Sermon, October 18, 2015

Becoming Great
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, 
Bradford, Vermont
October 18, 2015    Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 91; Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45

Today’s scriptures present a difficult problem to untangle.

Psalm 91 says, “Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you.”  And, “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them and show them my salvation.”

That is comforting, but Isaiah says of God’s servant, “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”  And, “It was the will of God to crush him with pain.”

Then Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  And he said, “The cup that I drink you will drink.”

Here is the problem: Jesus made God his refuge and dwelling place, yet evil befell him.  He called to God on the cross, and God did not answer.  God did not rescue him.

It is crucial that we try to understand these contradictory scriptures because we all drink from Christ’s cup.  This is our life they are talking about, you and me and this church.  Paul said we are to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, “who…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…. and…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2)  Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2)

Christ living in us means the crucified one, the one whom God crushes with pain, the one who suffers injustice, the one who lays down his life for others, the one who appears to the world to be abandoned by God—all that sorrow living inside us.

But we know crucifixion was not the end, resurrection followed, so Christ living in us also means the one whom God is with in times of trouble, the one God saves and highly exalts.  It means the one who in his anguish sees light.

We have in us the combination of these contradictory scriptures, Christ the anguished suffering servant who is at the same time Christ the saved and saving light of the world.

The drama of the gospel passage helps us see why this is so important to understand.  Like last week’s story of the rich man who wanted to know how to earn eternal life, today’s passage starts with spiritual ambition.  James and John, two leading disciples, ask Jesus to grant them special honor and glory in heaven.

Jesus responds by saying they do not know what they are asking.  He says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”  And they say proudly and ignorantly, yes.  Jesus tells them that they will indeed go through what he will go through.

Then the other ten learn how John and James have tried to exalt themselves, and they get angry.  They all want those seats of honor, but Jesus explains that they have it wrong.  In the secular world great ones boss others around and make others serve them, but in God’s realm the great must be everyone else’s servant and lay down their lives for others.

Christ is very clear that we are not to focus on gaining glory or ruling over others, but human nature being what it is, we keep following in James and John’s footsteps, disguising it the best we can.

There is a story from the Jewish tradition that illustrates this.  One Sabbath after the people had all left the synagogue and the custodian was sweeping up, the rabbi ran to the ark and fell to his knees and beat his chest, crying out, “O God, I am nothing, I am nothing!”  The cantor, not to be outdone, ran and joined him, beating his chest and crying out, “O God, I am nothing, I am nothing!”  The custodian, swept up by their fervor, dropped his broom and ran and knelt beside them and beat his chest and said, “O God, I am nothing, I am nothing!”  The rabbi turned to the cantor and said under his breath, “Ha! Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

If we hear the Gospel story and think, “Oh, good!  Now I know how to earn eternal glory, all I have to do is be everyone’s servant,” we have missed the point and are heading in the opposite direction.  Yet there is a part of each of us that will try to get us to do exactly that.

The drama of the Gospel story takes place within us each.  We have a Christ self in us, but we also have a James and John.  We have our true, servant self, which is “the God who is our deepest me,” as Saint Catherine of Genoa put it, and we have our false self, the selfish self, the part of us that wants to be great, that wants to be more powerful, popular or wealthy than others and have the seats of honor.

What happens between these two selves within us is exactly what Isaiah describes.  There is a power struggle.  The selfish self will do anything to get what it feels we need.  It will make us overwork or overindulge or get sick with worry, anger or resentment.  It will override the meek servant self within us, and crucify it over and over.

This true, Christ-self bears the infirmities and diseases brought on by the domineering false self.  It gets wounded for our transgressions, and yet a miraculous thing happens.  While the suffering our selfish, false self brings on us causes it to despair and grow weaker through its anguish, the suffering causes our true, Christ self to grow wiser and stronger.  The bruises it receives heal us.

In our anguish, our true, humble self turns to God, and it sees the light that shines in the darkness.  It enables us to fill with that light and become a light to others.  Our Christ self becomes the salvation of our false self by restoring us to our rightful place as servant, led by the compassion and wisdom our suffering has taught us.

Our false self brings about our fall, but that becomes the best thing that could have happened to us because as our false self despairs, our true self rises from the tomb.

This inner drama never ends, not even for the most spiritually advanced saints.  You may remember the story of the monk from the famous monasteries of Mt. Athos who came to visit a Russian village.  The villagers asked him to describe what the monks did there, because they had heard stories of amazing miracles.  They wanted to hear about the glory and greatness.  The monk was silent for a minute and then said, “We fall and get up, we fall and get up, we fall and get up.”

That is the best we can do, keep falling into our false self and getting back up again and turning to the true self of Christ within us.  If we do that, we find what God promises: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them and show them my salvation.”  The Christ self in us experiences this and knows it is real.

We naturally do what Jesus calls us to do when we are living from our true self.  Pope Francis said,  “The more that you unite yourself to Christ and he becomes the center of your life, the more he leads you out of yourself, leads you from making yourself the center and opens you to others.”  We make ourselves nothing, not because of false-self pride, like the rabbi and the cantor, but because to serve is the joy of our true self.  Theologian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Albert Schweitzer, said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

This is true for us as individuals, but a church also has these two selves.  Part of a congregation’s culture is to love and serve like Christ, to greet every person with compassion, care and support and help all people become their truest, Christ self.  But another part of a congregation’s culture is like James and John.  It wants to be holier than thou with the glory of power or popularity or wealth.  It crucifies the other part of it that wants just to love and serve as the Holy Spirit leads.

A church culture suffers when it loses its focus on Christ’s way of humble love.  It grows weaker and can die.  But out of that suffering the Christ self grows wiser and stronger.  The church is resurrected every time it falls and gets up and returns to Christ’s way of loving and serving one another and the world.

This is the church’s hope for greatness, and it is exactly what is happening in this congregation.  Last night the Board of Mission and Social Action sent out an email inviting us all to join them attending a meeting on sponsoring Syrian refugees.  The Board of Mission and the Diaconate have started work on a series of public presentations next year to help communities heal from wounds and learn healthy ways of communicating in times of conflict.  The communication guidelines in the bulletin are a great step toward putting loving, respecting and serving one another ahead of all else.

We see greatness in small ways every week, too.  Mary Sanborn will tell you of the outpouring of love that she felt after her stroke, and those who served her will tell of their joy.  Or look at the love between Eris and Morgen, one of our oldest members and one of our youngest, who have adopted one another and filled this congregation with the light of their friendship.

With every selfless, Christ-like act of loving kindness and service, we are becoming great.   Let us pray in silence…