Carving pumpkins—means getting the yucky stuff out of the inside in order for the light to shine through. What kinds of yucky stuff in your life do you find yourself doing? (self-esteem, bullying, pride, etc.) What kinds of things are like lights inside? (compassion, kindness, sharing, love, etc.)
Is it easier to be mean to someone you don’t like or to be kind to them? Sometimes it’s easier to be mean—because to be kind is to open yourself up to getting hurt. Jesus tells us today that being great—being strong and important—aren’t as important as being kind and gracious and respectful and helpful. Do you know why?
Because Jesus wants God’s light to shine through us to other people. It’s hard to shine the light when we’re full of that yucky sin. But when Jesus helps us get rid of the yucky stuff, it’s a lot easier to let the light shine through.
Let’s pray. Jesus, help us be free of the yucky sin that tries to keep us dark and hurtful. Shape us and carve us into people who can shine your light to all those who are in darkness. Amen.
There is a theme that occurs over and over again in the Star Wars movies. People are given a choice—to succumb to their anger and fear and join the dark side, or to triumph over fear and darkness through forgiveness. It’s a battle that rages inside those with the potential to wield great power and influence. And it always comes around to the person’s destiny—being destined to rule the galaxy or destined to destroy the Sith or destined to do something else just as equally important and life-changing. And we watch the characters get torn apart by the temptation. Sometimes, they turn to the dark side, sometimes they stay in the light.
The thing is, you can bet that the dark side will eventually lose in the end—not so much because it’s Hollywood but because on the dark side, no one is ever truly safe—the leaders are always vying for power and glory. They don’t hesitate to destroy each other in order to get a more powerful position. It’s cut-throat.
And then there’s the rebellion—those fighting for justice and freedom. Their mission is never for themselves but always for the well-being of the whole galaxy. They serve one another, not out of fear or obligation but out of compassion and hope. This is a foreign concept for the dark side.
Our gospel passage gives us the disciples’ response to the third and final time that Jesus predicts his death to the disciples. And all three times, they don’t get it. The first time, Peter tries to redirect Jesus, telling him he’s got it all wrong. And Jesus tells Peter that his heart is focusing on the ways of the world and not the ways of God. The second time, the disciples begin arguing behind Jesus’ back about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus responds by telling them that if they want to be first, they must be last of all and servant of all, bringing before them a child as an example of where he can be found in the world.
This third time is followed by today’s passage. James and John corner Jesus to try and secure their own place in glory by his side when he wins. When the other disciples find out, they’re all angry because James and John beat them to the punch. So, Jesus says again that those who want to be great must be a servant, those who want to be first must be last—that to experience Jesus’ glory is to do that which doesn’t come naturally—to willingly put one’s self on the path of suffering and death. And then he compares this way to that of the Gentiles—Romans in this case. “You see how the Gentile rulers lord their greatness over their subjects—how they insist on being served and wallow in their glory. That isn’t the direction we’re going here.” That’s the temptation of the dark side.
But it’s oh so seductive. Henri Nouwen wrote about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness following his own baptism. The third—the temptation of power—is poignant for this week, as he writes: “one of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power” — political, military, economic, or moral and spiritual —“even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are… it seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
It’s easier. It’s how the world works, isn’t it? You fight fire with fire. If someone hurts you, hurt them back. An eye for an eye, and so on. But that isn’t what Jesus advocates here. He warns the disciples that if they choose to be like Caesar in order to conquer Caesar, it will cost them more than they can afford to lose. They can’t play the Romans’ game because they’ll have to play by the Roman rules, as well—rules that fight violence with violence, rules that look for retribution, rules that see glory and power only in the ability to oppress those beneath them.
But how else can you defeat such an enormous power? How do you shut down such a vast military might? It would be foolish to think that ‘all you need is Love.’ That just seems naïve. But maybe it’s the most courageous path available. It’s risky, for sure. Jesus warns the disciples that they will indeed drink the cup he drinks and be baptized into his baptism—which just means that to follow him will lead to their deaths, as well.
This week, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to being appointed Archbishop in 1977, Romero was seen as a very conservative and orthodox Catholic—so the church felt he was a ‘safe’ person to lead them—someone who wouldn’t make waves or challenge the system. But as a leader, he became more and more aware of the injustices and suffering of the people he served. He recognized that the Church had become associated with the rich and powerful—with the government and those in charge—and that unless he began speaking out, he would be participating in the suffering of the poor.
So, he became an advocate for the common people of his country. He frequently preached against the government’s and the Church’s acts of oppression. And he knew he was treading on dangerous soil. The day before he died, he predicted that he would be killed sooner or later because he was preaching the unpopular gospel of grace, mercy, and justice. That day, he declared directly to the Salvadoran government, “In the name of God, stop the repression of the people.” The next day, while conducting worship, he was shot in the heart as he stood behind the altar.
Following Jesus sometimes means risking it all in order to shine the light of Christ into the world. And sometimes it means letting the car beside you merge even though you’re in a hurry—or making room for someone new in worship and learning their name and where they’re from—or spending some time and money dressing up as a movie character in order to do good in your community—or giving a little time to paint parking lot lines—or visiting the sick—making blankets for the needy—teaching people about…anything. It’s really just about letting God’s light shine a little brighter in the dark corners of the world.
And, of course, we won’t always be as bright as we’d like. We get tempted by the shiny things promised by the dark side. But even as Jesus says that the first will be last and the last will be first, it seems that there is room for everyone—that even the last person crosses the finish line eventually. And perhaps when all is revealed, we may finally realize that it was never a race.
And at the end of the day, as Jesus hangs on the cross between the criminal on his right and the one on his left in his glory, it’s no longer about who is the greatest or the brightest or the best or the worst. That there’s enough grace for everyone: first, last, and in between. Because, though our mission is to let Christ’s light shine through us, the blessing is that Christ’s light shines on all of us, no matter what.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church