Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 18th October
An admirer once asked the famous orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein what was the most difficult instrument to play. (I wonder if you can guess what his answer was because it’s an interesting one). Bernstein said “second violin!”
If this incident in Mark’s gospel hadn’t been recorded it would be difficult to believe that:
· after all Jesus’ teaching;
· after all his patient and repeated explanation about the nature of God’s kingdom;
· after all the disciples had heard and seen...
... that James and John would have the temerity – the gall – to come to Jesus and make their ambitious and self-absorbed request. But if we think about it for a moment I wonder are we terribly different?
· haven’t we all taken umbrage when we’re overlooked, or been offended when someone has said something we didn’t like – even if they hadn’t meant it
· (ooh) and how we hate it when our obvious humility and self-sacrificing service isn’t properly recognized and applauded, or, heaven forbid when people impugn our integrity or misunderstand us;
· and how we seethe inside when someone else seems to be getting attention or preferential treatment.
Or am I just talking about myself? – because I know I am, actually – these past few weeks have exposed so much in me – in my ego – that still needs the Lord’s gracious forgiveness and cleansing. Perhaps we understand James and John only too well, don’t we?
But if these two had realized the true cost of being highly placed in God’s scheme of things – in this ‘upside-down’ kingdom of his. If they’d truly understood that - they probably wouldn’t have dared to ask – in spite of all their brave words about sharing in Jesus’ judgement and suffering – which is what ‘cup’ and ‘baptism’ are all about. Once again they just didn’t get what it is that qualifies for being given recognition by God. (Mind you the other ten disciples didn’t exactly come up smelling of roses either – their anger at James and John sneaking in to see Jesus leaves us in little doubt that they also wanted these places of honour for themselves.)
So - once again – with the utmost patience (I do so love and need to know that he’s infinitely patient with me) - Jesus explains to them the totally different – the ‘subversive’ - pattern of God’s kingdom – where true greatness is measured not by any elevated position, but by humble service.
One of my favourite writers, Eugene Peterson (who gave us The Message version of the Bible says this):
Jesus was a master at subversion...his favourite speech form, the parable, was subversive. Parables sound ordinary; casual stories about soil and seeds, meals and coins, sheep, bandits and victims, farmers and merchants. And they are wholly secular: of his forty or so parables recorded in the gospels, only one has its setting in a church, and only a couple mention the name of God. As people heard Jesus tell these stories, they saw at once that they weren’t about God, so there was nothing in them threatening their own sovereignty (their control over their own lives). They relaxed their defences. They walked away perplexed, wondering what they meant, the stories lodged in their imagination. And then, like a time bomb, they would explode in their unprotected hearts. An abyss opened up at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded.
Christians believe that the kingdoms of this world: whether they be British, American, Venezuelan, Chinese will become the kingdom of our God and Christ – and that this new kingdom is already among us. Peterson says that’s why he’s a pastor – a priest (having led the same church for 26 years at the time of writing.): to introduce people to the real world and train them to live in it. He learned early on that the methods of the priest’s work must correspond to the realities of God’s kingdom, which Jesus talked so much about. The methods that make the United Kingdom or America or China strong – economic, military, technological – are not suited to making the kingdom of God strong.
Peterson is very honest. He says he bristles when a high-flying executive in his congregation leaves the place of worship with the comment “This was wonderful pastor, but now we have to get back to the real world don’t we?” And I love his response:
“I had thought we were in the most-real world, the world revealed as God’s, a world believed to be invaded by God’s grace and turning on the pivot of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The executive’s comment brings me up short (he says), he isn’t taking this seriously. Worshipping God is marginal to making money. Prayer is marginal to the bottom line. Christian salvation is a brand preference.
So what’s the problem and challenge for churches? Well it’s that Britain, suburban living and the ego compose parish life. Most individuals in this mix suppose that the goals they have for themselves and the goals God has for them are the same. Peterson calls this ‘the oldest religious mistake’: refusing to countenance any real difference between God and us, imagining God to be a vague construction of our own desires – and then hiring priests to manage the affairs between self and those false ideas. It’s high time we learned a new methodology (he says): truth-telling and love-making, prayer and parable – which are not methods well adapted to raising our standard of living – or massaging our egos into a fashionable shape.
Our Pews news this week is encouraging us to pray about the financial situation of the church. Ah but what about the practicalities? Well, as our bible study was thinking about on Friday ‘prayer is the key’: “stupid from a commonsense point of view”, says Oswald Chambers – but not from God’s – not if we’re living from God’s point of view. Peterson again:
I know it takes time to develop a life of prayer, to set aside disciplined time. It isn’t accomplished on the run, nor by offering prayers from the pulpit or at a hospital bedside....In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; (more attention) to God than to my clamouring ego.
God had a different kind of plan to redeem and ransom his world than any management consultancy could dream up. His solution is the suffering servant prophesied in our reading from Isaiah 53, over 700 years before Jesus was even born – a high priest after the order of Melchizedek – (as Hebrews tells us). One who was to give up his life a ransom for many. (– and by the way, this doesn’t mean for some people rather than everyone, Mark is simply drawing attention to the huge multitude of people ransomed by Jesus’ death.) And this is one of the very few places Mark takes time to explain what it all means.
So let’s think about that just for a moment (remember – learning to see Scripture not as not a bunch of facts, but as something to be lived out?).
In what ways have we become trapped, or enslaved – or imprisoned. It’s a powerful picture of what life can be like without the love of Jesus. In so many ways we’re enslaved to what other people think of us – making sure we’re understood properly, that we’re deemed successful, or well-off – that we look the way society demands – having the right body, or wearing the right clothes – and (as James and John were asking) – making sure we’re not overlooked and that we figure high up in the pecking order. And what a price God had to pay to show us a new and living, different way
In a book entitled Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli – another minister who died a few years ago, he says “What landed Jesus on the cross was the preposterous idea that common, ordinary, broken, screwed-up people (like you and me) could be godly.” The spirituality Jesus is looking for in his disciples is not about how important they feel, or even about competent they are – it’s about intimacy with him. Sure.. the disciples were committed to Jesus – they were ready to follow him anywhere – but they were also troubled by personal in-fighting, always jockeying for position, suspicious of each other, impulsive, selfish, lazy and disloyal. Most of the time they hadn’t a clue what Jesus was talking about – and when he died they didn’t have a notion about what to do next. It sounds like you and I are in good company. So what Yaconelli calls messy spirituality is “the delirious consequence of a life ruined by Jesus who will love us right into his arms.”
I’d love to be part of a Christian community where there’s no pretending wouldn’t you? Where we can be honest and vulnerable with each other. Because when folks who have been walking with Jesus through the messiness and struggles and questions of the week then get together on a Sunday to worship there’s going to be such a sense of celebration (and relief that we’re not struggling on our own) – and not just on occasions when we feel so inclined – but regularly, wholeheartedly - because this is part of what it means to be a Christian community that accepts people – warts and all – and where we’re learning to live as forgiven people; people who are so very grateful that they’ve been rescued by a gracious God who promises to always be with us.
Then our Eucharist together will truly be a thanksgiving feast!