Jesus did call together an eclectic group of disciples: successful fishermen, a tax collector working for the Roman empire, a zealot seeking to overthrow the Roman empire, as well as several other oddballs and eccentrics. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus would call two brothers, who spent too much time posturing for power and position. Maybe I’m overreaching, but I think we witness some thunderous behavior by these brothers in today’s gospel.
Today’s passage is the third and final time Jesus foretells his suffering, death, and resurrection.******
Immediately afterwards, James and John approach Jesus:
“Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”
“What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”
“Arrange it so we can sit in the highest place of honor- one at your right and the other at your left.”
Jesus tells them:
“You have no idea what you are asking.”
James and John, certainly are functioning a bit like thunder. In response to Jesus' incomprehensible news, they turn their attention to how they might benefit, towards how they might amplify their power and position. And they are doing it quite loudly, causing a roar of discord amongst the disciples. Thankfully, Jesus once again redirects all the disciples, expanding what it means to be great.
“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around...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 great must become a servant.
In this movement, to be great, is to abandon the pursuit of our own self-centered interests. Stephanie Spellers, in her breathtaking book, The Church Cracked Open, describes Jesus as calling us to: “Move your body, your resources, your power and your heart into place among the hurting people with whom Jesus already stands. That’s when you gain abundant life, because that’s when you begin to experience Jesus-shaped life.”******
She goes on to say, discipleship is a call to: “Commit to behaviors and relationships that nourish rather than dominate, share rather than hoard. If the self-centric way of empire prizes self and group above all else, and exploits and controls others for the prosperity and peace of those at the center, the way of love is its opposite.”******
Let’s face it. It can be hard to remain in servant mode. It is a way of moving through this life with a frame of mind and heart that cares deeply for the neighbor, for walking the way of love. Yet like other things that are important to us, such as eating healthy, exercising, spending time with family, performing our jobs to the best of our abilities-- we have to remain intentional, to be mindful of maintaining a servant's heart. We’ll never get it perfectly, but if we show up faithfully each day we are doing the best we can.
So what does it look like to follow Jesus’ command to be a servant? Well, today we are celebrating the ministries of two women who have done a pretty lovely job of showing up faithfully with a servant’s heart.
Back in 2012, former St. James was in the midst of a clergy transition. In any parish, transition can be a delicate time, as there are usually one or two tender and unique dynamics at play. As a result, the parish named Rev. Jane Dunning, a retired priest already familiar to the parish, as their Priest Associate. During that time of transition, Jane served as long term supply with another local priest, offered pastoral support, and faithfully encouraged the wardens. When the parish called a young and inexperienced priest to serve their community, Jane encouraged the parish to remain open hearted and minded, that their new priest might have new ways of doing things. And that is how I still see Jane serving us today. She has a gift for encouraging people, for helping folks to remember that all will be well, that God really is with us. She has walked beside so many of us in worship, offering pastoral care, presiding at weddings and funerals. She is also a treasure of the firefighting community, as she serves these young people, who often experience trauma in the line of duty. Jane, wherever she goes, brings a gift of encouragement. And while she has stepped down as our Priest Associate, her servant ministry continues in the ways she shows up each week and continues to encourage us to trust that all is in Gods’ hands.
Our other servant leader is, of course, our beloved Deacon Ann Wood. Some of you long timers know this, but I bet others might not. Ann began her journey to the diaconate at former St. James. She was a parishioner, one with a servant’s heart, who felt a call to go forth and serve. Former St. James sponsored her in the ordination process, and then bid her a prayerful farewell, as she went on to serve numerous churches in the Pioneer Valley. Part of her servant ministry during those years was serving as a chaplain at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.
In 2016, Ann explored with the bishop what it might look like to return home, serving one last parish before retiring. Thankfully for us, the bishop blessed her coming back to former St. James, where only months later we merged with former St. Andrew’s and became an entirely new community of faith- Saints James and Andrew. During Ann’s time with us I have come to have such gratitude for her gifts for pastoral care, offering prayers, and the laying on of hands. Every time I have seen her lay hands on someone for healing prayers, it is as if you can see the Holy Spirit moving in and through her. It’s humbling and beautiful. She has been a voice of wisdom that we have come to count on at our biweekly clergy and warden meetings, and she remains a chaplain to us as she leads us in prayer, grounding our work in God.
Ordinarily, when folks retire, we also have to say farewell. We are fortunate to keep these two wonderful servants, now in new roles as parishioners. In a few moments, we will offer special prayers and thanksgiving for their ministry.
But first, I want to highlight that while it is not always easy to be a servant, as we can get distracted, we can even get a bit thunderous, we know if we keep showing up and trying our best that we too can move forward with servant’s hearts. We’ve seen it modeled so beautifully by these two women, by one another, and even by these occasionally thunderous disciples of Jesus.
This week, how will we each go forth to love and serve? Amen.
* Mark 3:17
**** Google’s definition of thunderous.
***** Adapting a phrase coined by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
****** Mark 10:35-45 The Message
****** Stephanie Spellers, The Church Cracked Open, pg 87-88
Before we dive into Esther’s story, a word of caution. Ordinarily, the hero of a story is the person we might relate to the most, imagining how our own heroes are emulating similar actions and leadership in today’s context. Yet for many of us living in North America, with a fair amount of privilege and access to resources, we actually have more in common with the people of Persia and the empire.** So instead of hearing this story and wondering how it relates to our own journey, I’d like to invite us to imagine that Esther represents a hero of an oppressed and marginalized community walking beside us.
The question to keep with us as we move through Esther’s story is:
Who may be speaking up right now that we urgently need to be listening to?
Alright, let’s dive in:
Esther is an orphan, and part of a marginalized minority group. If children were at the bottom of the social order as we spoke about last week, you can imagine where an orphan child from a minority group was going to rank on that hierarchy. Thankfully, she had a cousin named Mordecai who could raise her.
Now Mordecai frequently sat at the king’s gate, which is how he learned about King Ahasuerus (A-has-u-erus)’s latest scandal. After six months of partying, surprise, surprise, the king was drunk. As a rule, this king tended to be more concerned with having fun than actually exercising leadership. In his drunken state, he demands for his queen to come to him at once. As she was in the midst of hosting her own gathering, she declined to come.
The king was outraged by Queen Vashti’s refusal. So much so, that he spoke to his lawyers about how the law might punish her. The lawyers suggested that not only had Queen Vashti offended the king, by not coming to him when called for, but she had also offended every male in the kingdom. For if Queen Vashti did not go to her husband when called, soon, other women would begin to disobey their husbands! While Queen Vashti kept her life, she was removed from her position as queen.
When Mordecai realized the king was looking for a new queen, he sent Esther to the palace and made her promise not to tell anyone she was Jewish. He promised to come by the gate each day to check on her. To be clear, he is trafficking Esther to be a child concubine, in the hopes that she might become the next queen.**
Esther was one of many beautiful young women who underwent a year of beauty treatments before they each were given an evening with the king. When it was Esther’s turn with the king, he loved her more than all the others, and made her the new queen of Persia.
For the most part, the king seems to focus his attention on whatever will give him pleasure in a given moment, while leaving the governing to his new prime minister, Haman. Here’s a shocker: the guy the king puts in a position of great power is greedy and lusts after more power and status. Which is why it should come as no surprise that the new prime minister actually expected people to bow to him whenever he passed by. And everyone did bow, except for Mordecai.
This deeply irritated Haman. When he learns that Mordecai is a Jew, he actually plots to kill all the Jewish people within the kingdom. Haman suggests to the king that there were a people scattered throughout the kingdom who were not keeping the king’s laws, and the best way forward was to eliminate these people. The king, spineless as ever, agrees, and a date was set for the ethnic cleansing of all the Jewish people within the 127 provinces of the kingdom.
When Mordecai overhears these plans, he exchanges his clothes for a sackcloth and wails outside the king’s gate. Through a messenger, he asks Queen Esther to speak up to the king on behalf of her people. This put Queen Esther in a difficult position. If she approached the king without being summoned, she could end up with a similar fate as Queen Vashti, or worse, she could be killed. Yet Mordecai pressed her on the matter:
“Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this”
Queen Esther agrees to approach the king, and instructs Mordecai to gather the Jewish people and fast for three days. On the third day, Esther puts on her robes and approaches the king, who gladly welcomes her in. In fact, he was so delighted with her that he offered her anything she wanted. She asks for the king and prime minister to join her for a special meal the next day.
Meanwhile, Haman is just about done with Mordecai’s disrespect, and at his wife’s encouragement, he has a gallow built, and plans to ask the king to hang Mordecai. And that plan just might have worked, had the king not found himself tossing and turning, unable to sleep that night. He asked one of his servants to bring him the book of record and read it to him. And it just so happened, that the servant read about the time a man named Mordecai saved the king from two guards who had plotted to kill him.
When the king realized nothing had been done to honor this man, he sent for the prime minister so they might honor this hero. Yet Haman arrogantly assumes the king must want to honor him, and suggests offering the man royal robes and horses. You can imagine Haman’s horror when the king asks him to adorn Mordecai, standing there in his sackcloth outside the gate, with royal robes.
Alas. Later that evening, Queen Esther hosts the king and prime minister, and they have such a wonderful time that the king offers Esther anything she wants. Queen Esther answered,“If I have found favor in your eyes, O King, and if it please the king, give me my life, and give my people their lives. We’ve been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed—sold to be massacred, eliminated.”
(Esther 7:13-14 The Message).
Stunned, the king asked who would presume to do such a thing. Queen Esther tells him--a foe, an enemy, this Haman. The king, overcome with anger, storms out into the palace garden, while Haman throws himself upon Queen Esther and begs for his life. Yet when King Ahasuerus walks back in, all he sees is Haman on top of Esther, and he is consumed with rage that Haman would dare assault his queen, in his own house, in his own presence!
From there, things shifted pretty quickly:
This is not a disney-esque princess story. These are powerful leaders of empire, using their power, authority, and privilege to gain their most selfish desires. The king uses young women and alcohol in order to meet his every bodily need. The prime minister seeks to use his position to annihilate his enemy and plan genocide. Even the uncle, while hoping to gain some respect for his oppressed people, is willing to potentially sacrifice his cousin’s self-agency in order to get it.
Yet this young queen is smart, and knows exactly what these men want and crave. She plays them; using her bodily assets, charm, and wit to save her people. Her actions shine a light into the bleakest corners of their kingdom.
Queen Esther is one example of many unsung heroes, who are doing everything within their power to cry out on behalf of their people. To bring an end to injustice, prejudice, hatred, and oppression.
Who may be speaking up right now that we urgently need to be listening to?
How might we, as a people of faith, engage in the essential work of amplifying their voices?
* See Mary Joan Winn Leith’s commentary in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Vision, edited by Michael D. Coogan.
**See Elaine T. James commentary at WorkingPreacher.org for more information on reading this book from this framework.
We heard the first prediction last Sunday in Mark 8; today we heard the second prediction in Mark 9; then the third and final prediction takes place in Mark 10. (8:27-33; 9:30-37; 10:32-34) In each instance, Jesus of Nazareth explains that he will be rejected by the religious authorities, undergo great suffering and death, and then will rise again. Why does Jesus keep bringing this up?
One possible reason could be to ensure the disciples clearly understand Jesus’ identity and purpose. When Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, they respond: some say John the Baptist; others Elijah; still others one of the prophets. They knew their leader was the messiah.
Yet not the messiah figure so many had imagined-- which was more of a warrior political figure. Jesus of Nazareth was a martyr messiah, willing to die for the sake of God’s dream.* Ready to stand against the power and privilege of the empire, against the narrow vision of religious authorities; all for the sake of the marginalized and oppressed, for the sake of God’s extravagant and radical love. Never has there been a messiah figure quite like this one, before or since.
Another possible reason for these predictions may have been to help the disciples better understand the meaning of discipleship. It is worth noting that in each instance where Jesus predicts his future, the disciples get kind of weird. They get critical, puffed up, and are jockeying for positions.
In other words, the disciples miss the mark. Their beloved is telling them something essential about who they are and why they have started this movement. We all know what it is like when a loved one does not hear something important. We are trying to tell them about who we are, and they get uncomfortable, afraid, uncertain, anxious, hoping to talk about almost anything else. Fear will do that to us.
And as fun as it might be to point at the disciples’ foolishness and laugh, let’s be real. We are cut from the same cloth, carrying our own set of insecurities, misconstrued beliefs, and self-interests.
None of this seems to surprise Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have a deep understanding of how humans are wired. So in spite of the disciples’ awkward responses, Jesus maintains the mission, and uses each misstep as an opportunity for redirection. Naming precisely what all disciples, then and now, will need to face within.
Following the first prediction, Peter criticizes Jesus’ behavior. Ever the teacher, Jesus has a moment of directness with a particularly trying student, and says, Get behind me, Satan!
(An expression that teachers everywhere will surely want to adopt for their own use in the classroom.)
He then proceeds to use this as a teaching moment where he essentially tells them: You need to cast aside your limiting beliefs. Limiting beliefs are the thoughts and opinions which we believe to be absolute truths.* * They tend to have a negative impact on our professional and personal lives, by preventing us from moving forward.**
One of Peter’s limiting beliefs was that Jesus’ strength as the Messiah could prevent him from experiencing any real harm, let alone suffering and death. It was unfathomable that Peter and his fellow disciples might have to return to their former lives or continue the movement without their teacher. This limiting belief prevented Peter from hearing an important truth. Nonetheless, Jesus takes this opportunity to reinforce what it means to be a disciple. If we want to embody the core values of this movement, we must be ready to deny ourselves and follow the way of love. Letting go of everything we hold dear: our possessions, relationships, and yes, even our limiting beliefs; those ideas and opinions which prevent us from moving forward and growing as disciples.
We see Jesus carry this theme forward, into the conversations that follow his second and third predictions, where James and John begin by bickering over who is the greatest, and later wonder if they might position themselves at the right and left hand of Jesus. Their teacher redirects them, expanding what it means to be great.In this movement, to be great, is to abandon the pursuit of our own self-centered interests.To instead harness any power and privilege we may have to transform this world from the nightmare it is to so many, into the dream God created it to be.***
Sitting down with the twelve, Jesus,
“...said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (9:36-37).
The reason Jesus uses the child as an example is because within their culture, children held the lowest possible social status. In asking the disciples to welcome children and be their servant, Jesus was essentially saying, Welcome all who have been pushed to the edges, those who are invisible and are suffering. Be their servants and friends. These are the people we are here to walk beside as we strive for justice and mercy. And not so we might take on some dysfunctional savior like role for the marginalized. Jesus wants us to use any privilege we may have to amplify the voices of the marginalized and to proclaim God’s dream for this world. Let it be a force of love that will shake this world upside down, and right side up again.*** In order for us to live this kind of radical love, we need to pay attention to our tendency of becoming preoccupied with our own selves, and instead look at the bigger picture of our families, communities, and world.
These predictions remind us of Jesus’ identity and purpose, and they teach us about living as disciples. Like Peter, James, and John, we are going to muck up and go sideways sometimes.
We get caught up in our fear and anxiety.
We get stuck by our limiting beliefs.
We become preoccupied with ourselves, and pay less attention to our neighbors.
We stand in safety with the empire, enjoying the plunder provided to us by our social status amongst the powerful and privileged.
We deny God’s dream, and hide under rocks.
To grapple with any of these challenges is to embrace the fullness of our humanity.
And I am pretty sure that it gives God great joy every time we try our best to live fully and faithfully.
To choose to walk in love, with God’s help.
To choose to persevere in resisting evil, with God’s help.
To choose to pursue justice and mercy, with God’s help.
To choose to respect the dignity of every human being and creation herself, with God’s help.
This week, I want to invite each of us to reflect on our experience as disciples.
Where do we find ourselves getting stuck the most?
Is it our Fear? Anxiety? Limiting Beliefs?
Our own self interests? Our power and privilege?
How might Christ be inviting us to grow and evolve as disciples?
What support and resources do we need to take those next steps?
* Richard A. Horsley, commentary on Mark (pg 1791-2) in the Fully Revised Fourth
Edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
***Adapting a phrase coined by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
For John, it’s clear that Jesus has always been divine.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”**
The Jesus we meet in John’s gospel has been described as uncreated and imperishable. *In this framework, Jesus comes from God, descending to live amongst us, and serves as a mediator between God and humanity.* Jesus is the perfect mediator, being fully God and fully human.* From the beginning, we know that just as Jesus descended, he will once again ascend to return in unity with God.*
Whereas in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is wiggle room for the when and how, and even whether, Jesus becomes divine. Was it at the incarnation? At his baptism? In any case, unlike John, it was not before time began.
Who knows what the ‘right answer’ is, or whether such a thing even exists. Some of us might know squarely where we stand and how we understand the nature, role, and person of Jesus. And that’s cool. All I know is my own experience.
When I become absolutely certain of something, I usually find myself being pushed back by some other idea or experience. Yet when I remain more curious than certain, I find I am drawn to different aspects of God and different ways of understanding Jesus. Instead of feeling righteous, I feel a sense of calm and content, as I make this journey through life and faith.
This means there are moments when I do hold a high christology like John and support this idea that Jesus was always divine.* For me the story of the incarnation has always meant the most, whereas for others it might be the cross and resurrection. This means Christmas is my favorite high holy day, and it’s not for the presents, or at least not in the way our culture thinks about presents. The gift that God would take on human flesh to walk beside us is a source of deep connection. I know when I pray and worship God, that this God knows everything I feel and experience, the greatest joys and pains of this life.
There are other times, where I am not even sure Jesus’ divinity really matters. Maybe Jesus is divine, as we all are, made in the image and likeness of God. Maybe there is nothing extraordinary about this prophet, healer, and teacher, beyond their deep connection with the divine and God’s dream for this world.
In other words, there well may be a spectrum of how we might understand the nature, role, and person of Jesus. In some ways, it should come as no surprise that there is such a wide range of interpretations on the purpose of Jesus, or any other matter the Church has historically cared about.
Maybe at this point you are wondering why I am still yammering on about these differences, many of which may be old news to you. Yet this spectrum of understanding is an important factor when we approach the gospels.
Take this Sunday’s lesson.* * *
We are in the fifth and final week with John 6. Jesus, the twelve, and many other disciples are in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is expanding on his earlier teachings in this chapter, affirming that not only is he the living bread, but that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will abide in him, just as Jesus abides in God.
This is uncomfortable for the crowd, even sacrilege. For in the Jewish tradition, blood was life itself.**** There were an abundance of purity laws: due to the blood that was passed in childbirth, women would undergo a period of impurity for 40 days if she bore a son, and 80 days if she bore a daughter.***** The reason for the extra 40 days was because that newborn daughter would someday have the lifeforce to bear children herself.
This is one small example of many within scripture. So you can imagine why some of the disciples, upon hearing they would be drinking his blood, felt a little overwhelmed and doubtful.
The teacher met their discomfort and alarm by asking: “Does this offend you?”
For some of the disciples the unspoken response was, “Uh, yeah…”
Jesus acknowledges that there are some amongst him who do not believe. And remember, because this is John’s gospel, the Jesus before us is an all knowing, uncreated, and imperishable being in full communion with God. Simply by looking at the gathered people, he can separate the wheat from the chaff, who believes and who does not.*
At this moment, some disciples rejected Jesus’ teaching. The departing disciples could not fully swallow this idea of Jesus descending and ascending, that this truly was the all-knowing Christ Jesus.
Jesus turns to the twelve and essentially asks, “And you? What’s your choice?”
To which Simon Peter cries out on behalf of the twelve an unapologetic, ‘We believe!’
What does this story tell us about how we practice Christianity?
For so long we have gone along with the binary frameworks we have been offered by authors, like the one who composed John’s gospel. We have been taught historically that to be a Christian we have to be all in, like the disciples in today’s gospel. The author of this gospel sees the world as so many of us were raised to see it: with tunnel vision and either/or thinking, when what we really need is both/and, or better yet, a spectrum, a rainbow of different ways of looking at things and understanding them.
It needs to be okay to be unsure about it all, to doubt and question. When we are offered binary options, we need to know it is okay to push back and use our reason. After all, reason is an essential part of our Anglican three legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason.
My hope is that we each might become more curious than certain as we take in the gospels, how the passages relate to our lives, and what it tells us about the role, nature, and person of Jesus.
This week, I invite you to do some reflecting:
I would encourage you to share your thoughts with a spouse, friend, or fellow parishioners. Go for a walk or a cup of coffee and share your insights and questions. As a community, let’s get comfortable being a bit uncomfortable, asking hard questions, and letting there be space for doubt in our faith. Let’s learn to talk about the things we’ve never felt okay to talk about. In the end, getting curious about our faith can help us to expand our root system, to have conversations we never imagined possible, and to find new ways of seeing the God of Love in action throughout scripture, tradition, and life itself. Amen.
*The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition. Editor- Michael Coogan. Commentary by Jerome H. Neyrey pgs 1879-1881.
****Genesis 9:4 and Deuteronomy 12:23
Meet our Preachers
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.