Sermon Seeds: Great Service/Power to Serve
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 24
Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
Additional reflection on Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Sermon Seeds Year C from The Pilgrim Press – order now
Great Service/Power to Serve
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
We can only guess what’s going on in the minds of the disciples as they walk the dusty roads with Jesus. For a while now, they haven’t known (or remembered) that Jerusalem is their destination, and over the past three chapters, it seems that they haven’t wanted to know why they’re on this journey in the first place. Three times now Jesus has told them, directly, what’s going to happen, that he is going to die, and each time, they react badly, seeming to miss his point entirely.
Back in chapter eight, Peter actually rebuked Jesus for talking about his rejection and suffering, and Jesus responded by calling him “Satan.” As they continued on their way and Jesus used the time for some in-depth, private lessons for his disciples, he once again spoke of his coming betrayal and death, and his rising again. (They had a particularly difficult time understanding that last part, as you might imagine.) The disciples’ response was a lively argument, which didn’t escape Jesus’ notice, over who among them was the greatest. And now, in this tenth chapter, as Mark’s long introduction to the passion narrative comes to an end, Jesus tells them one more time that he is going to Jerusalem to face his death (Douglas Hare, Mark, Westminster Bible Companion).
Why the disconnect?
The disconnect between Jesus’ words and the next thing that happens is so dramatic that we’re tempted to think that a verse of the text must have gotten lost. Could Jesus have been any clearer about what was about to happen? We imagine the early Christian audience listening to the entire Gospel, and we assume that they must have heard the repetition three times of this terrible prediction. Where have the disciples been? How insensitive could they be?
André Resner, Jr., observes that it hasn’t made much of a difference that Jesus speaks directly here rather than indirectly through parables: either way, the disciples are left scratching their heads (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Scholars suggest several possibilities, of course: are they like “green soldiers who are contemplating future battles in which they will earn glory,” as Richard Swanson suggests? Then, he observes, we might criticize them “not for paying too little attention to Jesus’ words about the coming disaster, but for joining in too eagerly and ignorantly” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark). That’s what we humans tend to do, when we have no idea what we’re in for.
What if they get it after all?
On the other hand, the disciples may totally get what Jesus is saying. Charles Campbell observes that in that case, they are understandably afraid, and, rather than being power hungry, they react as human beings naturally do: they seek security. Campbell suggests that humans have made many mistakes by reacting to fear and seeking security, even violating many of our most important values and beliefs. We want to make sure that, no matter what happens, our place and our safety are secured; if we know that, we think we can handle whatever comes. Campbell observes that Jesus actually reassures the disciples that, in spite of their fear, they will measure up in the end (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).
Are the disciples speaking from anxiety? Or could it be that they are speaking out of deep faith? Barbara Brown Taylor acknowledges the possibility of their “gross ambition,” but their question may also illustrate their profound confidence in Jesus and his final triumph. No matter how bad things may look or sound, James and John “are so sure of Jesus’ final victory that they sign up to go with him” (“The Trickle-Up Effect,” Bread of Angels). After all, these disciples have been following Jesus for some time now, and have given up everything in order to be with him.
Be careful what you ask for
In any case, as Jesus himself observed, they have no idea what they are asking (v. 38b). C. Clifton Black points out the sad and sorry way their question (“we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” v. 35b) echoes King Herod’s “rash” words to Herodias in chapter six (“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it,” v. 22b), thus aligning themselves with the powers that be “who execute righteous teachers” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).
As long as we recognize our own Zebedee inclinations, it seems reasonable to be disappointed in their strategic plan for Jesus, their big picture for his ministry. Their religious imagination, it seems, has failed them. They’re going with the same old categories and assumptions that they’ve always had, and just inserting themselves into the places of prestige and power. Instead of growing closer to Jesus’ radical vision of the reign of God, Resner writes, they struggle with walking away from their old and long-cherished expectations, “those surreptitious nets of desire for personal power and glory” that entangle and trap us all, each in our own age, in our own way (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Is it any wonder that this section of the Gospel begins and ends with stories about blind men being restored to sight? Charles Cousar observes that the insiders fail to see what the “blind” outsiders readily perceive (Texts for Preaching Year B).
Are you able…are you really able?
This time Jesus responds to the disciples’ cluelessness with a very difficult question: Are they able to drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism that he has received? Their response is embarrassingly swift: “We are able” (v. 39). Here, they apparently have no idea what Jesus is talking about. Of all the commentaries on this text, Marcus Borg is most effective at explaining something of the meaning of Jesus’ words in his own setting and in our lives as his disciples today. Both of these terms, “drinking the cup” and “baptism,” Borg writes, were “images for death” (Jesus: A New Vision). And we of course know that Jesus is speaking of his own death, and that most of his earliest disciples are said to have been martyred (along with many other early Christians).
In our own time, we recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, the women missionaries killed in El Salvador, and any number of other martyrs who literally died because of their faithfulness to Jesus. But what about the vast majority of Christians today who long to follow Jesus faithfully, but will most probably not (literally) lose their lives for doing so? Borg speaks of this kind of dying as a metaphor with two meanings, both at the core of Christian faith: “a dying of the self as the center of its own concern” and “a dying to the world as the center of security and identity.”
A different kind of “dying”
That kind of dying, Borg says, leads to transformation, when we lose our self-absorbed insecurities and are reborn: “the radical recentering brings about a change so sharp that it can be described as dying to an old life and being born into a new life.” It happens to different people in different ways (and we don’t accomplish it – it happens to us), whether sudden or by a long journey, but it surely involves “a letting go.” And here, Borg points to the heart of the matter when Jesus caused so much trouble by challenging the religious leaders who had found their own security in the “conventional wisdom” of the world around them. In Jesus’ own day and in our own as well, we run the same risk, even (and perhaps especially) in the life of faith, when we seek legitimation of how we’re already living, or would like to live, rather than accepting the new life offered by Jesus (Jesus: A New Vision).
So the disciples – and these were the ones closest to Jesus, among the first called, the ones he took up on the mountaintop – have got their minds on power, not on serving and certainly not on dying an inglorious death. Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text considers power and its (paradoxically) fragile and temporary nature, and the anxiety suffered even by those at the top, as they worry about being displaced: “There are only so many head tables in the world, after all, and the game of musical chairs never stops.” The Zebedee brothers think the systems are good, but the wrong people are in the places of power; once they come into their own, alongside Jesus, everything will be fixed from the top down, thanks to what Taylor calls “the ultimate trickle-down effect.”
What dream seduces your heart?
How seductive is that dream! Meanwhile, Jesus is up-ending the head tables and paying far more attention to serving than being served. And that’s how Jesus takes the disciples’ focus away from their own ambitions: he tells them not to be like the Gentiles with all their lording over others, their prestige and position and the bullying that comes with them. Don’t be like that, he says. In fact, “it is not so among you” (v. 43). (Isn’t the present tense wonderful there? Jesus’ religious imagination is working just fine.)
The reign of God is so very different from our conventional way of doing things, and our conventional beliefs about what is best. Taylor reminds us that Jesus calls us and teaches us by example to “transform the world, not from the top down but from the bottom up. The ultimate trickle-up effect.” That’s the power the God gives us in abundance, “the strongest stuff in the world: the power to serve” (The Trickle-Up Effect,” Bread of Angels).
A message with a specific audience
Who is Jesus addressing here? Gérald Caron writes that these are instructions for those in power or those who long to be in power, but not for those who are traditionally expected to serve. In other words, using this text to justify slavery or servitude or the subjugation of women would be a violation of the heart of the gospel. In fact, Caron lifts up the women in Mark’s Gospel who have grasped the true meaning of Jesus’ ministry much more quickly and more gracefully than the male disciples, who predictably fall back on the assumptions built into a patriarchal society (and ingrained in their way of thinking, and hoping). It’s “curious,” Caron writes, that these women are not part of this difficult conversation about service, and about the world being turned upside down (Mark in the Lectionary).
A discomforting gospel
The word “even” (kai) is missing in the NRSV of this passage, but it adds an emphasis and clarity that reminds us that Jesus himself modeled this kind of service, and this willingness to lay down one’s life in the process. In doing so, Jesus ransomed us, “the many,” setting us free just as a slave or a hostage could be ransomed and set free. In this sense, Jesus paid the price for sin. We Christians speak a lot today about Jesus dying for our sins, or because of our sins, or both. We find (or take) great comfort in that belief. But comfort isn’t the whole message of the gospel, in fact, sometimes the gospel is quite dis-comforting.
Lamar Williamson, Jr., reads a challenge in this text to our modern (or post-modern) “complacency and apathy” as we hear in the gospel a “no-risk offer” that helps us to stay on the straight and narrow. There’s more to it than that, he writes, more than just getting our lives together, and may even be “disruptive” at times, requiring “a costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an aging parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs, or any person whose situation elicits neighborly service at personal cost” (Mark, Interpretation).
Along with Marcus Borg’s words about dying to self, this understanding of serving is something we (along with those women long ago) can grasp and live out, no matter the cost. It will mean a change in our worldview and the values ingrained in us, especially in affluent and “powerful” countries and cultures. But we contemporary followers of Jesus, Zebedee brothers in our own place and time, hear the same call, and the same offer, that our ancestors did long ago. Will we follow all the way to Jerusalem, and the cross, and the rising again?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Ernesto Tinajero, 20th century
“If you read the Bible and it does not challenge you, then you are reading yourself and not the Bible.”
Helen Keller, 20th century
“Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
C.G. Jung, 20th century
“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”
Albert Schweitzer, 20th century
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.”
Additional reflection on Job 38:1-7, (34-41):
Finally, God speaks. God responds to Job’s complaint with a thunderous “attitude adjustment,” putting things in perspective: God is God, and you’re not, as a favorite seminary professor would remind us. For all of our recently acquired power to end at least our own lives (and much of nature) here on earth, we are still minute in the larger scheme of things. For all of our centuries of history, we are but a moment in time. Where were we, indeed, when the foundation of the earth was laid?
None of us can claim the goodness of Job, which was beyond question (even by Job himself), but Walter Brueggemann points beyond “integrity” and “goodness” to a life of praise centered on God’s own goodness. “Yes, hang on to your integrity, Job, for it is never questioned,” Brueggemann writes: “But learn a second language. Learn to speak praise and yielding which let you cherish your virtue less tightly” (“A Bilingual Life” in The Threat of Life).
What makes a person, or a life, moral?
Much of being Christian, at least in the United States today, or even being religious at all, seems to consist of a morality that is most comfortable to the “acceptable,” middle class. For example, as much as Jesus, along with the rest of the Bible, addresses the subject of money and possessions, how willing are most congregations to hear those teachings as they might apply to our lifestyle in a capitalist, “consumer” economy? Consider the response to the words of Pope Francis about unfettered capitalism during his recent visit. So we might wonder about what sort of longing for power over our own fate might be hidden in our desire to measure up in at least some respects (and to be able, perhaps, to look down on those who don’t), and how that longing impairs our ability to offer praise.
Can we really offer praise if we do not experience awe, and can we experience awe if we are terribly assured of our own worthiness? No, we truly are not saved by our virtue, and we are even spiritually blocked by it at times: “No one,” Brueggemann writes, “can stand in the face of the whirlwind on a soap-box of virtue…Being right is no substitute for being amazed.” How neat and approachable God is rendered by our good works and good lives! If I do this, God owes me that. Many of us were raised in just such a system, with an accountant God who tallies up our good deeds and compares them to the ledger of our sins, while we wait and hope the balance works out in our favor.
Living a life of praise
Brueggemann urges a very different way of living, a life of praise that “breaks our terrible idolatries….of preferred virtues, of convinced moralities….[that] block healing, make us falsely at ease, prevent transformation, and reduce life to a set of slogans and technologies.” How do we begin to learn the second language of praise? What would the language of praise sound like in our lives? Does our life together in the church teach us to nurture our awe and sing praise, or to concentrate on our righteousness and good behavior?
Still. There is the question for those of us who believe that this God, no matter how awesome, cares about us: when we cry out from the ash heap, when we witness the suffering of innocents, we have to ask “Why?” No one has come up with an adequate explanation, of course, but then that is the point of the Book of Job, isn’t it? The attempts to answer, however, open doors rather than neatly closing them.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on this text claims that “the worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason, but to suffer without God – without any hope of consolation or rebirth.” We can get angry and even impolite, she says, because “God prefers Job’s courage to the piety of Job’s friends…Devout defiance pleases God. It may even bring God out of hiding, with a roar that lays our ears back against our heads (and makes the angels shout for joy)” (“Out of the Whirlwind” in Home by Another Way).
The question behind the question
And then there is the incomparable Annie Dillard for situations like this one: she wrestles as only Dillard can with the question behind Job’s question, about God’s power and willingness to intervene in our lives. Don’t expect any easy answers from her, either, for she describes God as “spirit,” whose “home is absence,” and in that absence is where God finds us. “This God does not direct the universe, he underlies it…The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand and multiply it on earth, the more God is ‘on the field.'”
There is a “god” who is dead, Dillard writes, and perhaps that is the one we have assumed at the center of our lives: “that tasking and antiquated figure who haunts children and repels strays, who sits on the throne of judgment frowning and figuring, and who with the strength of his arm dishes out human fates, in the form of cancer or cash, to 5.9 billion people – to teach, dazzle, rebuke, or try us, one by one, and to punish or reward us, day by day, for our thoughts, words, and deeds.” (Her essay, “Holy Sparks: A Prayer for the Silent God,” is in the collection, Best Spiritual Writing 2000.)
What kind of God frees us?
Dillard’s old “god” is or was a very domestic, household kind of god, one we could handle so much more easily than a whirlwind. And so Brueggemann observes that giving up a domesticated and tame God “frees us from the little traps of scruple that we mistake for the kingdom.” Our joyful obedience and goodness matter, he says, for, instead of “hiding in our fearful obedience,” we might be caught, or freed, by praise, “freed, healed, and astonished by a different life” (“A Bilingual Life” in The Threat of Life).
Perhaps this is too much to absorb, but then so is the Book of Job, and perhaps even just one passage of it. This is the searing question of our lives, entwined with the meaning of our existence and our hope. Can we then be lost in anything but silence, and awe?
For further reflection:
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, 19th century
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
Sylvia Plath, 20th century
“I talk to God but the sky is empty.”
Rob Bell, 21st century
“The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.”
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
Bill Watterson, 21st century
“Hobbes: Do you think there’s a God?
Calvin: Well, somebody’s out to get me!”
Madeline L’Engle, 20th century
“I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.”
Job 38:1-7 [34-41]
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements — surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
[“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?
“Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”]
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
Bless God, O my soul.
O God my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens
like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers
on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep
as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder
they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains;
they ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
O God, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Bless God, O my soul.
Praise be to God!
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Because you have made God your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For God will command God’s angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot
against a stone.
You will tread on the lion
and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent
you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me,
I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;
as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but 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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.