October 21, 2018, Holy Superheroes, Batman! – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000104
Friday evening our son Nicholas came over for dinner with the kids. Cameron, who is 12, was wearing a superhero sweatshirt – Marvel superheroes – and he made Carroll try to identify all five of the superheroes on his shirt. Carroll did pretty well; he got the Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, and the Flash. He only missed Aquaman. Kids tend to like superheroes a lot, because they can do all the stuff kids wish they could do. They can run the fastest and jump the highest and punch the hardest. They can fly. And they can beat up all the bad guys. Superheroes have all the power, and they get all the glory.
But it’s not only kids who admire that superhero kind of stuff. Thousands of years ago, when human beings decided to design their own gods, they pretty much invented the first superheroes. Zeus and Poseidon and Ares and Athena: they were basically just the bigger, stronger, faster, more attractive beings that all humans wish they were.
People designed that kind of gods because the world is, and has always been, all about power: muscle power, political power, military power, financial power, the power of intellect or persuasion, or the power of intimidation. Whatever works. “You know how it is with the Gentiles,” Jesus said, “how their rulers lord it over them, and how their great people get to be the boss of everybody.”
And the disciples did know exactly how that was, because they were on the receiving end of all that lording-over every day. The occupying forces of Rome walked the streets of the Jews’ own land with their swords and their armor and with the authority of the whole Roman Empire to back them up, like the Storm Troopers in Star Wars. The disciples knew all about the ways of the Gentiles.
But they also knew what it was to crave that kind of power, because the thing about power is that it only seems bad if it’s not on your side. That’s one reason the Jews had been so eagerly anticipating the coming of the Messiah. They envisioned God’s Messiah charging in as a kind of divine superhero, who would beat up the bad guys (the Romans) and establish peace prosperity, and put everything back the way it was supposed to be, ruling like King David in Israel’s Golden Age. James and John, making their audacious request, were just hoping to be Jesus’ wing men, standing at his side for the big win. After all, they were the ones (besides Peter) whom Jesus had taken up on the mountain. They were the ones who had seen Jesus in his full glory, chatting with the great prophets of old. They’d gotten a taste of that glory, and they were hungry for more.
The other disciples were really indignant when they found out what James and John had done. But it was not, I think, because they thought it was wrong, so much as because they wanted to be the ones on Jesus’ right and left. They didn’t want James and John getting all that power and glory without them; that wasn’t fair.
So, Jesus gathered his friends around him. “You know how it is with the Gentiles,” he began. And they had to realize that Jesus was pointing out that they were behaving exactly like the very people they despised.
“But it shall not be so with you,” he told them. “If any of you wants to be great he has to become the one who serves. If you want to be Number One, you have to be the slave of everybody else. Even the Son of Man,” he said, “even I – who certainly have the right to lord it over you if anybody does – I didn’t come to be served. I came to be a servant. And not only to serve; I came to offer my life for the ransom of many.”
A few years later, Paul wrote how Jesus, even though he was by very nature God, had emptied himself and taken the form of a servant, being born as a human being just like us. And more, that he had humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. The incarnation, the all-powerful God becoming powerless man, that was an event, the event, in history that changed the whole paradigm for power forever. At the moment the Spirit came upon Mary, at her earth-shattering meeting with Gabriel, God began to reveal a new definition of power that was as different from the world’s definition of power as day is from night or life from death. In his birth, in his living, and in his dying, Jesus set us an entirely new pattern for power, for authority, for greatness, so that from then on, Christian power or authority or greatness would be something strange and inexplicable, even offensive in the eyes of the world.
If you look through TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, you see people of outstanding intellect, people who have wielded great political power, people who have overcome great obstacles, people to admire and applaud, or just people with an ability to dominate. The world’s great people. You won’t find many servants on the list; humility doesn’t rank very high, though there may be a few. But there are holy superheroes serving in small, unnoticed ways all around you, giving of themselves out of love: children and old people, nurses and teachers and policemen, good friends and kind neighbors and devoted parents. They don’t make it to the cover of TIME, generally speaking. The holy superheroes who serve in bigger ways and who do get noticed have a tendency to end up ridiculed, or in prison, or exiled, or dead. Servanthood and sacrifice aren’t very sexy or glamorous things to aspire to in the worldly way of things, but that is the way of life our Lord modeled for us. And sadly, sometimes the people in the world seems to recognize the holy superheroes before the Church does.
Because like the disciples, the Church through the centuries, and now, specifically, the Church in America, has often lost its grasp of the real meaning of power. Like James and John, we get a craving for the world’s definition of power and success. We choose political power over humility, and wealth over compassion, and celebrity over sacrifice. We focus on bringing in the numbers rather than reaching out to the strays and the lost.
Because God’s definition of power isn’t man’s. A few weeks ago we prayed a collect that began, “O Lord, you display your power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” Just let that sink in. The very things the that are so opposite to the power that the world craves – pity and mercy, meekness and humility, compassion and self-sacrifice – in the eyes of the world these are all just soft, “womanish” weaknesses. But for God those are the manifestations of his infinite, eternal power.
It is unimaginable within the framework of this world that the greatest act of power ever displayed was when the Lord of the Universe gave himself willingly into the hands of his enemies, to be humiliated, and tortured, and killed. It is unthinkable that he did all that, not for the sake of the deserving or the noble or the innocent, but for the undeserving, for the hopelessly flawed, for the guilty. For us.
You know how it is in the kingdom of this world, how the great lord it over everybody else, how truth belongs to the one who can talk the loudest, how the end always justifies the means, how might always makes right and the winner takes all. And, how nobody ever said we had to be our brother’s keeper. That’s how power works around here.
But it shall not be so with you.