Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● October 17, 2021
Today is the 21st Sunday – out of 26 Sundays – after Pentecost. Today, we’re also observing Jubilee Sunday. When I went to save the text of today’s reflection on my computer, I noticed that had I offered a reflection almost exactly one year ago, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 18, 2020.
This group has been incredibly persistent in gathering over Zoom for nearly two years now. Clearly, we are dedicated to each other, and we find solace in seeing each other’s faces and hearing voices – if only remotely.
My sense is that our weekly ritual of prayer, scripture readings, and singing – sort of anyway – has comforted, sustained, and encouraged each of us. There’s been an intensity and deepening in our attention to the words we hear and say.
Despite these positive effects of virtual worship, I worry we may be missing both the hard news, the challenges if you will, and the really good news presented by our Gospel readings from Mark. That may be especially true for the words Laurie just read.
We can’t help but react to today’s reading without thinking, “Boy, those Zebedee brothers are clueless. What arrogance and stupidity! Putting yourself forward is guaranteed to put others off. And, of course, you and I know the purpose of life is to serve others. Looking out only for ourselves is a dead-end street, where loneliness and insecurity are our only neighbors.
We hear the Gospel this way for some very good reasons.
First, we live here in the Albany-Berkeley-El Cerrito-Kensington-Richmond corridor of enlightenment. Ours is a wonderful community of educated and caring humans. A place thick with of Democrats and Sierra Club members. We can’t help but be liberal do-gooders.
Second, most of us spend our lives in the helping professions: nurses, teachers, librarians, parents, and grandparents. We are all busy serving others. Our hobbies, too, of singing or playing music are collaborative efforts. Even those who served as department chairs, know that position is master-of-none, slave to all.
And, of course, we are Episcopalians – good people doing good things. Or least, we have good manners. No boorish behavior here. We have wardens, vicars, and curates – and bishops with very little power. Our capital campaign was “St. Alban’s Serves.” Today, we reflect our spirit of service by observing Jubilee Sunday.
But all these factors may keep us from hearing what today’s Gospel is really asking of us.
And hearing that message is critical because pursuing a life dedicated to humility and service is a futile effort, a no-win proposition. We all know that often humility is a way we manipulate others or for us to avoid uncomfortable confrontations.
By serving others, we sometimes disempower them from serving themselves. We can end up perpetuating systems and structures that keep people in inequality and inequity. That’s why Jubilee USA focuses on changing governments and international institutions to create economic systems and structures that allow people and communities to thrive.
Today’s Gospel is offering us a different path, a new identity – not just better, kinder people, but new people.
As always, in this short Gospel of Mark, context is all important. John and James’ request of Jesus becomes even more outrageous when we hear, in the verses just before today’s reading, Jesus predict – for the third time – that he was going to Jerusalem to behanded over to the Gentiles and put to death.
And, in the passage that follows today’s reading, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is a vivid contrast to James and John. Bartimaeus, unlike the disciples, confesses Jesus as the Messiah who can save him. Bartimaeus, unlike the blind disciples, sees because of his faith in Jesus. And Bartimaeus immediately understands that discipleship is following Jesus to Jerusalem.
In today’s reading itself we hear that Jesus is calling us to more than a life of humility and service. Jesus asks James and John whether they’re willing to accept his cup of suffering. This is the cup of suffering that Jesus prays over in the garden of Gethsemane, and it recalls Isaiah 53, the prism through which the first Christians saw Jesus’ death as God’s Suffering Servant.
And when Jesus talks about “baptism,” he’s not inviting the disciples to take a relaxing soak in the tub. He’s using the word to indicate an overwhelming disaster, being pulled under and drowned.
For Mark’s first readers – and us today – both the cup and baptism were reminders of the sacraments that incorporate us into the body of Christ. By baptism and by the Eucharist, we are marked and shaped into a new identify.
The ultimate challenge to James and John – and to us as well – is when Jesus says that some will sit at his left and right hand. That’s exactly what happens on the cross: two thieves do “sit” at Jesus’ left and right hand. The baptism we share and the cup we drink together reminds us that we, too, are thieves. As we “sit” at the cross, our past is put to death, where the forces of evil do their worse.
But our identity is not just as convicted thieves. Our destiny is more than a painful death. The final words of today’s Gospel proclaim the good news that Jesus died as a ransom for many. In the context of Jesus’ day, that term was used to describe the liberation of a slave from bondage. The death we share with Christ liberates us, delivers us, and free us from all that holds down and holds us back.
And we are not only liberated but also given a new identity. The English translation underlines this shift in identities, just as does the Greek: We were slaves, but now we’re servants – servants connected to the Servant. In Greek, the same play on words exists: doulos, slave, becomes diakonos, servant. In Mark’s community, as in ours, deacons embody what following Jesus is all about. And now we are all deacons.
We have this new identity as Servant Deacons because the Jesus we follow has been raised to new life. Mark reminded his readers that this was their true goal. In Mark 10:32, before Jesus makes his final passion prediction, it says that Jesus “was walking ahead” of the disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Those were the same words the young man in white said to the women at the empty tomb: Jesus had “gone ahead” to meet the disciples in Galilee, where they too could experience the power of the resurrection.
And this resurrection is happening right now. Again, the story of Bartimaeus isn’t just about his getting his sight back. When he confesses Jesus as the Messiah, Bartimaeus is able to “rise up” – the word in the first verses of Mark’s Gospel that is repeated at regular intervals to inspire us to see all of our lives as participation in Jesus’ own rising up.
Our singing, praying, and confessing – even over Zoom – sustains and inspire us so that we, like Bartimaeus, can keep rising up and following Jesus to Jerusalem and to our Galilees.
In the days ahead – especially those times when we aren’t humble, we aren’t nice, and we don’t serve others – we live with joy and hope. And the power – and mystery – of our new life together is that, in spite of ourselves, we do serve others and help create God’s jubilee of justice. Amen.