My friends, as I mentioned in the bulletin, the readings for this weekend are a tutorial on how to follow our brother, Jesus. Each of us in this present time is called to live out our baptisms and confirmations in ways that are meaningful for us now—in other words—taking those nice, challenging stories of the past and applying them to our lives.
At a family dinner this past week, we had a conversation about, “following in Jesus’ footsteps” and of how different people see, “this call” in different ways. Some, like Francis of Assisi lived out, in his life the literal meaning of Jesus’ words in Scripture, “sell all that you have, [and he was a rich, young man] give to the poor, and come, follow me.”
Francis then, went on for the remainder of his life, preaching the Good News of Jesus, living most simply upon the earth. Francis “preached” more often through action, than he did through words. He is known to have said, “Preach always, if necessary, use words!”
Our family discussion centered upon the notion that there are many ways to follow Jesus—some may do it rather literally, as did Francis and his early followers, women included, through the example and life of Clare of Assisi, and others, like many of us, choose to follow Jesus balancing and sharing, family life, work, prayer, and service.
However we choose to live our lives, our call is always to keep our eyes on our brother from Nazareth and keep checking—as we go, to see that of all the choices we can make throughout our lives; we continually attempt to do, the most loving thing.
The Scriptures today, especially the gospel, tell us that we are here to serve, not to be served. This command from our brother Jesus is often one of the hardest for many to fulfill. On the one hand, we are here to have a human experience—spiritual beings though we are. There is so much about our earthly lives that is most appealing, beautiful, and good, but we must always seek balance in the living out of all that is good. “How much do I need and how much do I want?” as my dear, good mother-in-law, Margaret used to say.
Many of you are probably familiar with the PBS Masterpiece production of Downton Abbey. Robert and I are presently re-watching the series, primarily because of its fine actors, writing and just because it is a good story. As with any “good story,” there is struggle between good and bad, power and control and the natural challenges that come to individual lives in the face of all of the above.
The piece that is particularly interesting in the light of today’s Scriptures, that we, live, “to serve” and not, “be served” is the clear separation of class that is so distinctly portrayed in the Downton Abbey series. From the aristocracy that find themselves more concerned about the correct piece of clothing, the correct dining service, or the appropriate “table talk,” than about the love-less affect these protocols can often have upon those raised in the system to those looking on—the staff, who know that their lives can never be part of all this elegance except through living vicariously, the lives of their masters.
Interestingly though, the constant, “rub” of these classes upon each other opens up some real challenge to those who are served to see life through other’s eyes and appreciate the real struggles therein.
Perhaps this is some of the real appeal of a story that is well-written and willing to tackle some tough issues. Many of us, if not all can find ourselves within the story lines and ask ourselves how we view our world. What is the focus from which we truly understand the problems that people unlike ourselves walk with, day in and day out?
I am presently reading, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. Many of you are probably aware that he is a black lawyer, and I mention his race only to indicate that he does understand the racism faced by his black brothers and sisters. He has worked on death row, with these “brothers and sisters” seeking justice, which has been denied them often times simply because of the color of their skin. Stevenson found, time and time again, that crimes committed by white folks in Alabama, where he worked, that may get them, “a slap on the wrist,” landed black folk in jail with life sentences, sometimes even, the death penalty. Again, in light of today’s Scriptures, Stevenson’s book title, Just Mercy, is another way of talking about the challenge to—certainly Christians, but more basically, to all humans, to do the “most loving thing.”
When a group of people are presumed guilty before any evidence has been looked at, we know that something is clearly wrong. I can’t even imagine what being black in this country, living with the day-to-day fear of being stopped by the police and the possible aftermath of that must feel like! Can’t even imagine!
When I hear horribly, unbelievable stories of our black brothers and sisters as Stevenson relates, of injustice, lack of understanding and mercy being dealt out, to say nothing of lack of human concern; I am reminded afresh, of the step-up that I enjoy, in having been born white, through nothing I had done, just as those born black, through no fault of their own, are condemned to a life, unfair from the beginning.
As a country we should be better than this, advocating for those here who don’t have all they need to live as God intended. As someone has said, “This is our experiment here, not God’s—we have free will and can make of it whatever we so choose.”
The prophet Isaiah tells us today, “If you make yourself a reparation offering…” [you will basically increase your life—not only in physical days, but emotionally and spiritually too!] And the prophet continues, “the will of Yahweh will prevail through you.”
On the surface, Isaiah is speaking about the coming of the Messiah—of what he will suffer in living out his human life, trying to be true to the law of love in service to others. Digging deeper though, this reading is about each of us, my friends. Our brother Jesus has shown us the way and we must follow. The writer to the Hebrews encourages us in our attempts in following Jesus—he was tempted in all ways as we are but did not give in to it. This lets us know that we are not alone and have someone to turn to in all our trials.
A complete reading of the passage today from Hebrews, thought to perhaps have been penned by Paul’s disciple, Barnabas, lets us know that our life as humans will bring suffering too—it is what being human, an imperfect state is all about. Through the examples I shared here today, I think we can see that whether rich or poor, black, or white, or any other differences that may set us apart, we are each called to struggle with the human condition. Some of us may have more than others to begin with, but none of us, I truly believe makes it through our human journey and out the other side for what comes next without struggling with the meaning of life.
We must ask, “Is it all just about me, us—or are we called to get beyond ourselves—to serve, ultimately—to share, rather than to claim it all—everything in my path—for my own welfare? Getting beyond ourselves will truly call us into service for others and that would seem to be the overall message from the prophets—Isaiah, Barnabas, and Jesus, through Mark, today. Amen? Amen!