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Accountable to All: Sermon on Mark 10:35-45

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We want to be recognized for our accomplishments and to be accorded the respect we feel we deserve. But how does that fit into a life of service? 

Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The text is included for your convenience, but it is not entirely like the delivered version, which includes nuances that can't be read.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

October 18, 2015  - 21th Sunday after Pentecost

"Accountable to all".  Text is from  Mark 10:35-45


Good morning my sisters and brothers, saints and sinners, children of God.

Now just a few weeks ago we heard about some of Jesus's nameless apostles arguing among themselves as to who will be the greatest one of all, and Jesus tells them whoever would be first must be last, and at the same time must be the servant of all.  Now it does not look like the clueless James and John quite got the message.  And you have to wonder why after spending all this time walking with Jesus hearing everything he has to say, how there can be these absurd demands on Jesus' position. One has to wonder what part of the gravity of the situation they are not getting. As if this is some kind of fantasy league they're playing and the kingdom that Jesus is talking about is actually so far off and remote from their understanding that making deals as to where exactly they will sit with regards to Jesus in his kingdom seems to be what makes sense to them. 


There is such a limited understanding of what it means to be a part of this kingdom that Jesus has been telling them about, between the two brothers, and probably among all the disciples as a whole. So quite literally wanting to have places of honor in the kingdom to come directly on either side of Jesus sounds reasonable to them, and yet they don't quite get the implication of it. 

These two are asking of Jesus, thinking that they are calling "dibs" on this special position, what he "can do for" them, like they are entitled to it. And, like Jesus does over and over again, he turns it around on them. "Okay so you really want to have this special place in the coming kingdom, close to me?"  

"Why yes, teacher, we do!" 

"Are you prepared to do what I myself will do?" 

"We are!"

Occupy Wall Street event in San Francisco - October 24, 2011

And he tells them, in some clear language, that they will drink of that same cup and be baptized by that same water, live and die as Jesus will. At least it is clear to us, knowing the rest of the life of Jesus as told in the gospels.

But what they go through will not be the same as what Jesus goes through. 

The other disciples are get angry, James and John are being selfish and thoughtless, and because of that, Jesus is once again revealing a hard, sad truth that they don't want to bear; that he will leave them.  And what's more, that in order to walk in the shoes of Jesus, one has to bear the costs of suffering and death that Jesus would eventually bear. It is a fearsome thing; and even though James and John say they can bear it and are ready to bear it, the cost is still frightfully high. And we get the feeling that they really don't know what he is asking of them. 

But, in the midst of all that fear and tension, Jesus gives them the greatest gift. "The son of man came to serve and not to serve and will give up his own life to be a ransom for many." Of course, that doesn't sound like a gift at all; after all, he is their teacher, and they love him and expect so much from him.  And he is going to die be a ransom for them. And that he is not going to be a king like the kings they are all familiar with but his kingship is going to be one of servitude.

What a strange image that must be for the disciples, who are so used to this idea of a king having ultimate power over all, particularly in the age of a Caesar who rules from Rome with an unquestionable dictum, a Caesar who is accountable to nobody. How odd must it seem to try to put your head around this idea of Jesus as a ruler who is not a dictator, but something else entirely. That true greatness comes not from putting one's self in charge of others but actually putting one's self in servitude to others. And how hard must it be for these young men, who are obviously ready to die for their cause, at least in a hypothetical sense, to see that being in glory means dropping to their knees and scrubbing the very feet of those who would follow in their footsteps.

As people of God in the 21st Century, we are coming to a place where we begin to see that the old ways of doing church just don't quite work for everyone anymore. I remember walking down the hallway of my old family church back home when I was there for my grandmother's funeral in January and looking along the wall of confirmation pictures. There's my mother's class with its 20 kids, and my cousin, born right in the heart of the baby boom, eight years older than I, was in the back row of a class of about 30 kids.  And then you get to my class, 1981, with its 6 kids.  And sometime after that they dwindle off, to two or three kids sometimes, maybe only one, with some years intervening where no kids at all appear.  But even after thirty years, there was still a noble effort to keep up that wall like the mission of this church was to push kids through confirmation.

Nowhere could I see that this church had any work, or even any connection to the neighborhood that it once served in earnest. I was left wondering if the mission was to slowly let the endowment run the church even after all the old-timers had passed on to the better life, and then this singular church's purpose of shepherding them there would be fulfilled.

But it's obvious that church, which was once so central to the American way of life has been pushed off to the margins. Part of the reason for that is that for many folk church means all about doing church and less about doing ministry. I know that for my grandparents, their entire social circle consisted of those people who they saw on Sunday mornings, whereas even those of us who attend regularly today will find our circles remain situated more outside the walls of our institution than in.  And so to say that we are doing church is something that sounds entirely wrong.  And doing ministry is something that is left to the pastor and maybe a few other select appointed individuals. 

I have to admit, my brothers and sisters, there is a little egocentric side of me that longs for the day where being a pastor in a community gave me a certain entitlement in the world, that I was automatically accorded respect by those I came into contact, by virtue of the title. Instead I wear my collar in some places and some people look at me strange and I even get the occasional rude comment. So it can sometimes make me feel awkward when I walk to my Finnish class at Cal or picking up a bite to eat at Nations. And I want to take it off so I don't have to watch how I am acting every moment of the day and just be a regular person like everyone else, subject to none.

And so those moments helps me to get in touch with something I am not usually comfortable with: Humility.  Because being a minister, and I think I was surprised when it hit me, means someone who serves. To minister literally means "to serve". Would that world leaders understood that better. And Jesus, in telling James and John that they must be last in order to be first, is telling them that it is up to them, the greatest of his disciples, to see that all other people are served and that all other people are ministered to, before they themselves ought be served. 

And while it becomes easy to make a direct correlation between service and salvation, we may become trapped into the idea that service somehow merits salvation, which is another way of putting the horse before the apple cart.  Our salvation is earned entirely through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his suffering, death and resurrection fought and defeated the power of death and the grave over us, all of us, and through the gift of faith earned by his grace, we merit salvation. Our desire to serve comes from that grace. Our willingness to act out the Holy Spirit's calling within us brings us out of our own self-serving and into our self-sacrifice. 

We offer service because we are instructed to do so by the words of the gospel and are impelled to do so by his good grace. We do good deeds because it is what we are supposed to be doing. We are not doing good things because we expect good things to happen to us.  We should be grateful when we receive blessings but that is a result of divine providence, not our own participation. 

So, we can be clueless, like James and John once were, expecting to be able to ask God for things that aren't meant for us, for special treatment that is ultimately meaningless, seeking answer to prayers for material gifts rather than looking for a means to live out his commands. And many of us live in that cluelessness from time to time. But we can also know that the burden that Jesus Christ has claimed, we have earned, and that the grace that he has earned, we have been freely given. That to serve Christ means to serve each other, and to put each other ahead of ourselves, knowing that our Lord will always be behind us, supporting and affirming us today, through our days and in the new kingdom. 

 And that is some good news that can uplift and strengthen us right now.  Amen.   

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