Pentecost 21 October 18, 2015 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Pentecost 21 Proper 24 Year B
Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Sunday, October 18
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
In the year 4 BC, a man from the Galilee named Judah ben Hezekiah led a rebellion against the Roman imperial army who occupied the land that every Jew believed was given to them by God of their ancestors as the Promised Land. It was an odd uprising in that the rebels were not interested in killing Roman soldiers but rather gaining access to the imperial warehouse that held their farming and construction tools confiscated by the Roman officers who pillaged the surrounding villages. One of those villages was called Nazareth. In response to this uprising focused on redeeming the villagers’ goods, the Roman army sent a large detachment from Damascus and swept through the Galilee. They were given free rein to track down and then crucify the men who fomented the rebellion. As one ancient historian notes, the hillsides in which Jesus of Nazareth was raised were marked by hundreds of deathly crosses: a sign of the emperor’s awesome power and commitment to wipe out resistance to his colonizing ambition.
This was an act of retribution, what some call retributive justice
: “You hurt me; I’ll hurt you right back with even greater force.” And, as you and I know: retribution tends to increase conflict, the spiral of violence expanding. Thus, in response to Rome’s violent occupation of Palestine, an equally violent group called the Zealots emerged: a Jewish guerilla band committed to harming the occupation force in any way they could. “You occupy us, we’ll make your life a living hell.” Another path was followed by the Pharisees who proposed withdrawal from engagement with Rome’s military occupation and promoted an interior and spiritual resistance focused on faithful keeping of the Torah. In both cases, a profound religious and political yearning was alive, a yearning for a ruler from the house of David well versed in the commandments of God, a leader who would fight God’s wars. Perhaps a powerful leader could unite God’s people in energetic resistance to the awesome and brutal power of the emperor and his armies.
It would seem that Jesus was well aware of how political power was and can be exercised. Did you catch it? Jesus 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
.” I wonder: would this observation not catch the attention of his disciples, of Zealots, of Pharisees, of any one who lived under the thumb of an occupying army? Would Jesus’ growing reputation as a charismatic leader well versed in the commandments of God encourage some if not many to place their hopes in him as the one who would fight God’s wars, who would lead the people in an armed insurgency against Rome, successful because their prayers had been heard and God was giving awesome strength to this God-anointed leader and to his chosen people?
But, then what an incredible and disheartening reversal to hear these words from Jesus: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Good grief! How could anyone in their right mind encourage an oppressed people to be servants, to give their lives away through service in the presence of an army and a foreign culture that worshipped brute military, political, and economic strength, an empire that claimed to be exceptional? But, then, I wonder if Jesus had something else in mind, something that just might break the spiral of retribution then and now.
Is it just possible that that he associates “greatness” with the conscious embrace of non-violence
, of putting away the impulse to rivalry, of relinquishing the harsh word, the fist, and, yes, the weapon: the gun, the drone, the missile? Is it possible that he was leading his disciples ancient and modern into a different way of living in this world, and thus returning our lives and the life of this world, overrun with the normalcy of violence, into the peaceful shape God intended from the beginning? Could it be that he was, he is offering his disciples – you and me – the courageous path of non-violence and non-violent resistance to the worship, the idolatry, of state-sanctioned violence on death row and in armed conflict, in the corporate pillaging and rape of our mother, the earth, in the perhaps small yet potent ways we gossip about each other, its own form of slander, of character assassination?
But then you and I have been socialized into, have been taught by hundreds of movies and television shows, by recent and continuing armed conflicts, by a powerful and persuasive weapons industry that the only way to obtain security and safety is with and through death-dealing means.
Are we then to place Jesus’ words in the category of well intentioned but impractical, idealistic, why even delusional thinking? Or is it possible that the baptismal promise you and I have made to “strive for peace among all people” might lead you and me, through our words and actions, to subvert the normal order of things, to stand in sharp contrast to those Christian communities in our nation so eager to support violence in the name of God? Could this be the legacy we offer our children: so that instead of vacation bible school we offer vacation peace school and become known as a community led by the prince of peace, a community in which songs of peace resound?
It is such great interest to me that knowing he would be arrested as a criminal for his commitment to a kingdom marked by service rather than domination, Jesus offers his life to his followers in the peaceful and equitable sharing of his bread, his body, his wine, his blood, inviting them to consume and thus make as their own his non-violent life, his commitment to life, health, and salvation.
Each and every Sunday we pray in this pace for an end to violence, in particular gun violence. Each and every Sunday we exchange a sign of peace. Each and every Sunday we receive, in peace, the Body and Blood of the prince of Peace. But I wonder: how will these words and actions shape your commitment and mine to be live as people of peace in this city?