Thursday, October 15, 2015

Jesus' Take on Power

Bethesda Lutheran Church, Moorhead
October 18, 2015
Mark 10:35-45

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In case you haven’t noticed, the church has problems with power.

We in the church seem forever flummoxed by the question of power, usually finding ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place:  either trying to avoid the question of power entirely or adopting this world’s attitude toward power—hook, line and sinker!

Here in Mark chapter 10 the power issue rears its head in the form of a demand made by James and John, who seem to favor simply adopting, simply taking over the natural, human way of thinking about power:    ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’

The sheer arrogance of this request by the sons of Zebedee takes our breath away.
And the swift anger with which the other ten disciples regard this brazen request reveals that they were  thinking along the same lines—James and John were just cheeky enough to jump to the head of the line and ask first!

This unabashed power play by James and John stirs up powerful emotions in the circle of Jesus’ disciples.   Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it:  “When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. ‘You’ve observed how [Gentile] rulers throw their weight around,’ he said, ‘and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.’”

Jesus makes it crystal clear that simply adopting this world’s notions about power is not an option—either for him or for his followers:   “It’s not going to be that way with you!”

The trick here, though, is that just because the Jesus Movement refuses to adopt the natural human “take” on power—grab it and use it to control others—doesn’t mean that Jesus and his followers thereby are to avoid the power question entirely.

The choice isn’t between grabbing power or having nothing to do with power.
Rather, the question is what kind of power will Jesus wield?   What is the nature of the power that Jesus’s followers will exercise?

Perhaps you remember this old fable:   The Wind and the Sun were arguing one day over which of them was the mightiest.   Spotting a man trudging down a lonely road the two challenged each other to a contest:  who could get the man to take off his coat?

The Wind tried first, buffeting the traveler with his cold, biting wind….trying to blow the coat right off the man’s back…..but the harder the Wind blew, the more tightly the man wrapped his coat around himself!

Next the Sun gave it a try.   As the man trudged onward, the sky grew brighter, the air calmer….and the sun shone, warmer and warmer….so that shortly the man started to perspire, unbuttoned his coat and soon took it off.

There is power—and there is power!    Jesus describes two ways of holding power:  the Gentile way and the Jesus way.

The Gentile way is the garden variety way that power gets exercised in this old world.  The powerless seek to gain power, and the powerful cling to it for dear life.  Power makes the world go around.  It’s how you assert yourself, accomplish your goals, bend others to your will.  

The Gentle way is about “power over others, whether through force or persuasion. It’s an ends-justify-the-means game, with winners and losers, no one willing to be at the end of the line or the bottom of the heap.

The request of James and John exemplified  the Gentile way--the default position we all have when it comes to power.

But Jesus will have none of it!   Not that Jesus avoids power, but that Jesus has a radically different “take” on power.  

Jesus’ power is a power unlike anything that we know in this world.  If the Gentile way is to exercise 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 knew full well the Gentile way.   But it was never his way.  It is not so among you; Jesus tells his disciples, but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

It is not so among you!   Jesus doesn’t say:  I sure hope I can persuade you to see things my way.  No.   Jesus 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 topsy-turvy power upon us.   Jesus does that by living his “downwardly mobile” way of having and holding power, coming down from heaven, squeezing himself into Mary’s womb, being born in the crudest 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, be vulnerable, let go of life, give yourself away for the sake of others—to help them be all that God has created them to be. 

That is Jesus’ way of exercising power—power that is demonstrated chiefly in showing mercy.

But what about us, Jesus’ followers?   Can we even come close to following Jesus in his single-minded focus on exercising power under, power with, power alongside others?

Although it seems impossible, there are those among us who regularly give it a go.
Just last month, here in the United States, we beheld someone on the national stage who day by day is trying his darnedest to walk the Jesus walk before the eyes of the world.

Pope Francis, leader of the largest branch of the Christian family, has been demonstrating the Jesus way with power ever since he was elected pope two years ago.

And that just could be why Francis is noticed, watched and admired…..because even in this world of “power over” people….we sense that Francis is on to something.

So instead of being caught up in a cloud of hangers-on and Vatican handlers…..Francis keeps breaking away, stepping out of his humble car, meeting folks who reach out to him from behind crowd-control barriers.  

Pope Francis must give members of his security detail fits!

The morning after he is elected pope, Francis shuffles to the front desk in the Vatican guest house where all the cardinal-electors were staying.  He gets out his own wallet and tries to pay for his room during the papal conclave.

Rather than taking up residence in the Papal Palace, Francis opts for the modest quarters of a guesthouse, where he’s still living.    He says mass weekly for and with all the servants who look after his needs.  

Francis comes to our country and addresses a joint session of Congress…..and then dines with down-and-outers in a homeless shelter in Washington DC.

It is Francis’s way, this priest from Argentina who was always attending to the poor, forever turning the church toward the faces of the neediest, in whom we truly see Christ.

We have come to expect from Francis words like these: "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security." (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium:  The Joy of the Gospel, par 49.)

Pope Francis is on to something—he is on to the Jesus’ way of exercising power under, chiefly by demonstrating mercy.

And the really cool thing about what Francis is up to is that any of us can look at him and say to ourselves:  “I could live like that.  I could turn aside from the Gentile way of power over.   I could give the Jesus way of power under a try.”

We’re noticing Francis, not because he’s a human hero, but because in him and his humble way, we see our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. 

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Through the Needle's Eye

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, East Grand Forks, MN
October 11, 2015
Mark 10:17-31

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Two things strike me about this story.    First, it says that Jesus, “looking at [the rich man], loved him.”

Second, it says that the rich man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions,”--and Jesus apparently just let him go.

Jesus did not run after this disturbed man.  Jesus didn’t try to get through to him.  He didn’t cajole him into conversing a bit longer.

No, Jesus just let him go….perhaps because some truths are simply too big to swallow in one bite, all in one moment.

We have no idea how the rich man’s life unfolded--but we do know that Jesus’ closest friends were all worked up about this whole unsettling episode.

The disciples, it says, “were perplexed at these words” of Jesus, because everything they’d been taught up to this point probably  suggested that wealth was a mark of God’s blessing, surely not a curse God inflicted upon those with wealth.

But Jesus didn’t show up to repeat old wisdom.  Jesus was, instead, always cracking open fresh truth—unexpected truth that Jesus came to embody and live out.

“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (v. 25)

The great British apologist for Christianity, C.S. Lewis once said that “it is possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle—but it sure is hard on the camel!”

Lewis thereby urges us not to write off this aphorism about the camel and the eye of a needle.  It’s not simply a memorable metaphor.

It is more than that.  Jesus is teaching us something here about how small, how reduced, how empty we need to become to gain entrance into that wide, full, free place called the kingdom of God.
God’s kingdom, God’s strong but gentle way of ruling over all things is so earnestly to be desired that we should seek to enter into it no matter the cost—even if it means shucking off everything we thought we needed to live.

The very thought of doing that would drive us all to despair were it not for Jesus’ promise here (the promise that the rich man didn’t stick around long enough to hear!) that "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

This being emptied, this becoming small, this process of being reduced—we are not capable of that under our own power….but it can be and it is what God does in us, for us.

And that’s the truth we dare not miss here.    When Jesus says that “for God all things are possible,” he’s not snapping his fingers and saying “Abracadabra!”  Jesus isn’t just making all the stuff in our life that holds us back just go poof, like magic!

No, Jesus is uttering a promise that he intends to keep for us, with us and in us.

Jesus leads the way into this narrow, small path that leads to God’s kingdom.

Jesus first becomes small for us—small enough to descend from heaven and be implanted in Mary’s womb.   Jesus allows himself to be reduced to the form of a servant for us.    Jesus stoops over, walking the way of the Cross for us—continuing to the destination he is already pursuing here in this gospel story (v. 17)   Jesus allows himself to be edged out of our world, forced up onto a Cross, for us and our salvation. 

 It’s hard on Jesus to do that—like it’s hard on a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.  It’s hard on Jesus—indeed it is the death of him!

But Jesus’ overwhelming passion for us leaves him no choice.
Jesus accomplishes this impossible thing to rescue us from ourselves—to open us to the wideness of his kingdom.   Jesus who was rich beyond measure, “for [our] sakes…became poor, so that by his poverty [we] might become rich.” (II Cor. 8:9)

This good work that Jesus initiated at the Cross—God continues this good work in us.   And we are promised that God “will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)

Jesus who became small for us, Jesus the crucified and living one, works in us, to open us up to his kingdom…

….which is to say, Jesus is always among us, fitting us for his reign over all things by making us small enough, poor enough, reduced enough, bereft enough to come to him with hands that are completely empty.

So Jesus is at work in us, reducing us to proper size, whenever we confess our sins.    Repenting is one of the chief ways God gets us small enough to enter the Kingdom.   Saying we are sorry for the wrong we have done—saying sorry:  don’t we often say it makes us feel “about this big?”

Jesus is at work in us, emptying us of all the baggage that could hold us back, whenever we stoop to serve one another.    Bending over, as Jesus bent over his disciples dirty feet at the Last Supper—bending over to serve our neighbor Jesus gets us where we need to be—on our knees—serving the other.

Jesus is at work in us when we pray—because prayer, too, reduces us to proper size.   When we pray we say that we are not self-made people, we don’t have everything under our control, we’re always throwing ourselves into God’s gracious hands, seeking from God all good things.   “We are beggars, this is true,” said Martin Luther on his deathbed.

Jesus is at work in us when we give away our wealth, practice generosity toward the poor, give to charities, and bring our tithes and offerings to the altar here in God’s house.   When God leads us to reduce our bank balance, God is getting us empty-handed enough to fit through the “eye of the needle” gateway to God’s kingdom.

And perhaps most of all, most often in our days, God is at work in us in our daily lives, smack dab in the middle of our homes and families and other intimate circles of caring.

It is not, finally, in the splashy, headline-grabbing, heroic episodes of our lives that Jesus works best in us to make us small enough for the Kingdom….but it’s in the daily-ness of life: in the homely ways we live with one another in households, Jesus goes to work on us to make us fit for the narrow passageway that leads to the wideness of God’s mercy.

Luther, who had a penchant for shockingly earthy speech, declared that in household chores as menial as changing diapers, God is reducing us to Kingdom-sized people:  

 … “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself?...

“O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? 0 how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”   

These words of Luther from his treatise on the Estate of Marriage in 1522 give voice to the surprising turn that meets us whenever and however God reduces us to the right size for God’s kingdom.    This “reducing” is actually a “right-sizing” and a “right-wising” of ourselves!

So it is that when God strips us of everything that’s holding us back from entering God’s strong and gentle Reign over all things—lo and behold we wind up richer than we ever imagined we could be, richer in the things that last, that cannot be taken from us….in this life or in the life of the world to come!

In the name of Jesus.    Amen.