Pentecost 21B: Disarm with Subservience

The readings for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament       Isaiah 53:4–12

Psalm                    Psalm 91:9–16

New Testament      Hebrews 5:1–10

Gospel                   Mark 10:35–45

Years ago I heard a young woman describe a tense encounter she had just had. After cooling off at a public pool she was rinsing off before dressing for home. From a shower stall next to hers she heard a loud commotion. It sounded like a young child was being defiant, and her mother had lost her patience and temper and was shaking and spanking the child while spitting out threats through her clenched teeth. “If you don’t shut up and stop making a scene, I’m going to give you something to cry about!”

The dilemma? How to intervene without adding to the mother’s embarrassment and the child’s panic?

The young woman pulled back the curtain to the adjoining shower stall, peeked around the corner, and whispered, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

And that was that. No more spanking or tears. Things just settled.

In his masterful The First One Hundred Years of Christianity, the German Bible scholar Udo Schnelle describes the early community behind the Gospel of Mark, and the sayings common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. He notes how these early believers chose to shape their lives around a very radical set of teachings of Jesus that included renunciation of possessions, renunciation of violence and coercion of any kind, and dedication to the service of all people, regardless of background. Schnelle points out that all around this community of faith a firestorm of resentment, hatred, and brutal revenge was brewing. Then he notes:

Despite danger and hostility, the societal situation should be positively changed through the power of love that overcomes boundaries. The creator God is the model, and the promise of becoming “sons of God” functions as a motivation (Luke 6:34–36). The basic issue is to rely on the principle of reciprocity (Luke 6:32: “When you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?”) and to do what is extraordinary: not to judge and first to pay attention to one’s own blindness or limitation (Luke 6:37–41)…In a society shaped by hate and violence, the followers of Jesus proclaimed the message with credibility because they practiced nonviolence and the abandonment of possessions and cared for nothing other than the kingdom of God.

Central to the idea that emptying oneself makes one powerful is the even deeper idea that people can suffer on behalf of others. The prophet Ezekiel laid on his side for over a year to dramatize the possibility  that he, as a righteous one, could absorb the sins of the people around him. In our Old Testament reading for this day from Isaiah 53 we hear the most famous expression of this:

Surely he has borne our infirmities

and carried our diseases;…

yet we accounted him stricken,

struck down by God, and afflicted.

            But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

This is a new thought for Israel, and the world—that one person’s suffering can absorb the sin and pain of those who surround her, and can even serve to heal. It will be what changes disciple’s hearts centuries later when they see a completely innocent man die willingly on a cross. And at the moment of this one man’s death graves are opened, an enemy centurion’s eyes are opened, and the world changes.

Jesus in Mark 10 says that actions of voluntary servitude  form the greatest power on earth. The attitude that produces such actions is what truly makes a person great and first.

Certainly this thought can be dangerous. If we preach voluntary subservience to people who have been bullied and coerced into servitude by their rulers or husbands or bosses, then we only lend support to the sinful ones among us who love to lord it over others. But used wisely this strategy can turn the world upside down. It is counter-cultural resistance. In American culture today self-esteem is the number one virtue. But we then suffer because we can’t all be the greatest. We can’t all be in the spotlight or the center of the circle of life.

From divorce to intractable, centuries-long conflicts that tear whole nations apart, we see the same old pattern: people want to sit on the left and right hand of glory, and damn anyone who gets in their way. People want keep playing at life as though it’s a zero-sum game.

But something magical happens when someone peeps around the corner and asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

It disarms. It defuses. It de-escalates. It takes the wind out of the sales of umbrage and rage. It gives everyone permission to throw away the scorecard of past insults and injuries.

From the congressional battle over the debt limit and Build Back Better, to the street battles over racial justice, to the global battles over Covid and COP26, to the battles in our families about who we are and what we stand for, I pray for more and more people who will empty themselves and ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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