Pentecost 20 October 18, 2009

Isaiah 53:4-12                                                                    

Hebrews 5:1-10                                                                  

Mark 10:35-45

 

Well, it looks like it may be morning in America again. The Dow closed above 10,000; Goldman Sachs is looking for record profits with bonuses up in the hundreds of millions for its top people; air travel to exotic vacation spots is driving holiday air fares higher by the week; talk of reforms for the financial system is fading.

Morning comes in an interesting way though. Maybe you’ve noticed: the sun touches the tops of the hills and mountains, turning them golden, while the valleys where most of us live are still dark and damp, lying under frost. While a few people at the top are cheering the end of the recession, if this is the end, you and I know people who are unemployed, who are trying to get food stamps, who have no health coverage, whose pay has been cut, who may lose their homes. It is, as usual, the ordinary people who have to wait the longest for things to pick up.

The world of the Bible was no different. In fact, economic and social inequality was far greater back then. And the situation was made worse by the belief that the down and out were just getting what they deserved. That the rich were rich because they had earned God’s favor and the poor and the sick were poor and sick because they’d done something wrong – they or their fathers or grandfathers. Next week in the gospel we will meet a blind beggar whose name is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Bartimaeus means “son of uncleanness.” In the world of Jesus, religious and secular culture were bound together, so the rich and the powerful justified their status by wrapping it in God. The poor were poor because someone had sinned, because it was their fault. (Of course, no one would say things like that today!)

Against that background, the Good News of Jesus Christ was truly revolutionary – though actually Jesus was saying nothing more than the Old Testament prophets had said before him. Do you know how in a song the bass will play a chord that just repeats and repeats through the whole song, sometimes coming in loud but mostly just there in the background? The message of Jesus carried a base line like that. It was about the kingdom of God belonging to the last, the least, the lost and the losers. Just the opposite of the official line being preached by the rich and the powerful.

We hear that theme clearly in all three readings today. In the gospel, James and John, who were among the “insider” disciples, those closest to Jesus, are seeking seats of special honor – those hundred million dollar bonuses – when he comes into his glory. Of course they’re thinking that this glory means worldly power and wealth and fame. Jesus, responding to them, reverses all of this. The road they’re traveling will lead to the baptism of suffering, the cup of the Cross. The way to the kingdom of God consists not of power and domination, but of service, of “slavery to all.”

Jesus may have had in his mind the reading from Isaiah, one of four “servant songs” in that book. “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their inequities.” Scholars speculate that it was Israel itself that the prophet was referring to when he sang of the suffering servant. Be that as it may, Christians have always seen Isaiah’s prophecy as pointing to Jesus.

And in the reading from Hebrews, we have Jesus presented as the priest who reconciled us to God not by being high and mighty, above us, but by sharing human suffering, by offering himself for the last, the least, the lost and the losers. Yes, that base line is beating loud and clear in all these readings.

Why is it that Jesus preached a Gospel that put the last first and the first last? Why do you suppose he ate with sinners and touched lepers and loved those whom the world counted as losers? I think we may find the answer in the Beatitudes, those famous “blessings” that he preached at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount – his equivalent of the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Jesus didn’t bring down from God a set of commandments or standards for performance we had to live up to. Instead he brought blessings, blessings on those who were by their condition and status in life particularly vulnerable or dependent on God. “Blessed are the poor in heart,” goes the first Beatitude; or, in a clearer translation, “blessed are those who know their need of God.”

The chairman of Goldman Sachs is not thinking about his need for God right now. One of his lackeys is holding open the door to his limousine and he’s thinking about his golf date with some other moguls or his private jet or his island in the Caribbean or how to avoid criticism for those huge bonuses he and his people are going to get. He doesn’t even know he needs God. You and I, when we feel left at the end of life’s line, you and I know that Jesus is standing there with us, even right behind us.

Bob Clark and Teddy Bray are back visiting us this morning. Bob was warden during the time we built this building. He and Teddy did so many wonderful things, and especially they reached out to people in need: caring for a sick parishioner in their home when she couldn’t be left alone at home during the day; ministering to the dying at Hospice House; providing support to all sorts of people going through hard times. Bob will say a few words at announcement time. But what I will always treasure is what Bob said once about this church building. He told us to look up closely at the paint job on the ceiling – done by parishioners on scaffolds. See how the stain from the beams slops over a little on the white ceiling, Bob said. That’s to remind us that Holy Cross is not about being perfect. It’s about loving each other in our imperfection and doing what needs to be done. The last, the least, the lost and the losers. Jesus himself couldn’t have said it any better.

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