatness and leadership in the kingdom of God. Don’t be like the non-believers, he says. They hold their power over others as a weapon. You must use yours to serve, and you must serve everyone. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” and to give his life in order to set God’s people free.

It’s comforting to me that even though the disciples still aren’t getting it, Jesus is still planning to entrust the continuing work of his ministry of reconciliation to them. It bodes well for the church today.

One of the greatest lessons (?) challenges (?) I learned from one of my mentors was the spiritual practice of humility, which often sounds like this: ‘I could be wrong,’ or at least, ‘I might have an incomplete picture.’

No one has the complete picture except for God. That is what our readings from Job and the Psalm offer us today. God is God and we are not.

Practicing humility might have prevented James and John from asking for glory for themselves, rather than for those they were about to serve. Practicing humility can help church folks today avoid the: ‘we have to do church my way, and if we don’t, I’ll take my money and myself outta here’ problem.

Practicing humility can help us remember that we often don’t have all the information about a situation or event, so we may not be able to see the big picture. Sometimes our bishop can, sometimes not, but God always can. God, who laid the foundation of the earth and determined its measurements, is constantly creating the big picture, responding in mercy and love to all of us as we attempt to navigate our time on earth.

The church Jesus built upon Peter, the Rock, who was supremely human and definitely didn’t have the whole picture, has been guaranteed to stand – even against the gates of hell (Mt 16:18), so I don’t worry about that. What concerns me as a pastor, is that our church, which is the living continuation of the church Jesus built, takes advantage of the gifts God has brought together in this time and place to serve as we are called to do.

The ministries of each church are continually formed by God to serve their membership and the people in their corner of God’s kingdom. To serve well, every church needs people who pray like St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo who was a rogue before he was a bishop. We need people who proclaim the Word like St. Peter or our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry (who probably had very different styles).

We need some who will advocate for justice like Jonathan Daniels did, and others who reconnect us to God in creation, like St Francis did. We need traditionalists and progressives, folks who make meals, administrate programs, and teach our children serving alongside others who practice hospitality and manage money.

Granted, this kind of diversity often makes for messy or challenging church politics, but it’s worth it. No one in this or any church is perfect, and no one has a handle on the big picture, but together, we are greater than the sum of our parts. By the grace of God, and through the gifts of the people present, our church can transform our corner of God’s kingdom through our ministries of prayer and service.

To do that, we are beginning the season of giving to the ministries of the church - our annual pledge drive - which enables us to provide financial support to our church as we strive to bring the dream of God closer to its fulfillment in our time and place.

Let us pray: Abundant God, you made us in your image and breathed into us a spirit of generosity that is both gift and response. Move us, we pray, to give as we have received - abundantly, generously, and joyfully that our common ministry may ever bear witness to your unfailing grace. In the name of the Three in whom we are One. Amen.

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