Sunday, October 18, 2015

Called to Serve ~ Sermon (Mark)

“Calgon, take me away…”!  Do you remember rthat line from those commercials from the 1970s and 80s, for Calgon bath and beauty products? Occasionally a friend of mine will quote it during a particularly stressful moment.  “Calgon, take me away . . . “. For many of us, the picture comes immediately to mind: a woman relaxing in a tub filled with bubbles and lovely scents, relaxing for a few moments from the demands of her life.
I think that sometimes we imagine that that’s what our church life is.  Take me away . . . let me relax, on Sunday morning, from the strains and stresses of my daily life.  Let me hear some beautiful – and familiar -- music, let me participate in well-known rituals, let me hear a sermon that’s intriguing, perhaps, but not too challenging.  Let this hour or so on Sunday morning be a respite from my daily life in which children and grandchildren and parents and neighbors and employers make all kinds of demands upon me.  Let this hour of worship be a place of comfort in the midst of a world in which starvation and homelessness and terrorism seem to have the upper hand. Take me away . . .   .  

And Jesus’ disciples?  They do us one better.  Here they are this morning, following Jesus around like optimistic little puppies.  It seems that they’ve already forgotten what they heard in last week’s passage, which Mark places right before this week’s.  Remember last week?  What did Jesus say?  Go and sell everything that you have and give it to the poor!  Faith is a challenge to what you think is so important. Let go!
But the disciples have forgotten all that.  This morning, James and John go straight to Jesus – and first they tell him that they want him to do whatever they ask of him.  Can’t you hear Jesus sigh?  They really haven’t heard him at all.  He’s been telling them all along to do for others, and they’ve been watching him do for others, but they want something for themselves.  He’s been telling them that his immediate future involves suffering and death, but they cannot imagine anything other than glory: excitement, success, triumph! So Jesus – I am pretty sure about this – Jesus sighs, and ask them what it is that they want him to do for them.
And they have an immediate, confident response. “We want to sit at your right hand and your left, in your glory!”  Whatever it is that’s coming, they want to be seated in the places of honor.  They want to be seen, they want to be recognized, they want to be honored, they want to exert power. 
They have definitely missed the parts about giving away all that they have.  And they MOST definitely have missed the part about giving up ease and triumph for suffering and death.
They have gone way beyond a request for a life of ease and relaxation.  Way beyond “Take me away, Calgon.” They have moved right up to a demand for glory and honor. 
And don’t we do that as well?  We don’t want church to provide us with merely a time and space for respite and comfort during the week.  We want it to provide us with a place in life, with recognition, with honor.  We want to be noticed and thanked for all we’ve done.  We want to influence people and make the decisions.  We want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands!

And what does Jesus say to them?  You do not know what you are asking.  You. do. not. know. what. you. are. asking.

You’ve heard this before, haven’t you?  Be careful what you ask for.  We usually say that in a humorous tone of voice.  You want a new house?  It will come with all sorts of responsibilities for maintenance.    Be careful what you ask for.  You want that job?  The boss is really difficult.  Be careful what you ask for.  You want to be on session?  You are going to have to figure out the church’s finances.  Be careful what you ask for.
Jesus, however, is not speaking humorously.  Jesus is serious. You want to sit at my right?  At my left? Then you will be drinking the cup that I drink.  You will be baptized as I was baptized.
What does that even mean?  The disciples have no idea and neither, frankly, do we.  We drink out of a bright and shiny cup on communion mornings, but Jesus drank out of a cup – and handed his disciples, and hands us – a cup that led straight to the cross.  We make baptism a bright and shiny event, but baptism sends us down into waters in which we die to this life and are re-born into a life with Jesus – a life marked by servanthood and suffering.  This is no Calgon bath, this Christian life.  There are no regal seats to the right and left of Jesus – at least not as we understand the word regal.  Be careful what you ask for. 

The disciples?  Nope, not careful.  As the others hear about what James and John have asked, they begin to get angry.  They feel left out.  We all know that feeling, right?  We’re excluded from something, and we’re disappointed, and then our feelings are hurt, and then we get angry.  And maybe even a little pushy.  Why should James and John get the right and left-hand seats?  Why did she get that job I wanted?  Why did he get to chair that committee?  Hey, Jesus!  I want to sit at your right or your left, or at least somewhere nearby.  I want to drink from the shiny cup.  I want some of that glory to rub off on me.

And Jesus says, “Sure!”  Here’s the Calgon and here’s the throne.  Come to church, relax, and gain a little prestige while you’ll at it.  Right?

No.  No, Jesus does not say those things.  Jesus says to sell all you have and give the money to the poor.  Jesus says to let go of your priorities and latch on to his.  Jesus says that what lies ahead is not glory as you imagine it to be.  Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Servant?  Slave?  Those are tough words.  Slave, in particular, has so many horrific connotations that we hesitate even to read it that way.  Slavery in the Roman Empire?  Slavery in the Americas?  Slavery, today, in the sex trade industry?

Such a terrible word that I looked it up.  I tried to find another translation for this passage.  Couldn’t find one, not for that word.  I looked at definitions.  Someone who is the property of someone else and has to obey that person.  Someone overly influenced by something or in bondage to something.  However you look at it slavery is not something that, in modern language, we want even to consider.  But here is Jesus, telling us that those who want to be great among us will must be servants, and those who want to be first must be slaves of all.  Be careful what you ask for.
Now what does this mean for us, today? 
We are in a serious portion of the Gospel of Mark. No question about it.  We have reached the point at which Jesus is trying very hard to convey to his disciples that there are challenges and hardships in following him.  And those disciples – they are NOT getting it!  As so often we do not.  We want to come to church and relax.  We want to come to church and be comforted.  We want to come to church and find a bit of recognition, of applause, of honor, even. 

And Jesus says: You come to serve.  If you want to follow me, you serve others.  He even uses that word: slave.  That word?  I really don’t know what to do with it, except to say that with Jesus, words and phrases often don’t mean what we think they do.  Jesus never advocates un-freedom, or bondage, or allowing ourselves to be controlled by forces of evil.  Never.  And God ~ if we go all the way back to the Exodus story, to the Hebrew people enslaved by the Egyptians, we know that God always, always, always leads us toward freedom.

So: where is the freedom in this passage? We see that freedom lies in turning your life over to God.  In releasing all those priorities of your own that keep you tied to the things to which we so quickly fall prey – to materialism and consumerism and racism and sexism and homophobia.  That freedom lies in understanding that we are called to service, and not to control.  That freedom lies in understanding that we are drawn to church not as to a spa for relaxation, or to a political party for recognition and honor, but to a community of Christ for service. 

Hard words, these.  But words for us all to take to heart this morning.  As we all seek new church homes, I hope that we remember this call to serve others.  I hope that we will take the gifts we have honed here and find ways to use them in the service of both nearest neighbor and greatest world.  I do hope, as well, that each of us finds a home in which we can rest in God, and in which we do come to know a  sense of belonging, but I hope that we don’t stop there.  It’s so easy to be like James and John and say, “What can you do for me?  It’s so easy to say, “Does the music inspire me?  Do the sermons speak to me?  Does the décor lift my spirits?  Will I be seated on the right or the left of Jesus here?” 

It’s a little more difficult to remember to ask,
·         How might I serve? 
·         How might I be provoked and challenged here? 
·         How might my gifts be more fully realized here? 
·         How might I draw closer to Jesus here?
·         How might Jesus be calling me to a fuller and more profound servanthood here?
·         How might I become great in matters of faith, which means low ~ at the bottom of the heap, actually ~ in matters of ordinary human life?
As we prepare to move on, let’s consider these questions with great care.  Let’s remember that, if we are scrambling and pushing and shoving for anything, it should be to crowd into the back of the line, with Jesus. Let’s remember that at each and every point of transition in life, we are called to open ourselves to serve the God who is dreaming a new creation into being.  Not to control, not to dominate. not to reign.  But to serve.  Amen.

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