Sunday, November 13, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Hopeless Man"

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.” 38 Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, 40 but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John. 42 Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 43 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44 Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45 for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Four

I remember the story vividly, even though it took place a full decade ago: a man had gone on a shooting rampage through an Amish one-room schoolhouse, first by ordering the adults and boys to leave, and then tying up and murdering five of the little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 before committing suicide.

As nauseating as that crime was, the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness shown by the Amish families—including the families of the murdered little girls—was truly profound and awe-inspiring to behold, especially for Terri Roberts, the mother of the man who had committed this mass murder, as the Washington Post conveys:

(I)n the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Robertses’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on (Terri’s husband’s shoulder) and called him a friend.

The world watch in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some othe parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss…

(T)he Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.

That is Christian forgiveness in the most literal term: it is Christ-like. It is Jesus, on the cross, saying, “Forgive them, Father.” It is Jesus forgiving even while suffering. It is because of that suffering that Jesus has liberated us. And it is because of such suffering that we, too, can liberate others.

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, which we talked about two weeks ago, and then in chapter one, “Ministry in a Dislocated World,” last week, and chapter two, “Ministry for the Rootless Generations.” We arrive today at chapter three, “Ministry to a Hopeless Man,” in which Nouwen writes in part, about how he sees the role of woundedness in ministering to hopelessness:

The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others. Thinking about martyrdom can be an escape unless we realize that real martyrdom means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh, and to make our own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.

Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in their own heart and even losing their precious peace of mind? In short, “Who can take away suffering without entering it?”

It is an illusion to think that a person can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there…we have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering God, and that no one can lead others except the one who is crushed by their own sins.

Now, at first glance, this passage from Mark 10 seems to have little, if anything, to do with what Nouwen is saying about the need for us to enter into and embrace our suffering. In truth, it has everything to do with it. Jesus’s disciples are often a selfish, unruly lot, and this is one of those moments when they really lay it on thick. The brothers James and John ask Jesus to be placed on His left and His right in heaven, and in the grander scheme of the Gospels, their request is not terribly out of character. John’s Gospel takes an ongoing tack of minimizing the role of the chief apostle, Peter, and after Peter, James and John are probably the disciples who were in fact closest to Jesus—they, with Peter, were the only ones present at the Transfiguration, and in Matthew 4, they are among the first of the disciples to be called by Jesus, immediately after Peter and Peter’s brother, Andrew.

So the brothers James and John want eventual digs that befit, in their eyes, the status and esteem that they have achieved with Jesus. Except that Jesus rebukes them, saying that no, they have done no such think to earn such a place of honor and privilege at the table. Indeed, Jesus tells them, they don’t even know what it is that they are even asking for.

Jesus achieves His place of honor in our spiritual lives as our Lord precisely by suffering—He suffered emotionally as a man when his friend Lazarus died, He suffered spiritually in the wilderness as He was tempted by Satan, and He suffered physically at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the Judean collaborators in being tried, whipped, and crucified before His resurrection. It is why He asks James and John if they are prepared to drink from the cup that He drinks from—the cup that they will drink from, at the Last Supper, is Christ’s blood, which gives life, but the cup that Christ asks, begs, pleads with God at Gethsemane to remove from His lips is the cup whose contents will very quickly kill Him.

The disciples, in contrast—and including James and John—all flee Gethsemane instead. Jesus knows that they are not ready to drink from the cup that He will have to drink from, and He tells them so: the way it has been is that the rulers show off their authority and status, but someone who wants to be first in the kingdom of God must become the servant—or slave—of all, for Christ did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life to liberate us.

In other words: Jesus liberates us because He has in fact taken on the servant role of suffering. We have others suffer in this world so that we don’t have to—exploited children make our clothing, children sold into slavery harvest our chocolate, and underpaid immigrants butcher our meat.

If we are to follow Christ’s suffering example, then we should be willing to suffer for them, not they for us. But we have not done so. Nor, truthfully, do I see us ever doing so in the near future.

I do not know if you expected me to talk about the election today, and I would not do so, except to say this: there are people who are suffering now, who are having racist and sexist names thrown at them, who have had their cars and businesses vandalized with swastikas and slurs, including right here in Longview at Trinity and St. Rose. And if we do not know exactly how that feels, we will not be in a position to offer them the healing that is so desperately needed at present in our country.

It is a healing on a magnitude of the sort the Amish offered to Terri Roberts, the mother of the man who had so devastated their families and community. That is the radical sort of healing that is needed. But it is not being provided, not in a world of swastikas and racial slurs being spray-painted and children being bullied once more for the color of their skin.

We are a wounded people. We have always been a wounded people. But it is incumbent upon us to use such woundedness for good, for healing and for wholeness. James and John could not see that. But we can.

Indeed, we must, as though our salvations depended upon it. Because in truth, they may well might.

May your woundedness, then, be the source of not only your salvation of but the salvations of other wounded saints and sinners alike. May it be a source of light in the darkness. And may it be, at long last, the final scar that evil dares to inflict upon you.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 13, 2016

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