Servanthood over Dominance

sermon on Mark 10:35-45; Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10
A Dorothy Day quotation to frame the day:  “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

I know people who just can’t believe in God, some of them are even in my family. I’m sure you can relate. There are folks who just cannot embrace the notion of an ancient grandpa-figure perched up on a cloud with a great big beard.

Or maybe it’s less of the feeble old guy they can’t quite imagine, and instead they have trouble with descriptions of a stern and vengeful God, the ultimate authoritarian trying to control and manipulate, eager to smite any who refuse to obey. That idea just doesn’t work for some people.

Or, to geek out a bit, from the original Star Wars movie maybe Han Solo speaks for macho atheists. Luke Skywalker says to him “You don’t believe, do you?” And Han Solo, the swaggering starship pilot replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.” That sort of rationality-focused, science-y explanation claims there’s no obvious facts and so that must prove there’s no God or divine influence.

Any of these images of God can indeed be tough to swallow. But that’s small potatoes. With that refusing to believe in God, what proves really objectionable or bizarre isn’t so much trying to conceive some vision of the invisible or version of the supernatural. Much worse is what Jesus has to say today: to be great you have to serve?! The best thing is to be enslaved?!

Thinking of those non-believers, this stuff seems like the really difficult thing to grasp. Way harder than just trying to believe in God, this is what’s complex, confusing, even offensive. In fact, it’s not just hardcore disbelievers who have trouble comprehending this. It’s for many in power in our society, and those who try to take advantage and get ahead, and those who are trying to get a leg up, and people who are seeking some small acclaim and recognition. You know, people like you and like me. This seems not at all what we expect or want or would think to choose.

Jesus says God doesn’t demand or even want our worship, but is all about service. And that couldn’t have surprised us more if he had claimed that God were a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex who’d come bursting out of a volcano and ravage the earth to swallow up everyone who had ever used a swear word. In fact, that’s actually more in line with what we imagine God to be. Not the dinosaur part exactly, but the one who is mighty and merciless, keeping track of our wrongs and holding to account, who has power over our puny, insignificant, little lives. If we were trying to guess our way to God and blessing, we’d get this completely backward.

To put it in more human terms, think about those we look up to and those we think of as pretty great. Think even of those terms—looking up to someone versus looking down on them, being great is mastering your abilities, being better than your opponent. We’re trained to think of power as “power over.”

To put more flesh on this, let’s zero in on one person: the President. In these days of politics and fierce debates, an old rarely used term is of “public servant.” That title seems in line with what Jesus is commending, the important role of assisting people. Now think about that title of “public servant” with another frequent notion that the President is the most powerful person on earth. Would we say that power is because of being the Commander in Chief over the military with the most nukes and highest firepower and biggest budget? Or is the President powerful in regards to being so responsible for the care and wellbeing of so many people, both citizens in this country and those in need around the world? Jesus seems to say that one of these is the right type and role of power, which means the other is not.

But these words from Jesus on servanthood don’t affect only our views of or expectations for political leaders. It hits closer to home, too. Next Sunday, a half dozen of our 10th graders will be affirming this faith we share. They’ve put in the hard background work of the Confirmation program and will be looking forward with an understanding that this faith shapes our attitudes and behaviors, our worldview and what we do with our lives. But are we actually interested in that for these young adults, whom we’re preparing to send out from here?! Isn’t what we normally plan for them to be successful and achieve their dreams, to go to college and do well?

How do we square any of that in the frame from Jesus? We can continue to strive for wisdom and education and a degree, but it’s with the question of how what we’re learning will be able to benefit others. The shared benefit is the same for what we consider a good job. And to do well isn’t just about how big of a paycheck to expect, but is then further backed up with how wealth and income is released, is given away, is a tool not for self-gain but for helping others. Even notions of career advancement or security aren’t analyzed in isolated individualism.

Now, before we claim it’s too counter-intuitive and that our minds don’t work that way, we should notice natural ways this does occur. Mothers cradling babies, caregivers in times of dementia, nurses responding amid sickness, firefighters encountering danger and risk, teachers who forsake salary for students, stopping for an accident, giving blood, offering forgiveness, listening, all of the volunteering that radiates out from this place—these are a few among many obvious examples of un-coerced serving, of responding to a calling, of living out vocations that are about striving for the greater good.

More broadly, recall trees that give us air to breathe, soils that filter groundwater, the pollination of plants by bees (who, in the words of the Easter Vigil service, are precisely labeled as “servants” who give us candle wax and so follow the will of God). So we can observe how giving away our lives for others may be an obvious or, indeed, natural part of our identity. God-given, we might say.

But we also probably find it is countercultural, since we’re surrounded by settings and stories of aggression and violence and competition, in awe of celebrities while denigrating those in prison or on welfare. We buy into that dominant version of our economy and we hypothesize wildlife is “red in tooth and claw.” We may feel that’s what shapes most of what’s around us. And Jesus himself says that we know the way of the world is for rulers to lord it over and act like tyrants.

Not so among you, he says. And not so for him, either. He is Lord not as master but as servant, not as high and mighty but stooping to serve and wash feet. With that, we should notice this isn’t only a rigorous expectation for our lives. It’s not only to redefine cultural standards. It’s not just challenging us to examine how we live. Most fundamentally, this is not counterintuitive or countercultural but counter-theological. It is against faulty statements about God.

Even within our Bible, this still, small voice of lowly serving continues calling out against those others threatening to overtake it and drown it out. Take, for example, our Hebrews reading that marked Jesus’ suffering. It rightly proclaims that he came to know our weakness and cry with us in the face of death and even that he was willing to die for our sake. But Hebrews labels this as a result of “reverent submission.” That subverts the whole thing Jesus actually came to reveal among us. Rather than wanting to give himself for our sake, that verse tries to say Jesus only did it because he obeyed when his big bossy heavenly Father told him he had to do it. That undoes the whole notion of servanthood, again trying to put some ultimate divine master in charge. What Jesus says today argues with that claim from Hebrews. Jesus calls that wrong, a bad understanding, not the truth about God! He embodies and reveals for us God’s motivation not out of fearfulness but because of love and devotion.

The same problem shows up in our Isaiah reading. It’s an amazing passage that we use on Good Friday, words we apply to Jesus as one who suffered on our behalf, “crushed for our iniquities,” wounded because of our sin, a punishment that strives to be for our healing and wholeness. That’s very fitting with how Jesus describes serving, of laying down our lives for each other.

But the Isaiah reading slips in a phrase that undermines it, the insidious assertion that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.” Again, that is wrong. Out of a hard but beautiful reading on willingness to suffer and intercede for the sake of others and trying to make bad situations better, with all of that gets added one lousy phrase. But to crush someone is not the God of Jesus. That is not God’s will being done. That is not how the Spirit of the Lord is operating.

That’s the final word for today: in the all-too-many times when the world seems to be about dominance and oppression, or about hurting someone before they hurt you, or about getting ahead at any expense; for the perspectives that even pop up in faith claiming that God is removed from any sorrow or suffering, much less that God takes sides with the mighty and against the weak or that a terrible thundering God goes about causing pain and destruction, over and against all of that comes Jesus and this amazingly beautiful and caring truth of the God who shaped the world for loving service, a God who serves, who gives God’s own self for you, for the sake of life, through death, and beyond.

Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW #659)

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Traps and Captivation, of Empire and of God

Sermon for 19Oct14

Matthew 22:15-22; Isaiah 45:1-7

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Sneaky, evasive Jesus has a tendency to answer questions with a question, when opponents are trying to trap him, but also to make us think for ourselves. Today it’s not a question, but more of a riddle, and you have to say it just sounds better in the King James Version: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

They ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the empire. It’s a trap. If he says don’t pay, the Romans would arrest him for provoking rebellion. But if he says yes, pay, his people would be upset he’s encouraging the oppressive occupying powers. He can’t say yes and can’t say no. He’s trapped.

But sneaky Jesus flips the trap, catching them in their own snare. We’ll see more of that in a moment. First, though, we’ll try resolving the riddle. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s,” we’ve usually figured there are two separate categories, and Jesus leaves it to us to discern which goes in what box. So we start compartmentalizing, breaking it down, maybe first that ultimate devotion should go to God and not to our government or whatever.

Money comes in a second layer of the divisions, with less direct certainty. We have generally determined that it’s okay to pay taxes, that they don’t interfere too deeply with our faith. We may grumble, but also see them as worthwhile. In fact, we should recognize they may serve consistent with what we do in faith, for example in programs of social uplift and concern for the least—very clearly a biblical ethic. As an example, picture school lunches resolving hunger and caring for vulnerable children, a Jesus-y kind of project, which just so happens to be run well by government.

That’s an important reminder for us. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar or to God, it’s not just a matter of two columns on a budget sheet, one or the other. Some of it we simply cannot divide. Jesus is not drawing a distinction between sacred and secular. It’s not a separation of church and state. God is not relegated only to the realm of what happens at a church or with a religious logo affixed to it.

Obviously, God’s work is immensely bigger than those small categories. Our Isaiah reading declares that God’s work was being accomplished by the Persian king Cyrus, even though he didn’t know God and didn’t know he was doing serving that role. It even names this foreign ruler as God’s Messiah. Wow! Similarly today, God is not waiting for faith-based organizations with faith-healers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia, but is certainly striving through health care workers regardless of religion. So just because it’s government doesn’t mean it’s opposed to God’s good work.

Of course, the reverse may be true, too. Tax dollars may also get used contradictory to our beliefs. It’s in the debates about how abortion services are or aren’t funded. It could be in a question of subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is in centuries of Christian conscientious objection to paying the portion of federal taxes which funds violence and military and war, by some measures almost 50% of the total.

That points also to the sneaky Jesus reversing the trap to ensnare those malicious, conniving opponents. It begins when Jesus says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” See, this tax was due from everybody under the empire and it had to be paid with Roman money. But notice Jesus doesn’t rifle through the loose change in his pockets to pull one out. He asks them for it, and they produce a denarius. And Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that, and whose title?”

If they were onto him at this point, there’d be a long, dumb pause: “uhhhhh…the emperor.” See, simply using this coin was forcing you to swear allegiance to the emperor, to Caesar. Right on its face, it gave him the title “son of god.” By using that coin, by having it to show off, the so-called religious authorities demonstrate their hypocrisy. They claim to be devoted to God. Daily in worship and prayer they would’ve proclaimed, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6). Well, they might have had those words in their hearts, but in their pockets they were holding onto a second so-called god, his face engraved on the coin.

That shows the shape of the debate is not about politics so much as theological worldview. In telling them to render to Caesar, Jesus might mean “purge yourself of that filthy heretical coin.” In some regard, while bearing that image, it is dominating their lives, that is their lord, and so they aren’t bearing the image of the Lord their God. It highlights their bondage to their enemy, the occupying army, that we can’t escape the systems that ensnare our lives. Again, rather than a question of religion versus government, a larger issue here is two competing powers, for the empire’s kind of control or God’s kingdom in this world.

Even though our bills don’t call George Washington the son of god, this makes it hit home. If our dollars claim that “in God we trust,” how much do they really do that, and when do they render us captive to another force?

For us, we may figure it’s appropriate to begin trying to resolve the riddle by making this word from Jesus into a lesson on how you use money, especially as we prepare to share our financial pledges next Sunday, encouraging you to give more to church, that you should render more to God, return more of what you’ve been given. Yet what does that mean? Is it giving 2% of your income instead of 1%? Or giving 10% and reaching a tithe, can you think you’ve done enough?

After all, God has given you 100%.   It may be right and good to ask what you give at church, yet if we’re working with this passage that tells you to render to God what is God’s, how do you pay back 100% of all that you have and are? Putting tokens in the offering plate wouldn’t cut it. Maybe we return gratitude and praise, that if we’re given a beautiful autumn day, we remember constantly to thank God. Maybe we ask about our vocations, of how we’re using our time and skills to press toward the goals of Jesus. Yet as vital as those efforts are, they also reveal it’s not just the hypocritical opponents in the reading today who fall short in their loyalty and devotion. It’s all of us.

One more example: We hear about foreign Cyrus doing the work of God without even knowing it. The opposite comes on Good Friday, when Jesus has a conversation with the Governor Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar. The conversation emphasizes our point, that not just his property or palace, but even his position of power has come from God. If he’d rendered to God and not to Caesar, Pilate would’ve pursued very different path. Maybe he would’ve stopped the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yet even in that, God’s work was done. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the fullness of God’s compassion and God’s abundant and amazing forgiveness and the work of God for life that just will not stop.

I’m going to conclude by suggesting you are hypocrites, but you are faithful hypocrites. You are sinners, but you are simultaneously saints and sinners. You render to God, but you also render to Caesar and the corrupt powers of this world. Even more, you are rendered by those powers. They render you helpless or trapped, in bondage, captive to sin. You are stuck supporting systems you’d prefer not to, trapped by taxes you don’t want to pay, ensnared by a consumer lifestyle, captive to carbon emissions by which you cause climate change, to prejudices and racisms you may not even always realize exist. For your life and for the good of others, it is indeed a terribly important choice to struggle against those oppressive forces that are rendering you an agent of evil, or of Caesar, opposing God.

But also know you are rendered an agent of God. The God who has given you 100% of your blessings and sustains you through every breath will continue striving for you, and with you. God doesn’t wait for you to perfect yourself, won’t repay you for your actions, never renders evil for evil, but always will be the God of life. You don’t get more just when you’ve proven you can do the right thing. It’s not taken away from you when you do wrong. God in Christ receives when you’re at your most considerate and devoted and doing your best, but God in Christ will just as much pursue blessing when you’re malicious and miserable and selfish and broke and broken.

Even when you’ve squandered 100% and given it to exactly the wrong place, the God of our whole universe is still working with that total. You can’t take anything away from God. God recycles and recreates you from the ashes of your past, from dead ends and even rising out of death. This is the true power. You are entrapped by Jesus, held captive and kept tightly in God’s love. It doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. When God looks at your face, all that shows is the image of Jesus.

Hymn: Take My Life, That I May Be (ELW #583)

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