You make the winds your messengers * and flames of fire your servants...
Stewardship Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2015
St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT
You can just imagine the scene… three of us at a Stewardship Committee meeting deciding on which part of stewardship we are going to preach about over the next three weeks… facing one another like three bad guys in a Clint Eastwood movie… the upside down hat on the table between us, with three slips of paper inside. Dorothy Sieberg reaches in and pulls out a slip of paper… “time" it says…. She breathes a sigh of relief. Stephanie Brandon reaches in for her slip of paper… smiling, she says “talent". I know at that point of course, that I will get to preach on “treasure"… the most popular part of stewardship, and certainly the one dearest to the hearts of Christians everywhere! Alas…
Today’s Gospel continues one of my favorite parts of Mark’s brilliant narrative… Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in Chapter 10. It begins with the disciples speaking sternly (sternly… that’s what it says) to people who were bringing little children to Jesus. Jesus sets them straight: “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it". That sets up the theme of the story. Then, Jesus “sets out of a journey". Right away, he gets interrupted by the Rich Young Man. We’re told that Jesus LOVED this young man (he didn’t ADMIRE him… or give him a pledge card… he loved him…), but alas, the young man tries to receive the Kingdom of God through his wealth and not as a little child, and he goes away grieving. It seems as though wealth is not the way of THIS Kingdom. Jesus continues his trip and Mark tells us the destination: Jerusalem… where there are Romans. Jesus is walking ahead of everyone… one might imagine that is face has a hard set, and Mark says that those who followed were afraid. Jesus tells them frankly what will happen when they get there… they have reason to be afraid.
The journey is interrupted by an argument among the disciples, because, in today’s Gospel, James and John are trying to receive the Kingdom of God through power… political power… rather than as little children. Jesus says
“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. But it is not so among you; 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."
Jesus’ final interruption is Blind Bartaemaeus. Mark hints as to how Blind Baraemaeus expects to receive the Kingdom of God… the disciples “sternly ordered him to be quiet" when he cried out to the Lord. Sternly! That’s Mark’s signal that Blind Bertaemaeus is going to receive the Kingdom of God… like what?... like a child… HE gets it right! So it’s not being an adult, it’s not wealth, it’s not power, and it’s not those of us who think we “see" things the right way...right enough to suush children and blind people. None of that helps us to receive the Kingdom of God… it’s more like being a child… or a blind person who receives their sight.
In 166 BC (about 200 years before Jesus’ crucifixion), a ragtag Jewish Army under Judas Maccabeus crushed the Syrian Army at Beth-Horon. First Maccabees Chapter 3 tells the story:
"When (the Syrians) approached the ascent of Beth-horon, Judas went out to meet (them) with a small company… They said to Judas, ‘How can we, few as we are, fight against so great and so strong a multitude? …Judas replied, ‘It is easy for many to be hemmed in by few, for in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the size of the army that victory in battle depends, but strength comes from Heaven… He himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them.’ "
200 years later, in 66 AD (33 years after the crucifixion of Jesus), the Roman garrison in Jerusalem plundered the temple and executed 6000 Jews in Jerusalem, starting the First Jewish War. Very quickly, the rebels destroyed the Roman garrison in Jerusalem and then ambushed and crushed the 12th Roman Legion that was sent from Syria to respond. Guess where that battle was? Beth Horan. That was taken to be a divine signal: “THIS revolution is an act of GOD… THIS is what God is up to… just like the Maccabees!" The Romans responded as the Romans always did…with five Legions. It didn’t end well for the rebellion.
I point out these two book-end military to events to put Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in a context that may be unfamiliar to us today. Jesus was not the first person to claim to be Israel’s Messiah. There were at least eleven before and after Jesus who made that claim, and undoubtedly, many others whose names were lost to history. WHAT were people looking for in the Messiah? One who would CRUSH the Romans just as Judas Maccabeus crushed the Syrians… that’s what they expected and that, if you read between the lines in Mark, is what they expected of Jesus.
“Jesus, what do you mean to suffer the little children? We have Romans to crush… we need adults for that work! Why did you send that rich young man away? We need money to buy weapons! We need horses! We need his pledge for God’s sake! Yeah, yeah, all that cross stuff is interesting Jesus, but what about swords? The Romans have swords you know. Of course, we need war leaders Jesus… we get the servant thing… great idea, thanks for that tip… but John will lead the ambush from the right and James from the left. How is a shouting blind man supposed to shoot an arrow…tell him to shut up! Jesus…will this be like Judas Maccabeus, where the few defeat the many? Will God crush the Romans like he did the Syrians? Is this what the Kingdom of God will be like? Is this what God is up to now?"
Mark seems to say “No… armed rebellion is NOT what God was up to, but rather, something else". Mark was suggesting I think that the whole Christian way is upside down and inside out… it’s nonsensical because it’s NOT about crushing the Romans or crushing anybody… The disciples approached their faith like adults and were told to be like children… they tried to influence it with wealth and were told that it is impossible… they tried to enter the Kingdom of God with power and were told to be like servants… they think they see clearly and it turns out that they’re the ones who are blind and the blind are the ones who see. They see Jesus striding ahead, his face set like flint toward certain disaster and they are deeply afraid.
Our context today is not the one of Jesus’ time or of Mark’s time. We don’t have Roman oppressors over us or Judas Maccabaeus to remember. But today, we DO have other kinds of oppression over the world and right here in Southeastern Connecticut: homelessness, poverty, hunger, mental sickness, people in prison and coming out of prison, joblessness. And we still have the living God… alive in Jesus Christ… alive to us in the face of our neighbor. We have the Holy Spirit within us blowing like the wind where it will… transforming our minds... carrying the powerful message of the Gospel through us, and kindling flames of fire in the hearts of those who hear it. We have our own context in our own time. Indeed, we are most faithful when we are responsive… responsive to the times we live in. And being responsive in The Kingdom of God seems means the same thing today that it did on that journey to Jerusalem; healing what is broken, reconciling what is estranged, restoring what is torn asunder.
I see strong evidence that St. James being responsive to the times we live in. At our last Vestry meeting, Jan Dargel was talking about the Sunday School program for the children of our Parish Someone asked “I wonder if we might engage with some of the children at the housing area across the street… I bet some of them might like to come to Sunday School". Oh yeah… that’s a responsive idea. I wonder if we could work WITH our neighbors over there? Could we do that? I think we might. We might need some language help… where would we find that? We might need to take some risk, and it might not work out… but I bet we could have a ministry with our neighbors across the street like that. That might be healing… there might be reconciliation and restoration in that.
The Lord’s Pantry is all about responsiveness to poverty in this community. It was not so long ago that it WAS a pantry! We bagged up what we had and that’s what they got… whether they needed it or not! We provided OUR solution FOR people who had food problems… it was good and it served. But THEN… we transformed that Pantry… NOW, St. James has the largest volunteer food pantry in the region. We work WITH our guests… THEY choose what they want. AND, we have Mormons! Young Mormon missionaries who collaborate with us and bring a lot of energy and Mormon kindness to our guests. Is it easier?…. NO it’s harder! There is stress on our volunteers… just ask them!… people complain “why did THAT person get more than me? THAT’S UNFAIR!" It IS unfair… it’s cross-shaped. But it is ALSO healing, and reconciling, and restoring a problem in this city… WITH our neighbors across the street and across the region. Community is messy… but that seems to be God’s strategy; what God is up to.
This is what it looks like when we are responsive to God individually and as the Body of Christ… when we follow Jesus on the way. As disciples, we have a personal relationship with God. Through our Baptism we are commissioned…co-missioned…to participate in God’s mission of healing reconciliation and restoration… we might have spiritual practices that sustain us like prayer or meditation… a might have a personal ministry like visiting the sick… we say “this is MY ministry". As disciples, we are also part of a worshiping community called St. James where we are formed, equipped, and sent as disciples and apostles to proclaim the good news. Some come together at St. James to serve at the Saturday Community Meal, or to collect cold weather clothes for school children. Part of our common life is to provide space for others… we have one of the largest collections of 12 step programs in the region… that is a LOT of healing. As disciples, we might also be part of a Ministry Network across the state with a focus on something that calls many people together around a common interest us like food ministries, homelessness, or violence for example. There are over thirty of these ministry networks in our Diocese already. These networks collaborate with other Episcopalians, other faith communities, and service organizations who share a strong interest in that area of ministry. In that network, some are leaders… some are gatherers…they’re up for trying out new ideas. As disciples, we are also part of The Seabury Deanery, our regional gathering of eight Episcopal Parishes in Southeast Connecticut that is doing more together than any one Parish could do alone, like missionary work in Ecuador. We search to find other partners in this region like The Church of the City or Congregation Beth El Synagogue… maybe we apply for a couple of grants together… we might hire a “Regional Missionary" who helps us convene, connect, collaborate, and build capacity. We might hire a new Priest in the Deanery who does not have a Parish, but helps us all to focus on something in common like prison ministry. As disciples, we are also part of the ECCT, our Diocese, which is a common witness of all of this, AND at the same time, we are missionaries of our Missionary Society (did you know that?). We have Bishops, common prayer, common policy-standards, common resources… we make decisions about our common life together at convention, in Ministry Networks, and in Ministry Regions like Seabury Deanery. As disciples, we are also part of TEC and the Anglican Communion working on our common life together across the nation and across the world… working WITH others to heal, reconcile, and restore the whole world. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are on a journey… our relationships to Jesus and to our neighbors get deepened as we live out our baptismal vows personally and with others who are part of the Body of Christ.
Jesus was on a journey to inaugurate a NEW Kingdom… the Kingdom of God…to die on a cross…it had nothing to do with crushing the Romans, but being crushed BY them. And if dying on a cross was God’s solution to the problem of the world… that says something about how bad the problem was and is, doesn’t it? But thanks be to God that Jesus was resurrected! THAT act confirmed him as the true Messiah of Israel, but not the Messiah that anyone expected… it put God’s seal of approval on what Jesus said and did… and it gave US, his disciples, the ministry of healing, reconciliation, and restoration… something that is both cross-shaped AND resurrection shaped. Resurrection confirmed the “good news" that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not…that a child’s perspective might be more suited for the Kingdom of God than an adult’s… that wealth might be an obstacle, but the poor might be a help… that power might be an obstacle, but servant leadership might be a help… that maybe we don’t see as clearly as we might… that faith, and hope, and above all, love… are the keys to THIS Kingdom in our own day.
Now… what does any of this have to do with your treasure and your pledge?
Well… nothing at all. And everything…