The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      21st October 2018
Service, not Status
Ayla Lepine

Isaiah 53. 4 – end

Hebrews 5. 1 – 10

Mark 10. 35 – 45

‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’

The writer Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all, the knowledge that we don’t know how it will turn out, that anything is possible.’ Over 600 000 people marched for a People’s Vote on Brexit yesterday. It is surely that sense of hope which brought this enormous crowd into the streets. It’s also through this lens of hope, that ‘nothing is impossible with God’, that we can explore today’s readings.

Isaiah 53 is often compared with the story of Christ’s passion. A man, who is exhausted, rejected, and tortured stood for the whole community of Israelites, who were suffering profoundly and needed to be liberated. God promises salvation. Everything will change. The pain they have experienced will be overcome. That image of suffering and scapegoating gives way in verse 11: ‘out of his anguish, he shall see light.’

For Jesus and the disciples, this was their religious model of being a servant. That clashes with the conversation we hear today between Jesus, James, and John. As St John Chrysostom explains, James and John broke away from the group and thought that in a quiet moment they had the perfect opportunity to ask for glory and for rewards. Jesus points them not to treasure and glory, but to the inevitability of suffering. The road is hard, and there will be no rewards until the end of that road.

Jesus asks James and John about whether they can ‘drink the cup’ and ‘be baptised’ as ways of describing acceptance, perseverance, and mortality. James and John unhesitatingly answer: ‘we can.’ They think that the walk to Jerusalem is so that Jesus can sit on a throne and be a powerful ruler. They want to be part of that, and so they ask for high status positions. But the walk to Jerusalem will end in Jesus’ humiliation and death on the cross. It is no wonder that when people in the Early Church began collecting relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, those fragments of wood were encased in gold and jewelled reliquaries precisely because these fragments of an instrument of torture and murder were far more precious than anything that can be bought and sold. This cross was the instrument through which death became powerless to separate us from God’s love. Like the servant in Isaiah, the ugly, repulsive thing became beautiful and precious.

Real greatness, Jesus tells us, is not about authority and having power over people. Greatness is about humility. It’s about what he calls being a servant. It’s about facing up to the weakness inside us and learning to embrace it as part of ourselves instead of running away from it. We might follow Teresa of Avila’s advice to ‘do many little acts of love, because they enkindle and melt the soul.’ How can we be free to be good servants? We believe that obedience to God is perfect freedom. That’s because being obedient to Christ - a servant, as he is a servant - is being obedient to Love itself. To do that, we need to be open.

Every day, before Morning Prayer at 9am, where everyone is welcome, either Jeremy or me, or sometimes Judy, opens the church. Every evening we lock it again. I think of it as waking the church up, and wishing it goodnight. It took me all summer to learn about the light switches, and to remember which key does what. I still don’t really know what a number of the switches do. This building still holds many mysteries! Learning the character of the building is like learning the character of our hearts and learning the rhythms of prayer. We also learn to whom this building really belongs. This holy place is not exclusively ‘ours’. We take care of it for a while, call it home, and are mindful that we want to pass it on to later generations so that it will always be a place of worship, hospitality, and witness to Christ in the world. As St Paul encourages us, we need to see our bodies as a holy building too, loved by God. Each morning, we can choose to open the church of our hearts and begin another day.

In this morning’s Gospel, James and John boldly tell Jesus what they want. He patiently asks questions to probe whether they know what they’re asking for. They don’t. And so he teaches the whole group together, ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’

Isaiah says: the servant who suffers most is the servant who saves us, brings us back to a tender and close relationship with God. Hebrews says: the High Priest, who is Jesus, is most real when he shows his vulnerability. When weak, he is at his most powerful. Jesus asks: do you want to become great? Do you have ambition? Then your greatest ambition must be to give your whole self to making the world a better place. We can learn about being a servant by reading our Mission Action Plan. We seek justice, we oppose injustice, we are creative, we participate in serving the common good, we are inclusive. As Paul tells the Romans, we should ‘outdo each other in acts of love’. 

Barbara Brown Taylor points out, ‘new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.’ When the sun rises in our church, it does so at the entrance. It sets over the altar. That may be ‘backwards’ from a traditional liturgical point of view, in which churches traditionally orientate along a West-East axis. What does it mean to embrace our East-West identity as something more than a quirk of the building’s history? Our axis makes us a bit different, and helps us to pray together about the kind of community we choose to build here. When you come to the altar today, look around you. Be inspired to claim this East-West space as a place that is open to you and to everyone, both physically and spiritually. Think, today, of all the people in this city who kneel with us at Communion rails throughout the diocese in their own churches. There are thousands. We are all in this together.

St Oscar Romero said, ‘A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone's skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?’ Our unique East-West space can help us to turn around. We all need to do so, each day. We walk westwards to the Eucharist, and Jesus gives the whole himself to us. By his sacrifice – because he accepted the baptism and because he drank the cup – because he adored his people to the point of death, and beyond, we feast together and express gratitude.

Jesus turned, and still does turn, everything around. It’s good for us to worship in a space that doesn’t conform. It reminds us, just by being here, filled with light, as the sun makes its daily arc above us, that we worship a God who did and said things that were completely unexpected. We worship the God who suffered and cried, and died and rose again, because he knew that being a servant was the key to giving and receiving love.

I began with a quote from Rebecca Solnit reminding us that ‘Hope is a sense… that we don’t know how it will turn out, that anything is possible.’ Let us hope for what Jesus longs to see in us: that we will become better servants to each other and the world around us, each day making the choice to unlock the doors of our inner churches, of our hopeful hearts, to let in the light. Keep the door locked, and we cannot be the servants Christ invites us to be. I pray that we all put the key in the lock, turn the handle, and greet the Son. Amen. 

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