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Sunday, October 22, 2006

What a friend we have in Jesus

A Sermon preached by Jon M. Richardson
Senior Seminarian, The Theological School at Drew University

Mark 10:35-45 - Pentecost 20, Proper 24
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham - October 22, 2006

In the name of God: Creative, Word, and Wisdom. Amen.

Well, I hope y’all were listening closely this morning. That’s right, this gospel is one of those passages that you won’t be hearing very often in this church. And even though an almost exact copy of this lesson appears in Matthew’s gospel and an abbreviated version appears in Luke’s gospel, the church, in its wisdom, has seen it fit only to share this story with us once in our three year cycle of readings. Sure, you could hear it every year if you attended a celebration of the Feast of St. James the Apostle – but how many of us go out of our way to celebrate that festal day each year? [Don’t worry, I won’t ask for a show of hands.]

But whenever we encounter these rare texts, a part of me can’t help but wonder why we seem to be avoiding certain stories. Are we hiding from something? Obviously the gospel writers and those early church leaders who assembled our canon of scripture must have felt that the story was important enough that it should be included in some version in three of the four gospel accounts that found their way into our final collection. But why don’t we follow their lead and incorporate this lesson more fully into our spiritual practices of reading and reflecting?

I’ll admit that there is something a bit unsettling about this text for me, and I could see how it might be equally unsettling for the leaders of the church. It seems very natural for us to seek attention and favor from those whom we love and respect just the way James and John did. A little nepotism never really hurt anyone, did it?

Honestly, who among us would not be pleased if we learned that a coworker, who just happens to be a good friend, was promoted to a position of authority over us? The frustrations of the work day would likely be eased if the boss regularly had dinner with you and your family, or joined you for Happy Hour every Friday. In the political realm, it’s a common practice for our elected officials to thank their most devout supporters by offering some sort of favor associated with the power of their office. In my home state of Louisiana we’ve developed a system of political kickbacks and favors into a “good ole boy” network that seems almost artful in its design; and, I’ve been hearing over the past few years that New Jersey can be a close rival for those kinds of structures.

And even in the church we can occasionally find ourselves guilty of these kinds of problems. Over the past few months, as our church has been in the process of choosing new leadership at both national and diocesan levels, I have occasionally heard people supporting this candidate or that for no other reason than because they have a “close” relationship with so-and-so. The subtext seems to be something like, “This bishop will make my job easier because we had sushi last week.” You can almost imagine backroom conversations where someone says, “Gee Rev. Joey, I think you’d make a great bishop and I’m gonna tell all my friends about you…. Don’t you think I’d be a good Canon to the Ordinary??”

So perhaps it’s just a little easier for the church if we turn a blind eye to those stories that make us look a little too much like those powerful religious leaders in the Temple that Jesus is always fussing about.

And it’s not just in the world, and certainly not just in the church that people hope to earn the favor of the powerful. Even, on a deeper level, in our own lives, we often find ourselves seeking a kind of God who will step in to carry out the plans that we’ve already made.

We often do this with the best of intentions. When our loved ones are dying and we plead for just a little more time. When we feel genuinely called to our vocations and we pray that God will make the people who make decisions about our futures recognize those things which seem so obvious to us.

Even when we don’t come to God with a clear path in mind, there can seem to be, in the core of our existence, a proclivity among us to wish for a God who will just automatically fix whatever bothers us. We’ve all done it. You see those familiar red and blue flashing lights in your rearview mirror and say, “Oh God, I hope he’s not coming for me.”

You’re being grilled by a boss or a client for some mistake you’ve made and you pray that God will somehow give you an answer to solve the problem. And even in those deeper moments of woe: when our hearts are unsettled because of instability in our relationships, when we feel lonely or alone, when we grieve the sufferings of those whom we love; we often pray that God will just push some button in heaven and make everything okay.

I think most of us know, at least intellectually, that God doesn’t tend to work that way. But it can be very tempting to fall into that kind of wishful thinking.

But before we judge James and John (or even ourselves) too harshly, let’s think about this. I mean really, didn’t Jesus bring this on himself? During his ministry he was always running around doing pretty big favors for people. If he wasn’t helping blind people to see he was helping lame people walk. Once, when he was at a wedding and they ran out of wine, he just took some water and made some more. Just this week at Evening Prayer one of the Daily Office Lectionary readings was the story of Jesus healing a twelve year old girl whom everyone thought was dead. Jesus only allowed a few people to witness this, and among that few were James and John.

They had seen him do some pretty amazing things for other people who really had no significant qualifications beyond proximity and faith. They both had proximity and faith; shouldn’t they get a little kickback like the others? They weren’t asking for anything too big – just a position as second in command to this Messiah whom they thought would be the ruler of the world.

Is that really so much to ask between friends? [It puts a whole new spin on that whole “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” theology, doesn’t it?]

But what James and John failed to recognize was that Jesus had at least ten other friends who might be put out by their desire to move to the top of the ladder. Mark says, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”

In their desire for a higher place than the rest, James and John had subverted the real ministry of God moving among us – the deeper ministry of drawing us, all of humanity, into a closer relationship with God the Creative, God the Word, and God the Wisdom. If Jesus had merely granted their wish like a genie in a lamp, the presumed hierarchical division between God and humanity would have been made more severe, not less.

You may have heard about the latest saga of the “Days of our lives in the Anglican Communion”. It has been proposed that an effective response to our disputes over human sexuality might be to develop a “two-tiered structure” in which churches who are willing to sign a neo-orthodox statement of faith and vow of practice would be allowed to continue making decisions for the whole communion; and, those of us who try to live into the gospel and our baptismal covenant in a more progressive way would be relegated to a lesser position where we would still be allowed to scream for justice from the sidelines, but we wouldn’t be allowed into any of the real decision making processes.

It occurred to me, as I’ve been studying and reflecting on the Gospel lesson for this week, that the Anglican Communion is not the first to consider developing a “two-tiered structure”. James and John, right from the beginning of this Christian communion, in their very real and human way, were hoping to be prominent leaders in the reign of God. They were asking for their friend, Jesus, to push some button that would ensure their status as members of his inner circle. Jesus knew that such aspirations were contrary to the aim of God – that all of creation was called to be in the inner circle with both God, in all of our understandings of God, and with each other.

Perhaps there is a need to reevaluate our understanding of Communion in the Anglican world. Perhaps we, in the West, need to learn a lesson from our brothers and sisters in the so-called “Global South” – a lesson exemplified in the gospel lesson today by the other disciples’ anger with James and John in their desire to be first and best – a lesson about holding our colleagues in ministry accountable for their actions.

In reality there has always been a kind of “two-tiered” structure in human communities and for the past several centuries it has been us in the West at the top tier and everyone else in the world on the bottom. The churches of the “Global South” are right to be angry about that injustice, but they are wrong to try to correct it with new injustices. We have a duty to the ministry of reconciliation as established by Christ and affirmed in our baptismal covenant to call out, through the lens of our own failures in history, for a new day of justice and equality on earth.

I believe that if we listen to the ways that God is calling us into deeper unity with Godself, we will recognize that the truest understanding of communion with God is best expressed through the ways that we live into communion with each other, our partners in creation.

This is a hard lesson to hear. We all want to be the best and most favored. But Jesus tells us time and time again, that our understandings of greatness are skewed. We become great when we allow ourselves to be called into service. We live into our relationship with God most fully when we live into our relationships with each other.

Our best expressions of love for God are in those most genuine, often even painful expressions of love for each other. The central feature of our relationship with God is less about who is in and who is out, and more a recognition that in God, through Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit all are in – none more and none less than any other.

Even me. Even you. Even those troublesome bosses and clients and coworkers; and yes, even those Anglicans who wish we weren’t. All are in. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Timotheos Prologizes said...

"God the Creative, God the Word, and God the Wisdom"

I'm assuming that Mr. Richardson is using a trinitarian formula, using "Creative, Word, and Wisdom" in place of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

The problem is that in this formula, Christ is mentioned twice and the Holy Spirit is left out. The Father is known as the Creator (I'm not sure why the adjective is used here). The Son is called the Word of God in the NT and the Wisdom of God in OT and NT.

But what about the Holy Spirit? Why is he left out? There are plenty of options: Paraclete, Comforter, Counselor, Spirit of Truth, Advocate. Even Dove, Wind, or Fire would tap into the symbolism of the Spirit.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'll let Jon speak for himself (for he can - and he does quite eloquently and creatively).

I will say this: There is a great tradition in scripture which names the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Wisdom.

Alternatively, the Spirit of Wisdom has also been thought to be Jesus.

And, as I'm sure you know, the Hebrew word for Spirit is always asigned a feminine gender.

So, She was left out.

Not by a long shot.

Jon said...

I'll echo Elizabeth some here...

Yes, I chose to represent the Holy Spirit with the understanding of Her as Wisdom in this particular Trinitarian formula. I have always found myself particularly nurtured by an understanding of the Holy Spirit as Sophia. Here lately, I also enjoy the image of Her as a dancing Shekinah. But on this particular occasion I was trying to highlight our relationships with the divine through words that seem relevant to us in that they represent experiences that everyone has. You could argue that everyone has an experience of the Holy Spirit - I might even be tempted to argue it - but for those people in our congregations who are less "churched" and less comfortable with a lot of the common lingo of more actively spiritual people, Wisdom represents a tangible way of recognizing the Holy Spirit and the ways that She dances into our lives (consciousness?) from time to time. Shekinah, though delightfully approachable and active, requires a little more explaining for a lot of people and that wasn't the point in this case. If I had spent my time and energy explaining Shekinah it would have subverted my larger point.

The same kind of reasoning applies to why I chose "Creative" rather than "Creator". While the idea of a “Creator” may seem more distant to some people, creativity is something that we’ve all experienced at one point or another. Also, as soon as we say those typical, expected words, we have to expect that some baggage will come along with them. I often love those typical, expected words, but I think it is important to shake them up from time to time so that we can assist people in the ongoing spiritual task of re-imagining an irreducibly diverse God in new ways. It was my hope that "Creative" would help lighten some of the load of that baggage and allow people to begin, in a subtle way, to recognize the kind of closeness to which I claim to see God calling us.

You'll notice that in the second to last paragraph I used a much more traditional Trinitarian formula: " God, through Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit all are in." In that instance I wanted to use that baggage that people carry about the power of the Trinitarian God to lend strength to the claim that God is powerful enough to draw human communities away from their seemingly more natural behavior of division into a more challenging, and more rewarding pattern of behavior which gives us deeper relationships.

I hope this gives you some insight into my choices. Thanks for your interest.


Timotheos Prologizes said...


Thank you for the commentary on Creative v. Creator and on Wisdom for Spirit.

Wisdom has been associated with the Spirit a few times. I know of at least two Church Fathers (Theopilus and Ireneaus) who do so. I'm not aware of any Scriptures that equate personified Wisdom (Sophia) with the Spirit. (Elizabeth, maybe you can fill me in.) The closest I can find is the role of wisdom in inpsiration or prophecy. Or a reference to the "spirit of wisdom" in Is 11:2--though this seems to me to be the spiritual gift rather than the Spirit himself.

The identification of both Logos and Sophia with the second Person of the Trinity dominates in comparison. Likewise, many Church Fathers make that connection explicitly.

We might say that there is always overlap in such terms. For example, the word "Savior" could be applied to each person of the Trinity, and indeed, all share in the work of salvation. But the donimant identification of "Savior" is with Jesus.

Also, I wouldn't say there is a need to shy away from shekinah, as long as it is explained. After all, what term could be more difficult to unfold than "Word"?


Regarding your correction that the Holy Spirit is "she", not a chance. Right gender, but wrong language.

It is true that the Holy Spirit as a divine Person has gender, but no sex. The two Hebrew words used for spirit have a femine gender. Ruach is "she"; Nephesh is "she." In Greek, the word Spirit ("Pneuma") is neuter.

Our English words Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost come from the Latin and German sides, respectively. The Latin "Spiritus" is masculine. The German "Geist" is also masculine.

Thus, speaking correctly, the Holy Spirit would be "she" when speaking in Hebrew, "it" (though, a personal "it") when speaking in Greek, and "he" when speaking in English.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Okay, let me get this "straight" (as it were):

There are three PERSONS in one God, but only one does not have a gender because of your (ahem) understanding that only the Hebrew word uses gender, but in the Greek, Latin and German, it is neuter.

AND that, to have "gender" is not the same as "sex" - except, of course, for the other two persons of the Trinity.

So, our anthromophorpic understanding of God in three persons can only allow male gender and sex but "not a chance" of having female gender or sex.

Ah, wait. I think I remember this now.

Yes, it's coming back to me from my days in the Roman Catholic Church.

That dynamic is called "truth by blatant assertion."

My, my, my but aren't you just in for a BIG surprise when you meet God face to face.

If I were you, I'd try to bring along some of those flowers they'll throw on your grave.

I understand the Holy Spirit loves flowers.

And, candy.

But, no perfume. She has her own sweet, sweet spirit about Her.

Oh, by the way, I'm taking two points on your otherwise scholarly answer because you spelled "feminine" incorrectly.