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October 17, 2021

One of the most soothing television viewing experiences I had during the last year was watching the first season of All Creatures Great and Small.  It’s a new version of an old favorite, based on the autobiographical books by James Herriot.  They describe his life as a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, England, where he served for 50 years starting in the 1930’s.

In the pilot episode of the series, James shows up to be interviewed by experienced veterinarian Siegfried Farnon, the endearing but grumpy figure who will be his mentor. The interview turns out to be less interview and more actual vet visit.  They head out to a farm, where James, dressed in his nicest suit and fancy dress shoes, ends up having to slog through mud and manure, only to be kicked in the face by a horse…twice.  James is a recent graduate of veterinary school, and if he imagined having a glamorous life once he became a real veterinarian, he is soon brought face to face with reality.  Whether he is facing down a gigantic bull or has his entire arm inside a cow to help her give birth, he often finds himself in very…earthy situations.

We can probably all think of situations where our expectations of a role departed from the reality of it.  I often found that the new English teachers with whom I worked in California expected to become Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society.  They imagined that students would be inspired by their charisma to read poetry and study Shakespeare and jump up on desks quoting Walt Whitman.  As it turns out, that’s not really how high school English classrooms work.  Those of you who have played a sport have probably had visions of scoring the winning goal or sinking the three-pointer that would clinch the championship, and while that may have happened, you learned that much of playing a sport involves learning plays and running laps and executing drills and practicing the fundamentals, none of which is glamorous or dramatic.  It’s just work.  Hard work done far away from cheering fans.

When you hear today’s gospel, you can imagine that James and John are looking for the glamorous part of being a disciple to kick in.  They’ve seen what Jesus can do.  Jesus can heal people of anything – fever, paralysis, leprosy, withered hands.  He can cast out demons.  He can win any argument with the religious leaders.  He can feed thousands of people with just a few crumbs and calm a storm and bring a little girl back from the dead.  The disciples might have felt a little proud of themselves for having such proximity to the power of Jesus.  They got to see it all, right up close.  A little status by association. It’s reasonable to assume that they might at some point be given power of their own.

James and John come to Jesus with a particular request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  They want those coveted positions of honor next to a mighty ruler.  Jesus tells them that they don’t really know what they’re asking.  When he asks them if they’re prepared to drink the cup that he drinks, he’s talking not about the cup of glory, but about the cup of suffering. 

The rest of the disciples get mad at James and John for making this request.  I wonder if they’re mostly mad that they didn’t think of it first.

One of the weirdest things about James’ and John’s timing becomes clear when we hear what happened right before today’s gospel reading.

Here’s what Mark tells us:   

32They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; …Jesus took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

If it’s strange to ask Jesus for positions of honor and power, it’s even stranger to make that request just after he’s told you he’s going to be arrested, abused, tortured, and killed.  This is also the third time that Jesus has told them how he would die, and the third time that the disciples have failed to comprehend what he means.

In these terms following Jesus is more gory than glory.  There’s nothing glamorous about it.  Jesus contrasts his way of leading with the tyrants of the world, who will always exert power over others, crushing and belittling those who refuse to bow down to them. As Jesus says so pointedly: “43But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom to free us from our own sense of self-importance.  Being great means being humble.  Being great means attending to what others need more than what our egos need.

Like those scenes from All Creatures Great and Small, Jesus comes to get down in the mud and muck of life with us.  He comes to be with us where we need him the most.  He’s present wherever there is struggling or suffering, wherever there is pain or punishment.  He draws near to those who live lives of humble service with no concern whatsoever for recognition or honor or affirmation.  For Jesus, the work of bringing life out of death is not fancy work. It’s messy, bloody, difficult work that will land him on a cross.

And so Jesus teaches us that we don’t serve in order to get recognition.  We don’t do it so that other people will “owe us one.”  We do it because that’s what Jesus has taught us and shown us to do.  We do it because his own serving led to his death, which gave way to resurrection, which sets us free from being captive to the need for affirmation and attention in the first place.

As your pastor I know I don’t see all the ways that you serve, but I’m privileged to witness the ones that I do.  I see you preparing and poring over budgets.  I see you doing repairs and making this place more hospitable to the many people from our community who come here week after week.  I see you donating and sorting and distributing food each week at the Methodist Church.  I see you offering your voices to the choir, your leadership to various committees and Councils, your teaching to our children.  I see you looking out for each other in ways large and small.  Even now, looking out at your faces, I see how you are wearing masks as an expression of humble service to protect our youngest ones.

So much of your service is seen by no one other than those who receive your care.  No one else sees what happens as you prepare a meal or tuck in your kids or care for aging parents or give someone a ride to a medical appointment or prepare a card for a neighbor or pray for people facing challenges or text a friend who needs a word of encouragement.  But those things matter.  Those acts of humble service are expressions of God’s grace that hold the world together and bring hope where it is needed most.

I pray that this week you will be sustained by the Holy Spirit in this messy, unglamorous life of caring for others.  I pray that you will feel God with you in those unsung, unnoticed moments.  I pray that you, following the example of Jesus, might show up not to be served, but to serve.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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October 10, 2021

You have to admit it’s a funny question.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The man seems sincere.  He kneels before Jesus, calls him “Good Teacher.”  He wants an answer to the question, and he trusts that Jesus will give him an answer.

But it’s still a strange question.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  For starters, to “inherit” something, we usually don’t do much of anything except be born into a particular family.  We inherit because we are someone’s child or grandchild, not because we’ve done anything special.

Beyond that, the man wants to do it on his own terms.  What must I do, the man asks.  Give me a seven-step plan, a checklist, an outline of what I need to accomplish.

The first part of what Jesus says probably sounds encouraging to this guy.  Jesus starts listing off commandments, and you can just imagine the man checking them off in his head.  I’ve done that…I’ve done that too…haven’t killed anyone…haven’t stolen anything…I respect Mom and Dad…

Then Jesus gets to the kicker.  It’s not just a checklist of commandments.  Jesus tells him there’s one more thing: “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

That’s more than the man could handle.  He’s shocked.  He walks away, grieving.  As it turns out, he has a lot of possessions, and in that moment he can’t imagine giving them up.

It’s tempting to think that what Jesus says today about being rich doesn’t really apply to us.  We’re not really rich.  It’s those other guys who are rich.  You know – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and other folks who can make a hobby of launching people into space.  But if you have a safe place to sleep and food to eat, that makes you rich relative to much of the world.  If you have just $4,210 to your name, you’re still richer than half of the world’s residents.[i]

Possessions often represent achievement to us.  I have earned this house, this car, this television.  I deserve this video game, these season tickets, this new furniture.  I have worked hard for all of it.

Even if you say, “I don’t really care about possessions,” you have your own version of the man’s question. My version of it over the years has often been “What must I do to get a good grade?”  There are others: “What must I do to get the promotion?”…”What must I do to look the way I want to look?”…”What must I do to insure my children’s future?”  It’s the game we’re taught early on.  Identify what you want and make a plan to get it.  It’s all up to you and only you.

That’s one of the ways that possessions get in the way of following Jesus.  Owning things has a way of convincing us that we don’t need Jesus at all.  We can go it alone. We certainly don’t need each other.  It’s all about self-reliance.  I have what I need.

Later in the reading Peter is looking for some brownie points too.  “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  That means we win, right, Jesus?  Jesus responds that giving up one’s life and possessions to follow him results in receiving a hundredfold more.  At first it sounds a little like pyramid scheme.  You’ll have a bigger family, more places to call home, more fields, and eternal life.  With a little persecution on the side. I imagine that what Jesus means is that when we follow him, we become part of a community, one in which we care for one another, share what we have with one another, rely on each other for support.  A community in which we don’t have to be self-sufficient every minute of every day. A family in which we can learn to trust God and trust each other.

Did you notice what happened right before Jesus told the man to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor?  Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

Jesus looks that man right in the face.  Jesus loves him. Jesus loves the man so much that Jesus wants him to be free.  Free of the hoop-jumping and the ladder-climbing. Free of the expectation that eternal life depends on his own accomplishments. Free of having to do it all himself.

Then who can be saved, ask the disciples.  Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Jesus looks at us with that same kind of love. Let go, Jesus says to us.  Let go of whatever you cling to for security.  Let go of the idea that what you own defines your worth because your worth to God is immeasurable.  Let go of the idea that you can save yourself.  Let go of the idea that eternal life depends on you.  Jesus says to us: “I have given my life for you so that you can be free of the ladder-climbing and the hoop-jumping.”  Let go.

In his death and resurrection Jesus sets us free.  We are free to turn our attention to those in need.  We can give what we have to those who need help.  We can receive what others share when it’s our turn to need some help.  We can let go of keeping score and start living eternal life now.

We’re into fall now, the season that shows us what it means to let go, to trust that death eventually leads to new life.  All around us the trees are letting go of their leaves.  As I sat at my computer and worked on this sermon, I looked out the window and saw the leaves falling in a steady swirl of oranges and yellows.

One of my favorite poets, Lucille Clifton, has a poem called “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves.”  She writes:

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves

Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/07/how-much-money-you-need-to-be-in-the-richest-10-percent-worldwide.html

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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.

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