Year B, Proper 22: On Not Serving God
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year B, Proper 22: Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Sometimes, if you watch too much History Channel or listen to folks like Bart Ehrman, you can get the mistaken impression that the Gospels are a history lesson. And since they are a rather bad and contradictory history lesson, we needn’t bother with the whole business. The trouble with a purely historical approach to the Bible is simply that the Bible isn’t simply history. Like the proverbial person with a hammer who sees everything as a nail, the presumption that the Gospels are or should be factual reportage live from Galilee blinds us and deafens us to the Gospel’s deeper call.
Remember last week I mentioned that from the earliest days of the tradition, Christians have always read scripture on at least four different levels, or senses—the literal/historical, the allegorical/spiritual, the moral, and as a vision of the final consummation in God. Reading the bible only as history, is a little like going to symphony and keeping a tally of the total number of Middle Cs played in Beethoven’s Ninth. If we asked such a person at the end of the performance what they thought of the symphony and they replied, “There were 318 Middle Cs played,” we would rightly be a little perplexed and concerned for their mental health. And the same holds true for how we approach scripture. History is useful as far as it goes, but it’s good to remember that we can miss the forest for the trees, the symphony for the tally of Middle Cs if we are not careful.
That’s why the Letter to the Hebrews is so important for us to encounter. If you read through the letter, you’ll find not a single mention of the historical Jesus, or the life and ministry of Jesus. Instead, you get a grand, visionary, poetic account of God’s purpose--who God is, why we’re here, and what God has done for us in Christ. It’s useful to remember the basic account of God’s work among God’s people, lest we think that differing accounts of the empty tomb means that God’s promise has been rendered null and void and only thing left is to subscribe to Amazon Prime, curl up with a bag of pork rinds, and distract ourselves to death.
The Letter to the Hebrews begins with this lovely image of the “many and various ways” God spoke to our ancestors. The author presents the view of God’s continuous reaching out to God’s people in as many ways as he can think of to drawn us into union and communion with Himself. That’s a good way, incidentally, to account for all the different kinds of writings we find in Holy Scripture—history (The Book Kings), steamy love poetry (The Song of Songs), novellas of political intrigue (The Book of Esther), parables, and on and on. It’s not that the Bible can’t decide how to tell the story of God’s salvific purposes in a simple manner and instead ends up as a shaggy dog tale. The multiple and various forms and genres in Holy Scripture are an indicator of unrelenting pressure of God’s love on different people in places at different times. God will make himself heard in whatever way he thinks his people will be able hear.
God’s deepest desire is for union and communion with His creation. Again and again He reaches out and again and again God’s people turn away and refuse to walk in his ways. God tried the law as way to draw us to Himself—but we took that lattice-work designed for our flourishing, freedom, and happiness and turned it into an end in itself, a way to distinguish between who’s in and who’s out, to persecute God in the name of God as we see in the life of Paul. God tried the prophets who called God’s people back to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, but that didn’t work either. Finally, God sent us his only Son—not a written document, not a representative to spoke in his name, but His only Son, one who bore the, “Exact imprint of God’s very being.” The Greek for “exact imprint”--is χαρακτήρ or “character.” Jesus shows us the character of God.
And what is that character? What is the revelation of God in Christ? The unconditional love of God for us, for each one of us: God the unutterable, incomprehensible Mystery, the Reality of all reality, the Life of all life. And this means that divine love desires to communicate Its Holy Self to us. Nothing less! This is God’s irrevocable will and purpose; it is the reason why everything that is, is and why each of us exists. We are here to receive this ineffable, all-transforming, all-transfiguring, all-beatifying love.
Our life, simply put boils down to accepting to be loved, allowing God to love us, to let God be the doer, the giver, and let God be God to us. If we are here to receive God’s love, it’s reasonable to ask what it is that gets in the way of this all-transfiguring reception of God’s love for us, isn’t it? Simply put, we want to be in charge. We are always reversing the role, intent on serving God (as we say), on doing things for God and offering God something. “But,” Father Tyler, “what on earth could be wrong with serving God, God’s sake?!” Well, the trouble with that model of the relationship between God and human beings is that it puts what we do, our efforts, at the center of the relationship—what we can do for the creator and sustainer of the universe and not what the creator and sustainer of the universe can do in, and for, and through, us.
Time and again, Jesus tries to get the disciples to see this exact point and to drop their inflated, self-important image of themselves in order to understand that, before God, we are only very small children who have no resources within ourselves, but must look to their parents for everything, simply everything. We’re so used to have ourselves at the center of the story that this re-orientation implies a radical shift in perspective, a reorientation of our entire value system and how we make sense of the world, a conversion, a change of heart. From always trying to prove ourselves to God (which is usually just trying to prove ourselves to ourselves) we have to become instead poor in spirit just as Jesus was. The character of God revealed in Jesus is one of total, self-abandoned reliance on the Father. Jesus was always a babe in the arms of the Father, always poor and dispossessed. Jesus is literally nothing on his own and possesses nothing of his own—“the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus is an open space in which God dances, an emptiness into which the Father flows.
It is to this radical receptivity that Jesus calls us. This is what it means to live from the gift of what God has already done for us in Christ rather than what we can do for God, and the author of Hebrews never tires of telling us the story of God’s saving works in, with, for, and through His people. Again and again, Jesus these past three weeks is using the figure of the little child to drive home this point. People in first century Palestine were no less resistant to seeing themselves as totally dependent on God than we are today. We all want to be the star of our own play, to have skills and achievements of which we can boast, but Jesus keeps reminding us that all God wants from us is to let Him love us.
The resistance to God’s love, the resistance to allowing ourselves to be loved, is the root of the hardness of heart of which Jesus speaks in his controversy with the Pharisees. Hardness of heart operates from a human perspective that quibbles over what is permissible and what is not. Jesus wants to take the entire discussion to a different, deeper level. The Pharisees want to talk about husbands and wives, but Jesus takes the exchange into the deep water—the waters of creation, in his echo of the creation story—“What God has joined together, let no one separate” is not a proof-text with which to beat up young couples who get divorced after not fully understanding what they were getting into, or women fleeing domestic violence, or a partnership that is spiritually dead, no longer not life-giving but destructive of life.
The deeper separation, the deeper rift, or divorce that is indicated here is the separation between God and humanity—the illusory nightmare of self-reliance and independence apart from God’s grace, the forgetfulness of why we were created in the first place: union communion, and enjoyment of God. Marriage is a sacrament because it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace—the grace of a God won’t let us go, who will stop at nothing to draw us to Himself. The union of two loving souls in matrimony is a sign of God’s union with all of creation and Christ’s union with us, his Bride, the Church. No wonder Jesus says that this bond should never be broken. Human relationships falter and fail, and it’s our job as a community of faith to support all parties in process of putting the pieces back together again in a new, life-giving arrangement. But by ending his argument with the Pharisees with the image of the little child, Jesus is also reminding us that we live often in a divorced state in our relationship to God—seeking to do something for him, or serve him, when all that is required, the one thing necessary is to be present to him, just as we are, and allow God to give himself to us, to love us into wholeness.
Gracious God, we know that your deepest desire is for us to be partakers of your very life present in us through the indwelling Holy Trinity. Nothing can divorce us from your love. Teach us to rest the assurance of your grace. And though we want to serve you always, Lord, and follow you wherever you go, first teach us to allow ourselves to be loved by you, to welcome and receive you into our hearts as Mary and Martha welcomed you into their humble home. Teach us to be simple, and to depend on you alone, as you depend, like a little child, on the love of your father. May we be open space for your love for us and for all creation to sing.