Not What We Signed Up For

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on October 21, 2018. Year B, Proper 22, Mark 10:35-45.

James and his brother John, some of the first disciples Jesus called, came to their teacher and said: “Teacher, we want you to do something for us.”[i]

Jesus, knowing better than to blindly agree with a precocious disciple, says: “What is it you want me to do for you?”[ii]

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”[iii]

Glory.

That’s what this ministry is all about, after all. This obscure teacher who’d roamed the countryside, collecting a following; calling out religious hypocrites and corrupt authorities; performing amazing miracles, demonstrating his power.

The past few Sundays our Gospel readings have shown Jesus on the road to Jerusalem the Holy City, the epicentre of the Jewish world. Those who walked with him were likely expecting a triumphant entrance. They put their hope in him, that he would bring about a new age for Israel.

And, there would be glory.

When Jesus cryptically replies: “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?”[iv]…the brothers are confused. They’ve shared meals with Jesus, drunk the same wine; they know he was baptized by John in the Jordan, as many people from the countryside were[v]—maybe even these brothers.

So they reply, “We are able.”[vi]

It seems they thought they knew exactly what was to come; exactly what they were getting themselves into. We, however, have the luxury of knowing the ending.

Not often enough, we share the story of a man, a labourer turned teacher, who was seen as enough of a threat by the authorities that he was publically executed. A good man, who had committed no crimes, was killed on a cross, hanging next to criminals—one on his right, and one on his left.

Though the disciples don’t seem to notice, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spends an awful lot of time trying to tell them what his glory will look like. And, it is not pretty.

Right before the verses we read today, as the teacher and his followers walked towards Jerusalem, Jesus shares how the Son of Man would be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, be condemned to death; and killed.[vii]

The life, that Jesus offers to his followers, is a good one but it… is… hard. And, though his followers answered the call, it’s obvious at this point in the story, that’s not what they signed up for.

In the following part of the story, the other ten hear what the brothers have asked and become agitated.[viii]

When I was a child my dad used to tuck me in at night. This was a special one-on-one time just for me and him, to connect.

One night, and I remember it so clearly tucked under the covers looking up at my dad, I asked him:

“Daddy do you love me more than mom?”

He paused. And said, “Well, I love in different ways.”

 I think I scowled because I didn’t like that at all. I wanted to be loved the most, and I didn’t want to share that love—even with my mom.

Later on in life I was very happy my parents loved one another, but it took a little perspective to get there…

Is it our human nature, that we want to have more than everyone else? Or, do we live in a world that tells us there is so little that we have to hoard—even love?

These two brothers, come to their teacher and ask for more than their friends, their travelling companions, and fellow students. It is a competition. Only a few can come out on top.

But, don’t these men ever listen? Haven’t they heard Jesus’ chorus of “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”?[ix]His teachings are littered with it!

The kinship, that Jesus calls us to turns competition and success on its head. Glory doesn’t look like empire… Leadership is servanthood… The Gospel is about self-sacrifice.

That is at the heart of the cross, for me. Jesus resists the urge to align himself with power and empire; and instead commits himself, even unto death, to faithfulness and justice.

What a cup to drink, and a baptism to be baptized with!

Whenever I feel like the Christian life has become a passive thing, about being nice and singing hymns—the Gospel is here to shake me awake, and remind me that the Kinship of God has a very different perspective.

It is only with God’s help, that we may begin to be transformed by this call to live so differently in a world that tells us to be afraid, to be tight-fisted, to be suspicious. What Good News it is, that there is another way to live.

Amen.

 

ENDNOTES

[i]Mark 10:35 NRSV

[ii]Mark 10:36 NRSV

[iii]Mark 10:37 NRSV

[iv]Mark 10:38 NRSV

[v]Mark 1:5

[vi]Mark 10:39 NRSV

[vii]Mark 10:33-34 NRSV

[viii]Mark 10:41

[ix]Mark 9:35 NRSV

The Upside-down Kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on November 19, 2017. The church has pushed Advent ahead by one week, so the readings for the day were for The Reign of Christ the King (Year A Proper 29, Matthew 25:31-46, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23).

Let me start off by saying—wow. The Gospel of Matthew, once again, delivers us a hard-to-swallow image of the end of time, and eternal punishment.

A lens I use when reading texts like this is to remember that this genre of the writing, is meant to be encouraging.

How? You might ask me. Because it doesn’t feel encouraging!

Well, it’s an image meant to encourage the early Christian community—a community that was experiencing persecution, and struggling to find its identity in the midst of the polytheistic Roman Empire. It’s also a community who believed Jesus was going to return soon—in their lifetime soon. So, this style of writing focuses on that… telling the reader that the bad guys will get what they deserve and the small community will be vindicated in the end.

But what about you and me, in 2017? Well, today we celebrate the king of an upside-down kingdom. Before the beginning of Advent, we take a moment to close our church year by celebrating “The Reign of Christ the King”. And this is the lectionary reading we’re given to do that.

It’s a funny celebration too, because in a world where we hold-up the strong, the powerful, and the ambitious, it’s counter-cultural to follow a man like Jesus.

Someone who didn’t exalt himself, but made himself low.

Someone who didn’t demand sacrifice, but invited it by modelling it even to his own death.

Someone who didn’t tell you what to believe, but instead invited you to come and see.

Today, we celebrate the undereducated, blue-collar, nomadic, brown, king of an upside-down kingdom.

And, when we come together, as Christian community, we gather as citizens of this upside-down kingdom. We talk about God’s vision for our world, we sing songs, read prayers, and share ideas about how God calls us to live this ideal out in the world.

But, we’re also citizens of other communities: NDG, Montréal, Québec, Canada. We’re members of companies, organizations, groups and movements. We give our loyalty to many causes, to different leaders, and to diverse ideologies.

Because, we no longer live in a world that is anxious for the imminent return of Christ. The author of Matthew, and the community he writes to was sitting on pins and needles waiting for the return of Jesus and the breaking in of his kingdom. The Ephesian Christian community too was anticipating Jesus’ return—the Apostle Paul genuinely believed Christ would come back within his lifetime.

But he didn’t.

Christianity, as it has continued throughout history, needed to begin asking questions about what it means to live the urgency and power of the gospel message—a countercultural call to justice and reconciliation—while living in our world, as it is.

We have moved from a future-focused vision of the kingdom to something already present and not yet.

We no longer live with the kind of abandon that Christian martyrs in antiquity lived with. Some of our Christian siblings in areas where they experience fierce persecution do. But life, in North America, is pretty comfortable—we’re ok to wait around for a while longer. Jesus can take his time.

But… what would it look like for you to live a life of urgency, with the kinship of God as your focus?

Not everyone can live a life of wild abandon—I’m not encouraging you to go out tomorrow and sell all your possessions to give to the poor (albeit I know someone who might). But, I do think we can still cultivate a kind of urgency here, now. A sense that, the instructions Jesus gave us are important (not because we think he’s going to descend down from heaven any moment) … but because he taught us that every life matters to God—to see his face in the face of those around us.

Those who are hungry… those who are thirsty… those who are lonely… those who don’t have enough… they all matter deeply to God.

There should be a sense of urgency to the way we embody the Gospel because our work brings people closer to God because we are God’s hands and feet in this world. The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

A kinship where the marginalized are given the best we have to offer, where the privileged take a back seat. A kinship where children are highly regarded and have so much to teach us about our own faith journeys. A kinship where caring for the immediate needs of another takes precedence over whether they’ll listen to us first.

And, we’re part of a long tradition of people, trying to figure out the best way to go about it—a community of messy, normal, imperfect people trying to figure out what living as part of the kinship of God means in our context.

If we profess that Jesus is king, albeit in a way completely unlike any other monarch in history, what does it look like to live that out as you, or me, today?

I want to invite you to take a moment, to think about the ways you see the kingdom of God being built in our community, right now. We need to remember and celebrate these moments, because, kingdom-building is hard work.

Take a moment to think of a person, a program, a group, that is doing the work you see Jesus calling us to—it could be in these walls, at your workplace, or in our city.

Now, let’s think about what else God might be calling us to do. Is there a particular group, activity or idea that God has been percolating in you? Do you feel like, as a community, there is a need we’re overlooking? Is there a way we can better live out our citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God? Where do you see urgency?

Now, think of one thing you can do to make a start, right now. Is there a conversation you think you should have? An organization you want to support? A story you might need to hear?

My hope, and prayer, is that as we go out into the world this week, God will begin stirring us anew and equipping us to continue the work that has already been started, to strength us and refresh our vision for the kinship of God in our homes, our schools, workplaces and communities; revealing it a little more, each day through our lives.

Amen.

Discipleship—The Original Pyramid Scheme

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 22nd, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (Year A, Proper 24).

I will never pass on an opportunity to discuss 1 Thessalonians, which is the oldest text we have from the early Christian church.

I don’t know if you share this same curiosity, but I am fascinated with these folks who found themselves building a community together, after Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and confoundingly empty tomb. A community, not just of Jewish believers who see Jesus as the messianic figure that the scriptures talk about (their liberating king), but also of Greeks who are inspired by the roaming missionaries, and their message of social and gender equality in Christ.

In 1 Thessalonians, we listen to the communal voice of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy as they speak tenderly to one of these groups—a house church in the city of Thessalonica that is in crisis. In the letter, we read between the lines to see the image of a fledgeling community facing persecution and theological quandaries. In the response of the three men, we see the glimpses of the dynamic between the founders and the fold—our oldest example of discipleship in the Christian tradition.

Now, let me clarify that to see, it is our oldest example, with the Gospel being dated later than this early letter. Of course, we inherit stories from Jesus’ ministry, which act as out ultimate examples in the Christian tradition.

Discipleship, which is a word we don’t use outside of religious circles anymore, speaks to a commitment between teacher and student. Apprentices, who carefully watch the master craftsman to learn their trade, are our closest metaphor for this kind of relationship. With both disciple and apprenticeship, there is a strong human connection, as wisdom and experience are passed down from one person to the other. As well, the identity and reputation of the master become tied directly to the work and reputation of the student.

There are certainly other examples of this kind of relationship in the modern world—I attend McGill and the actions of the student body will reflect positively or negatively on the institution as a whole. Yet, in our society which is more individualist than communal, our modern examples lack a certain amount of intimacy or symbiosis. We like to see people for themselves, or at least we like to pretend to, so we try to hold each person for their own individual actions and successes, instead of as groups—it’s why we have MVP awards for team sports.

Now, these three men, crafting a love letter filled with encouragement and advice, are wonderful examples of early Christian discipleship. Like, true teachers, they don’t shy away from correction (which is seen more clearly later on in the letter). Paul, you may have noticed, is very pastoral in many of his letters, but also employs the strong language of correction when his apprentices are, in his opinion, out of line (Galatians is an excellent example of this). Since Paul’s reputation and identity are entwined with the churches he plants—discipleship is both about genuine care but also his self-preservation—it’s complicated and messy.

One of the features of Paul’s letters is that he tries to model to his readers that their identity, as disciples of Jesus, is entwined with the reputation of Christ in the world. He talks about being witnesses, examples, and light; and he always brings it back to Christ. As a disciple of Paul, who is a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul emphasizes over and over again that his disciples are the disciples of Jesus. And he gets pretty ticked when people refer to themselves as the disciples of Paul or the disciples of Apollos; he wants the emphasis to consistently be on God, the starting point of their genealogy of faith. He writes a genealogy for the early church, one that he extends back all the way to Abraham. And, it also extends through history to include you and me.

A characteristic of evangelical movements I really appreciate, is that there’s often a line of transmissions that is kept alive through testimony. By sharing and re-sharing people’s stories of how they came to faith, they recite their genealogies of faith to one another over and over again.

For myself, I am fortunate to know a little about my family’s history. My family is Irish, and my surname, “Mullin”, comes from “Maolan”, an ancient byname meaning “The tonsured one” (tonsuring being an ascetic practice of shaving your head), and refers to a monk or holy man. In early Celtic Christianity, monks weren’t required to be celibate, so my family comes from a long line of Celts who took up the Christian faith and also acted as spiritual leaders.

Do you have a genealogy of faith? Who came before you, and walked a path that you discovered you could follow? Was it a parent or grandparent? A close friend? A spiritual teacher? Or, are you the first of your generation, having stumbled onto “the Way”?

Now, disciples are not merely descendants. Once they’ve “graduated”, they go on to become teachers. We hear of early missionaries and preachers like… the deaconess Phoebe in the Letter to the Romans… or Lydia who founds the house church in Philippi… and Priscilla and Aquila who bring the teacher Apollos to the faith.

Of course, Jesus’ disciples were also commissioned to go out and teach, the Gospels tell us they received this instruction even before his crucifixion.

So, like a pyramid scheme, the disciple becomes the teacher, who disciples others, and so on and so forth. Which, is how you and I came to be here today.

But, unlike a pyramid scheme, this message, or movement, has lasted a long time—millennia. I think Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have an important observation about why that is, they spoke of the message arriving in Thessalonica with power and conviction. And, that it resulted in joy for the community there. Pyramid schemes offer a lot of different things to us…wealth, better looks, more friends, better sex, bigger homes, and happiness.

But, the Gospel offers liberation, so that even in the midst of suffering and persecution there is joy. It was, and is, an alternative to the politically endorsed way of being that said you were born to be a slave, you were born to be a noble person, and that’s the way life is.

These three men speak about chosen-ness—and it always reminds me a little of Harry Potter. Because those books inspired a generation of children who, on their 11th birthdays, crossed their fingers and wished so hard to receive a letter from Hogwarts—something saying they were special and chosen.

There’s a magic in that—being chosen, being uniquely important to someone.

Which, is what Paul tries to instill in his communities—their being loved and chosen by God. Even some of the Hebrew prophets write about this, the being formed lovingly by God in our birth mother’s wombs, and our lives being laid out uniquely for us.

Why do you think Peter, Simon, and the sons of Zebedee leaped at the opportunity to follow this crazy itinerant preacher around the backwaters of Galilee? Because, they were fisherman—they were supposed to do the work their father and his brothers had always done, to work alongside their cousins, so that their sons would go on to do just the same.

And then, this man walks up to them and chooses them. Out of all the men there with the boats, mending the nets, he picks them—the teacher tells them to come and follow him.

Discipleship, is about a special relationship between student and teacher—one that goes beyond care and reputation to seeing the potential within someone else. To saying, this person deserves to hear the words of life, about how important they are to God, about all the good things that God has in store for them—they deserve freedom from the bondage of sin and death.

And, disciples, after having experienced this, want others to be able to experience what they have, and so they become teachers—living out their message through their actions as much as through their words.

Jesus said to them, “Come, and follow me…and bring others.” And, they went.

Where is God asking you to go? Who is he asking you to speak the words of life to?—through your actions as much as your speech. Where is he calling you to be an example to others?

Let us take some time to reflect on these things. Amen.