Too many years ago when I was a student in college, the Episcopal chaplain there was a very with-it fellow – concerned and involved and very in-the-know with all the issues of the day. He was a friend of mine, and I liked him a great deal. I was even his daughter’s babysitter from time to time. But, like all of us, he made his mistakes. One of the greatest of these involved a series of sermons he planned and delivered for the Sunday evening chapel services. Actually, it was not so much a series of sermons as it was a gimmick which he had cooked up to prove to us – as if it needed proving – how relevant Christianity was to life in the world of today. In those days relevance was, as you may remember, the chief criterion. Relevant or irrelevant? – that was the question put to all kinds of things – even to things to which the terms didn’t apply at all.
His method was to be this: in place of the sermon he would simply page through the New York Times, pick out headlines and comment on what was going on from a Christian perspective.
Now, in principle such a thing is not a bad idea – if Christianity is worth its salt, then it is indeed relevant – that is, has something important to say to what is going on around us. The trouble, though, was that, again, this was a gimmick, and like all gimmicks it should be tried once and then discarded. The first time the novelty engaged us; by the third time the sermon – or whatever it was – was greeted by a yawn before it had even begun. After the fourth of these preachments, even my friend began to see the light, and returned to the tried and tested technique of writing something down and delivering it.
But, you know, looking back on that, I find something interesting and something quite significant about my friend’s failure. What he was doing became boring and gave rise to yawns and glazed eyes, because it was always about the same old thing. Always about the same old thing
Reading the newspaper or listening to the news on the radio or watching CNN, don’t you find? – I do – that day by day, night by night, we are presented with the same sorry spectacle of human affairs in the world around us?
Oh yes – thank God! – there are bright spots and glimmers of hope – a new discovery in medicine, an account of heroism or self-sacrifice in the midst of some calamity, the downfall of a sleazy politician – but even so, doesn’t it seem as if the same patterns repeat themselves over and over – hatred, greed, dishonesty, mistrust, arrogance; nation against nation, group against group, individual against individual, betrayal, denial, stupidity stirred on by self-interest. Don’t we see these same things repeated again and again in human life?
I’ve been watching a series of lectures on the Old Testament. I just got through First and Second Kings this week, and it occurred to me how very like what was going on then is to what is going on now. Change the names, transpose the cultural context, add some bells and whistles – and you have the world of the twenty-first century. Again, greed, lust for power and wealth and possession, arrogance; nation, group, individuals opposed to one another, and lies everywhere. It’s the same old thing. It seems to be the way of the world.
In the epistle this morning we heard from the letter of James. Part of what you heard may have surprised you. Do you remember? Let me repeat. James writes and he asks those to whom he writes: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Some of you, when you heard that, may have been startled or confused; it’s pretty strong-sounding stuff. Some may have been downright offended. Certainly, there are many people in today’s secular world who, hearing such a thing, would simply dismiss it – just another example of religious pessimism, nasty old life-denying Christianity ready to make everybody neurotic and miserable.
Well, I am happy to say that’s not what it is about. When St James talks to us about the world he means what I’ve been calling the same old thing. The same old thing that made my friend’s sermon series so boring. The “same old thing” that makes the daily paper or the news on the radio so remarkably like the Book of Kings. The same old thing that is the way of the world. And what James says when he addresses his fellow Christians is this: Your way is not the same old thing. Your way is not the way of the world. Your way is the way of God. And that is something new – something always new and unexpected. Something astonishing in a world tired, burdened and bored and hurt by the same old thing.
Our Lord, of course, says this as well, and we heard it in the Gospel this morning. It is a passage typical of St Mark, full of misunderstanding by the disciples and Jesus’ gentle, but telling, correction. They are all on the road to the city of Capernaum, and Jesus tries to teach them about his mission. “The Son of Man,” he says, “will be delivered into the hands of men and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days, he will rise.” But the disciples, frankly, don’t get it. They don’t understand what he tells them about his destiny and how the plan of God is to be realized through his death. What he has said makes no impression at all.
Later, he overhears them, and they are discussing who will be first, who among them will have the power, who among them will achieve success, who will be the one on top . . . with all the rest below. The disciples, you see, are still talking in terms of the world. That is, in terms of the same old thing, But Jesus came to bring the new thing, and he tells them what that new thing is – “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
And that is indeed a new thing, absolutely new. It is so new that most of us today don’t get it any more than did the disciples themselves two thousand years ago. Most of us – and I definitely include myself – most of us are so mired, so trapped in the way of the world, that we find the new way, the way of God and the way of Jesus, unimaginable, ridiculous, impractical, doomed to failure. And you know in terms of the world it is all these things. In the reckoning of the world we shall never be first by being a servant, by making ourselves last of all. But, in the reckoning of God (And does anything else count? Will anything else make us happy? Make us alive? We know the way of the world, that same old thing, and we know where it leads.) – but in the reckoning of God being last, being a servant, even being delivered up and killed – that is what it is to be first, that is the new thing in the world which is real power and authority, that – to be last, to be a servant, even to be killed – that is to rise up again and to live. And, of course, in spite of ourselves we know this, for God in Jesus followed that way himself, to show us and to lead us and to free us from the hold which the world’s way had upon us. And God vindicated him. God set his stamp on Jesus’ way by raising him from the dead!
What is the way of God and the way of Jesus? It is, again, the way of the servant. It is the way of humility, of gentleness, of love. It is to put oneself last in order … and what real strength this is ! … to put oneself last in order to make others first. Our Lord spoke about this in detail. I can do no better than to leave you with His words.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account! Rejoice and be glad, for your reward shall be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you!