“Service Above Self”

The following sermon was preached at the 11am Rite I Choral Eucharist at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York, New York on October 21, 2018, being the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24B)

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ You have revealed Your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of Your mercy, that Your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 53.4-12; Psalm 91.9-16; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45

Special Note: A recording of this sermon can be heard at http://www.saintthomaschurch.org/calendar/events/worship/22318/choral-eucharist beginning at the 39:36 time mark.

“Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”—Mark 10.43-44

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

A wealthy man[1] last Sunday asked Jesus, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10.17) Jesus brings the focus towards God’s call to discipleship and to love others: “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven, and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 10.21) Though nothing is wrong with being wealthy, one must beware the temptation to trust earthly possessions more than God for security and comfort. Life in Christ’s Kingdom requires a new allegiance, a new way of thinking, full dependence on God more than wealth.[2] All who follow Christ’s way “shall receive a hundredfold now in this time…and in the world to come eternal life.” (Mark 10.30) Jesus ended last Sunday’s Gospel with heedful words: “Many that are first shall be last: and the last first.” (Mark 10.31)

Jesus today continues this teaching with the Zebedee Brothers, James and John. These two “Sons of Thunder” ask Jesus to “grant unto us that we may sit, one on Thy right hand, and the other on Thy left hand, in Thy glory.” They want the best seats in the Kingdom, supreme positions of rank and authority. The other ten disciples show displeasure toward James and John for getting to Jesus first with the request. They mistake Jesus’ coming glory for worldly power. Like sheep, the disciples are being led astray by vain ambition.

All of this comes on the heels of Jesus predicting His Passion to the disciples for the third time. He says

“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes: and they shall condemn Him to death and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles. And they shall mock Him, and shall scourge Him, and shall spit upon Him, and shall kill Him, and the third day He shall rise again.” (Mark 10.33-34)

On the cross at Calvary, fulfilling the will of God who sent Him, will Jesus come into His glory. His blessed Passion, precious death, and mighty Resurrection will be the glory through which Jesus will grant eternal access to God the Father through the Holy Spirit. Jesus will reign in a Kingdom “not made with hand, [but] eternal in the heavens.” (2 Corinthians 5.1)

Though James and John will follow Jesus in the ultimate expression of discipleship, it will not earn them the prominent rank they today seek.[3] “To sit on My right hand and on My left hand is not mine to give,” Jesus says, “but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.” It is prepared for those willing to serve God by serving and loving others and suffering humiliation in this world for the cause of right. To sit with Christ in His glory in His Kingdom is to do His will.

Thus, “Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be chiefest, shall be servant of all.” James and John’s request unconsciously aligns them with rulers who get a thrill flaunting their power over others.  They are the types that “come…to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.” (John 10.10) Such attitudes, Jesus says, cannot and shall not be with His followers. It is such rulers’ prominent status Jesus has come to reverse. “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.” (John 12.31-32)

Christ’s cross points us to God’s love and within all who love and serve others abides God. Jesus promises, “Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of: and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized.” Only by the grace of Jesus Christ, received through faith, are we empowered to be faithful disciples. With our lives centered on Christ’s Truth, all of life’s rigors cannot, do not, and will never defeat us, for the Gospel gives us the ability to fight life’s battles and press on to victory. Saint Paul says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

As many of you remember, I had the honor seven years ago to serve this parish as its Seminarian. Very early on in those days, the now Rector Emeritus, Father Mead[4], asked me, “Brandt, what do you feel God is calling you to do as a Priest?” I had it all planned: “After graduation from General, I’m going to go back to Alabama, fulfill my two years of service to the Diocese there, then go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. in American Church history, then teach in a seminary or college theology/religious studies department.” I wanted honor and prestige, to be one of the most well-known Church historians of my generation. Admitting with shame, at that moment, it was more about me than about Jesus.

“That’s all well and good,” Father Mead replied. “But what about the parish?” “I have nothing against parish ministry,” I said back. “I just really feel called to be a Scholar-Priest.” “But even the great Scholar-Priests also served in parishes,” replied Father Mead. “Parish ministry is important. It is important that you be on the frontlines with your fellow clergy serving the people. Don’t ever forget the frontlines.”

Serving here at Saint Thomas taught me what a Priest of the Church meant being. It means being with and among God’s people, walking with them not only during good times but also the hardest moments of their lives. That year here among you changed my perceptions of the ordained vocation and me for the better. No more is it about me, but Jesus completely. Because of the love this parish showed me those seven years ago, to borrow Father Mead’s words, “the ministry of Jesus Christ and the Priesthood are the air I breathe”[5] and I love being a parish Priest.

What Jesus says about being first and great entailing loving and serving others is true, for He, who is Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, did it. “And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2.8) The cross was not a joke, but the most genuine act of unconditional love ever displayed. Jesus “was wounded for our transgressions…bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53.5) Jesus loved and served us by dying and saving us from sin and spiritual death. “Whereby God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a Name which is above every name: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow…and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2.9-11)

How will you live your life? Seeking the world’s glory, which will mean nothing at The End? Or following God and seeking after His righteousness, which will mean everything at The End? We have a chance to orient ourselves towards the right way.

The Church’s liturgy presents God’s redemptive message. We hear God’s Word, words that “are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6.63) Then comes the Confession of Sin, our beginning of becoming whole: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness…We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…Grant [Almighty God] that we may ever hereafter serve and please Thee in newness of life.” And after confession comes Jesus’ comforting words of redemption: “Come unto Me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 21.28)

The Eucharist is our meal of praise and thanksgiving, grateful that Christ’s Body and Blood given and shed for us have made us “members incorporate in the mystical body of [God’s] Son…and…heirs, through hope, of His everlasting Kingdom.” Redeemed through God’s Word and renewed by the Eucharistic Bread and Wine, we are sent out into the world “to love and serve the Lord.”

Christ in Word and Sacrament changes us. Hear, again, His Good News: WE go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes: and they shall…kill him, and the third day He shall rise again.” From Christ’s glory on the cross comes our glory, bringing us all from strength to strength. And as Saint Paul says, “The Spirit…beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ: if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together.” (Romans 8.16-17)

So, then, as Saint Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (John 11.16) And we shall be raised with Christ to eternal life, both here on Earth and in Heaven, taking our place in His everlasting Kingdom. May this be the glory we seek.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] “The Rich Young Man” in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 19.16-30) and “The Rich Ruler” in that of Saint Luke’s (Luke 18.18-30).

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 4) (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), pp. 164-165.

[3] Footnote on Mark 10.39-40, NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (Zondervan, 2018), p. 1796.

[4] Andrew Craig Mead (b. 1946), XII Priest and Rector of Saint Thomas Church (1996-2014)

[5] Andrew Craig Mead. “Letter to the People of Saint Thomas Church” (June 26, 2013).

 

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