What follows is my "inaugural sermon" preached this weekend at Peace Lutheran Church during regular services. My installation followed Sunday afternoon
Winning The Prize - Mark 10:35-45 - Pentecost 20B
Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone grew up in the Italian town of Assisi during the 12th century. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant who had been very successful. Francesco, as his father called him, lived a privileged life as a child and a young man. His youth was given over to drinking and street brawls and the love of pleasure. Always looking for adventure he enlisted in the army of the Count of Brienne and during this experience of war and imprisonment something happened to Francis. When he returned to Assisi discouraged, and ill with fever, he was changed. He began to pray and study, he went on pilgrimage and began to have visions. His father was furious and finally dragged Francis before the bishop where Francis then returned everything to his father – including his clothing. Standing in the village square of Assisi, he removed all of his clothing and rings and returned them to his father. He rejected all of his possessions and embraced a life of poverty and service. We know him now as St. Francis of Assisi.
This morning brings to an end our series of readings on Jesus’ teachings about discipleship from the Gospel of Mark. It has not been an easy experience for the disciples and, quite frankly, it is going to get worse before it gets better for them. But a new stage of Jesus’ ministry is about to begin. Jesus has tried to prepare his disciples for this new stage – but they just have not understood. They have fought with each other about who was to be the most important in the kingdom, they have argued with Jesus about crucifixion after the first passion prediction, they have gotten jealous of another who was healing in Jesus name, they have tried to keep the children away from Jesus and they have generally misunderstood the ministry which Jesus has invited them to participate in. They were looking for glory and power. After all isn’t that what a Messiah is suppose to be about? They wanted to be important – they wanted to win the prize! As Peter explained to Jesus last week, they had given up everything to follow him – shouldn’t they expect something in return? Shouldn’t they be in line to receive some kind of prize? Throughout all of this Jesus repeats over and over – look, we are on the road to crucifixion and resurrection; you must pick up your cross and follow me to Calvary; if you want to be great you must be least of all and be a servant of all; the last will be first and the first will be last; you cannot earn your way into God’s Kingdom, it comes as a gift which must be received with the innocence and openness of a child.
By the way, in case you have not picked this up yet – we are the disciples in these discourses. Mark is writing this specifically for us to see ourselves standing with the disciples. And it’s true isn’t it? We are just like the disciples – fighting over who is the most important among us, looking to be important, putting our own needs, wants, opinions and ambitions above those of others, looking to the church – Christ’s community to provide for us, instead of understanding that it is specifically a place which provides us with opportunities for service; putting conditions on our giving and service to the church; and expecting that Christ’s priorities are the same as our own. We are the disciples. We are the ones who are wanting to be served instead of serving, and who completely miss the point of Jesus’ teachings – just like those 12 disciples who walked with Jesus – just like Mark’s fledgling Christian community in the generation or so after Jesus – just like the congregations of Luther’s Saxony at the time of the reformation. These teachings are for us – we are Jesus’ disciples.
Understanding this then – let us review our Gospel text for today once more. The passage really begins a few verses ahead of where the lectionary reading actually started. Beginning at verse 32 (instead of verse 35) in chapter 10 St. Mark writes: “Jesus and the disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; the disciples were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. Jesus took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and 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." And then, immediately following this, James and John come up to Jesus and try to manipulate him into giving them a special honor or prize. “Teacher, we want you to promise to do whatever we ask you to do.” This sounds like something a child would say in order to get her parents to buy her candy in the grocery store – “if you really love me, you will do whatever I want you to do.” And the timing is so inappropriate as to be almost comical. Jesus has just told all 12 of the disciples where they are bound – in detail – “when we get to Jerusalem I will be handed over to the chief priests, condemned to death, mocked, spit on, flogged and killed and then I will rise again.” And the response from the Zebedee brothers? “Ahh… ok – but…. When you take over the kingdom could you put us in charge – give us positions on your right and left? Could we get our prize? Pleaseeeeeeeee.” Where have they been – are they really that insensitive and self-centered? What they don’t understand is that Jesus will be crowned – his throne will be a cross and his crown will be made of thorns and on his right and left will be crucified two thieves who will die with Jesus.
When the other disciples realize what has happened they get angry with James and John. It doesn’t say why, but Jesus’ response gives us a hint that it wasn’t because they thought James and John were being so inappropriate but because they, the other disciples are looking for glory too and were upset that James and John might have gotten a step ahead of them. But Jesus doesn’t get angry this time He is gentle but firm; he is loving and gracious and he again reminds them, and us, that our calling is to service; our calling is to give of ourselves in every way; that the prize we are all seeking is to be found in being least of all and serving others; the prize is God’s love – it is forgiveness – it is being received into the arms of God’s amazing grace!
I think we can understand where the disciples are coming from though. We also like to receive prizes – we like to be honored – we like to be considered important. And when our culture or society puts such a strong emphasis on this it is hard for us to compete with it or resist it. Nearly a decade after leaving professional basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decided to return to the sport he loved by accepting a coaching position with the Alchesay Falcons - a high-school team of mostly White Mountain Apaches. Now this is one of the greatest players in the history of basketball – he could have chosen any number of opportunities but it was this team of Native Americans he chose to coach. And he had to learn a great deal about his athletes and the tribe. He discovered surprising cultural traditions that made it difficult to coach the team. But slowly he grew in sensitivity to the special challenges faced by young Native Americans. And by working with these students and coaching them, Abdul-Jabbar moved from a historical appreciation for the Apaches as a people to a new understanding of them as individuals. Did he lord it over them as an NBA superstar? Not at all. He served them. He was first among them by acting as their coach, their teacher, their helper and their servant. In the end, he may have learned more than he actually taught during his season on the reservation. Abdul-Jabbar, a Hall-of-Famer considered great by the world, discovered that true greatness is found in an unexpected place - a place of service.
This is our calling as well – we are called to serve; we are called to respond to God’s calling for us to reach out to others in a variety of ways to serve – not in order to get praise, or win a prize or receive honor, or have our positions and opinions confirmed – but to serve. As we serve others we are serving Christ.
There is one other point I want to make about these disciples – who you remember are us. As I said earlier these couple chapters have been tough. We might have expected these disciples to throw in the towel and quit. They hadn’t signed a contract, they were not even bound by an oath of any kind. They were following Jesus because they had been called – in the same way we are called to follow Jesus. And when the going got rough they could have quit – returned to their homes and families – found another community – joined another church – found a different leader who preached an easier Gospel. They could have, but they didn’t. The disciples stayed with Jesus until the very end. Our Gospel today tells us that despite all of the controversies, the inappropriate lusting after power and glory; despite to intense desire to win that prize NOW, the disciples continued on the road with Jesus – the road to Jerusalem – the road to crucifixion and resurrection.
I began this sermon by sharing about St. Francis. Like many of the saints, St. Francis can seem larger than life. His public embrace of poverty is really dramatic. We could never do what he did and we are not called to do what he did. But yet, the life of St. Francis is best understood as a life of service – a life filled with simple acts of love and grace. For example, during the early years as his group of brothers were getting established they made an impression on all the people they encountered because, as they would hike through the mountains and villages they were said to be always full of songs and happiness – blessing all who they met in various ways. Later in life Francis traveled to the Holy Land and spent some time with the Muslim Sultan Malek-el-Kamel – this at the time when the European crusades were in full swing. But yet, in their conversations and debates Francis is said to have treated his host with graciousness, respect and even love, to the extent that the Sultan was deeply moved. For 100’s of years afterwards, from the late Middle Ages and to as late as the 17th century, as the fractured relationship between European Christians and the Muslim world continued to fester, the Franciscans alone were permitted to live in the Middle East and were permitted to establish hospitals and other avenues for service: all because of Francis’ attitude of service. This we could stand to learn from St. Francis. Instead of searching looking for what’s best for me – instead of looking for position – power – strength; instead of seeking after winning the prize – may we learn from St. Francis something about an attitude of humility and service.
Jesus said: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
And St. Francis prayed: “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
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