Sermon for the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost
October 18, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
A priest friend of mine got the Greek word doulos tattooed on his wrist when he was ordained. I’m sure that, over the years, a few people saw the tattoo and judged my friend as snobbish or elitist for having a Greek word tattooed on his all-American skin. Perhaps someone has actually had the nerve to tell him that to his face. If so, I would love to see the look on their face when he explains that the word means “slave,” though it is often translated “servant,” and that it summarizes his understanding of ordained ministry, reminding and encouraging him to stay faithful to that essence and purpose of unconditional service in a world full of distraction and temptation. In a way, that small patch of ink keeps my friend accountable, for if he ever failed to live up to its ideal, the tattoo would take on a pointed irony and he would have no one to blame but himself.
I have no tattoos, but I take a keen interest in the difference between a label and an essence. Halloween is coming up and that gives everyone a golden opportunity to wear a label. If you’ve never dressed up as a priest on Halloween, I highly recommend it, and I’ll even loan you the garb if you wear the same size shirt as I do. But the rest of the year, wearing a misleading label is much less entertaining. Sometimes it’s merely embarrassing, like claiming you’re a huge fan of a trendy author or artist and then being unable to answer specific questions about their work. Other times it’s devastating, like the time someone I loved wrote me a letter saying she loved me, when it would have been more accurate to say, “I’ve been seeing someone else for a while now.” That was years ago and I’ve moved on, and I do still believe in love, but I learned the hard way that just because someone labels themselves as something doesn’t mean they are that thing.
Jesus, who truly loves us all, teaches his followers that lesson in a compassionate way. James and John, two of his very closest disciples, came to him seeking a label. Jesus offered them something much greater and more precious: an essence and a purpose. They asked him to do them a favor without saying what it was — always a bad sign — but I can’t condemn them. Their desire for places of honor is phrased in relationship to Jesus, and their request is based on the assumption of Jesus’s victory, and sovereignty. Their hearts are in the right place and their zeal is commendable, but a place of glory is an awful lot like a title, or a label, or a ribbon. What good is a ribbon if you didn’t enter the race? What good is a diploma if you didn’t learn anything? Jesus reminds them of the depth of commitment that is necessary merely to be a disciple of his. Those of us who would accept the label of Christian should also accept a commitment to follow Jesus with enduring humility and the acceptance of risk and sacrifice that come with putting Jesus first always.
To their enduring credit, James and John were not put off by Jesus’s invitation to take part in the substance of discipleship. They affirmed, “We are able.” Three simple words that never fail to inspire me. Those words indicated a choice that redefined who James and John were, as our choices always do.
Some people push back against the notion that our choices, and not our labels, define us. Such resistance is understandable. The freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it, are so vast and powerful as to be bewildering, perhaps even terrifying. Every person’s circumstances have a powerful effect on their life. Adversity in particular can create a strong sense of identity, and that identity is always worthy of respect, as is the adversity that led to it. But what a person does in the face of adversity speaks to something even deeper.
Some people respond to adversity with denial, petulance, entitlement, or even by lashing out at other people, sometimes even people more vulnerable than themselves. It’s important to understand why people do what they do, but it’s at least as important to honor those who choose to respond to their circumstances with breathtaking honor. History and hagiography incessantly remind us that everyone is capable of tremendous courage and generosity. Within every human heart there lives a hero because we all are made in the image of God. Difficult circumstances do not excuse wickedness but they do magnify compassion into nobility.
Now is the season when every family in our church is asked to consider what level of support they will make to Saint John’s in the coming year. On Friday night a potluck dinner will create a gathering place and an opportunity to celebrate our community and the wonderful things God has done, is doing, and will do for us, and through us. I regret that I cannot be there this year, since I agreed to attend a friend’s wedding months before the date was set. The event always inspires me, but not because it is lavish — it’s not — and not because it’s fun — though it is. Every year I am inspired by the commitment the event symbolizes, the invisible decisions of which it is the visible evidence. Some of our families who have the least give the most, relative to what they have, and the breadth and depth of that commitment is far more inspirational than any figure.
Our sustainability campaign creates an opportunity for all of us to choose and express who we are, deep down: to stake out for ourselves what we mean when we say we support Saint John’s and the Gospel mission that plays out here every week. This process creates a level playing field in a congregation where some have more than others. Regardless of what any of us has to work with, each of us knows whether our pledge represents a generous, sacrificial commitment. In this way, we get another chance every year to define ourselves, to express for ourselves what is most important. I hope and pray that we will follow the example of James and John who heard the call of the Gospel and answered, “We are able.”