Sunday, October 17, 2021
Lectionary 29, Year B
Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples on earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 53:4-12 The suffering servant
Hebrews 5:1-10 Through suffering Christ becomes the source of salvation
Mark 10:35-45 Warnings to ambitious disciples
Title: The Power That Is
Anyone feeling a little Good Fridayish? I know, I know, The real Good Friday is still almost six months away. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you were having flashbacks or flashforwards to the heaviness of that solemn day. If you are, it might be because we have just heard two readings that we traditionally hear in the liturgy for that day.
From Isaiah we have one of the four passages identified as the suffering servant. Describing the one who must suffer for the sake of the community, for the greater good, the innocent who pays a debt for the guilty. A classic architype that Christians see Jesus living into perfectly and being the ultimate and complete expression of this. His sacrifice brings healing, his punishment brings redemption, his death brings life. All for others rather than for himself. And in this seeming surrender, there is power.
In addition to this, part of our reading from Hebrews is also heard in our Good Friday liturgy. It’s that latter portion of today’s passage. It speaks of Jesus’ obedience to the suffering he endured. And just to be clear, when it says that he learned obedience through what he suffered, rather than suggesting that God doles out the suffering to educate him and us like some maniacal teacher; the author is stating that when we do face suffering, faith teaches us to place our hope and trust in God. A lesson that Christ through his own suffering has taught us, a truth that shines forth from the victory of Christ’s resurrection. In God, and through Christ’s example, even in suffering, there is power.
And then, to add to the Good Fridayish atmosphere those readings create, we hear that Jesus’ talk is again pointing to the impending cross – keeping in mind (as I mentioned last week) that in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is just steps away from his entry into Jerusalem. Here he again, gives witness to, and perhaps is trying to prepare the disciples to see that in the shame and seeming defeat of the cross, there is power.
And so we have our word for today. Power. Perhaps you caught and remember the coming attractions mention to this at the end of last week’s sermon. Here it is, our third manipulation found in chapter 10 of Mark. But this one is different. We expect the Pharisees to try to manipulate the law. Afterall, it seems like human nature and a reoccurring theme of human behavior that it is those legalists who work the hardest at manipulating the law in their favor. (I’m not even going to dare to bring up an contemporary examples. But I’m sure you can call some to mind.) And we expect the rich person to try to manipulate every economy they encounter, even God’s, to gain what they desire, as did the rich man last week who was thinking he could work out his own salvation. But when it comes to manipulating the power of God in Jesus Christ, I’m not so sure we expect Jesus’ own disciples to be the ones at work on this. But there they are – James and John – the ones Jesus called Sons of Thunder. Well, they are certainly blasting their own horns here.
Take a minute and, reminding ourselves that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, just imagine how the humanity must have been reacting to some this. Did Jesus shake his head in knowing disbelief when those Pharisees were testing him? We’re told he looked on the rich man seeking eternal life with compassion. But what was his reaction to James and John? “Hey Jesus, we want you to do for us whatever we ask?” Could Jesus’ eyeroll have gone any higher into his head? Jesus had just finished talking about sacrificing everything and following him. Were they encouraged by this talk and their own assessment of all that they had gaven up to now make demands? Were they saying, “Hey Jesus, since we’ve done it all for you, we expect you to do it all for us”? But Jesus gets his eyeballs back into his head and asks (maybe testing them), “What is it that you want me to do for you?” I’m sure he couldn’t wait to hear the answer. And what is their answer? They want power. More specifically, a share of the power that they imagined Jesus would have as the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel, the restoration of David’s royal line.
Now before we mock these Sons of Thunder, or judge them harshly. It would be good to look at ourselves and our own versions of saying to Jesus what James and John said. We’ve all done it, right? Maybe not the second part – asking for a throne. But certainly that first part – Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask you to do. Take away the pain, take away the hardship, fix this, open that door, change this in my life, change that in their life, change all this in the world. We want the power for the facing of whatever our challenge might be. Perhaps the thunder boys are not sounding so bombastic to us and are just being painfully normal and human.
And of course the other disciples are looking pretty human themselves as they realize the brothers are trying to get a leg up on them. Of course they get angry. Looking around us, at ourselves, in our own time, perhaps our efforts to manipulate power are far more extensive, diverse, and widespread then either the manipulation of legal systems and/or economies. For power dynamics and attempted power grabs extend in every direction, from personal health and desires, to interpersonal relationships and family systems, to communal life and governmental bodies, to armed forces and police forces, to racial and ethnic classes. Where do we not see ourselves or someone seeking power, wishing for power, using power, misusing power, craving power, fighting to gain more power, exerting power over someone else. Whether it is the power just to know what tomorrow will bring or the power to rule the world. (Perhaps the totality of power’s role in the human condition is the secret to Marvel’s success. We do love to see those who are possessed with superpowers defeat evil and bring peace to our world.) If only we had the power.
And this is where it comes in really handy that there is such an air of Good Friday with us today. Because as followers of Jesus, as workers in and for God’s kingdom, as instruments of the Holy Spirit, anytime we start talking about or fixating on power, we are wise to come back to the cross. To look at this symbol of power when it was used by a great empire to terrorize. The cross – a symbol of shame that was sought to degrade all who hung on it. The cross – a symbol of death that, when left to ourselves, is the final power over which we are so completely powerless. But this is the cross of Christ, the cross that was transformed by the power of God, the power of mercy, the power of grace, the power of love. The cross of Christ overcomes every human power. The cross of Christ heals every shame we put on ourselves or others. The cross of Christ conquers death. The cross of Christ does not manipulate power, it claims and proclaims power.
Along the Empire State Trail (you heard way too much about it back on Sept 12), near the town of Pawling, there is a cemetery. It is rather small, set off to the side, seeming to be insignificant, forgotten. But there is a sign. It identifies it as the Green Haven Correctional Facility Cemetery. The grave markers are spread out, uniform – like a military cemetery. At closer look, you see that there are no names on the tombstones, only numbers. Even in death, the state exerts its power over the individual who in life was stripped of their name. As far as the state is concerned, their prisoner number remains their identifier. But there is one more thing in this sad and lonely graveyard of the condemned and the nameless. Towering over it is a cross. The cross of Christ. And perhaps few understand better the powerlessness that Christ felt on that cross then those who now lay beneath it. But the cross standing there reminds all that these names to the state have been claimed by the power of God in Christ, named children of God by power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
And yet, whether nameless in that ground or privileged and high in a tower, the cross of Christ proclaims to each of us that we are completely dependent on the powerful grace that is ours only because God is God and God is love, because through Christ’s cross we are healed and saved, and because, in the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us. And in that lies all the power we will ever need. A power that serves us into life so that we might serve others. We need not ask Christ to do whatever we want, because he has already done for us all that is necessary. Look to the cross and know this is most certainly true. On Good Friday and everyday thereafter.
The Rev. Mark Erson,