Sermon by The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons from October 18, 2015 reprinted from the blog Pulpit Ponderings
It has been said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We can all probably think of examples in our own lives and culture where this is true. When we see a fashionable outfit or a hairstyle we think is particularly attractive or that communicates a message we want, we work to re-create it for ourselves. Thinking back a decade or two, remember the ‘power tie’ for men or the ‘red power suit’ for women? We saw those fashions on people we perceived as having power and influence, and we thought to ourselves, ‘If I just wear that, I can garner that kind of respect and power, too.”
We see this dynamic happening in the gospel today with James and John as they ask Jesus for coveted seats of power in glory, the seats at his immediate right and left hands. If we can’t sit in the seat of power, we should sit right next to it. Those sons of Zebedee know there is something special about Jesus, and they want to get some of it for themselves. Even though they’ve been following Jesus around – they have been listening to his teaching, watching him heal people and cast out demons – and they do believe that he is the promised Messiah, they still think he’s going to be a military ruler. The kind of king who wields armies and fear. And that power looks mighty appealing to these humble men, who have been fishermen and disciples of an itinerant teacher. ‘Come on, Jesus, you’re going to kick this dusty road and sit in glory. Just let us sit right next to you and share that glory.’
Jesus on the other hand, has no illusion about what the road to his ‘glory’ will be. And he asks them, quite pointedly, if they really understand what they are asking for, “Do you really think you can drink from my cup, that you can be baptized with my baptism?” In their ignorance and arrogance, they say, “We are able.” ‘I’ll take a sip of that cup of power.’
And their friends find out! And those other ten guys, they are mad. Mark doesn’t say why the other disciples are angry. I wonder if it’s because they didn’t think to make this overt move to imitate Jesus’ perceived power themselves. Nonetheless, Jesus calms the angry disciples. The explanation Jesus gives completely debunks James’ and John’s assumptions about what his power really is. Instead he talks about what power in the kingdom of God really looks like.
James and John, they think greatness comes from status, the kind of power over wielded by tyrants and oppressors. In response, Jesus does what Jesus does all the time. He turns power completely on its head and he says that power comes from serving other people. Not from oppressing them with fear, but from serving them. We will either willingly and joyfully serve others, or we will become enslaved to our illusions that we can be free and secure through status and power. In our culture, we might say through having a respectable job and the right friends.
Jesus asks, who will we serve? Will we serve the voices of the culture that say that we can (and must) be free on our own and at any cost? Or will we hear and heed the voice of Jesus? Will we find our freedom and our true selves through serving our neighbor?
Why do we have a God who is always asking us to serve our neighbor? Always pushing us to consider the needs of someone else before ourselves? It goes very much against our culture, and even went against the culture of Jesus’ time, to put the needs of someone else before our own.
God delights in our relationships. God delights in God’s relationship with us, and God delights in our relationships with other people. Whether they are at home, at school or work, or with people, strangers in our community. It is through our relationships with other people that we discover ourselves inextricably linked – “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” – linked with those around us. We cannot deny that when we open ourselves to know someone else, we are they and they are we. There is some bit of us, some bit of God, reflected back in the face of the other.
Jesus’ description of his life as giving himself “as a ransom for many” reflects that same priority on loving the other before self. Jesus does not buy us back from God or the devil, but instead pays himself out in order to rescue us from ourselves. To rescue us from our delusion that we are somehow self-sufficient and independent, self-made men and women. Perhaps in this world we can make that claim, but not in God’s. From this point in Jesus’ story to the end, his whole life and death challenge our assumptions about power. As we watch the story unfold, we learn that even as we give ourselves in service to others we find ourselves living more fully than ever before.
Our power derives from our imitation of Jesus’ service to us. That power which is rooted in our status as beloved children of a merciful and gracious God. Being loved unconditionally by God, regardless of our power or position in this world, helps us all to realize that we are blessed. We know that blessing first in our baptism, when we emerge from the water as Jesus did and we hear God say, This is my child, my beloved. We return that blessing to God, by returning our lives to God. Our stewardship flows from this same font of blessing, blessing all others through serving them in God’s love.
Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Maybe in this world. When it comes to God, I don’t think so. God doesn’t ask for or need our flattery or kind intentions. God asks for even more: God asks for our whole selves. Our whole selves, given to God in imitation of what God gives to us: his whole self. God gives to us generously, completely, with no strings, no time limits, no expectations. Whether we realize or reciprocate God’s love or not, God’s love is still there, as big and bold and available as ever. God gives to us with love, so that we can grow in that love.
In our imitation of our great God, we are asked to give of ourselves, of our time and our passions and our money, with love and generosity, without condition, without expectation of return, so that God’s love can continue to grow in us and in the world around us. So that the kingdom of God can come near – to us and to everyone else who needs to hear that word of hope. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons, St. Stephan’s, Fairview