Sermon: Sunday, October 18, 2009: 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 53:4-12  •  Psalm 91:9-16  •  Hebrews 5:1-10  •  Mark 10:35-45


What an awesome day to be sharing together! I can’t tell you how good it feels to be with you this morning on a day that, for me, is an anniversary celebration of the weekend three years ago that I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament and installed here at St. Luke’s. Many of you were here that day, though many of you have come to St. Luke’s since that day; and some of you are visiting with us this morning as signs of larger church’s support for our ministry – just as you were signs of the larger church that weekend when you laid hands on me to commission me for ministry. Those days of ordination and installation were indescribably significant milestones in my own life’s journey and I cherish those memories, returning to them often as a source of strength and encouragement when this work becomes difficult.

Today is also an anniversary day for St. Luke’s on a couple of counts. First, because it marks the beginning of my ministry here, today is the anniversary of our mutual ministry. You can’t separate a pastor’s call from the community to which he or she was called. Our pastoral calls always come from a body of people to serve among a body of people who, by claiming their baptismal identity as followers of Christ, are sent out to love and serve their neighbors. So today is also an anniversary for St. Luke’s of the ministry we have been doing together. In the almost 110 year life of this community, our ministry together over these last three years has been one of redevelopment and revitalization.

But secondly, today is an anniversary for St. Luke’s because it falls on the day of commemoration for St. Luke the evangelist, the one after whom the gospel of Luke is named, the one who was represented in the early church’s art as a bull. This is why, as you look around the sanctuary at the banners on the walls, or even in the masonry above the exterior doors to the parish hall, you’ll see images of bulls. You can imagine the jokes we could make here about how St. Luke’s is like a bull – bull-headed, full of bull, and so on; but the pairing of the gospel of Luke with the symbol of the bull was because the bull is a creature of sacrifice, service and strength, themes that are central to how that gospel understands the life and ministry of Jesus.

So today is a day for celebrating the ways that all of our lives, yours and mine, have been gathered together and bound up in the life and ministry of this congregation, which takes its name from an account of Jesus’ life that emphasizes the strength required for sacrificial service – and we know something about that, as the trials this congregation has faced have been deep, and our work to revitalize our ministry has required sacrifice on all of our parts.

But there is good news to report! In our council meeting yesterday morning, preparing for next Sunday’s annual meeting, we heard from our treasurer that our projected deficit for this year looks like it will be $30K or less. That’s still a large deficit, to be sure, but we began the year budgeting for an $80K deficit, and then made some cuts to bring that down to about $59K, and still it looks like we’ll be coming in at about half of that revised deficit projection. We owe that good news in part to responsible decision-making on the part of the council, and prudence on the part of the staff, but mostly to the increasing generosity of the members and friends of this congregation who are giving out of their own resources, even in this down economy.

And our growth has not gone unnoticed. Last week I was at the Metropolitan Chicago Synod’s office for a meeting of the conference deans, and we were discussing the synod’s strategy for new mission development. As those decisions are being made, the bishop and his staff are looking at those congregations in our synod which are currently experiencing growth, and are asking what factors are contributing to that growth. I learned that less than thirty of this synod’s 210 congregations are experiencing growth. St. Luke’s and Bethel (West) are the only congregations in our conference the synod sees as growing in terms of membership and giving. In the middle of a somewhat sobering meeting, I have to admit that it felt good to be associated with this congregation. Your faithful service, sacrificial giving, and growing mission to our neighbors is not only seen – but something synod leadership is now asking how to replicate. Who would have imagined that three years ago?

And so I have to confess to you, my brothers and sisters, I have been resisting this morning’s gospel text all week. I have read and re-read the passage from Hebrews, trying to decide if I could focus on that metaphor of ordination as a way of talking about my ordination, or if I could focus on its understanding of Christ as the cosmic high priest coming from the line of Melchizedek – which seemed promising. It seemed for a while that I might lose myself completely in providing you with a history lesson about the mythical figure of Melchizedek and through a bit of slight of hand in the pulpit, completely ignore the stark words from Mark’s gospel passage this morning.

In order to understand fully what’s going on in this passage, we actually have to back up a few verses. The lectionary readings for the last two weeks have been drawn from the tenth chapter of Mark, beginning two weeks ago with Jesus’ teaching on divorce and children where he totally reverses the dominant culture’s understanding of the roles of women and children, privileging the needs of the weak and the subordinated. Last week the theme of reversals went one step further, as Jesus meets a wealthy man who wants to know what is needed to enter the kingdom of heaven and Jesus teaches that it will be difficult for those with wealth to enter God’s reign. But between last week’s reading and this week’s reading are three short verses that the lectionary has left out, which I think are crucial for understanding what’s going on. Here they are:

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “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 upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. (Mark 10:32-34)

Then the lectionary picks up with the passage we heard read from the central aisle, “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.’”

If you don’t read the missing verses, James and John come off as self-centered and prideful. It’s such an unflattering portrait of the disciples that when Matthew retells the story, he has James and John’s mother make this request so that they don’t come off so poorly. But when you keep the previous verses as a part of the story, I think their motivation is clearer. Remember the setting for the scene, “they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

Why were they amazed that Jesus was walking ahead of them? Why were they afraid? Because Mark, the shortest of our gospels and the one which wastes no time jumpi
ng into Jesus’ ministry, has already made it clear by the third chapter that Jesus is a man marked for death. He begins his ministry in the waters of the Jordan, baptized by John, proclaiming the good news of God and calling people to repent. He heals a man with an unclean spirit, he cleanses a leper, he calls his disciples and then he enters the synagogue and, in defiance of the religious establishment’s rules and regulations, he heals a man with a withered hand, and from that point on the church began to conspire with the government on how to kill him. All this happens in the first three chapters of Mark.

Jesus knows that Jerusalem is the place he will die. His followers have heard him say this to them twice already, but they can’t bear to take it in. Now he begins his final walk to the place where he will be condemned to death. His disciples know that he is not safe, and that if they follow him they are not safe either, and there he goes, Jesus walking ahead of them. To their credit, they continue to follow him, but they are afraid.

Being a church in redevelopment means getting personally acquainted with fear. We are afraid we might close. We are afraid we might stay open, but be so thoroughly changed in the process by the people who join us that we won’t be ourselves anymore. We are afraid of our budget, we are uncertain where the money will come from. We are afraid that all our work will be for nothing and that the poor opinions of others who have shown little faith in our efforts will be validated. But, mostly, we are afraid we might close.

It’s not an unfounded fear either. Already this month two congregations have ended their ministries – Christ the King downtown in the loop, and Wilmette Lutheran. Christ Lutheran Church on Parkside Avenue has decided to close next spring. All of these closures are taking place in the context of a rapid downsizing in mainstream Protestantism that we’ve talked about before. In the last twenty years the number of people affiliating with mainstream Protestantism has decreased by twenty-five percent. Something is happening to our church. It is dying. And we are afraid.

In the context of that fear, the request of James and John makes more sense. “Give us some good news,” they ask Jesus as they willingly but fearfully accompany him into the lion’s den. “Tell us that we will sit with you in glory. Tell us that this story has a happy ending.” We understand that impulse. We want to know that all our hard work, all our sacrifices, will pay off in the end.

But Jesus answers enigmatically, “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?” And they reply, “Yes, we’re able.”

Have you considered that when you come to the communion rail, you are kneeling alongside James and John and receiving the cup of which Jesus says, “the cup that I drink you will drink.” They do not realize, and we often try to forget, that the cup which Jesus drinks is the cup of servanthood and sacrifice. We come to the rail hoping for a bit of comfort, and experience of grace, and assurance of the presence of God in our lives – and we receive that. But to be filled with the presence of God, to drink from the cup that Jesus drank from, means to go where Jesus goes, to walk behind him as he heads to Jerusalem, and to his confrontation with the powers of this world that resulted in his death.

When we began our mutual ministry together three years ago, I would often say to you and to people who asked if we were going to make it, “there’s no way forward for any of us that doesn’t include a death.” I know there were hopes that somehow we would manage to pull off a revitalization of our ministry that would also allow us to remain who we are, or even to return to the way we were. A way forward without a death. But that is simply not possible. Furthermore, it’s not really even consistent with the Christian message. The question we have always faced as a congregation is not whether or not we’re going to die, but how we’re going to die. Perhaps we will put all our efforts into this redevelopment, but in the end we will run out of resources and choose to end this community’s proud 110 year ministry. Or, perhaps we will put all our efforts into this redevelopment, and in the end the community will look so different, sound so different, pray so differently, sing such different songs, use such different words, focus on such different priorities, that those who have been here for so long will have to say, “we are no longer the people we were, that community is dead, and now we are something completely new.” But there is not, and there never has been, any way forward for us that does not involve a death, and that is part of what it means when we receive the cup at the rail and drink from it. Like James and John, we may not fully comprehend what we are getting ourselves into, but Jesus assures us that we are being brought into his ministry of giving his life away for the sake of the world.

In our life together as a congregation, and in our lives apart as people with homes and jobs and children and parents and spouses, we so often handle our anxiety, our fear, but going to God with prayers that sounds like those of James and John, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” But that is not what God gives us in return. No, instead God in Christ Jesus offers us a cup and a baptism that tie us to God’s insistence on speaking truth to power, putting healing before rule-keeping, giving the divine life away for the sake of the world in a way that leads to death – but also to new life. New life for the women and the children and the rich young ruler who Jesus sees and loves. New life for the disciples who learn to trust that all their lives are in God’s hands. New life for a denomination and an entire way of being church that cannot imagine itself outside of the structures that have held its form for so long. New life for a congregation that longs for abundant life, but has lived for too long in the shadow of death. New life for you and me as we see Jesus walking ahead of us, and learn to trust, to follow, even into places that look like certain death.

God has a resurrection in store for all of us. That is the promise of our baptism. And it will not all be experience on that great getting up day when we finally see God face to face. We will experience it in fits and starts here and now. We will practice it with each other, so that we can lead others into it. But you can’t be resurrected until you’ve died.

So, on this third anniversary of our mutual ministry, as we approach our 110th year of ministry as a community, as we take our place alongside Christians from every nation in every part of the world who have been falling in love with Jesus for two-thousand years and learning to give their lives away, I am grateful for the privilege of being your pastor and I hope that we will continue to find the strength, like the bull that represents our namesake, to commit ourselves to sacrificial service above institutional survival, to practice dying so that this community and all those whose lives we touch might experience new life.

In the name of Jesus,


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