Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Oct. 17, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Oct 17, 2021 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 21st Sunday after Pentecost

Oct. 17, 2021

A staunch atheist taught my undergrad Philosophy of Religion class. He challenged students to question andto think ever more deeply, which often led me into moments of personal revelation. One lecture edged into a rant against Christianity saying something like, Do you know what they hang on their walls and around their necks? An instrument of torturous execution! Some even have the body nailed to it—how sick is that!? I reaching for the cross around my neck, silently scrutinizing its symbolism to me, and wondering why I didn’t find it repellant. He closed the lecture by likening the cross to an ornamental electric chair or lethal injection syringe. He certainly challenged me… and one of us was missing the point.

In Mark’s gospel today, James and John miss a related reversal of this view in asking for positions of greatness alongside of Jesus. We instantly flash forward to the two thieves literally given that ‘lofty’ position as they are executed on either side of Jesus at his crucifixion—not the greatness James and John are after. They ask this honor right after Jesus, for the third time, speaks of what will happen to him; the chief priests and the scribes will condemn him to death and others will mock and spit upon him, flog him, and kill him.” And then Jesus says after three days he will rise again. He reminds them of the true cost of such a request, yet their ready assent suggests romanticizing, they misunderstand just how literally Jesus speaks. To all twelve he says, “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.”

Ahh, maybe to be at Jesus’ right and left hand ‘in glory’ may not be so glorious, nor is it ‘to sit’ at all, but to serve the last and lowly, to give themselves over to God completely. To be slave of all, he says, and here Mark uses the word δοῦλος doulos, meaning one who belongs to another, one who doesn’t ‘own’ themselves. While ‘slave’ is an appropriate translation, Mark’s Jesus is not connoting the forced oppression of slavery define it by, instead he equates it with the highest dignity, as believers who willingly live under Christ’s authority and as devoted followers. Doulos is where we get the word ‘doula’ from, originally likened to a servant-woman who helps another throughout childbirth or, sometimes, through death. With these words Jesus separates true greatness from the mere exercise of authority over others, however grand that might appear. He reversed the very definitions of ‘greatness’ and ‘servant’ and all four gospels record it. 

All along Mark orients his listeners (and us as readers) that we are on ‘the Way,’ on the journey with Jesus and the twelve to Jerusalem and the cross, these being the only Way to the kingdom. The disciples are still shaky on this whole teaching, and can’t quite see how the cross, an instrument of excruciating death, can possibly be the only way to life. Now you meet my favorite professor, a priest at my seminary who taught systematic theology and challenged us in an encouraging way; Dr. Mike Raschko. He writes, “If one wonders what the Christian way might mean, Mark states clearly that it involves service and that service will make great demands upon us. We must see and understand the cross and service it entails in order to embrace the kingdom of God. Resurrection and the kingdom come only through the cross.” (A Companion to the Gospel of Mark, Twenty-Third publications, Mystic, Ct. 2003)

The death and resurrection of Christ is the very heart of our Eucharist. We are blessed to find our way into it over and over, each time calling to mind this very theme;

[at 8 am] He made there a full and perfect sacrifice for the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice…

For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks to thee, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you… Drink this, all of you; for this is my Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you, and for many…”

[or at 10:30 am] you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace. By his blood, he reconciled us. By his wounds, we are healed.

On the night he was betrayed he took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his friends… “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you… Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many…”

Raschko points out that “when we use bread for our most sacred act, we do exactly as Mark has bid us to do in this section of the gospel. We join Jesus in his death and resurrection. We join him in giving our lives to God…from whom they came in the first place.”

The cross and resurrection were integrally related to the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry. They cannot be separated in any meaningful way. Again from Raschko; “Every healing, every act of forgiveness, every exorcism and every act of giving life in the ministry of Jesus expressed the same self-giving that was acted out so dramatically in the passion and death of the Lord. His death flowed out of his ministry.” The same integration is true for us; we participate in the sacraments as part of a whole faith, a fundamental pattern we live by. Each time we invite sacrificial giving to God, the offertory sentence is usually, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2, BCP 376) Be it financial or any other acts of service we make, we bring them to this altar as our own sacrifice, joined with Jesus’, and given to God. “In the Eucharist we find the deepest interpretation of our lives. It provides our fundamental sense of the world.” 

We acknowledge this every time we process into worship, and as leaders pass the altar and bow. We do it in recognition of the presence of Christ in the reserve sacrament and soon to be celebrated at Christ’s table before us. Then, before breaking the bread, I stop and bow to that same presence of Christ in you, the gathered community. Astute observers might wonder why, when I or another server carries the blessed bread or the wine, we don’t bow at the altar. This is because we hold his sacramental presence in our very hands —and our hearts.

We can understand James and John in what they asked for, they still in the shallows of the life Jesus spoke of. We all start there. Sacrifice comes in every size, from all ages and places, all stages of faith, and even if not grand or dramatic this foundation is true. The smallest and most ordinary acts can be patterned after Jesus’ own self-giving and rising. It’s not difficult to see how this is true in our personal relationships, as giving life and love for the sake of others is where we often know the greatest joy, the fullest life. It needs also be true in how we live and serve in the wider world. We are called to repeat this pattern from the micro-level to the global one. Watch for it’s influence in your work, your service to the church, your spending, your voting, your time commitments. Imagine this Eucharistic pattern shaping our most challenging big-picture problems and global concerns as we take our place in such things.

Episcopalians rarely have a crucifix as their central cross, and not so many wear them either. Instead, as you’ve heard me say before, we have a resurrection cross. Having done its worst death’s cross still did not prevail. So for us it is not a symbol of final torturous execution, it is a symbol of great sacrificial love and service, of triumphant resurrection, and eternal life in Christ’s kingdom. Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.