Living Towards Others

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I love the honesty in today’s Gospel. We see James and John, sons of Zebedee BEFORE they show themselves to be the future St. John (the beloved disciple, the one who Jesus sees as family from the cross, as he entrusts John to his mother Mary, and his mother to his friend, John. This is James, more like Jimmy, long before he is known as James the Greater and patron saint of Spain.

No, here, we see plain old James and John who are a lot like people we know. Maybe even a lot like us. They are so eager to get ahead, to make sure they get their due, that they come right out and ask Jesus to help them understand what their assignments will be in the future kingdom of God.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  I suppose we have to give them points for honesty. But Jesus tries to help them see that the they have no idea what they’re asking for because the kingdom of God is a kingdom of reversals. Jesus will be elevated by first making himself low.

The Reading from Hebrews refers to this as the “reverent submission” of Christ.  In those beautiful words the anonymous writer of that scripture says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Greatness comes not through position or power, but through service, by putting others first, and the self second (or third, or fourth, or fifth.)

We need to say one thing for certain: and that is, that suffering is not always changed into redemption. Suffering, itself, is not to be glorified. At yesterday’s Global Mission Fair, the Rt. Reverend Dickson Chilongani, Bishop of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, Tanzania, was talking about the various ministries in his diocese.  Among one of the health issues some of his people face, the bishop almost casually mentioned leprosy.  Several of us looked at each other, as if to ask, “Did I hear that right?”  I looked it up later and found that according to the CDC, some 2 million people in the world are still disabled by leprosy, and in Tanzania and elsewhere, it still has social stigma, like we read about in the scriptures.

We are called, with others, to work to alleviate all who suffer. There is no redemption in pointless suffering, and we blaspheme if we in any way suggest that it might be a part of God’s will.

Rather, it is the will of God to redeem, to bring to life, to restore and we are most faithful when we do everything we can to lift one another out of such suffering.

A book I’m reading has reminded me of how the poet Walt Whitman served and suffered, and in so doing, found his own greatness.  Greatness, for Whitman, didn’t come by being a cultural superstar—either in New York or in Philadelphia. But the depth of his writing emerged from his own witness of suffering.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman was living with his mother in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, picking up odd jobs, carousing around town, and really looking for himself, as much as anything or anyone else. His brother George enlisted in the Union Army, and the next year, it was feared that George was killed in battle.  Walt Whitman left Brooklyn and went in search of his brother, but in searching, he found a vocation, a purpose, a life-giving force.  Whitman began volunteering as a nurse, of sorts, visiting soldiers, writing letters for them to their families, getting them small things they needed, listening to their stories, accompanying many in death.

Whitman felt more alive, even as he exhausted himself. He became a witness to the senseless suffering of the war, but also to a higher nobility of those who served on behalf of others. The Civil War ended up saving the Union. But even more, it offered salvation to Walt Whitman. He died at the age of 72, exhausted, with a combination of tuberculosis, mal-nutrition, and selfless living. But his suffering was very much on behalf of others and opened beauty to generations.

Jesus invites us to feel and be affected by others. Suffering that is on behalf of others can be of a particular quality.  In today’s first reading Isaiah speaks of a Suffering Servant. In words we also read on Good Friday, we typically see Jesus as the one who has “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. . . by whose bruises we are healed.” But the interpretation of Isaiah by faithful Jews before Jesus (and after) is also relevant. Israel understood itself as the suffering servant. As the nation suffered but remained faithful, others would be see and would be brought to God. Through the suffering of a remnant, the whole world might be saved.

The idea that redemptive suffering is communal rather than individual may sound odd in a culture as self-focused as ours.  But if I think about it for a minute, it invites me to worry less about what I, alone, might accomplish. It encourages me to think and pray about what we might all be called to do together. In what ways might we be called to suffer so that others might know redemption and life? (Not a popular question, and not a question easily answered.)

When Jesus asks James and John if they are able, he is asking if they are able to endure suffering. He is also asking if they are willing to live a life of service. Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God is not built on power or greatness, but on serving one another.

Holy Trinity has a long history of community service.  We have done that and we continue to do it. St. Christopher’s Mission House has been a part of that. Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center is a part of that. Our Thanksgiving dinner preparation and deliver (which we’ll be doing next month, by the way) is a part of that.

But this parish has also offered service (a little bit of suffering alongside or suffering for) those who live in other parts of the world. The parish was active with Carpenter’s Kids, in Tanzania. Individuals have visited other places and created direct links for ongoing support and mission.  But I invite you to pray along with me about how God might be calling us to participate more fully in mission (that suffering with or suffering alongside or suffering on behalf of) people in another part of the world?

Several of our parish have visited Tanzania, and perhaps that is a place to think about. Others have relationships and we have former parishioners in Puerto Rico. Our link parish in London has a particular relationship with churches in Myanmar or Burma. Several here have supported Christians in Iraq.

Whenever we’re tempted to think like the apostles James and John and ask God “what’s in it for us?” may the Spirit remind us of Jesus’s invitation to share in his cup of service-even-unto-suffering, to share, to get involved, to sacrifice, and in so doing, be transformed more deeply into the Body of Christ. 

Each day at Morning Prayer, we conclude with a Prayer for Mission, one of which I will use now. Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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