Please pray with me: Put a new song in my mouth, O Lord, a song of praise to you (Psalm 40:3, adapted).
From our Old Testament Lesson: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job38:4).
I want to start with a Shirley Corder story. The morning of Sara’s wedding last week, I was looking for a steam iron to take the wrinkles out of my robe. Before offering her iron and her living room, Dorothy smiled and said, “If Shirley were here, she’d do it for you.”
I never met Shirley, but from an assortment of stories I feel I am getting to know her. Here was a woman with strong notions, to be sure, but who was committed to take up tasks and serve. What a legacy: to be so present that even when you are no longer physically there, people reach out in memory, as though you were. What makes a Shirley? What leads to those generous impulses of giving of ourselves? The great Christian novelist, Tolstoy, observes, “As soon as a person asks the question, ‘How do I live my life the best way?’ then all other questions are answered.”
Our Gospel today speaks of serving, but uses blunter terms: servant and slave. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Perhaps it’s not coincidental that just last week, we heard a homily about one woman’s battle against slavery. But here Jesus seems to be endorsing the word. Why would he, in a world in which slavery was visible and usually horrible? Then there are the terms in our reading from Hebrews, words like “reverent submission” and “obedience.”
Do these words seem old-fashioned and do we shy away from them? How seriously can we take them? Think for a moment about how you use them. “I’ve been slaving over the hot stove all afternoon,” probably isn’t exactly the application Jesus had in mind. We’ll comment with varying seriousness that someone is a slave to fashion or cigarettes, or to their family or job. Then again, to what do we submit and to whom do we give obedience? Maybe we back off from confronting local policies or cultural habits that we feel powerless to change, thereby submitting to them? It’s not only teens that “go along with the crowd” or choose to let a cruel remark pass without comment. Perhaps we ask our children for “cooperation” or “a good attitude,” rather than using that more direct term “obedience.” But God certainly challenges Job and the demands are clear: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me... Tell me, if you have understanding.”
I have a barn kitty at home. That means a stray who has decided to check out my various outbuildings—and me with them. For months I have been trying to win her trust, hoping to get her into the house before winter. At first she wouldn’t let me get near her. Now when she sees me, she rushes up, flings herself on the ground at my feet, and turns over to expose her entire tummy for tickling. That marked Beta behavior before an awesome human is certainly a kind of kitty/Dora relationship and it sure looks like submission.
Psalm 34 this morning is interesting in this regard: It begins, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” Bless: Say nice things about? Thank God? Praise? Closer, but in Hebrew “bless” also means kneeling in homage to the one on whom one’s life depends. The psalm is also meant to include others. The New Revised Standard Version in our hymnal reads “let the humble hear and be glad [because of the Lord].” While the New International Version has “let the afflicted hear and rejoice....” The Hebrew permits both translations since the humble are probably those who are afflicted and the afflicted have no choice but to be humble. And the singer of this psalm offers his/her own praise to such persons in proof of God’s goodness.
Perhaps these connections can take us back to Jesus’ use of the term slave, a term odious and unacceptable in any other context: “To be first [in God’s eyes], you must be slave of all.” For starters, Jesus’ use of the word is and was meant to be both shocking and eye-opening. Jesus did not only renounce power by accepting a shameful death. He also renounced ordinary greatness by his wholehearted service of others. He knew well what was expected of a pious God-fearing Jew. Proper speech was to be combined with reverent body language or at least with a heart disposed to utter reverence. One was also to depart from evil and do good; one was to seek peace and pursue it. Your spiritual checklist, like mine, probably tries to include these things.
But Jesus pushed further. The hopes of those around him for a Messiah usually included a triumphant moment when the humble and afflicted—or maybe simply the righteous—would triumph over their former masters. The good inherited this earth. I see something of this in the Prosperity Gospel Movement, when people are told to expect financial rewards here and now. But when James and John ask for a place of glory, Jesus deflates hopes for power and status. Jesus has conversations like this with his disciples more than once, and it is clear that rejecting honor, power, and status is hard for them.
Is a reversal of the world’s expectations hard for us? I know you to be generous, hard-working, and unassuming people, a church that welcomes and does not pass judgments. More than that, we are what I have begun to call “bright-eyed people,” people who give energy back on Sunday morning. Because of who you already are as a Christ-centered community, I have been wanting to report some of the ideas about the culture of our churches that were discussed at the Bishop’s retreat at the Mount several weeks ago.
First is the realization that this church of ours in Port Ewen has a culture, and that we love it so much that we long to invite others into it. Perhaps we could spend some time, individually and in our committees, talking more fully about what that culture is. What is it that we are seeking to say with our church? If our church were a sermon—or a poem or a song or a dance—what would it be like? To whom could it be sweet and chewy, like a honeycomb?
I don’t think we are a fortress, built only for our own protection. But that image has stuck in my mind because some churches are like that, proud of a splendid (and growing) isolation. We certainly do not isolate ourselves from our town or neighbors. We are not a club. But perhaps we could be even bolder and dare to innovate.
There is an urgency in God’s conversation with Job, in our psalm this morning, in Hebrews, and in Mark’s Gospel. Expect that urgency; train yourselves to hear it in Scripture, maybe in your own spiritual journeys as well. I know that when I am writing seriously, I have moments of insight, gifts of God’s grace that I must record even in the middle of the night or the words will evaporate. It’s actually exciting, I think, never to know when—or from whom—that amazing Grace will come. Let’s think in terms of now, therefore, rather than later. After all, we each have a certain time in which to make the difference God sent us here to make, each of us with our unique and precious talents.
And that brings us back to the Servant Heart, the slave’s heart, really, since we acknowledge God to be our architect, not only master but the source of all sweetness; the One who sends us forth with blessings and longs for us to magnify His name.
Let us pray: Dearest God, we thank you and we bless you. Continue to startle us with your truth and with the energy that allows us to open our hearts fully to you and to others. We pray in the name of Christ, whose serving ministry was simply his love for those most afflicted, and for you. AMEN.