Last Sunday, as we began our annual Giving Campaign, we spent some time reflecting on the way in which Jesus calls us as his disciple to let go. To let go of control. To let go of our attachments. To let go of our lives. Because the call to follow Jesus involves our willingness to move from a posture of fear, anxiety, and scarcity to a posture of freedom, surrender, and generosity. In other words, before we can really begin to grow in generosity and self-giving, before we can really begin to live into the vision that “all we are and all we have come from God,” we first have to be willing to let go. (And judging from all the donations that came into our Pennies for Heaven thrift store this past week you are all doing pretty good!) In all seriousness, you and I have been invited to be part of an amazing journey of discipleship. And that journey begins with opening our hands, opening our hearts, and letting go.
But letting go is only the beginning. In fact, in many Christian circles there is a popular expression, “Let go and let God!” Which simply means letting go is what ultimately sets us free to more completely surrender and submit ourselves to God’s vision, to God’s mission, to God’s purpose for our lives and for the world. We open our hands and hearts trusting in God’s goodness, trusting in God’s grace, trusting in God’s abundant provision. Let go and let God! Now last Sunday we heard a story about how hard it can be to let go. This morning we hear a story about how hard it can be to let God. To surrender to God’s vision. To participate in God’s mission. To become all that God has created us to be.
This morning, in our gospel reading, two brothers, James and John, come up to Jesus and they say, “Jesus, when it comes time for you to be seated in glory, we want to be seated with you in the highest possible places of honor, one at your right hand and one at your left.” Now maybe James and John are thinking back to the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus was flanked Moses and Elijah, and they’re thinking, “We want that to be us!” Or maybe they’re looking ahead, expecting that very soon, Jesus will in fact usher in the restored kingdom of Israel, and they want to be sure that they get in on the action. Whatever they’re motivations, James and John have clearly not yet fully understood the radical message of Jesus about this upside-down kingdom of God in which the first are last and the last are first. The kingdom in which those who try to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life will save it. The kingdom in which those who want to be great are actually called to become a servant of all. Jesus has been very clear about the countercultural nature of the kingdom of God, and yet the disciples are still holding on to an earthly vision of power, position, and privilege. Now, what is remarkable is that James and John have been with Jesus since the very beginning of his earthly ministry. They have seen it all. They have heard it all. They have been part of it all. And yet, they are still struggling to let go and let God. They are still struggling to fully surrender to God’s vision and purpose for their lives and for the world.
My question for us this morning is, “Why?” Why do the disciples persist in resisting the vision of God’s reign that Jesus came to reveal? Why do they struggle so much to let go of what was in order to embrace what will be? Why is it so hard for the disciples to let go and let God? I believe the answer to that question is found not only in today’s gospel reading, but throughout the whole of the gospel story. Because over and over again, we find the disciples looking at their lives and the world around them from a human point of view. They are restrained by their own limited vision. They are confined by their own definition of what is possible. But Jesus comes along and says, “Let me show another way.”
For example, when the disciples were in the boat with the wind and waves crashing all around them, from their human point of view, all they saw was chaos. But Jesus said, let me show you the peace of God. When the disciples were on a hillside with thousands of people and only a few pieces of bread, from their human point of view, all they saw was insufficiency. But Jesus said, let me show you the abundance of God. When the disciples sat with Jesus as he inquired of them, “Who do you say that I am,” from their human point of view, they were imagining an earthly kingdom. But Jesus said, let me show you the dream of the kingdom of God. When the disciples were arguing and bickering amongst themselves about who is greatest, from their human point of view, they saw the potential for self-promotion. But Jesus said, let me show you the self-giving, sacrificial love of God. And then, on a Friday afternoon, when the disciples watched as the sky grew dark and Jesus hung on a cross, from a human point of view, they said, “It’s all over!” But God said, “Oh no, it’s only just begun!”
The disciples were setting their minds on human things, instead of the things of God. And as a result, they struggled to understand and grasp the vision of the kingdom of God. They struggled to believe that with God all things are possible. They struggled to “let go and let God.” My guess is that you and I can relate to that struggle. We see what’s happening in our world. We see what’s happening in our own lives. We see the very real challenges and obstacles that we face. And as a result, there are times when it is hard to see the vision of God. It can be hard to trust and know that God is working all things for our good. It can be hard to step out in faith, to open our hands in love, freedom, and generosity. Yet those are precisely the moments when Jesus comes to us and says, “Let me show you another way!”
A few weeks ago, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, preached a sermon to the House of Bishops. And in that sermon, Bishop Curry said that he believes the church is living in what he calls a narthex moment. Now the narthex, of course, is a transitional space, it’s an in-between space. The narthex represents a spiritual threshold, a crossing over. In other words, the narthex is more than just the space where you have a cup of coffee and sign up for the next potluck supper. The narthex is the bridge between the church and the world. And so, if we are in narthex moment, we are being called to boldly cross the bridge, to be a part of God’s vision, to participate in God’s mission, to be all that God has created us to be. To open our hands. To open our hearts. To open our eyes to see God at work in the world around us. To let GO and let GOD.
2.3 billion. That’s the number of square feet in the United States dedicated to self-storage. 2.3 billion square feet. To put that in perspective, if we could consolidate all of that space into a single building, the entire population of the United States could stand inside. The building would be almost the size of 40,000 football fields! Now, suppose we were able to take an inventory of all the self-storage units across the country. My guess is that a majority of that 2.3 billion square feet is occupied by things like unused exercise equipment, broken furniture, boxes of old clothes that we think might one day come back in style, old books, old toys, old pictures. In other words, we have 2.3 billion square feet full of stuff, and in particular, it’s the stuff we don’t really want and probably don’t even need! In fact, every year thousands of storage units are simply abandoned. There is even an entire reality TV series that has been created around discovering the contents of abandoned self-storage units across America. Think about that! As a culture, we find entertainment by watching a show about other people’s stuff that they don’t even want!
All of this, of course, is clearly an example of our consumer-driven culture, our enslavement to materialism, and our attachment to stuff. However, at a deeper level, at an emotional and spiritual level, 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage is indicative of our unwillingness, or perhaps our inability, to let go. Because the messaging of our culture compels us to hold on – to protect and control and defend. And as a result, we are often driven by fear and anxiety: fear of loss, fear of change, fear of losing our sense of security, fear of losing control, and maybe even of losing ourselves. And so, we have a hard time, don’t we, when it comes to letting go?
In our gospel reading from Mark this morning, we meet an anonymous man. We don’t know his name. We don’t know his profession. We don’t know much of anything about him. What we do know is that he is definitely having a hard time letting go. Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem when this man runs up to him and kneels before him. (Kneeling, of course, is a posture of worship, so clearly this man knows that Jesus is no ordinary teacher.) The man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Now, if you think about it, the question itself is a nonstarter, because a person doesn’t have to do anything to receive an inheritance. It is not something you earn; it is something you receive.) But, nevertheless, Jesus engages this man and reminds him of the basic requirements of the law, to which the man replies, “I have done all of those things my whole life.”
Then notice what happens next. Jesus looks at him and Jesus loves him. This is not a moment of condemnation. This is a moment of compassion. Jesus sees this man’s internal struggle and he loves him. And he says, “Well, there’s only one more thing to do. Sell everything you have. Give the proceeds to the poor. And come, follow me.” Without even responding to Jesus, the man walks away grieving. The Message version of the Bible says, the man walked away “with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.” Now, Mark doesn’t tell us what happens to this man. We’ll never know what he ultimately decides to do. We’ll never know if he ever becomes a follower of Jesus or not. What we do know is that at this particular moment in his life, he is still holding on tight to a great many things, and he is struggling to let go.
Now, if you would indulge me for just a moment, I’d like us to do a simple exercise together. Place your hands out in front of you like this. Then make a fist with both of your hands and squeeze as tightly as you can, as if you are holding onto something for dear life. And just hold that position for a moment. Now open your hands. Did you feel the release? Did you feel the tension and pressure leaving your hands?
This a posture of fear and anxiety (clenched fists). This is a posture of defensiveness, a posture of control, a posture of scarcity. But this is a posture of release (open and extended hands). This is a posture of surrender, a posture of freedom and love and generosity. This is holding on (clenched fists). This is letting go (open and extended hands). I think we go through so much of our lives walking around like this (clenched fists). Hopefully not physically, but certainly emotionally and spiritually! We are so often bound by fear, anxiety and control. We so often find ourselves holding on tight to so many things, and not about to let go.
And yet, Jesus, over and over again, seems to be telling us that we only get to keep what we are willing to give away. He said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it.” In other words, the way we discover the abundant life of the kingdom of God, is not by holding on. To contrary, we discover real life, abundant life, kingdom life, by letting go. But let’s be honest this morning, letting go of our life is really hard. It goes against almost every impulse and inclination within us. You know, over the past 18 months, with so much change and disruption and disorientation in the world around us, everything inside of me has wanted to hold on with all my might. To hold on to what I have. To hold on to what I know. To hold on to what I love. To hold on to what I can control. And yet, God keeps speaking to my heart and saying over and over again, “It’s okay to let go.”
Now, this morning we are beginning our annual Giving Campaign. For the next four weeks, we are going to be reflecting together on how God is calling each one of us to give of ourselves to support the vision and mission of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. But I want you to notice that this is not a sermon about money. Because what we ultimately do with our money. What we ultimately do with our 2.3 billion square feet of stuff will be determined by the orientation of our lives. You see, the story of rich man in today’s gospel isn’t just about money and stuff. It’s about how we live. It’s about the orientation and posture of our lives. Will we live our lives from a posture of fear, anxiety and control? Or will we live our lives from a posture of freedom, openness, love, and generosity? Jesus couldn’t be any more clear in his call to us to choose freedom, to choose generosity, to choose life.
So, it should not surprise any of us that this posture of freedom and surrender and generosity is one of the oldest positions of prayer. Centuries before people began folding their hands for prayer, the people of God simply held their hands outstretched before God and one another. And every Sunday, when we turn to the altar to celebrate the Holy Communion, the priest extends his or her hands in this ancient posture of prayer. May this be a reflection of our lives. Letting go of ourselves in order to offer our lives in generosity and love for our neighbor, for the sake of the world, and to the glory of God.
In 1908, a baseball team by the name of the New York Giants was playing a division championship game. It was the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the bases were loaded. The Giants only needed a single run to win the game. The batter at the plate hit a single to right field, the run scored, but the player running from first to second base, whose name of Fred Merkle, never actually touched second base. He was tagged out, which ended the inning, meaning the run that had scored didn’t count. The Giants went on to lose the championship. In 1978, during Superbowl XIII, the tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, Jackie Smith, was wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown that would have tied the game, but somehow, he dropped the pass. In 1982, at the end of the NCAA championship basketball game, a player by the name of Fred Brown actually passed the ball to the wrong team. So, what do Fred Merkle, Jackie Smith, and Fred Brown all have in common? Well, they were all ridiculed for their mistakes and they were each given the derogatory nickname “the goat.” You see, back in the day nobody wanted to be called the goat. Because it was a term reserved for the players who made the most notoriously humiliating and egregious mistakes.
But here’s the remarkable thing. Over the past few decades, the meaning of the term “goat” has turn around 180 degrees. Today, G.O.A.T. is an acronym that stands for “Greatest Of All Time.” And so, the likes of Michael Jordon, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Simone Biles are all referred to as the possible GOAT of their respective sports. What was once a term that referred to the most humiliating mistakes you can imagine, has been redefined as a term referring to the epitome of greatness. Even the gameshow Jeopardy! last year held a tournament to determine the greatest Jeopardy player of all time. Just Google “G.O.A.T.” and you’ll find references to individuals in sports, entertainment, business, and politics all making the claim to be the greatest.
But, at some point, we have stop and ask the question, “What is greatness?” For most of human history, greatness has been defined in terms of success, power, achievement, wealth, control, status, influence, dominance, and the list goes on. And yet, here we are this morning to worship a rejected and crucified Messiah, who by almost every worldly standard was a failure. Two thousand years after his death, billions of people are following the teachings of Jesus, even though he was executed at the hands of the Roman authorities. So, maybe for those of us who choose to follow Jesus, there is a different paradigm for success. Maybe there is something radically different about how power works in the kingdom of God. Maybe there’s another way to define greatness.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus and his disciples have made their way back to the village of Capernaum, which was sort of their “base of operation.” Apparently, on their way back home, the disciples had been talking amongst themselves. Now Jesus decides to join in the conversation, and he asks his disciples, “So, what were you guys talking about during the trip?” And it’s like the disciples all turn into a bunch of nervous teenagers, because they are completely silent. I can just imagine their eyes darting back forth, not wanting to make eye contact with Jesus. Because they know that Jesus knows exactly what they were talking about. They know that Jesus knows they were arguing about who was the greatest. In other words, they were arguing over who was the G.O.A.T. They were thinking when Jesus conquers the Romans and ushers in the renewed kingdom of Israel, who is he going to declare is the “greatest disciple of all time?” Can’t you just see Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the others all comparing themselves to one another, jockeying for positions of power, seeking to be recognized and esteemed for their greatness?
But notice how Jesus responds. He doesn’t rebuke the disciples. He doesn’t chastise them for their ignorance. Jesus doesn’t tell them not to pursue greatness. What he does is redefine greatness according to value system of the kingdom of God. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant of all.” Jesus makes it clear that greatness in the Kingdom of God is not measured by human achievement, wealth, power, status, prestige, or any of the other metrics that we use to measure greatness. Instead, greatness in the Kingdom of God is characterized by humility, service, sacrifice, and a deep awareness that “you know what, it’s not about you!” I mean, hasn’t that been the message since the very beginning? The message that God gave to Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses and David and Peter and James and Paul. God has chosen and appointed leaders among his people, but he reminds them over and over and over again, that the calling and purpose and anointing of God is not about us. It is always about the glory of God.
Several years ago, the pastor of a large suburban church in Chicago wrote a book entitled Descending into Greatness. The book, as the title implies, describes the paradox of Christian leadership. The paradox that true greatness is found in sacrifice. Strength is found in weakness. Power is found in humility. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples not to pursue greatness, but he redefines greatness according to the value system of the kingdom of God.
And like any good preacher, Jesus introduces a powerful and profound sermon illustration to reenforce his point. He calls a small child into this gathering. He picks up the child in his arms. And he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and not just me, but the One who sent me.” Now I think we often read these stories about Jesus and children through our lens of our modern attitudes and perceptions about children and families. We value and cherish our children. We lift up the innocence of children as a virtue. We sentimentalize the experience of being a child. But children in the ancient world were essentially considered non-persons. They had no influence, no rights, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. It’s not that parents didn’t love their children, but no one looked to a child as an example or illustration of greatness. And yet, Jesus, in a profoundly countercultural move, takes a child into arms and essentially says that this utterly dependent, vulnerable, powerless child is an ambassador for Jesus, and not for Jesus, but for the God who sent him.
My friends, we live in a culture obsessed with greatness. Yet that greatness is defined according to the value system of this world – success, power, achievement, wealth, control, status, influence, dominance, and the list goes on. But we have Savior who came to show us another way. We have a Lord who emptied himself and took the position of a servant. We have a King who became a slave and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Jesus came to show us the way of abundant life, the kingdom life, a life grounded in grace, rooted in love, and defined by service to one another. Jesus came to give us a glimpse of a way of life that can only be described as the greatest of all time!
Almost sixty years ago, in 1962, the American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, published a book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Now some of you may be familiar with the work of Thomas Kuhn, but I would venture to guess that many of us, including me, really have no idea who he was. But regardless of whether or not you know anything about Thomas Kuhn, you are probably familiar with a specific concept that he famously introduced to the world. Because Thomas Kuhn was the first person to coin the phrase “paradigm shift.” Of course, Kuhn was talking about “paradigm shifts” within the realm of science, but once the concept was introduced, it was quickly adopted and has been widely used in business, technology, social movements, and even spirituality. So, what is a paradigm shift? It is a fundamental change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.” It is a change in our basic assumptions about how the world works. A paradigm shift requires the letting go of one set of beliefs in order to embrace another. And very often this movement from one paradigm to another is precipitated by a moment of crisis. A moment of decision. A moment when the old and the new come crashing together.
Now why am I giving you an introduction to the conceptual history of paradigm shifts? Well, I’m glad you asked! The reason is because I believe the Bible is full of paradigm changing moments. Moments of crisis. Moments of decision. Moments when the old and new come crashing together. And I believe the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman described in today’s gospel reading is just such a moment.
Now before we jump into this story, we have to remember that up to this point in the gospel, Jesus has spent most of his time in a relatively small area around the Sea of Galilee, primarily among his fellow Jews. Jesus hasn’t ventured very far from his hometown of Capernaum. He’s been too busy teaching and preaching, healing diseases and casting out demons. But this morning we’re told that Jesus travels to the region Tyre and Sidon well to the north of Galilee. And he goes there apparently to get away from the busyness of ministry. It seems that Jesus just wants to hide out for a while. He doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. He’s not there to speak at a conference. He’s not there to hold a ministry rally. He’s there simply to get away. Yet even though Jesus is a long way from home, the word gets out that he has come to town, and immediately, a woman, a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin finds Jesus and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. A woman. A Gentile. A foreigner. In other words, it couldn’t be more clear that Jesus is in a very different place, and a very different set of circumstances, than anything he has encountered up to this point in his ministry. But nothing can really prepare us for how Jesus responds to the Syrophoenician woman. “Stand in line and take your turn. Don’t you know the children get fed first? If there’s anything left over, only then do we give it to the dogs.” What happened to compassion? What happened to mercy? How do you and I make sense of this harsh and seemingly derogatory response from Jesus? Some have suggested Jesus is simply having a really bad day. Some have suggested Jesus is using this encounter as a teachable moment. Some have suggested Jesus is actually referring to cute, little puppies and therefore, his comment would not have been considered offensive.
But I’m wondering this morning that maybe, just maybe there is something much, much bigger happening in this story. Maybe this story is challenging and convicting precisely because it represents a major paradigm shift in the ministry of Jesus and life of his followers. In you think about it, Jesus himself has created a crisis. Not in the sense of an emergency, but in the sense of a turning point. A moment of decision. A moment when the old and new come crashing together. On the one hand, in the harsh words of Jesus, we hear echoes of centuries of religious and cultural prejudice, division, and violence. On the other hand, there is the inbreaking kingdom of God that Jesus himself represents, a kingdom of extravagant grace and unconditional love. And into that tension, this woman of extraordinary faith boldly declares to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, but the dogs get the crumbs that fall off the table.” In other words, Jesus there’s enough. She perceives the abundance that Jesus offers. She knows that even a crumb of the food that Jesus has to offer will heal her daughter. And that’s exactly what happens. Her daughter is set free.
But the reason I think this is a paradigm changing moment in the ministry of Jesus is because of what happens after the healing. Jesus doesn’t immediately go back to where he came from. He doesn’t go back home. He doesn’t go back to Capernaum. Instead, he goes north to city of Sidon and south to the region of the Decapolis, which is all Gentile country! In other words, the mission has been expanded. The vision enlarged. Because of this dramatic encounter, Jesus and his followers have experienced a paradigm shift. There was a change of basic assumptions, a letting go of one set of beliefs in order to embrace something new.
All of this is important for you and I gathered here this morning, because God is still in the business of challenging and changing our paradigms. In fact, over the course of the past two thousand years, the church has faced countless more paradigm changing moments. The good news of the gospel hasn’t changed. The message of the kingdom of God hasn’t changed. But the way we see the world has changed. And as a result, the mission has been expanded. The vision enlarged.
I think it is very likely that we are in the midst of a paradigm changing moment right now. One of my favorite authors of the last twenty years was Phyllis Tickle, and she wrote a book about ten years ago entitled The Great Emergence, in which she argued that about every 500 years, the church is compelled to have a giant rummage sale. Every 500 years, the church “cleans house” in order to make room for something new. In other words, every 500 years or so, the church goes through a major paradigm shift. A moment of crisis. A moment of decision. A moment when the old and new come crashing together. Well, guess what? The last big ecclesiastical rummage sale was the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which took place exactly 500 years ago. So, the church is due for another paradigm shift.
Here at Good Shepherd, we have our BRIDGE Plan, the short-term strategic plan that is guiding us through the coming year. And the letter “I” in this acronym stands for “Imagine Change.” Now I know for Episcopalians the word “change” can be like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. But this is an invitation to begin imagining what it will mean to be the church in light of all that we have experienced these past few years. We don’t know exactly what the new paradigm will look like, but one thing is for sure, we can’t just go back to where we were. Just as Jesus didn’t return to hometown, but expanded his mission and enlarged the vision, in the same way, God is calling us to resist the temptation to return to the ways things were, and to allow the Spirit to expand our mission and enlarge our vision. And just as Jesus received a word of exhortation from a Gentile woman in a far-away land, we need to listen to the voices of those who are different from us, and that’s a whole other sermon1 This morning we challenged to imagine change. To open ourselves to the paradigm changing work of God’s Spirit. Of course, God loves us just the way we are, but He loves too much to leave us that way.