Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Another life, another place


Because I was looking up old posts about "powerlessness," I came across this sermon from 10 years back.  I'm not usually fond of my old work, and maybe I shouldn't look kindly on this child of my heart; but I do.

I think it preaches.  Or at least, it does to me.  And it's about that issue of powerlessness I talk about in a desultory fashion once in a blue moon.  It's about that, and it says pretty much what I'd want to say, even now.

The scriptures were: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; and Mark 10: 35-45.

"Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s domain! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye, than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain!" No, I know, that’s last week’s Gospel reading. But it’s really where this gospel story starts: with the lesson about how difficult it is for the rich to get into heaven. The lesson leaves the disciples perplexed; but James and John, the sons of Zebedee, think they have it figured out, and if it’s easier for a poor man to get into the kingdom of heaven, they figure they’ve got it made, so they jump ahead of the others in order to get first dibs on the best place. When I was a kid in high school driving around with my friends we called it "riding shotgun," and the first person to yell "Shotgun!" was supposed to be designated by the driver as the lone passenger in the front seat. Those were the rules; that’s how it was done; that was justice; or at least fairness. If you called "shotgun" first, the driver had to honor your claim and let you in the front seat.

So here are James and John calling "shotgun," and the rest of the disciples get mad because that means they have to ride in the backseat. But it isn’t as simple as that, either. Jesus tells them they don’t know what they are asking, but you can see them look at each other and say: "Uh, yeah, we do!" And Jesus says, "Well, can you drink the cup I’ll drink from, or undergo the baptism I’ll undergo?" And before someone can warn them to be careful what they ask for, because they might get it, they say: "Yeah, sure, we can do that!" And Jesus says: "Okay, then you will. But where you end up is not up to me. Those places are already reserved." And before they can ask him what that means, the disciples are on them, mad that nobody even told ‘em they were going anywhere, and they didn’t get a chance to call shotgun, and no fair anyway, and what’s goin’ on, we’re still tryin’ to figure out that one about the rich guy and the camel. And Jesus, being Jesus, just doesn’t let up. But here’s the secret about it; here’s the main point, the single golden thread running through all the gospels, running through all the teachings of Jesus and Paul and all the holy scriptures, and running right through the last story from Mark into this one: it’s all about the power of powerlessness.

Think about it a moment: Jesus is God, and God can do anything, but Jesus can’t say who will sit at his right hand and at his left, the positions of greatest distinction. Why can’t he say? Who are those places reserved for, and who reserved them, if not Jesus? But the way he talks those reservations are out of his hands. Maybe he’s just being coy; maybe he just doesn’t want to tell them they’re too late, that "shotgun" has already been decided, and they didn’t call it soon enough. Maybe. But I don’t think so.

Because it’s about what he says next, and about what Isaiah says. That’s an odd text to our ears, the words from Isaiah. We’re used to that language in Lent. "O Sacred Head How Wounded." "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." Those are Lenten themes; not words for the middle of October, for the season of Pentecost. But they fit in perfectly here: they complete the sense of reversal Jesus has already begun.

That beautiful passage in Isaiah is all about reversal, about something done that undoes: "the chastisment he bore restored us to health and by his wounds we are healed." Ponder on that for a moment, for it is a great mystery. It is the wounds that heal us. This is one of the classic reversals of Isaiah, he of the springs in the desert and the straight highway in the wilderness, of the low places made level and the high places brought low. A little later in his book, he will invite us to buy food without money, purchase wine without price. His favorite image is the signs of life God brings out of lifeless places, is how God reverses and upends our expectations, how everything we think we know, is wrong. And this time he turns his vision on the suffering servant, the one who, like the life in the desert and the leveling of the wilderness, brings release by captivity, eternity by mortality, victory by being utterly defeated. Isaiah is our great prophet proclaiming the power of powerlessness, of the awesome reversal of all we think we know that is the true power and sign of the presence of God. And this time he makes it personal. This time it’s the one who is despised and of no account who is raised up by God, who presents the reversal of all we have expected.. Not the rich man; not the beautiful movie star; not the successful business leader. The one no one else wanted anything to do with, the one with no authority, no power whatsoever, the one who accepts it all in order to be a servant to all. Yes, that one; the one Jesus is talking about. The one who drank from the cup and suffered the baptism James and John have just agreed to. You can almost see them standing there, and if they could hear this, and make the connection, they’d start reconsidering what it was they said they would do. Too late, though; the choice is made.

But that isn’t a bad thing; because our hope is in that reversal. Our hope is not in the victory, but in the defeat; our hope is not in the one so powerful he will save us all, but in the one so powerless he is willing to die for us all. Our hope is not in overcoming, our hope is in being found worthy because of our willingness to place service above everything else we know, to make service the reason for everything we do. Our hope is in the reversal of what we expect. If our hope was only in our gain, we would reach a point where all we could expect was to hold tenaciously to what we had, to keep it "ours" for as long as we could, to protect it against all other claimants and cry "no fair!" to the driver when someone else claimed to right to ride shotgun. We have to restore our claim to priority over and over and over again, and it takes all our energy, and we can never be certain we’ll prevail again. That condition is permanent.

But also permanent is the condition of others; also permanent is that we can always be of service to others. And there is no competition there, no risk of loss, no concern that we will lose our place of privilege. There is no privilege in service, except that we get to model Christ, and we get to serve the Christ, and by service we become more like Christ. We, too, will drink the cup and undergo the baptism of our Lord and Savior. But that is because we will not be in charge of others, but in service to others. There is no privilege in service, except that in service, we do as God did. In service, we model the Creator of the Universe. And our energy is used in help, not holding on; in giving, not gain. It is the paradox of the powerless, that, letting go of power, we have all the power we will ever need.

This is the word of God the letter to the Hebrews is talking about; the word of God that is alive and active, that cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword, that separates soul and spirit, joint and marrow, that discriminates among the purposes and the thoughts of the heart. It is the bottom line, we say, that matters; it is the outcome, not the intent, sometimes not even the action. Because at the bottom, is where everything happens to everybody. At the bottom, among the servants, is where we find God. Because at the bottom, God serves everyone, and at the bottom, is where we serve and honor God. It is the reverse of what the world teaches, of those who supposedly rule over foreigners.

Our hope is in reversal. Our hope is in the fact that everything we know is wrong. Our hope is in the power of powerlessness. Our hope is not in power. God is all powerful because God is powerless. No, not powerless, but acts without power. God reverses everything we know. God tells us to race, not for the top, but for the bottom. The top is ephemeral, it is false; it is a place only in legend and song. The bottom is where we all are, and where we never rise from. When you are #1, the only way to go is down. Go down, then, because #1 is not the first, but the last; not the ruler, but the servant. Amen.

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