“Serve”

 

One day this summer, I sat at the Guthrie Theater, surrounded by teenagers. We were enjoying the spirited celebration of Minneapolis’ Step Up program. Step up offers youth from low-income families—most of them youth of color—a first experience of employment. Summer jobs, funded by the city and partners in business, offer basic, and crucial, training in how to be a successful employee. First Church has been lucky to have step-up interns working under Brad’s mentorship for the past two years.

            As part of the program that day, the mayor brought Richard Davis, the CEO of US Bank, to the podium, and hailed him as the visionary co-chair of this program. Davis told his personal story of having been mentored and encouraged. He talked about the interns who have worked with him over the years. He seemed like a really nice guy, a person sincerely concerned with the welfare of our community. I was puzzled, because I realized I knew Davis’ name already, and not for positive reasons. Most recently, I remembered his role in the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. And I recalled Occupy Homes demonstrations in front of foreclosed properties that called out Davis, and US Bank, for their predatory lending practices, and their unwillingness to negotiate with struggling homeowners. All around my neighborhood in North Minneapolis, I can still see the ripple effects of the foreclosure crisis: the abandoned homes, the unmowed lawns and unshoveled walks, the neighbors who left, or who remain under extreme financial stress.

            In today’s text from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus issues his mission statement for a third time. He is headed toward the cross. That is his ultimate purpose. He will endure torture and death in Jerusalem. He will do so not to glorify suffering but because that suffering is what it will take to expose, and defeat, the violent tyranny of the powerful who rule the world. As Professor Matt Skinner writes: “Rejection and death are inevitable and required, because of who Jesus is, because of the boundary-breaking character of his ministry, and because those who wield power in the world will do all they can to protect themselves and their prerogatives from the implications of [Jesus’] ministry.”[1]

Jesus envisions a different society, with a different way of constructing power. No longer will power be defined as the ability of the strong to dominate and  abuse the weak. No longer will power-over be the ruling force that makes the world go round. Jesus embodies power-with, the power of mutuality. Those with the greatest power, the leaders, will be the ones who serve, the ones who give and share. James, John, and the rest of disciples couldn’t free their minds from the paradigms of power that so shaped their world. As Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” As Jesus once again declares that the cross is his destination, his followers are lost in daydreams about the glory days to come when they will sit around Jesus’ throne eating grapes and ordering around the servants. I don’t want to be too hard on them, though. They aren’t the only followers of Jesus who have misunderstood him. After all, the church’s long history of coziness with empire began in 380 CE, when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of Rome.

Following the withdrawal this past week of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ proposed ordinance calling for fair scheduling, ISAIAH (a faith-based coalition for racial and economic justice) has put out an emergency alert to its clergy and congregations, saying this:

Minneapolis was just ranked the third worst city in America to live in if you happen to be a black or brown person…. Meanwhile, Minneapolis, right now, has the opportunity to enact some of the most beneficial policies to help low-wage workers and their families…. But the largest corporations and the industry of this city have drawn a line in the sand and their only response to this proposal is simply a NO. No change. No pathway. No dialogue. Just NO. It is true that business owners need to be at the table to ensure that whatever policy is written it can work for both small businesses and their workers, but it is not acceptable that their only response is a NO.

 

            I was reminded, at a recent ISAIAH meeting that the richest 1% of people hold 40% of the wealth in the United States. And, in Minnesota, there are a handful of wealthy corporations and CEOs who attempt to control our political process by using their wealth to influence legislators on both sides of the aisle—hiring lobbyists and making large campaign donations. In some ways, these dozen or so CEOs and corporations whose money shapes our political agenda as a state are quite generous. Their money flows not only to politicians but to any number of programs that improve the lives of struggling people. The problem is that these powerful people often offer charity even as they stand in the way of justice. The Step-Up program, for instance, is an awesome initiative that does a lot of good. How much more awesome would it be if we could eliminate the very inequities that make this program necessary in the first place? Our job is not to demonize our corporations and business leaders, but to hold them accountable to the people they say they serve, and not to give up until they set out with us on the path of justice.

Jesus concludes his words to the disciples by saying that he “came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew Skinner explains:

Mention of a “ransom” indicates that [Jesus’] death will be more than just an inspiring example or a martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system. The word in question (in Greek, lytron) indicates that his death does something; it secures a release…. A lytron is a liberation wrought by divine strength.”[2]

 

Jesus came to free us all from the deathly dynamics of power conceived as tyranny and domination. In his life, death and resurrection, he unleashes a different kind of power, a power that gives life instead of taking it away.

            The cover of the bulletin shows a sign along The Way of St. James, the path pilgrims follow to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The shell graphic is used as a trail marker to guide travelers. It’s also customary for pilgrims to carry shells with them. The shells may have gained significance because the cathedral the pilgrims sought was near the ocean. But they also serve to interpret the pilgrimage as a kind of training ground for living out one’s baptism into the way of Jesus. The first disciples didn’t get Jesus. But they followed him anyway. They put one foot in front of the other and walked the path he set before them. “The Way” was in fact a kind of code name for Christianity in its early days of opposition to the empire. Do you belong to the way? people would quietly ask each other.

            Here at First Church Our confirmation program is an opportunity for youth and adults to explore their journeys of faith, and to consider being baptized or affirming their baptisms, their desire to be on the way with Jesus. Over the last several years, we’ve been adjusting our approach to confirmation so that it’s less a classroom activity and more a training ground for a baptismal life. Yesterday, I was at the CES food shelf with the confirmation class and mentors, along with others from the church who regularly serve there. We packed tomato sauce, spaghetti noodles, tea, toilet paper, frozen meat, milk and other necessities of life, into grocery bags to deliver to the people who live at St. Paul’s. As a church, we’ve gotten to know the residents of St. Paul’s over four years of monthly deliveries to them. These folks don’t have much; they live very close to the line of survival. It’s often painful to realize all the small things we can’t provide for them—whether that’s a carton of eggs or kitty litter or a container of jelly. But after we finished our work yesterday, we sat down to reflect. And it was abundantly clear how much the people at St. Paul’s give us even as they receive our ministry. They teach us gratitude, grace and sharing, and they leave us wondering how to create a world of enough for all. This mutuality of service is, for me, a sign of hope, a glimpse of a new understanding of power, a promise that a different world is possible.

Today, and throughout this month, we make our investments into the ministries of First Church. I ask you to consider: how does (or could) your involvement in the church serve as a training ground for living a baptismal life? What commitment of time, energy or money will help you put one foot in front of the other and follow the path of discipleship? What will strengthen your sense of belonging to the way of Jesus, instead of the way of the world? How are you called to serve?

Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=435

 

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=435