A Turning Point

+ A sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 29B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 17, 2021 +

Text: Mark 10:32-45


There are times in our lives that completely change our perspectives.
Some event that becomes a turning point which fundamentally alters our outlook and we will never see things the same way again.
Sometimes these are good things like the birth of a child, meeting the love of your life, or the chance at fresh start.
Sometimes, these changes are painful like the loss of a job, a difficult diagnosis, or the death of a loved one.
And sometimes, there is something that happens that is so monumental that it changes not only our own lives, but the lives of the whole world.

I think it’s safe to say we’re living through one of those times right now.
I don’t need to remind you that we have been experiencing a global pandemic for 20 months now and this reality has fundamentally changed our perspectives in nearly every aspect of our lives and society.
Not only have we all added fun new accessories to our daily wardrobe, we’ve suddenly become very acquainted with understanding changing governmental guidance about crowds and going out in public and vaccination requirements.
Not only have we adapted to working, parenting, and spending fare more time at home, many of us have realized that our old jobs weren’t worth the risk and the stress and are looking for something new.
Not only have we done what we need to survive during these nearly two years, we as a society have collectively grappled with what it means to be in relationship with each other, what are role in society and the economy really is, and what our future as a people should look like.

But even as we’ve become used to this new pandemic reality, we still long for things to return to normal, right?
Back when we didn’t have to wear a mask in church.
Back when we could plan vacations and family get-togethers without worrying about another round of shutdowns.
Back when we had a sense of stability in our lives.
And that makes sense! It’s only natural for humans to hold onto what they know in situations like these.
To cling to a sense of normalcy and certainty rather than being tossed into the unknown.

As I was reading a reflection by Professor Karoline Lewis[1] this week, she suggested that our new pandemic-influenced point of view may help us see a different side of today’s gospel.
Because, normally, I would be all too ready to lambast James and John and their presumptuous, glory-hungry attitudes.
I would either laugh or lament that, after spending so long learning first-hand from Jesus, after hearing his third and final passion prediction, as they are getting perilously close to the walls of Jerusalem and to the cross, these two bonehead disciples still don’t seem to get it.
Now, pastors aren’t usually prone to cut the disciples too much slack, but Professor Lewis wonders if there might be something else going on.
Maybe, just maybe, James and John do understand what is happening.
Maybe they see their entire world being turned upside down before their eyes and they’re trying to cling to some sense of normalcy.
Maybe they’re finally realizing that this new world order that Jesus is proclaiming is not going to look like they expected.
Maybe they’re sensing that this new Reign of Heaven really is at hand, that it’s coming really soon, and they’re just hoping that things will slow down a little bit so they can catch their breath and get their bearings.
Maybe they’re hoping that this new Kingdom will be a little bit more like what they’re used to, like a kingdom of this world where their friend and teacher won’t be humiliated and crucified but exalted and throned in glory.
Which doesn’t mean that they want to maintain the status quo, a world where they are relegated to the margins, forced to do backbreaking work to scratch out a living, merely surviving under foreign domination.
But maybe James and John were just doing what we humans do so often, wishing that the world won’t change as much as they think it might so they can at least be confident of where they stand rather than gazing into the unknowable future.

But that’s not really how the gospel works, is it?
That’s not how the story of Jesus works.
Jesus didn’t come to maintain the status quo, he came to be a turning point in our lives, a fulcrum that pivots us into a new future for all humanity.
As we approach the end of Mark’s gospel, we can look back to the very beginning when the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God rushed in.
We can look to the miraculous healings, the confounding teachings, the amazing feedings and see that Jesus’ ministry is like nothing the world had seen before.
We can look ahead at the cross and Christ’s resurrection and realize that there is no turning back because even death could not stop this new world from taking root.

But we humans still try.
And sure, we can look down on James and John, but are we any different?
We’ve spent years on this side of Jesus’ turning point in our lives, listening to him announce a fundamental shift in our society, hearing him proclaim that the Reign of God is at hand here and now.
And yet, when we realize what these changes may mean for us and our society, all too often we cling to what we know.
We reject what Jesus is saying to us as idealistic or impossible and revert to our understandings of how the world works.
We hear him tell us that greatness is found in service but know in our minds what greatness really looks like—it looks like power and money and glory.

So, maybe today’s gospel shows us that we’re more like James and John that we’d like to admit.
And not just us as individuals, us as a whole church.
I worry that the Church as a whole has been treating these past 20 months like they’re just a bump in the road, a little detour maybe, before we get back to the way things once were.
We go on with church as usual even though, across the board, worship attendance is a fraction of what it was before the pandemic.
We ignore the larger societal shifts and, like those disciples, we cling to the power and glory the church was afforded in former days.

Because, while Jesus speaks quite plainly today about glory and power, about how greatness is found through serving, the Church has spent centuries amassing and clinging to power.
We’ve used religion to justify colonialism and genocide to further bolster and enrich so-called Christian nations.
We’ve claimed a role in the institutions of our society, confident that we belong, and ignore our roots of a minority religion, oppressed because we demanded societal change.
We judge congregational success by the number of members, the size of budgets, the stature of our buildings, prioritizing more and more growth, more and more money, more and more grandeur, rather than looking at our impact on the community we have been called to serve.
We seek the glories of this world, a place in the halls of power, an assurance of our position in society, a certain place to stand even as the world changes around us.

“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,” Jesus tells us today. “But it is not so among you.” Or at least, it should not be so among us. Because, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Jesus is calling us to turn away from the ways of this world that prioritize power and glory over service and love.
It’s a fundamental shift in our outlook and attitude, recognizing that Jesus has entered our world, entered our lives, and things cannot be how they were before.

And I think, deep within ourselves, we can see how the old ways are not working anymore—if they ever really did.
We know they’re not working, because if they were, our neighbors wouldn’t be living on the streets.
Our children wouldn’t be hungry and wondering where their next meal was coming from.
We wouldn’t be spending billions of dollars more on weapons of war than we do on human welfare.
We wouldn’t be staring down a global climate disaster, unwilling to take action.
We wouldn’t be using religion as a cudgel to tell people who they can love, how they can express themselves, or what they can do with their bodies.
And maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t be debating whether or not this pandemic is real and really dangerous after 20 months and millions of lives lost.
And if our old ways really were working, maybe we wouldn’t have so many people see church as hypocritical or religion as irrelevant to their lives.

No, the old ways are not working, my friends, and we shouldn’t be surprised by that.
Because Jesus has come to show us a new way.
A way that is not intended to amass power and prestige, riches and glory, but a way defined by service.
A way that is modeled on the life of Jesus, who came to liberate us from the ways of old and open our hearts and minds to loving and serving each other as he did.
Who called us to throw away those old models of what we thought was working, the ways things have always been done, and really whatever we cling to that is preventing us from following Jesus’ example of service as we seek together the new Reign of God.

This shift isn’t easy, beloved.
I know it’s not.
It means letting go of all our certainties and fully trusting in the promises our Lord has made to us.
It means forgoing the way things have always gone and trying something completely different.
It means using whatever status and privilege the Church still has not for our own self-preservation, but for the sake of the gospel.

But I also know that this type of change is possible.

I fully believe that the future of this congregation will be defined by service.
I know that many of us in this room can look back to Holy Cross’ glory days of 20, 30, even 50 years ago when the pews were full and we didn’t have to constantly worry about the future.
I don’t know if we will ever see those days again, but whatever our future holds, we have decided to seek a different type of glory.
We have decided to use our resources to love and serve our neighbors.
We have decided to follow Jesus into the unknown, following his call to costly service, confident that he will be with us.
We may not know what this new world will really look like yet, but we have recognized that Jesus is a turning point in our lives, a fulcrum in our world, telling us that we may never go back to the way things were because we are going with him into our new future together.

Because we also trust that when the heavens were torn open and the Spirit poured out to fundamentally change the world, she didn’t leave with the job only partially complete.
That not only did she fill Jesus in his baptismal waters, she brought him through the wilderness and into ministry.
She brought healings and teachings and works of power.
And she would be with Jesus even in his humiliation, even in his crucifixion, and even when they laid him in that hopeless tomb.
We also trust that the same Spirit inspired Mary Magdalene and the other women to go be witnesses to this great new world that was dawning that Easter morning.
She drove the Apostles to the ends of the earth to proclaim that the Reign of God is at hand and a new thing is possible.
And we believe, we trust, we hope that the same Spirit is with us now and always, within us and among us, calling us to change our perspective, to turn away from what was and confidently look forward to see where the Reign of God is bursting into this world transforming what it was into what it should be.
And she is inspiring Christ’s church, beloved, to trust in this new world our Lord Jesus has proclaimed.
To embrace what he is teaching us so we can love and serve our neighbor as he did so we can proclaim with our whole lives that God is here, and God is bringing us together into a new, certain future.

May it be so.

[1]Lewis, Karoline. “Crises Preaching” on Dear Working Preacher from Luther Seminary. October 10, 2021 https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/preaching-in-the-midst-of-merging-crises

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