21 October 2018

A Servant's Heart

Mark 10:35-45

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

“A visible sign of an invisible grace.”  The great theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430) gave us one of the best definitions of a sacrament that we have. “A visible sign of an invisible grace.”  

As we know, most Protestants celebrate two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper; our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters consider five additional acts or rites as sacramental.  But if we used Augustine’s definition to guide us, there may be many signs that make grace visible to us.  If we were to add to the list of sacraments—I’m not suggesting that we do so, but if we did—perhaps Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians, would all agree that acts of service can also be sacramental.  Why?  Because service, when done in love, can be signs of God’s grace and reign in the world.  Service, when done in love and joy, can convey to the world, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, that God is near. 

A sacrament allows the invisible grace of God to become visible, even tangible in our lives. Sacraments allow something of God to come into focus, become more accessible to our senses and therefore more real.  We experience this in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper, but the definition works for any moment, any activity that reveals the presence and love of God. 

Isn’t this what Jesus is saying here, much to the consternation, frustration and confusion of the disciples?  “Whoever wishes to be great among you must become your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave (or servant) of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

A statement such as this must have confused and troubled the disciples. For us, perhaps these words are familiar; maybe too familiar. They sound, so…well, Christian.  Don’t they?  Jesus as servant.  Jesus as servant of all. The Christian is called to serve. That’s what we do (or, at least, what we’re supposed to do): we serve one another.  For some, this is what it means to be Christian.  Christians do good in the world.  Christians do nice things for people.  It’s the Christian thing to do.

We need to put some caution around this.  Christians need to remember that Christians don’t have the market on doing good.  Being a follower of Jesus is about more than trying to be a good person.  Simply doing good does not a Christian make. What Jesus is saying here, what he’s expecting from his disciples requires something more than a willingness to do good.

Just before we read about James and John asking to be the teacher’s pet, their teacher tells them, “See we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days rise again” (10:33-34).  Then we find James and John, not paying attention, not listening—or listening, but not hearing, ignoring, denying what he said—but instead asking Jesus for a favored position when he sits in glory.  There’s only room for two, they think, one on the left and one on the right. 

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Jesus says.  You really don’t know what you’re asking, do you?  You have no idea. You have no idea what I’m about, do you? 

Sure, we do.  Pick us.  You’ll see.  We’re better than the others. 

When the others heard James and John, they became angry.  So Jesus called them all aside and said, look, “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.”  

You know that among the Gentiles…  Who is Jesus talking about here?  Who are the rulers of the Gentiles?  The Roman governor. He’s also the ruler of the Jews because the Roman Empire occupies Palestine.  You know how the Romans operate, Jesus says, their rulers lord it over them and subjugate everyone, including their “great ones,” which is probably a veiled reference here to the Emperor himself.

How does Rome act?  With brute force and power.  Those at the top have all the power; those at the bottom have none.  Those on the bottom only exist to serve those on the top.  Those without power are destined to serve those with power—and those at the bottom are powerless to do anything about it.  Those with more honor, more glory, more power expect to be served by those with less, by those who are beneath them.  That is the Roman way.

But it’s just not the Roman way.  There’s something oddly familiar about all this, isn’t there?  It’s a human way, a fallen, sinful way, the way of false ambition and the almost Darwinian struggle to be on top of the heap, to be the best, to have the place of honor, the recognition of the crowd, the glory.  If we’re honest, there’s something of James and John in each of us.  We each have our ego needs and we look to wealth, power, influence, rank, position, achievements, authority, honor, glory, and status to help prop up our fragile egos. To be clear, wealth, power, influence, etc., are not inherently bad, but they can easily become hurtful and destructive, petty and small, ugly and dishonoring, toxic, even evil if all we’re worrying about is our ego needs, if we’re only worrying about ourselves, if we use people and power and privilege—and yes, even religion (!)—to get ahead in the world.

“But it is not so among you,” Jesus says.

One of the wisest and most honest writers I know is Parker Palmer, a Quaker, an educator, philosopher. Early in his career he was offered the presidency of a small educational institution.  He wanted the job, and he thought he should take it.  He gathered a half-dozen trusted friends and formed what’s called in the Quaker tradition a “clearness committee.” A clearness committee helps one discern what the Quakers call way, helps one determine whether way is clear or closed.  They gathered around him, not to offer advice, but to ask honest, open-ended questions of Palmer to help him discern the call. 

Halfway through this three-hour meeting a friend asked Palmer what he would like most about being president.  He mentioned several things he wouldn’t enjoy, like wearing a tie.  But one friend said, you’re not answering the question.  Palmer says he then “gave an answer that appalled even me as I spoke it: ‘Well,’ I said, in the smallest voice I possess, ‘I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word ‘president’ under it.’”  Palmer shares, “I was sitting with seasoned Quakers who knew that though my answer was laughable, my mortal soul was clearly at stake!  They did not laugh at all but went into a long and serious silence—a silence in which I could only sweat and inwardly grown.  Finally, my questioner broke the silence with a question that cracked all of us up—and cracked me open: ‘Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?’  By then it was obvious, even to me, that my desire to be president had much more to do with my ego than with the ecology of my life.”[1] That moment of clarity led him to withdraw his name from the search.

But it is not so among you….” 

When Jesus offers these words he’s leading his disciples down an entirely different path.  It’s not the way our selfish, fearful egos usually want to go.  It’s not the way that comes naturally to us.  And it’s certainly not the way one chooses to go if one’s ego is fragile and insecure, when it’s full of worry and anxiety, when the ego “dominates, exploits, and manipulates others for its own advantage.”[2]

But it is not so among you….”

If you want to be considered great in the kingdom of God, you must become a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant or slave of all.  Jesus is talking about mutual servant-hood here, one serving the other, seeking to serve the other; one who does not seek to “lord it over” the other.  Equal to equal.

But how?  Jesus didn’t have to grab for glory or wealth or power or authority or status in order to affirm who he was.  He knew, in his heart, who he was.  In the absolute best sense of the phrase, Jesus was truly full of himself, that is, clear about his identity and purpose.  And it’s from that state of fullness, of completion, knowing that he was participating in the love and generosity of God that he was then free—not compelled, but free—to serve and to give. 

I believe that the way of Jesus is available to us through him.  From Jesus’ perspective, “only the strongest sense of self, a self that neither grovels nor grasps, can resist chasing counterfeit notions of greatness.”[3] When we have a strong sense of self, of who we really are as children of God, value who we are at the core of our being, deeper than our egos, when we have awareness of who we are in all of our fullness as children of God, then we are free to serve and give in a new way, we are even free to give ourselves away.

When we serve and give in this way—when we see it happening toward others, when we’re the ones doing it, when we’re the ones receiving this kind of generosity—it becomes and looks and feels sacramental.  There’s something holy and good about it.  Something of God is present in those moments because that is the way God is, that’s how it’s done.  And, I believe, it’s possible for us to live and serve this way, not by our own will and determination alone, but when we know who we are, when our identity is firmly grounded in the One who created us, loves us, redeems us, and empowers us to act.

Whether we’re putting together Safe Motherhood Kits for IMA World Health, collecting food for CEFM, preparing Thanksgiving dinners with Grace AME Church, walking in a CROP Walk, advocating for justice and fairness, transforming the world through our Envision Fund, clearing weeds from the Woodland Sanctuary, loving a Syrian refugee family, making the world safe for our children, baking and selling cookies for the Santi School in Nepal, sitting beside someone who is scared, lending an open ear and an open heart, or giving space and time to the things and people that really matter.”  We are serving. 

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10:43-45). Jesus had a servant's heart. To love him, to follow him is to serve him. And we serve him today in serving one another.   When we serve in love because of the One who loves us, then service becomes sacramental. In those moments we know that something of the heart of God is at work in us and through us.  In those moments we know that God is near.  

We become visible signs of invisible grace—and then comes the joy. The Lebanese Christian poet Kahlil Gibr├ín (1883-1931) said it beautifully: "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."

[1] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 44-46.  I’m relying on Daniel D. Clendenin’s helpful summary of Palmer’s account found on his website Journey with Jesus.
[3] Clendenin makes this point here.

14 October 2018


Matthew 19:16-22

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Don’t be quick to judge. Assuming he’s telling the truth—and nothing in the story suggests otherwise—the man is a pious and faithful Jew. The story of this man appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and is often called the story of the rich, young ruler.  Only Luke describes him as a ruler, and only Matthew portrays him as young.  They all agree that he had money, he was rich. He had authority, influence, and privilege, all of which comes with wealth. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being rich. As far as we know, he came to his wealth honestly. He was a religious man. There’s no suggestion that his question to Jesus that day was anything less than sincere. He honestly wants to know what is necessary to enter eternal life. By “eternal life” he doesn’t mean the afterlife. The young man genuinely wants to know how to live a good life, a life of blessing and goodness, a life that is holy, that reflects the goodness of God.

So, we mustn’t be quick to judge him. And, if truth be told, I think we would discover that he’s not that different than us, the average Presbyterian who is trying to live a good life, a faithful life, a life that reflects the goodness of God. And we are rich.  Some of us are wealthier than others, that’s true; but just by virtue of being an American, the majority of the world would consider even the poorest American, rich. That said, by American standards, Presbyterians are wealthy. We need to be honest about this. Of course, there are poor Presbyterians. And most Presbyterians are not extremely wealthy. But Presbyterians compete with Episcopalians for the crown of the wealthiest Christians in the United States and the world.  With wealth comes responsibility. “To whom much is given,” Jesus said, “much will be required” (Luke 12:48).  Presbyterian institutions are among some of the best supported and most highly endowed in our country: congregations, colleges, seminaries, the Presbyterian Foundation, which was founded in 1795.  So, yes, Presbyterians have more in common with the rich young ruler than we might suspect. But we must not let a focus on money and wealth get in the way from seeing what’s going on here, from seeing what’s at stake for this faithful man.

“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt. 19:16).  Jesus, being a good teacher, makes him suffer a little, he throws a question back to him and raises the tension.  “Why do you ask me about what is good?  There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt. 19:18). Notice how Jesus says, “enter into life,” not “eternal life.”  Jesus says if you want know how to live, keep the commandments. God did not give us the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), the Decalogue, to make our lives difficult.  As every faithful Jew knows, the Law is a gift, a form of grace, given by a loving God to show us how to live rich, holy, meaningful lives.  The Law is given in love.  But the man wants to be sure that he’s following the correct ones. “Which ones?” he says.  He’s anxious to get it right.  So Jesus recites a portion of the Law, not all of it, mind you.  “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.”  Jesus doesn’t even mention the first Law, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  It doesn’t matter, because as we’ll see, Jesus is not really concerned about the commandments—he is, but he isn’t.

The young man says, “I have all kept all these; what do I still lack?”—and, now we get to the heart of things.  Jesus goes straight to the core issue.  “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21).  And what happens next?  We’re told that, “when the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mt. 19:22).

Jesus answered his question, but it wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. He went away grieving. You could say he was possessed, possessed by his possessions, which prevented him from entering the richer, fuller life Jesus was inviting him to experience as a disciple.  As we know all too well, it’s very easy to be possessed by our possessions.  We talk as if we own things; but often things own us.  Peace Pilgrim, otherwise known as Mildred Norman (1908-1981), the twentieth century spiritual teacher, who walked more than 25,000 miles back and forth across the United States advocating for peace, said, “Anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions.”

Now, given the way things turned out for the man, it’s easy to think that this story is a warning against materialism, against accumulating things, and having wealth.  There is a danger when our obsession with things and wealth and riches take over our lives.  This might have been the case for the man, we don’t know.  Jesus does go on to say in the next couple of verses, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:23-24).  Jesus says this, not because being rich or having wealth is inherently bad or evil. It’s not.  The issue, as Jesus knew, is that so many rich and wealthy people have a heart problem.  The problem is not that their hearts are, like the Grinch, “two sizes too small.”  It’s not a question of size. It’s a deeper problem.

We get a clue to what Jesus is aiming at when he says, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions….”  If you wish to be perfect.  It’s easy to skip right over this phrase, but it’s critical to hearing this text correctly.  And it’s easy to miss because English is often incapable of capturing the meaning behind Jewish and Greek words and concepts. The clue should be the use of the word “perfect.”  The rich young ruler said nothing about wanting to be perfect.  He didn’t say, “Rabbi, what good deed must I do to be perfect.” Jesus introduces the word because that’s what Jesus wants for him, because Jesus knows what’s really behind his question, because Jesus knows that he is motivated by a deeper desire, a more profound search and hope for something.

The clue is the use of the word “perfect.” The only other place in Matthew’s Gospel where we find the word “perfect” is in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” This is no mistake. It’s very intentional.  The English word “perfect” can trip us up. We hear “perfect” and think of never making mistakes, being morally pure, sinless, beyond reproach. We hear moral overtones in the word. Unfortunately, “perfect” doesn’t accurately render the richness of the Greek word in the text: teleios. Teleios is better rendered as “wholeness,” “undivided,” “complete” (and only in this sense does it mean perfect, as in lacking nothing).  It’s perfection, but perfection in the sense of being wholehearted, integrated. It’s related to another Greek word, eudaimonia, which means human well-being or flourishing.[2]

As we discussed last Thursday morning in our Bible study, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t summon his disciples to moral perfection but to a wholehearted orientation toward God.  Jesus wants us to be whole, complete, just as God is whole and complete. Jesus invites us live out our end or purpose, just as God lives out God’s end or purpose. That’s what it means to be “perfect” as God is “perfect.”  Just as God is undivided in God’s intent to love, so Jesus summons us to live undivided lives. When Jesus judges the practices of the Pharisees in Matthew he’s not judging their faith, he’s concerned about the way they’re living out their faith, the external practices of living out the law, their obsessions with external obedience and cleanliness.  It’s one-sided.  What about the inner life? What about the heart?  That’s why Jesus calls the Pharisees white-washed tombs.  On the outside they look pure and holy, but on the inside they’re rotting away (Mt. 23:27). 

What about “in here,” in us?  What about the heart?  Jesus wants us to view human life holistically.  Jesus wants us to live whole lives, where the life of the inner person, the heart, matches the outward life, so that the inner and outer life are in harmony.  When the inner and outer parts of our lives are whole, and when the heart is aligned with the heart of God—do you know what happens then?—the doors of the kingdom open wide before our eyes.  That’s teleios.  That’s perfection.  We experience human flourishing. But woe to us when our hearts are divided, when our inner lives are not aligned with our outward actions, when are hearts are not behind our actions, when our hearts are not aligned with God’s vision for us, when our actions do not flow from the heart. “Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21).

That was the rich young ruler’s issue.  He had a heart problem.  It wasn’t a question of its size.  He had a divided heart.  His heart was split.  He lacked integrity.

~ ~ ~ ~

It’s because Jesus loves him and wants the best for him—if you want to be perfect, if you want to be whole, if you want to be complete—that he tells him to sell his possessions. What Jesus does in that moment is reveal his divided heart to him.  Jesus unveils what the man cannot see on his own. In a moment of grace, Jesus helps him to see what he cannot see on his own, see what’s preventing him from entering into life.  Jesus shows him that he is not teleios.  Being rich isn’t his problem. He has a divided or disordered heart, that’s his problem. “His heart is disordered in that he ultimately values wealth more than entering the kingdom, his treasure on earth more than his treasure in heaven…The issue is not money per se but wealth as a possible preventer of the heart-level wholeness required to be a disciple of Jesus.”[3]  Jesus is offering a richer, fuller life through serving the kingdom, following his way, being his disciple or student.

But just imagine what might have been.  What if he came to value the kingdom, the way of Jesus, more than his wealth? What if he became possessed by the kingdom? A heart made whole and reordered could have resulted in his wealth being placed in service to the kingdom of God. He could have put his heart, along with his wealth, in service to kingdom work.  But that prospect was too much for him.  His divided heart got in the way.  He valued his wealth more than the kingdom. And he went away grieving. 

And we grieve with him. And we grieve for ourselves, because we know that his struggle is our struggle too.  For him, it was wealth.  For you, it might be wealth or it might be just about anything.  We know what hinders us from the richer, fuller life of God.  Our divided hearts betray us, again and again and again.

Jesus wants us to be whole, one, complete. He wants us to live wholeheartedly and to give all of ourselves. So that this should be our prayer:  Give me a whole heart, O God.  Give me an undivided heart.

Several weeks ago, Rev. Susan Beck led our adult education class in the morning.  She’s pastor of the Community of St. Dymas, a Lutheran congregation within the Maryland State correctional system.  Susan shared that in worship, when it comes time for the offering, that the inmates, because they don’t have money to place in the offering plate, offer themselves up to God.  They become the offering.  All of themselves.  It reminded me of a story told by another Susan, the Rev. Susan Andrews, former moderator of the General Assembly.  Her father was a pastor, and she remembered that as a little girl her favorite part of worship service each week was the offering.  She imagined herself curling up into an offering plate and offering herself up to God. 

Jesus invites us to give all of ourselves, not only part of ourselves, to the work of the kingdom. When we live wholeheartedly, we flourish.  And you and I were created to flourish.  And when we are flourishing, God is glorified. Then our lives—every part of us— become a thank-offering.

Image: Heinrich Hoffmann (1824-1911), Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889).

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 74ff.
[2] Pennington, 80-82.