Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity – Year B 2018
The Character of a Servant
In North Wales, a part of the world dearly loved in my family, there is a saying which goes back to the end of the C19 “Steal a sheep from the mountain, and they hang you. Steal the mountain, and they make you a lord”. . . This was in reference to Lord Penrhyn, who made his vast wealth mining the mountains of North Wales for their slate. I’ve recounted before how the teams of men who risked life and limb and faced an early death from silicosis, if rock falls or accidents with dynamite didn’t get them first – were only paid for every 100 slates out of every 125 they made . . . because the journey by rail to the port from the quarry meant a breakage of 25 out of every 125 slates due to vibration . . .
Character . . .
I may be wrong but my perception is that the higher up a job is in an organisation, the less likely you are to be asked for a character reference, and vice versa. Large organisations are anxious to acquire managers with high skill sets and matters of character seem to take a back seat – lower down the scale, questions of trustworthiness come more to the fore
So were you perhaps to employ a cleaner, you may well want a character reference, after all can you be assured leaving them with ‘the family silver . . .’
The character of a servant
A couple of weeks ago we reflected on the Way of Jesus, vs the Way of the World. and noted that the way of Jesus was one of powerlessness . . . it is perhaps why he has many admirers but few followers. Today our gospel reading sets out in the same vein, one that will be repeated over and over in the coming weeks as his disciples fail to get the message.
‘he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”’ Remembering the stinging rebuke Simon Peter received ‘get thee behind me Satan!’ it is perhaps not surprise that we are told ‘But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.’
The choice of ‘betray’ to translate a word in our reading this morning is unfortunate – the word literally means ‘handed over’ The Son of Man is to be handed over into human hands . . . Jesus renouncing the way of power allows himself to be handed over – but again the disciples miss his point and argue about who is to be greatest . . . and Jesus, not for the last time, will place a child in their midst – and say ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ and because we are given to sentimentalism it is easy to hear that as ‘Jesus cares for the least’, but that is not it, for as we know he says ‘it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ He is showing us a child to teach us how to follow him – Why does Jesus say ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me?’ Because he comes among as as one with no power – as a child . . . and the Kingdom belongs to such as these . . . those with no power . . .
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’ – must renounce the way of power . . . so, as we all know – it is an important question – ‘What is the character of a Servant?’
Here we turn to James. As Father James expressed it last week, James is not an easy read! His words on the tongue and that powerful parable on how words once out of our mouth spread out of our control causing what?, we know not, will stay long with me.
So too this week ‘Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. ‘ Ouch! Actually those words were removed to spare our discomfort . . .
And as James points out, friendship with the World is friendship with its narrative of power – ‘if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition within you’ Envy and Selfish ambition are the source of ‘disorder and wickedness of every kind.’ Envy and ambition are the fruit of the desire for power – power over things, and power over others . . . ‘If I ruled the world . . .’
Ambition is so normalised in our culture, in the World that we wish to qualify James words . . . to speak of good ambition as opposed to ‘selfish ambition’ but we ought to tread with fear in this regard. If the way of power and influence is the cultural air we breathe, we would be wise to hang loose to any talk of ambition – from what does the ambition flow?
Conflicts and disputes – form where do they come? . . . ‘they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.’
As I said, we will come back to this again before we have finished with Mark.
‘Conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
As we heard a couple of weeks ago, it is what springs up within us, from the heart which makes us unclean . . . that which does not come form above, ‘but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’
What we need is a new heart. The Centre of the Gospel is the Gift of the New heart – a new character, a new person, a new creation. Jesus gives his life as a ransom for many, his life is given for us – he offers his life to us . . .
This Change of heart James puts like this ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.’
Humble yourself before God – become once more the soil of which you were first made, humus, Earth – become that soil into which the seed of the Word might be planted, the Seed which is Christ himself. Christ in laying down his Life makes His Life available to us – His Heart – His Character – which is beautifully expressed by James.
‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ Do you think you are wise? ‘Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.’ Wisdom is in Scripture a personification of God – and especially of Christ, who as St Paul tells us ‘has become for us Wisdom From God. So being born of God, the first fruit is Gentleness. In the soil of a humble life, the life of one who does not take hold of power, gentleness is the first fruit. Gentleness born of Wisdom, of Christ who allows himself to be handed over to sinful men.
‘the wisdom from above is first pure . . . then peaceable . . . gentle . . . willing to yield – that is as St Paul speaks of Love, it does not insist on its own way . . . full of mercy . . . and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (If anything a child cannot be a hypocriite, for until it attains a certain age, it has not learned to hide, to conceal its true nature) . . . this is the character of a Servant – it is the character of The Servant
Let us pray – and as we do, let us consider each of these fruit of Wisodm, of the life which Christ offers us, as he offers himself to us, putting himself into our hands in the Sacrament
Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a right Spirit within me, the Heart of a Servant, which is pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Amen
And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.