Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 21 2018, 10:30 am
Sherri Golisky, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Job 38:1-7,34-41; Ps 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Heb 5:1-10; Mk 10:35-45

You may be familiar with the list that comes out each year from Forbes, the list that determines and then ranks the world’s most powerful people. The idea is that there are 75 key figures that make the world turn; and this year, there appears to be an increasing consolidation of power into the hands of an elite few. Curious of what’s behind the ranking, I learned there are 4 things taken into account: first, is their power held over a high number of people; do they have large financial resources at their disposal; do they hold influence over multiple spheres of society; and do they actively use their power. This is power that is visible, measurable; power that is about standing over, standing above, power that is perpetually looking for more power. And you and me—as the world seems to spin about the powerful—you and me, I think we’re all just trying to find our place.

There are some conversations we never forget. As a teenager, I will never forget the words my grandfather once said to me. To me, he was a great man: humble and loving, serving selflessly in countless ways. He had a transformative influence on my life and many others. Yet he confided that he questioned whether his quiet ways made a difference, whether he was ever really finding his place. I felt a sadness at this: surely there was a whole other reality that counted, a truth that transcended our usual measuring sticks. And ever since, I look for it: this different kind of power quietly at work around us.

In our Gospel today, we learn that Jesus doesn’t entirely dismiss our ambition, our need to find our place, but the key is that he dismisses all categories that have no reality in the Kingdom of God. If we want to truly follow Him, our usual categories must be dismantled—our ideas of entitlement, reward, security, position, recognition—all we thought we knew about success and earning a place, everything we thought we knew that makes the world spin, must be cast down. Being first or great in God’s Kingdom has nothing to do, as Jesus puts it, with “rulers lording it over” their people, with some having a place over and above the place of others. IF we want to enter this new life on offer in Christ—we need to redefine what we’ve always known.

I think, perhaps, this is about relationship: of learning first to see ourselves in relationship with God as God’s beloved, and then in right relationship with — never over, but with — one another, who are also of course all God’s beloved. In this, we may just come to find that a place is already set for us: that instead of striving to secure our spot, we’ll see that we are already worthy guests at a table where all are welcome.

If any of us were feeling a little tired when we arrived to church his morning, I suspect the beginning of today’s Gospel might have woken us up a little—it should have! Did you catch the utter boldness of James and John, who Jesus has nicknamed the Sons of Thunder—did you catch their boldness when they came before Jesus and said “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Essentially, they were requesting something like a blank cheque. And after Jesus rather patiently asks them what it is they want, they go on to request a privileged place in glory—that when Christ finally reigns in his Kingdom, they’ll be deserving or even entitled to a place of honour; after all, they have sacrificed, they have followed.

You may be even more struck by their boldness, when I say they asked this immediately after Jesus tells them—for a third time and in great detail—that that the Son of Man will suffer and die. They are on their way up to Jerusalem, they are not far off from Jesus’s triumphal entry into the city, and Jesus tells them what’s about to happen—and this is where they take the conversation! It happened the same way in our Gospel a few weeks ago: Jesus predicted his death, and they argued about how they measure up. Again, they don’t absorb what Jesus says is to come; and neither do they take in the nature of the new Kingdom that Jesus is ushering in: a Kingdom where the only greatness is found in giving up everything we expect of power and position; in a life of total servanthood, where the ultimate example is the one—who like a slave at others’ complete disposal—submits himself so entirely that he loses his own life, so that many may be set free.

I think we can see something of ourselves in these two. They don’t quite get it, but they stick to their faith; they want to go on following, and yet they wonder, understandably, what does it all mean for us? This is very human—we do it all the time. When the Intergovernmental panel on climate change published a report a couple weeks ago stating that urgent change is necessary to avoid catastrophic destruction even sooner than we thought—apparently this sparked a social media storm, not, by most, about action for change, but posts about how people and their families were personally planning to best live out what they now saw as their own final days.

Yet Jesus sticks with us. He listens as James and John insist they can and will do whatever is needed. He asks, Can you drink the cup that I drink? Or be baptized with my baptism? In other words, can you walk the same path that I will walk—this is a baptism fully into my death, and a cup of come all that may, that when drunk to its full takes in all the suffering the world has known. Jesus knows that whatever glory they might come to, the way for them to get there is this same trialing road. And when they give their rather un-thought-through “yes,” he agrees they will indeed walk that path, but there are no privileged spots that are his to give. We follow on the way, feeling certain of little, yet clinging to our faith in the one we follow. And in the end, it is our faith that matters.

Last Sunday, at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Archbishop Oscar Romero was canonized—in denouncing human rights violations and defending the most vulnerable, Romero was someone who knew a lot about the structures of power at play in our world. He was also someone who hoped a great deal in the power of new life in Christ. Romero said: “If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more human qualities. Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted onto Christ’s life, his cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure.”

We find our place, we come to know our true measure, in Christ alone. United with him by faith, we know ourselves as worthy—not because of anything we do or strive for or could ever earn, but because we are loved in him. And when we know ourselves as beloved like this, when we can truly see ourselves as worthy like this—we can begin to see this same beautiful unearned worthiness in others, all others. Even when—I think the point here is especially when—by all appearances, the world says there is no spot for them. There is a place of equal honour prepared for all who come to God’s banquet table.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, we know of the new power that it is at work. We let go our old ideas of what counts. We humble ourselves and we serve and we give our yes to the power of Christ at work within us and amongst us. We are not naïve, we are not detached. We know, perhaps even more acutely than ever, the destructive pull of the world’s powers, powers that dominate, oppress, violate, take away. We have eyes to see its victims and its prisoners. But we also know, unequivocally, in the words of Joseph Ratzinger, that “The least power of love is already greater than the greatest power of destruction.”

The power of Christ is power shared with us so that we may share it outwards. There is no power-over but only power together-with. May our place in this world, may our only greatness be in our faith, faith in the one whose Spirit has the power to heal, to mend, to bring new life, to restore dignity, to show its strength in weakness, to give hope where there is no hope. AMEN.