Saturday, October 17, 2009

Membership Has Its Privileges

American Lutheran Church, Long Prairie, MN
October 18, 2009
Mark 10:35-45

In the name of Jesus.


Membership has its privileges.

I understand that this phrase is actually trademarked by the American Express Company, so I’m not sure it’s even legal for me to use it in this sermon.

But too late—I already have….so before the trademark police come to haul me away, I better get to the point.

Membership has its privileges.

We all know what that means, and although it sounds a little uppity, we could get used to it—right? We can envision our name on a coveted American Express Card that gains access, opens doors, and identifies you as a “force to be contended with.”

Membership has its privileges….which is another way of talking about power…

…and power is what’s afoot here in this gospel lesson from Mark chapter 10.

James and John, two of our Lord’s inner circle followers, come up to Jesus and ask him to write out a blank check: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus asks them what’s on their minds and they blurt out their request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

If that image—of sitting at the right and the left hand of Jesus—doesn’t make sense to you, think about the Cabinet meeting room in our own White House. Who gets the choice seats, closest to President Obama? Let me give you a hint: it’s not the secretary of education or the secretary of agriculture! They are low men on the totem pole. The choice spots—the spots closest to the President’s ear—go to the highest ranking cabinet members—Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Timothy Geitner, the secretary of the treasury. Everybody else has to lean in and listen closely.

What James and John ask here is to have the seats of power on Jesus’ cabinet. There can only be one person directly to Jesus’ right and another person directly to his left—and why shouldn’t James and John have those seats?

Very quickly, of course, this three-way conversation becomes more public. The other ten disciples—leaning in, listening closely—are none too happy with the sons of Zebedee. And why? I think it’s because James and John beat them all to the punch. I hate it when that happens—don’t you?—when someone butts into line ahead of me, boldly asking for what I was thinking about asking.

Make no mistake about it: this gospel lesson is about power—power grabbing, power over others, power to work your will and get things done. James and John and all the other disciples wanted that power….and they thought Jesus would give it to them….but as usual, in Mark’s Gospel, they all missed the boat entirely.

So, as we’ve seen time and again in these last weeks, late in the Pentecost season, Jesus has to call for a time out, invite the disciples into a huddle and try—one more time!!—to straighten them out.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

When it comes to power, you see, there are two ways: the Gentile way and the Jesus way.

The Gentile way is the garden variety way power gets exercised in this old world, day in and day out. Those who lack power seek to gain power, and those who have power cling to it for dear life. Power makes the world go around. It’s how you assert yourself, pursue your dreams, accomplish your goals.

The Gentle way is about “power over” someone else, it’s about bending others to your will whether through raw force or subtle persuasion. It’s an ends-justify-the-means game, with winners and losers…and everybody scrambling not to be at the end of the line or the bottom of the heap.

James and John, putting two and two together, sized up Jesus and reckoned that he’d be taking over any day now, so they wanted to get in on the power while the getting was good. “He who hesitates is lost,” they thought….so they jostled to the head of the line and called first dibs….and all the other disciples wanted to clean their clocks.

That’s the Gentile way, the customary way, the default position we all have when it comes to power.

And Jesus…Jesus will have none of it! Not that Jesus doesn’t care about power, mind you. But Jesus has such a radically different “take” on power. Jesus’ power is a power unlike anything that we know in this world.

When it comes to power, there’s the Gentile way, and there’s the Jesus way…and never the twain shall meet!

Because if the Gentile way of having power is to pursue a power over others….the Jesus way is a power under, a power with, a power alongside.

If the Gentile way is about grabbing and hanging onto power for dear life, the Jesus way is about letting go, giving up, tossing away your life….not to control others for your own sake….but to fulfill others for their sake.

Jesus knows full well the Gentile way, he lived under it every day of his earthly life. But it was never his way. Jesus has another way, and he boldly says so here in verse 43: It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

It is not so among you, Jesus flat out declares to us. He doesn’t say: I sure hope I can persuade you to see things my way. No. Jesus doesn’t command or cajole here, but rather he announces a change that is already coming over us, simply because Jesus is the one standing before us, speaking to us and we now belong to him: “it is not so among you.”

Jesus imprints his way of power upon us. Jesus does that by living out his “downwardly mobile” way of having and holding power, coming down from heaven, squeezing himself into Mary’s womb, being born in the meanest of surroundings, walking among the poorest of the poor, giving himself away at every turn, and finally allowing this Gentile-way-world to edge him out of it, up onto a cross “for us and for our salvation.”

Where the Gentile way says: go, gain advantage, grab, hang on to power for dear life…..the Jesus way counters by saying follow, make yourself vulnerable, let go of life, give yourselves away for the sake of others—to help them be all that God has created them to be.

That’s not just a great goal to shoot for, either. It is our destiny in Christ Jesus: it is not so among you, Jesus tells us all….”for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Membership has its privileges. James and John thought that might be true…but they had only the tiniest inkling of what they were getting themselves into….and so Jesus had to open their eyes, even as Jesus is opening our eyes again here and now, today.

But really now, what does this look like in the hurly-burly of daily life? How does the Jesus way actually play itself out among us?

• Think back to the last time you vowed to throw the book at someone who messed up. Jesus’ way takes you in a different direction—Jesus’ power leads you and me to show mercy when the Gentile way would say “get even.”

• Or remember when, instead of proving your superiority and gaining the upper hand over someone—remember when you stepped aside, took yourself out of the running, deferred to them, let them shine? That’s Jesus’ power in you, cracking open such wild possibilities!

• Or recall an occasion when you denied yourself, put yourself out for another person, spent yourself for them, redirected your time, talent or treasure for their benefit. Jesus’ power frees us for such reckless service.

• Or ponder how we do that corporately, in the way we “do church.” Friends, our Lord calls us at every turn to “do church” his way, not the Gentile way. And so we refuse to play power games with one another, we shun coercion, we listen to one another, take one another seriously, make room especially for the least of those among us, and we finagle ways to give away what we have, to spend ourselves utterly for the sake of the world.

Dear friends, when God graciously leads us to bypass the Gentile way of power-seeking and power-grabbing…..when God mercifully allows us to live, in even the tiniest of ways, the Jesus way in the world….God amazingly shows forth, indeed re-presents to the world another way of having and using power: the Jesus way, the way of him who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In the name of Jesus.

Through the Needle's Eye

Zion Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls
October 11, 2009
Mark 9:17-31

In verse 22 of this morning’s gospel lesson we read: “When [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving…”

A fellow came up to Jesus, engaged him in pastoral conversation about deep matters of faith—and based on what Jesus told him, the man was shocked, went away grieving…

And apparently, Jesus just let him go.

Isn’t that striking?

As a pastor I try never to let that sort of thing happen. If someone comes to me, asking honest questions and seeking truthful answers, I try not to dismay them so badly that they’re overcome by grief and walk away from me.

If I were Jesus, I would have gone after this man. I would have caught up with him and said: “You know, maybe I was a little hasty. Perhaps I overstated things just a bit—can’t we just talk about this? I really don’t want you to go off in a huff.”

But Jesus just lets the man go—and he does that, in spite of the fact that Jesus liked this guy—verse 21 says that Jesus even loved him.

And still, Jesus was willing to let the man go.

Why? Why doesn’t Jesus run after him, try to reason with him, turn him around?

I think it’s because Jesus isn’t like most pastors. Jesus isn’t a “recovering people pleaser.” Jesus doesn’t shy away from speaking hard truths—exercising tough love.

Why did the rich man leave—why didn’t he stick around longer?

I think it’s because Jesus struck a nerve. Jesus located the man’s Achille’s heel. Jesus focused on the one and only thing standing between this man and the Kingdom of God.

Think of Jesus as if he were your family physician.

You’re in your doctor’s office, lying down on the exam table, and she’s probing your abdomen. Things are going fine until she finds a spot that makes you jump. And rather than going back over all the parts of you that are OK--your doctor keeps going back to that one painful spot, asking you to hold your breath and then let your breath out, listening with her stethoscope—asking you silly questions like: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad’s the pain when I press right HERE?”

Jesus, in this gospel lesson, is like such a physician. He probes the man’s life, searching relentlessly for what ails him.

And at first, it doesn’t seem like there’s much wrong with this man. He’s kept all the commandments since he was a wee little lad—no murder rap, no extra-marital affair, no “dissing” of his parents, no petty theft—nothing like that. Jesus probes and prods, and the man is feeling no pain.

Until—until Jesus discovers one touchy area. And when Dr. Jesus finds that vulnerable spot, he announces his diagnosis: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

And all at once, things turn south for this man—he hurts like the dickens, his pain (on a scale of 1 to 10) is at about 17, “for he had many possessions.”

But instead of taking the medicine, pursuing the remedy that would cure him—the man just got out of there. Jesus got too close for comfort. So the man departs, shocked and grieving…

And Jesus lets him go.

Jesus apparently loves the guy enough—takes him seriously enough--to trust that the truth Jesus had just spoken would still work on him—would soften him up and finally bring him to that day when--pray God!--the man would become small enough, poor enough, empty enough to enter God’s Kingdom.

Gaining entry into God’s Kingdom, you see, is about reducing, losing, emptying.

Jesus recommended an astonishing weight loss program--a divine reducing plan. Entering God’s Kingdom means jettisoning all the extra baggage of our lives so that we become small enough to pass through the entrance to God’s Kingdom.

And just how small is that entrance?

Well, says Jesus, it’s about this small—about as tiny as the eye of a needle.

The great British writer, C.S. Lewis, once declared that nothing’s really impossible—that a camel can even get through the eye of a needle, although it’s rather hard on the camel!

So also, you and I wince when we hear Dr. Jesus’ prescription here. For, truth be told, we also have many possessions. Compared to how most poor people on the face of the earth live, you and I are robber barons—we’re the super-rich. We’ve got more stuff than we know what to do with. No wonder we hold annual garage sales and fill up our landfills!

We’ve got too much stuff. It’s choking us—clogging up our lives!

Dr. Jesus offers a prescription for this deadly disease of affluenza, getting all bogged down in our possessions….being possessed by our possessions.

Jesus looks at us, loves us, and says—get rid of it. Take the weight off. Go on my guaranteed reducing plan—gain life by giving it all away.

When Jesus has his way with us, prying us loose from the stranglehold of our money, the tyranny of our possessions…..Jesus opens up life—for us and for our neighbors.

It’s a two-for-one deal, you see! Jesus’ gift of generosity saves our lives and the lives of others.

Giving away the stuff, the money, that threatens to possess us….cutting that all loose saves us from idolatry, worshipping the gift rather than the Giver. It saves our lives, opening us up to the source of True Life, Jesus.

But there is more. Giving our stuff away aves the lives of our neighbors as well, especially our neediest neighbors—who long for food, hunger for good news, are thirsty for God.

Do you see how Jesus works a “double-whammy salvation” when he leads us into lives of generous giving? First Jesus saves us from ourselves—saves us from the long, slow death that comes over us as we turn inward on our possessions, become obsessed with money, get addicted to “acquiring.”

Second, Jesus saves our neighbors by transforming our generosity into the fruits of God’s mission in the world. The stuff we most need to get rid of is the stuff our neighbors most need to receive!

• So we hold a garage sale with all the proceeds going to Lutheran World Relief. Our junk brings irrigation water to a small farm in Tanzania.

• We bite the bullet and take steps toward tithing to Zion Lutheran and its ministries. Our dollars fund education and youth ministries right here, and our generosity spills over to help Luther Seminary keep turning out new pastors.

• We get a bonus at work or an investment windfall, and rather than spending it on some stuff we’ll have to sell at a garage sale in a few years….we send the money to Lutheran Disaster Response or the ELCA Hunger Appeal, or we designate a gift for healthy snacks for students at a Lutheran school in Honduras.

• We revise our wills, realizing that we can keep giving our stuff away even after we die…and so we leave a bequest for our favorite Bible camp, or campus ministry, or church college, or other Christian ministry that matters to us.

That’s how it works, dear friends. Jesus infects us with his gift of generosity and it saves us, even as it saves our needy neighbors. That’s what getting caught up in God’s mission looks like!

But have I made it all sound too easy? It’s not easy, really! Living into God’s way, practicing generosity kills us before it makes us alive. It kills our acquisitiveness, kills our greed, kills all our me-first tendencies.

But the death of all that isn’t the end for us. This is a death that leads to life!

Look again at vv. 26 and 27: [Jesus’ disciples] were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

God loves impossible cases. God gets a kick out of helping you and me become small enough, empty enough to follow Jesus through the narrow passageway into God’s Kingdom.

God loves to pry our hands loose from the security of a fat bank account or a house-full of stuff. God delights in saving us from ourselves, and simultaneously saving our neighbors to boot!

God’s aim is simple: that we follow Jesus--who for our sake became small!—that we follow Jesus right through the eye of the needle….bringing us and our neighbors out on the other side--into that wide, open, liberating space called the Kingdom of God. In the name of Jesus. Amen.