[A sermon preached on Mark 10:35-45 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Gallipolis, Ohio]
There’s nothing quite like an empty worship space in the middle of a weekday, especially in an older church. The stained glass throws rainbows of color onto your skin and the walls. The echoes of generations of prayers are not just heard but felt. Sometimes, in the busyness and stress of everyday life, I plop myself down in one of the pews and just take a few moments to be. To just steep in the silence, to pray, to reflect. Sometimes it feels like I’m tuning out and unplugging, other times it is my chance to reconnect. One thing Anglicans have been particularly adept at in the course of the nearly 500 years we’ve been around is the recognition of how important space, aesthetics, feel, and our senses are to our experience of the Divine.
Three years ago, almost to the day, I walked through the iconic red doors of Christ Church in Ironton. I propped them open, arranged a prayer bench in front of a beautiful icon of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, lit some candles, and then sat and waited.
Several weeks prior to that moment, Mother Sallie (the Vicar of Christ Church) and I had the same idea almost on the same day, based on conversations we’d had with others in the community: “What if the church building were open on Wednesdays, right in the middle of the busyness of the week, at lunchtime?” In the fast-paced workaday life most of us lead, we reckoned, sometimes we all crave quiet. People are hungry to just sit, staring off into the middle distance. People are hungry for downtime, where there are no expectations, nothing they must do. They can just be quiet, pray, meditate. Maybe Christ Church can be that place for people who live or work in the immediate downtown area.
We worked at making beautiful signs, dreaming up ways we might try to spread the word, and ways to make it successful, ways to make it work. The thing I remember thinking as we were doing all this prep work was, “I know we can do this! We will be able—I will be able—to make this work!”
But then I sat there on that first Wednesday. I sat… and I sat.. and I sat. Sallie sat with me for the first hour, but then she had to leave for a meeting. So I sat alone… and I sat… and sat. Not a soul walked through those beautiful iconic red doors that day. My thoughts turned from “we will be able to do this” to “what didn’t we do right? What did we do wrong, that it didn’t work? What if it never works?! What if we keep doing this and it never really catches on? What if this thing we’ve dreamed up is a failure?!” The dreaded F-word! I wanted to prove to the community that Christ Church in Ironton is worthwhile, valuable, and relevant to the wider community and to today’s culture. That Christ Church has something to offer the rest of the world. So what if all this is a failure? What if we can’t do it?
For nearly a year we’ve been hearing about Jesus and his disciples from Mark’s perspective. One thing that we can say with certainty is that Mark is rough on those disciples. The picture Mark paints for us is that these blockheads just will not get Jesus’s message through their thick skulls. Jesus’s teachings just will not sink in, no matter how many times he repeats himself. And today appears to be no different, really. Just last week we heard Jesus tell the disciples for what is probably the millionth time that “the last will be first and the first will be last.” And then he must repeat it again today, albeit in slightly different language: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all.” Just a few weeks ago the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest on their walk to Capernaum. Who’s doing the most good, doing the best job at being a disciple? And then here, just one chapter later, the Sons of Thunder are jockeying for a privileged seat when Jesus becomes the warrior king that they’re apparently still convinced he’ll be.
For some reason, despite what Jesus has said to them over and over again, the disciples are still thinking that their position – how close they get to Jesus, how favored they are, their greatness, how successful they are at being disciples – has something to do with their salvation and their worthiness. And three years ago I sat in an empty sanctuary having the same thoughts these bonehead disciples were having two thousand years ago. Despite hearing it for weeks on end, I too struggle to believe it… and I’m convinced I’m not the only one who does. Because it’s a part of a lot of our lives.
Our culture, for one, says that we must prove ourselves. We must prove our worth. Your life is your own, make or break. Everything is on you, good or bad. You either can be good enough or you fail… and it’s all on you. Our identity is all wrapped up in whether we’re good enough, successful enough, and whether or not we can be “perfect.” Do we love enough? Do we smile enough? Give enough money to the church and to worthwhile charities? Witness to Christ enough? … The list goes on and on. And so, we constantly jockey to do better, be better, work harder to be more successful, to be more loving, to be more Christlike. Because, after all, that’s how God will decide who is in and who is out! The ones who are the best, who do the most, and who love the hardest will be okay.
As we here at St. Peter’s are beginning a journey of listening for the direction that God would have us move, I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about what “success” looks like. I find myself thinking about being “good enough” and not failing. (There’s that dreaded F-word again!) It feels very much like it did three years ago when not a soul showed up that first Wednesday. But when we hear Jesus’s response to the Sons of Thunder, can you hear the nuance?
Jesus asks, “Are you able to go through what I go through? Are you able to do what I do?”
And their response is, “Yes, we are able.”
Now, what I expect to happen next is for Jesus to say something along the lines of, “What?! Are you kidding me?! No, you dimwits! No, you are not able. I’m the Son of God and you’re definitely not! How many times do I have to tell you? It’s not about what you do!”
Instead, though, he affirms them, at least partially: “you will drink of the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism.” That’s surprising, right?! Jesus has been talking about this for chapter after chapter in the Gospel of Mark. What does he mean, that they will be able to do this stuff? Here I am, thinking it isn’t all the stuff I do that gets me in God’s good graces and brings me closer to Jesus!
Then Jesus responds—to the other 10 disciples’ indignation and to my surprise: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all.” He’s said it several times in our Sunday readings this summer and fall. Indeed, what Jesus says to James and John is that we don’t have to earn God’s love, we don’t have to prove ourselves to be good enough, we don’t have to climb some divine ladder to get closer than everyone else to God, trying to be the one who gets to sit at the right or left.
But there’s something else that happens when we begin to fully realize and live into what it means that God’s love is completely unmerited and yet never fails us. There is an accompanying self-emptying, a letting go of control, a letting go of trying to do and do and do more. There is an understanding that grows deeper and deeper… that God is the doer, not us. And by taking the posture of servanthood that Jesus is constantly instructing us to take, by putting others before ourselves, we begin to come to a healthy realization of our own limits.
All of the sudden, we are able. Not able to do anything. Not able to control the world around us or to keep from failing or making mistakes. But we can do something: we’re able to let go of our control. When we are freed from our impossible expectations of being perfect; of everything always working out the “right way;” of always doing better, loving more, giving more; of earning God’s love through our actions… We are able to love more fully because we understand that whatever love we have and give is fully good enough. We are able to listen more carefully to what God is asking us to do, and then to act without worry about if it’ll be acceptable or good enough.
So, I continued to sit in that pew in Christ Church for two hours on Wednesdays for nearly a year. Sometimes no one showed up. Sometimes a handful of people would come to pray, cry, or bend an ear. Sometimes it felt pointless. Sometimes it was Spirit-filled. But I realize now that it was just as much an exercise in letting go of control than it was a ministry to the community. An exercise in trusting that in letting go of worry and control, God would do something.
And when we decided to discontinue that ministry, was it a failure? People had stopped coming, so had we failed? I think the obvious answer is “no.” It was a ministry for a season. Like all things God calls us to, Christ Church was changed… I was changed… just as much by that time as anyone who passed through those beautiful iconic red doors.
I’m leaving you with a challenge today. This week, as you go about your lives and as you live out your call to be disciples in your community, pay attention to those moments where you get that nagging feeling that you’re not doing enough, that you’re not good enough. That feeling like you’re on the verge of failure and you’re grasping for some sense of control. Then, take just a second, if you can, to stop. Take a step back and remind yourself that you don’t have to be a success. You don’t have to be good enough and you don’t have to be in control for God to do amazing things. All that is required is for us to recognize that God is doing those wonderful things already. We get to join in, in whatever way we are able.
And then, share those moments with those around you. Bring them back here, too, and tell your church family. Witness to what God is doing in your life and the world around you! Because you and I are able. We are able to witness to God’s love and power at work in the world. That, my sisters and brothers, is what we’re venturing into with New Beginnings. That is what God is calling us to… to give up control and to join in the work that God is already doing and already calling us to.
As the Letter to the Ephesians reminds us, “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.”