On the Top of the Podium

I try to imagine what it would be like to be an elite athlete

and to train for a lifetime

with your eyes on competing in the Olympics.

Think of all the years of very specific diets, rigorous daily exercise,

and total focus centered completely on soccer, field hockey, gymnastics,

or whatever your event may be,

and then to find out, as has been the case with the Tokyo Olympics,

that the games you had so long planned to be a part of,

would have to be postponed a year.

Yes — there have been challenges, scandals,

and it is strange to see an Olympics with no spectators,

but finally, the 2020 Olympic Games are underway.

At the medal ceremonies, I understand,

the winners will not have the medals placed around the necks

as is customary

Instead, as a covid-prevention measure

A representative from the Olympics committee

Will bring out the medals will be lying on the tray

and the winning athletes, standing on the podium,

will pick up their own medal, themselves, and place it around their own necks.

No matter how it is awarded,

the dream is to stand tall on that podium with

your family and friends watching,

the whole world watching,

the other athletes you bested watching. 

The dream is to earn a medal displays you are the best.

Jesus has emerged in Mark’s gospel,

it looks to everyone – at least initially – as if he is the gold medal winner.   

Jesus has risen to the top as he showed the authority and power at work in him.

God blessed Jesus at his baptism, and sent him out to compete against the dark forces of the world.

And Jesus faced and defeated all comers:

he bested Satan in the wilderness,

Then defeated every evil that opposed him and the people he met on the road.

He eradicated fevers, leprosy, and paralysis;

he controlled weather systems: silencing a storm,

and commanded the physical world to obey him: multiplying loaves to miraculously feed five thousand,

and walking on the sea as if it was the sidewalk.

Finally, if there was any doubt remaining about Jesus’ place and postion,

Jesus took Peter and James and John up a tall mountain

where his clothes became dazzling white, he was transfigured before them,

And God’s own voice spoke declaring: “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”

Just as there is no prize higher than the gold medal,

So, on this mountain, it would seem Jesus is on the top of the podium

As God bestows on him the highest authority on earth:

God’s favor and blessing and honor.

And then something interesting happens.

James and John, 2/3rds of Jesus’ inner circle,

Immediately after witnessing this event on the mountaintop,

come to Jesus with a request.

And the very nature of the delivery of the request displays its inappropriateness.  They are unwilling to name it out loud.  They say: we want you to give us whatever we ask you for. 

Unlike Herod at his party that we heard about 2 weeks ago,

Jesus asks for more details before he makes any hasty promises.

But the brothers finally come out with it: They confess that they have hatched a plan and they want to stand on what they imagine to be the victory podium, with him. 

They know that Jesus wears the gold,

As God’s anointed messiah;

But, on the sly, make a request

that they be allowed to forgo any competition among the Lord’s other followers

and simply be given the silver medal and the bronze medal.

Like the Olympiads this year in Tokyo they would reach out and take the medals for themselves.

James and John would like the step at the right and the left on the podium

so that everyone,

including the other disciples,

can see they have a special place.

They would like to be celebrated and conferred with power and favor. 

But Jesus says,

though he will bring God’s Kingdom

with his very own, very real

blood, sweat, and tears,  

THAT is God’s decision, not his, and Jesus refuses their request.

Jesus shows that authority in his kingdom is not to be grasped by one’s own power.

And God’s intention for us

is that we would see and understand that God’s kingdom and God’s mission

Has nothing at all to do with us glorifying ourselves,

but with us submitting in humility to God and serving our neighbor.

I think this is really the heart of Jesus’ whole message,

But it never ceases to stop me in my tracks.

I don’t know about you, but this is as clear of an assurance as I need,

that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not something that people made up,

but something that comes from beyond us,

and acts on us, externally.

Like runners in a sprint in the Olympics,

I seem to (and we seem to) be in love with individual excellence

We want to compete with one another

for the glory of our own name and reputation.

And we don’t mind leaving others behind.

In sports, in education, in politics, and in our country.

Jesus says there is nothing wrong with wanting to be great,

And there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a leader.

It’s just that Jesus wants us to be truly great,

by fixing our hearts on him, and following him, to the eternal significance of God’s greatness.

Jesus wants us to lead others, but with love and in service,

not leaving others behind, but helping them along.

The way to be great is not celebrity of self but the significance of service

The way to be great is not personal success,

but enduring personal suffering for the sake of those in need.

Greatness is serving God and our neighbor.

Perhaps it is easy to pick on the very rich

Because I am not in their company

But the race to space among the mega rich in the past weeks, it seems to me,

Perfectly reflects my sinful need and our sinful need

to achieve perceived success for the sake of our own glory.

Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX

Are all burning money, resources, and energy,

For the sake of their brand and the burnishing of their reputation.

But from what I can tell,

There is nothing to be earned or learned,

From the spectacle

Except to make money,

And to garnish bragging rights to the whichever company got there first,

or went the highest,

or whatever.

And to entice customers with the promise that they can take cool selfies

That will run up the like on their Instagram page.

The kingdom of God that Jesus brings and invites us to be a part of

Is the opposite of all that:

It is not making steps toward leaving this world,

But a tough-minded, compassionate decision that is squarely focused on serving this world.

It is a vision not of leaving other people behind, but moving toward people in love.

Just as God sends Jesus to this world,

We are called to the terra firma of this world.

To be among people 

In service to others for the sake of our neighbor.

Here on earth, where people are hungry at night,

sick with curable illness,

longing for education

God is at work in the church.

You won’t see it on CNN, as you will the space race for consumer consumption,

But God is at work on the ground.

Last Sunday Epiphany families and new friends gathered for Vacation Bible School

Where children stood next to each other and packed SCHOOL kits to be sent

Through Lutheran World Relief

To those most at need in the world.

Levi, and his family

Emerie and Libbie and their family

Kenley and her family

And many more

Packed school kits full of loose-leaf notebooks, rulers, pens and pencils.

These little hands, with the help of their parents

Packed 266 school kits

Placing the materials in the cloth bags made by Millie DeLesDenier

Who, made all these bags and many more.

Millie is all the more remarkable because she does not have the best eyesight.

She has, more importantly, a heart on fire with love, given to God in humble service.

Millie has worked tirelessly, and these families worked together…

So that the recipients of these bags,

The little children who receive them,

Won’t get left behind, or be out-run by a world that has forgotten them.

Instead, we fervently pray, the children who receive these beautiful bags

will color, write, and use these materials

To learn, grow, and play;

We pray, O God, you will stoke in these children

creativity and joy and health and an awareness of your love

and a knowledge that you adore them

and have given the gift of Jesus.

Today, as we commemorate and remember St. James,

we have an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ call to humility,

That whoever wishes to be great in God’s Kingdom must be a servant,

and whoever wishes to be first of all must be slave of all.

James and John, is seems,

Did not immediately understand Jesus’ ethic of service,

When they came and asked to be given the place at his right and his left

when he entered into his glory,

But Jesus began to make it plain

when he entered into Jerusalem

when,

on the night before his death, Jesus served them at the table.

when Jesus took them to Gethsemane’s Garden

and prayed for the cup of his suffering to be taken away

and yet did not flinch

when castigated by the crowd,

condemned by Pilate,

and crucified by the soldiers,

and then, finally

We all see who gets the places of honor to Jesus’ right and his left.

As he was lifted up and hung in the air,

With a criminal on the right and a criminal on the left…

As Jesus hangs in his glory,

pinned by the cold metal of this worlds desire for its own success, power, and authority,

we all see that Jesus’ podium of glory is the cross.

The places of those on his right and his left are those crucified with him.

To follow Jesus means to DIE TO OURSELVES

So that GOD lives in and through us  

for the sake of others.

Jesus saves us by his life, death, and resurrection

and also, on the cross, displays the way to greatness through humble service.

And so, today we remember that James

came to understand this as deeply as it can be understood. 

He was beheaded by Herod for his faith in Christ,

the first of Jesus’ apostles to die in witness to the truth of the gospel.

And James’ life and witness help us understand what it means to follow Jesus.

That is, we hope our witness to Christ will be given over the course of a long life,

that comes to a natural end,

but it is true that in some places in the world

Christians are still persecuted and killed for their faith,

and that is a possibility that we live with.

But, our God of life and new beginnings gathers us today at his table

We are gathered here with James and

with all the saints and martyrs and prophets,

with the faithful around the world and in every nation,

with all those at rest in God,

and with the angels and archangels,

We are all gathered around God’s throne.

joined into the pantheon of God’s people claimed for eternity.

Jesus comes in this meal to all of us – to you and me – to give us life.

Death and the dark forces of this world could not defeat Jesus

and they cannot conquer us.

We are not looking for metals around our necks,

Hung there by any committee or other person,

Hung there by reaching out to grab them for ourselves,

We have already been decorated with glory  though the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes – we are looking to Jesus.

He is our triumph.

He is our victory.

Thanks be to God.

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