Will you join me in prayer… God of Prosperity and Peace, open our eyes to recognize the difference between having and serving. For it is within our serving that we discover our greatest gifts. Amen.
A few years back, some youth of our church, a few adults, Kara and me went to Hershey Park in the Dark. It promised to be an evening of fellowship and fun. Little did I know upon leaving the church parking lot, that it would also be a night of great fear? As the evening progressed, and the rain subsided, we headed to the back of the park which is home to numerous roller coasters. I prided myself that I had never ridden a roller coaster of great height or speed. The Trail Blazer was more my ticket and even that caused some anxiety. But somehow on that night, I found myself in line to ride the Lighting Racer, a side by side coaster designed to race the other car traveling at lighting speed and over what seemed to me to be at least 1000 foot drops! I took my place in line hesitantly at the taunting of a young Sophie Schaffer who you all might know is very persuasive… especially yelling, “You’re a chicken!” over and over, and over.
As the line disappeared and we entered the station to board the coaster, I sat down, pulled the safety bar across my lap and prayed… harder than I ever prayed before… “Oh God, why did I allow this little girl to talk me into something I did not want to do?” The coaster left the station, and I stiffened up pressing my feet to the floor of the car and closing my eyes until we came to a complete stop at the terror ride’s conclusion. It was over, and I was alive! Yes, prayer is powerful. When it was all over, I remember thinking, wow, something else to check off my bucket list.
Fear seems to be a common theme in our text from the ancient Prophet, Isaiah and from Mark’s account of the Gospel. The Jewish people in the time of Isaiah were coming out of yet another war, this time under Assyrian oppression. As they stood among the rubble of the sacred city, Jerusalem, they needed reassurance of God’s presence. And once again, God offers peace, but not only offers, shows up and offers them peace and salvation. Their prophet Isaiah, points to the one to come who will be set apart from them, lifted up taking his rightful place. Even within the ruins, songs and shouts of joy prevail.
The victory is a cosmic victory. The triumph is peace but a peace that is more than simply an end to conflict. This peace is for all. War is now over, once and for all. This is the good news. All reasons for battle, all reasons for warfare, all reasons for hatred, pride, self-justification are eliminated. God has, by Divine presence, removed all need for struggle between people and nations, if only the human race would be so insightful!
The early followers of Christ have been hearing their teacher and friend talk of his forthcoming demise, yet still appear to be in disbelief. But perhaps they did get it after all. Maybe that’s why James and John jockeyed for their own ‘self-justifying’ positions near Christ? Through their fear of losing him, perhaps they are merely seeking security rather than, as it appears, power positions to the right and left sides of their Rabbi. The brothers Zebedee use their friendship in an attempt to manipulate Jesus vying for prestige, power, and placement. It must not have seemed improper to them at the time to order Christ about. Can we truly blame them? Do we not want to make sure that, no matter what happens, our place and our safety are secure; if we know that, we think we can handle whatever comes? If we are honest, a lot of our prayers consist of politely telling God how things should be. In this respect, Jesus reassures the disciples that, in spite of their fear, they will measure up in the end if they put themselves out there focused on serving each other rather than being served by another.
God’s comfort to the Israelites and Christ’s encouragement to the twelve reveals to each group that they are not like the world. I love Jesus’ response to the disciples request for positions recalled by Mark’s author, beginning with verse 42:
42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you;
Our lives too, can be seductive. It can become very easy for us to maneuver for positions of great esteem because of our beliefs. Within these verses of Mark, Jesus turns their ambition into servanthood, based on what they have already experienced with each other and through watching Christ’s own self-giving ministry. Instead, he tells them not to be like the Gentiles with all their lording over others, their prestige and position and the bullying that comes with them. Don't be like that, he says. In fact, "it is not so among you." Obedience to God and servanthood to others grants all of us our places and provides sustenance for living full and happy lives.
The 20th century icon Helen Keller once said:
"Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves."
I am reminded of the human interest story I heard Tuesday morning on NPR on my way into the church. It was the story of Jake Olsen, a student at the University of Southern California. I quickly jotted down his name on whatever I could find to write on in the car. Probably should have pulled over to do this, however. I listened and then googled Jake’s name online and found most of the content of the segment. Here is a taste of NPR correspondent, Gloria Hillard’s interview.
Like most freshmen at the University of Southern California, 18-year-old Jake Olson is learning to navigate the large campus. So is his guide dog, Quebec, a smiling golden Lab. "We're a team," Olson says. "We get from point A to point B. He makes sure I go to class." As a young and dedicated fan of the USC football team, Olson dreamed that one day he would wear the Trojan jersey. But Olson's journey would be different from the journeys of most young boys who have shared those hopes: He lost his eyesight at age 12. Now, at 6-foot-4, he's a walk-on long snapper for the Trojans. That's the player who delivers the perfect spiral that's converted to a punt or field goal. He says it's "a position where no one notices you until you mess up." Guards and tackles protect him, and for now, Olson wears a yellow no-contact jersey.
Olson was born with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina. He lost his left eye when he was 10 months old. And when he was 12, his family learned he would need another surgery to remove his right eye. "Just the fear of knowing you have 80 more years ahead of you without sight ... that was scary to me."
Before losing his sight, Olson had one wish: to watch as much USC (University of Southern California) football as possible. Pete Carroll, the Trojans coach at the time, heard about the young fan and invited him to attend practice. "Little did I know that he intended to bring me into pre-practice meetings and have me meet the team and eat dinner with the team and come to multiple practices and travel with the team," Olson recalls. It was that experience, he says, that inspired him to try out for his high school football team, eventually earning a starting position as a long snapper.
Before each play, a teammate leads Olson to the
field. On a recent day, it's Conner Sullivan's turn to take Olson by the shoulders, walk him out to the line of scrimmage, and make sure his shoulders and feet are lined up properly. Sullivan, who is a holder on placekicks, then steps back seven yards, gets into position and yells to Olson that he's ready. That's when Olson, who's a reserve player, snaps the ball. "I just want to compete out there and play to my abilities," he says. "If one day that's good enough to start, so be it." And if he does deliver a game-day snap? "That's going to be an incredible moment for me, for Jake, for everyone," says Emma Olson, Jake's twin sister, who also attends USC. “I've been to every single game," Emma Olson says. "I've just never seen him more joyful. It was amazing to see that smile on his face." Olson says he has thought about whether he would be on the field today without the encouragement he received. He does know it's his turn to inspire others who have gone through adversity — especially kids.
Fascinating and inspiring story …
In an interview two years before entering USC, Jake Olsen claimed: “When I learned I was going to lose my sight, I decided it wasn’t going to stop me in life. Brokenness does not exist in the body… it exists in the mind, heart, and spirit. My mind, heart, and spirit, remain whole.” He went to claim, "That just because something happens, it doesn't mean it should stop you, it's important to keep fighting and just take hits and get back up." Just before he lost his sight, a 12-year-old Jake Olson stood on the USC Trojan sidelines. Now, he takes his place on the field.
When I secured myself into the seat of that roller coaster I was not thinking of how my life would change. I did not imagine that those 40 high speed seconds would change how I would put myself out there for another, but it did. Vulnerability shaped my character. Even though the ancient Israelites’ were no longer physically oppressed, their spirits remained troubled until they experienced their God among them offering a peace beyond their imagination. When Jesus redirected his disciple’s ambition he opened up a whole new world of servanthood. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that for such servanthood to exist today despite Christ’s conditioning, would mean a change in our worldview and values ingrained in us especially in affluent and powerful countries like the one we know so well. But as modern day Zebedee brothers and sisters we hear the same call, and experience the same Messianic offer that our ancestors did long ago. Jake Olsen imagined the possibilities for his life before it was altered for good. Even though he lost his ability to see, he never lost sight of where his life was headed. Where and how will you take your place: In life, in faith, and in this church? Imagine!
Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk here about creating possibilities. What it might look like to increase or even change how we serve one another. How we might appear to others within our community and beyond as an example of the type of servanthood Christ explains to his earliest followers and to us. Today we have the chance to change talk into action. As we dedicate our offerings and future intentions for giving of ourselves, I never want us to lose sight that such giving goes beyond our money. Such giving needs to come from our purse as well as our purpose! As we continue to imagine the possibilities here at Christ Church we are remembering and reshaping our purpose of who we are as this body of Christ’s self-giving ministry. What does that look like to you? How will you place your self in line to help make our purpose a reality? More importantly, how aligned is your mind, heart, and spirit? Amen.