Bishop Barker’s 2015 Annual Council Eucharist Sermon
John 15:20 – 16:1 October 15, 2015
Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
– John 15:20
In tonight’s Bible story, we hear a small portion of what’s come to be known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” We’re in John’s Gospel account, and Jesus is gathered at Passover time with his closest followers at what we call the Last Supper. The “farewell discourse” is Jesus’ last word to his disciples before his passion, crucifixion and death. This discourse comprises fully five chapters of John’s Gospel, and includes prayers for Jesus’ followers, ideas about how to live as men and women of faith and encouragement for hard times ahead.
In the midst of all this talking – so very many words… so very many ideas – Jesus gets up from the table and stops talking just once. In the middle of all this long night’s supper – and all this teaching and talking – Jesus does just one thing, and it’s a something that has been remembered for 2,000 years:
Jesus [John writes] knew the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, [said Jesus] for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
In the middle of all the teaching, all the talking, all the instruction Jesus gets up and he does this one thing to show them who they’re created to be, to show them how they are called to act if they would be his disciples. You must serve one another. You must offer yourself humbly and completely. Here is the master showing us how to live … and “no servant is greater than the master.”
I am daily amazed at the sacrifices you make – both for your churches and for the world outside your parish communities. You are the finest leaders I have every served with, and your devotion to the Church and her ministries is unmatched in all my experience. I see on each weekly visit – to our every Nebraska church – the amazing ways it in which you share your time, talent and treasure all three:
– Studying up on church finances and gamely participating in long, complicated meetings as members of church vestries, finance committees, and stewardship teams;
– Washing crystal, ironing fair linens, and precisely setting out the parish’s cherished sacred vessels as members of church altar guilds;
– Writing big checks – maybe the biggest check you write to any charity every week or month – just to keep the promise you made about your pledge … and to do your part to support the ministries of the church.
From mowing lawns, to balancing books, to making cheesy potato casseroles. From polishing silver, to counting money, to watching over the kids in the nursery. From driving to a Saturday meeting, to praying the Anglican rosary to writing a card of condolence …
The list goes on and on. All the work you do, all the ways you give. You all give from your best selves. You act from your truest beliefs. You share what you have in ways that pinch and challenge and in ways that make you sweat and worry. I’m amazed and humbled at the sacrifices you make. I really mean that. Your devotion to the places and the people that you call “church” is unmatched.
I think it’s important to say that as we’re differently abled and differently blessed, as we’re differently challenged and differently inspired so too we are called to offer very different gifts – to make very different sacrifices – as disciples of Jesus. It’s important not to judge one person’s offering against another. Jesus himself teaches over and over again that every little gift matters … that every small sacrifice has real impact. So the child welcomed in Jesus’ name is an entre into a relationship with God. And the widow’s tiny mite is the greatest offering placed before the altar. And the cup of cold water offered to a thirsty traveler paves the way to heaven. We have different abilities and different gifts to share. It’s all good!
Where I think we are challenged tonight – challenged both by Jesus and the saints we commemorate – not in the kind of gifts we offer but more perhaps in the spirit in which we offer them. Our challenge is not that we give the wrong things or necessarily that we do not give enough. Our challenge is rather a tendency to be self-satisfied and defensive about our giving, instead of offering our part with the kind of joy and abandon that is modeled by Jesus, when he throws off his garments and washes the feet of every one of his disciples at that supper so long ago. It’s that joyful and complete abandon to service and loving kindness that we’re still learning how to do.
Tonight we commemorate a great feast of our Church. We remember the early Anglican churchmen: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer. These were bishops one and all, martyred when they were burned at the stake on the order of Queen Mary in 1555 and 1556. They were convicted for heresy … for their too Protestant beliefs in a time of Roman Catholic ascendancy in England.
They are often said to be unlikely martyrs. All three men were academics from Oxford and Cambridge who lived sheltered and privileged lives in many ways. In every case their greatest accomplishments have more to do with their scholarly achievements than some muscular articulation of Christian living. Latimer was a great preacher who got into trouble in part (if you can believe it!) because he delivered public sermons advocating for the translation of the Bible from Latin and Greek into English. Ridley the sacramental theologian, touched a deadly nerve when he wrote and talked about reforming church vestments and when he conflated the words “altar” and “table” in church use. Cranmer – of the three the one most caught up in the politics of the day – got into hot water by arguing that the Pope’s powers should be limited to those of any old bishop.
There is no record these men gave more generously from the incomes they earned as professors, college heads and bishops than other men of similar rank in their day. They are not remembered for special service to the poor and the outcast in their time, and in fact all lived lives of comparative luxury until their last hours on earth. They did not travel and expose themselves to peril in the wider world for the sake of spreading the Gospel and planting the Kingdom of God.
What they did manage was a quiet, dutiful and constant ministry of reading, writing, teaching and preaching with such determination and faith that God honored their gifts, and gave flower to the seeds they planted in frankly miraculous ways. They may have been unlikely martyrs but their executions changed the course of history. Latimer is especially remembered for the words he called out to his companion Ridley as the executioner kindled the flames:
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! [For] we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out!
And so it came to pass. The executions of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer played an enormous part in opening up Church reform in England and so helped give birth to the Anglican (and Episcopal!) Church that we know and love to this day.
Almost 400 years later, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote that, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” The chance you or I will be asked to surrender our physical lives for the sake of the Gospel is remote. But we are invited nonetheless to abandoned ourselves entirely to the worship and service of God in Christ. And the pattern for that life – the life of a disciple – is cruciform. Following Jesus is about taking up the cross. Following Jesus is about dying.
If that does NOT mean being burned at the stake, it does mean dying to the luxuries, the temptations, the heresies and the indulgences of this life that would keep us from being real disciples and the best version of the human beings God created and calls us to be …
Taking up the cross …
Means letting go of our egos. It means letting go of worldly cares and expectations about power and status. It means generously and joyfully sharing all the gifts with which God has blessed us. It means that when we give – whatever we give – we are called to give it joyfully, completely and without a hint or trace of selfishness, regret or doubt. We give because God first gave to us: our lives … the lives of ones we love … the small blessings of every day that we too often take for granted … and most of all, the gift of our salvation in Jesus.
Among the poetry Cranmer composed for our first Book of Common Prayer, are these sentences, which have meant so much to Anglicans down through the ages. I’m not sure there’s a more universally beloved prayer in that book, especially for Episcopalians of a certain age:
We do not presume to come to this thy table (o merciful lord) trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies: we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table: but thou art the same lord whose property is always to have mercy.
We are children of a loving, living and merciful God, who calls us to a life of discipleship marked by selfless and joyful giving of every sort … an expression of thanks and delight for the gifts, God first gave on our behalf.
You are cherished my brothers and sisters. You are beloved. I pray that you can let all that you offer in word and deed for the Church and for all God’s creation flow from that knowledge. Keep up the good work of living and loving in the name of the one who lived, loved and died for you first. Take up your cross. Follow Jesus.
+ J.S. Barker