Friday, October 19, 2012

October 21, Proper 24, Perfecting Perfection

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

The Greek word for baptism, in verse 38, is the same as the word for bathing, for taking a bath, and in the Roman Empire, bathing was usually done socially. Not by the lower classes, who didn’t take baths, and not by most Jews and Arabs, who considered it shameful to be naked, but by Romans, and by strivers affecting Roman ways, like King Herod and the other local tyrants of the Roman world. And so to be invited into the king’s bath, and at the banquet afterward to drink the wine from his cup, was the proof that you were a person of privilege and power.

The gospel lesson takes place just before Palm Sunday on the road up to Jerusalem. For three years the disciples have followed Jesus, so they’re invested in his messianic destiny and they want to share his power. The inner circle was Peter, James, and John, and Peter had blown and was rebuked by Jesus, so James and John see their chance. The other ten find out and are angry, not because they wouldn’t do the same, but because the two have cut ahead in line. Jesus is not angry. He doesn’t rebuke them for desiring to be powerful. He only says, "As long as you take what comes with it." Be careful what you ask for!

Can you really take my bath with me? Can you be washed over by the waves of suffering? Can you be overwhelmed by the floods of injustice? Can you be sprayed on by fire hoses and rained on by rubber bullets? Can you lose your job when the guy above you was unfair? Can you be passed over because of discrimination? Can you fail in your dream because they denied you the chance? Can you not get what you need because they’re giving it to someone else? Can you fail to advance your career because you’re caring for your kids? Can you miss the dance because you’re caring for your parents? Can you drop out of school because you’ve got to pay the bills? Can you watch the suffering of someone you love? Can you lose your child, or watch him die, or watch her dissolve in drugs? Can you be tried and tested and tempted with despair? Can you wade right into this water and be overwhelmed, lose your footing, lose your breath, and maybe even drown? I will not spare you this suffering, if you are with me.

That the suffering of Jesus is what taught him obedience is the message from the epistle to the Hebrews. Jesus learned obedience through suffering. This is not the usual stained-glass picture of Jesus, perfectly serene, unflappable, like a Buddha, avoiding desire to avoid the suffering. He was rather a man of passions and desires, who entered the water of suffering and thereby learned obedience. He perfected his obedience by staying with the suffering he did not deserve, but entered into anyway. It is a subtle message here, that by keeping obedient through suffering, he who was sinless perfected his perfection.

I am drawn to the image of Jesus praying with loud cries and tears. It’s not the familiar view of Jesus kneeling at the rock, calm and composed, with folded hands, and his long hair nice and neat. The epistle gives a different picture, less attractive, more troubling, with Jesus groaning and shouting and writhing on the ground, sweating bullets, calling out to the Father who is able to save him from death, but will not. The message is that the prayers of Jesus have room in them for fear and frustration, and even anger is allowed in them. We can hardly imagine a Jesus with anger and anxiety and fear and frustration who still is perfect.

His perfection is not static but dynamic. His obedience is not an avoidance of doing wrong, but an obedience of relationship, an obedience of tenacious engagement with God, wrestling with God, not backing off, not backing down, not stifling himself, but staying with God, despite the conspiracy against him for following God’s call on him. His remarkable righteousness was to stay faithful to the God who was able to save him from death but did not. He stayed faithful to the powerful God who did not use that power on his behalf. Though he was a Son, his Father did not rescue him. When God abandoned him he did not abandon God. He was at least as righteous as God. He perfected perfection beyond the original divine perfection.

If Jesus is the medium of God, and if the medium is the message, then this message of Jesus is a message about God, and what God is like. The very God of very God. We Christians may not imagine some static perfect God up there, but a God whose perfections are the perfections of active love, a God who drinks from our dirty cups and gets in our dirty water. How can a good and loving God allow the suffering of the world? It’s the classic question, for which we do not have a final answer. But the question is adjusted by what you mean when you say God within the question. The question is different when God has gone down deeper than us into the suffering that we complain about. The answer to the question is not an explanation or a proof, but a relationship, and a calling, and a challenge. The answer of God is that if you really do care about the suffering of the world, then can you join God down there under it, not liking it, but loving it.

Allow me to switch the focus now, and get more practical, and talk about the message for our congregation of Old First. The sanctuary ceiling disaster is a kind of suffering for our church. It has challenged us. I’m very proud of you, because I’ve been asking a lot of you of late, and you are stepping up. You are daring to take on new responsibilities and you are willing to make some sacrifices for what you believe in. But in order to be productive we need some power. To have some success and fulfillment you need to exercise your talents and your gifts, and you need some power and some recognition and even some status among us. Jesus does not deny us that. We are going to need some leaders here, some officers, some elders and deacons, some chairpersons, and we want our leaders to be strong leaders, with visions and ideas, and we want to empower them.

This sanctuary ceiling disaster can be a blessing for our church. I’m not suggesting that God caused it, nor that we should have asked for it, but this crisis can better for us than comfortable complacency. This time of trial and testing can call us to new obedience and new patterns of love for each other and new investment in each other. If all we do is fix the ceiling, we’re wasting an opportunity. We’d only be taking a shower, instead of getting in the bath. We’ve got to get down deep into our situation, and sit in it and soak in it. Here we are. What can it all mean? What new leadership, what new mission, what new outreach, what new daring, what new risk, what new furniture, what new levels of spirituality? Let’s not gulp this down, let’s sip it slowly to bring out every flavor we can taste in it. How much could we dare to renovate? How much money could we dare to raise? A congregation that lives by its faith should never waste a crisis to its faith.

So if you are stepping up to be a leader now, we want you to lead, and we will support you. If you have a vision, we will try to see what you can see. Take us with you, be strong, and also be strong in love, for Jesus said that everyone who is great must be a slave of all. Your leadership is for the sake of love, for loving the last one in line. You will have to explain it again and again, you will have to suffer us, our slowness to see and our weakness in action. This can be a kind of suffering for leaders. But really we have all the time we need. The only real crisis we’re facing is not the ceiling but the challenge to the practice of mutual love among us and to our obedience in relationships. The cup we drink is the cup of love. It’s a pledge and foretaste of that feast of love of which we shall partake when his kingdom has fully come. We can do this, because God has already done it. We can love each other, because God has first loved us.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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