St. Nicholas: Image of the Good Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + St. Nicholas Day + December 6, 2017

Reading: John 10:11-18

Our first story for tonight begins like a fairy tale or a romcom: with three women – three sisters — dreaming of being married. But these sisters held out very little hope of actually finding husbands, because their family was poor. This was the late 200s or early 300s AD, and they needed a dowry – a large gift from the bride’s father to the groom – in order to attract a good husband. Without a dowry, their chances of being married were slim; and if they were not married, these women had essentially no opportunity to earn money to support themselves and their family, and they would become a burden; they faced a very strong likelihood that their family would have to sell them into slavery – in our contemporary terminology, give them over to human trafficking — just so that everyone could survive.

One morning, one of the sisters was taking the family’s stockings down from the fireplace, where they’d been hung out to dry. One of the stockings was surprisingly heavy. She reached down inside, pulled out a small bag, and opened it to find a pile of gold coins. The family rejoiced at their luck, and soon the eldest daughter married.

Not long after the marriage, another bag of gold appeared mysteriously in the house, and the middle daughter was able to marry. Seeing the pattern forming, the father decided to start keeping watch at night, hoping to discover the person behind these generous gifts. He sat awake near the fireplace, night after night, until finally he saw a third bag of gold come sailing in through the open window. The father jumped up and stuck his head through the window, where he caught a glimpse of a local monk sneaking away. “Oh, Nicholas, it’s you!” the father shouted. “You have saved my daughters from disaster!” Embarrassed, Nicholas begged the man to keep his good deeds a secret, saying “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers.”[1]

Stories like these form the legend of St. Nicholas – the ancient Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey) who has been remembered for centuries for living a life of remarkable generosity, for defending the innocent and the wrongly accused, and for protecting those in danger.


Statue at the Church of St. Nicholas, Ebermannstadt, Germany. Statue by Harro Frey (1989); photo by Immanuel Giel (2006). Via Wikimedia Commons.

In one story, Nicholas appeared to be dozing off during a dinner at the Council of Nicea. In his sleep, he heard voices calling his name, and he left his body behind, following the sound of the voices out into the middle of an ocean, where a ship was caught in a raging storm. Nicholas raised his hands and the winds and the thunder and lightning hushed. When he awoke back at Nicea, another bishop said, “So much has happened while you slept!” Nicholas replied, “Yes indeed, a ship has been saved and many sailors rescued.” The bishops assumed he was speaking in metaphor: the Church was a ship, and the council had saved the church from heresy. But sailors have believed differently, naming St. Nicholas as their patron saint.[2]

St. Nicholas even saved his people from the burden of high taxes. His people begged him to speak up to the Emperor about the taxation, and so Nicholas traveled to see Emperor Constantine and pled for his people. The emperor granted a large tax cut and gave Nicholas a copy of the order, so that Nicholas could return home with proof of Constantine’s decision. Before Nicholas could return home however, some of Constantine’s finance ministers convinced him that the tax cuts were a really bad idea for the royal treasury. So Constantine called Nicholas back and asked him to return the order so that they could change it to smaller reduction. “I can’t,” Nicholas said. “The order has already been put into effect.” Miraculously, Nicholas had already gotten the order all the way to Myra: he had thrown the parchment into the sea, and almost immediately it was found in the water back home and rushed right to the proper authorities. Faced with such divine intervention, Constantine allowed the big tax cut to stand.[3]

For thousands of years people have continued to tell stories of St. Nicholas saving those in danger, even after his death. Sailors claimed that Nicholas pulled them up out of the sea after they were cast overboard; parents claimed that Nicholas saved their children from danger; others claim that he returned people home after they were kidnapped or put in prison. Some people in a Palestinian city claim that St. Nicholas protected their city from bombing in the 1940s, having seen a vision of St. Nicholas with his arms stretched out, catching the bombs. After a battle with Israeli soldiers in the 2000s, one Palestinian gunman claimed to have seen a man with white beard protecting the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church from bullets.[4] Even if you maybe don’t believe stories like these, we can see the power of St. Nicholas’s memory and the devotion the stories of his life continue to inspire in people.

And of course St. Nicholas has inspired traditions throughout the world.  In many countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, children leave their shoes out the night before St. Nicholas Day, often with a tray of carrots or hay for the saint’s horse, and in the morning they find candies, fruit, and other gifts tucked into their shoes. In a Mexican town named for St. Nicholas, his festival lasts for an entire week and includes a parade of his statue, fireworks, and music. The town of Beit Jala in Palestine is home to a cave where St. Nicholas supposedly lived around the time of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Lutherans as well as many Muslims take part in St. Nicholas Day festivities there, which include a procession to the cave and concerts. The memory of St. Nicholas draws people from around the world to celebrate.[5]

I can’t resist the pun here: so many people have flocked to St. Nicholas because he was a shepherd to his people in the same way Jesus was. The people of his time and place, and then people around the world and throughout the centuries, have seen in him the image of the great Good Shepherd.  Jesus once said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and when we hear that we think of Jesus’s supreme example of laying down his life for us on the cross. But we can expand how we understand that, too: the good shepherd must lay down his life for the sheep in both large and small acts every day, choosing to put his sheep’s needs over his desire to take a nap in the shade or run away from the wolf or spend all day by the village well, hoping that the young woman with the sharp wit comes by to draw water.

Jesus laid down his life in large and small ways throughout his life: he saw people in need of healing on the street, and he stopped to help them. He stood up to powerful people on behalf of those who were suffering under their rule. He fed the crowds who came out be healed and taught. Jesus death on the cross was the strongest example in an entire life laid down for the mission of God and in service to others.

St. Nicholas took the teachings and the model of Jesus seriously and laid down his life for God and for his people, too. When he was still young and his parents died, they left him a sizeable inheritance; and he knew right away he must use that money to help those who were in need. He spent time in prison when the Emperor persecuted Christians. He listened to his people and responded to their needs. He gave away money and food, he stood up for those being mistreated, and he saved those in danger. And he was always quick to point back to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the one who inspired his good deeds, as the true source of the generosity and protection seen through St. Nicholas. As he said to the father of the three brides: “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts.”

As we remember these stories of St. Nicholas, and as we see in them the image of the Good Shepherd, I hope that we, too, may see the opportunities we have to lay down our lives for others, maybe especially in the small, everyday ways – in opportunities to put a loved one’s needs first, or to stand up for those who are mistreated, to protect someone else in body or in reputation or in fair treatment, even just to listen to another person’s story. And I hope that we also pay close attention to notice the ways that others lay down their lives for us, and catch a glimpse of the Good Shepherd at work in our family and friends and even in strangers.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray,that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [6]

[1] “Three Impoverished Maidens or The Story of the Dowries,” St. Nicholas Center. Online:

[2] “Where Was Nicholas?”, St. Nicholas Center. Online:

[3] “Tax Relief for Myra,” St. Nicholas Center. Online:

[4] “Palestine,” St. Nicholas Center. Online:

[5] From “Around the World,” St. Nicholas Center; information from the particular pages of the countries named. Online:

[6] Anglican prayer, “Liturgical Prayers,” The St. Nicholas Center. Online:


“He Loved Them to the End”/The Circle of Service

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Maundy Thursday + April 13, 2017

Reading: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”

“…Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world…”

What would you do if you knew this was your last night in this world? It’s a question people ask to understand themselves better: What’s really important to you? What would you wish you would have done? What brings you the most joy? What truly has value? When we answer these questions, it can help us get our priorities in line. What would you do if you knew this was your last night in this world?

Today we remember how Jesus answered that question. The Gospel of John says: “…Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He gathered his close friends together, and they ate a good meal. In the other gospels their dinner together was the celebration of the important Jewish holiday of Passover, and it was also the time when Jesus established a new ritual for his followers, which we now call Holy Communion. The Gospel of John instead tells of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then teaching them his last and greatest lesson: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The Lord's Supper - Matthew 26:17-30

JESUS MAFA. The Lord’s Supper, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

One of the greatest privileges of being a pastor is to spend time with people when they know that their hour is coming. Sometimes they, like Jesus, know their time will come in a matter of hours or days; most of the time death could still be years away, but people just realize they are much closer to that hour than they ever have been before. Death feels like a more real possibility than it did when they were in their teens or their 30s or their 60s.

And yes, I know I haven’t been at this work long, but I think I’ve been at it long enough to say that I have seen the pattern. When people know that their hour is coming, they talk about people. About relationships. They tell the story of how they met their spouse, and the story is well-crafted with detail and humor and surprises, and their eyes sparkle when they tell it — even if it’s the fifth time they’ve told me. They tell stories about their friends and their inside jokes and all the support they’ve provided over the years. They share news about their children and grandchildren.

And let me add another detail, just to emphasize that point: a lot of our people have had really interesting careers. They’ve done innovative work for major corporations; they’ve started and saved companies; they’ve lived all around the world. But most people I talk to barely mention those things. Even Mac Sweazey, who worked in the secret service and will regale you with some really great stories, reminds me every time I see him that I shouldn’t forget about the important things; that I should be out making friends and seeing family. And when you ask him who was his favorite president to work for and why, the answer is Eisenhower, and he’ll usually mention in his list of reasons why: “because he threw a party at the White House for all of our wives.”

We humans make meaning of our lives in a lot of ways: through work, through volunteering, through hobbies and time alone and study and play. We need all of these things. But in the end, we tend to tell our life story as the story of relationships.

This is what we see in today’s gospel story. “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” And the great commandment that gets its own holy day calls Jesus’s followers to remember that relationship is the most important part of his legacy: “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And so with the last hours before his arrest and execution, Jesus called together his friends, and even included the one whom he knew was in the process of betraying him. And yet again he set them an example of true relationship. He, the “Lord and Teacher,” tied a towel around himself and took each of his disciple’s dusty, calloused feet in his hands and washed them.

We often think of this as a “selfless” act. And Jesus was showing us an act of relationship without ego or self-importance, where the Lord connects directly with the people, where the devoted leader serves the devoted followers.

But so often when we think of “selfless” acts, we think of something so much less relationship-oriented. We think of a person who has something selflessly giving to someone who needs something. This has become the pattern for how we talk about serving and charity: “we give to help the poor” or “those people need our help.” We end up dividing people into categories of givers and receivers, or of “haves” and “have-nots” — and that’s not relationship. It’s more like a one-way transaction, and that’s not good for either side. The people who give can end up feeling like vending machines, constantly receiving calls for another donation or another three hours of their time. The people who receive can end up feeling pitied or not good enough, and they may feel dependent rather than empowered.

Jesus did not model this one-way-street sort of serving; instead he modeled relationship without self-importance. He did not say to us, “Well, I’m actually fully man AND fully God, so I’m only going to spend my time on earth with the very best of you mortals,” but he also didn’t say, “Well, I’m fully man AND fully God, so just sit back and receive from my greatness.” He formed real relationships with people, relationships where both sides gave and received, relationships where sometimes there was no service agenda, and they could just share a good meal and good conversation (ex. Matt. 11:19).

Jesus formed relationships with people who would have been considered wealthy either in money or in social standing — like some of the Pharisees, or like Zacchaeus the rich tax collector. Jesus also formed relationships with those who would have been considered needy — ranging from people in poverty to people with illnesses to children. And he involved all those people — across the whole spectrum — in his mission for the Kingdom of God. When Jesus fed thousands with just a few fish and loaves of bread, that food came from the disciples, or, in one version of the story, from a boy in the crowd (John 6). Some of the women followers of Jesus helped to financially support Jesus and the twelve disciples (Luke 8:1-3).

There was no “us” giving to “them” — there was just “us, doing God’s work: loving one another and the world.” And today we continue in that legacy, that circle of service.

In our society the church is one of few places where people of different backgrounds and skills and careers and viewpoints come together just to be in community, to be in relationship with one another. And out of that diversity we give to one another according to our skills and resources, and we receive from one another according to our needs. I see it here at St. Andrew all the time: when someone needs a job done, we point them towards someone who has the skills and could use the work, or we volunteer our own time to go change a lightbulb or rake some leaves. We cook meals for people who are going through hard times. We visit each other in the hospital. We share books and trade furniture and drive other people’s kids home from youth group. And we do all this service for one another best when we know one another, when we know what’s going on in one another’s lives, when we know what people actually need or what skills or resources other people have. We do it best when we are all part of that circle of giving and receiving.

How can we extend this pattern of a circle of service beyond our church? How can we get to know more of the people we give to or serve? How can we meet more people who are outside of our usual group — to understand people who are from different backgrounds or going through different things, so that we can better serve them, and so that we can also be served in new ways?

Today we gather to remember that Jesus chose to spend his last night with the people he loved and who loved him. We remember how he washed their feet, modeling a life of service that was humble and intimately relational. With the last hours before his arrest and the last night before his crucifixion, Jesus showed his disciples exactly what he wanted his legacy to be. This is the legacy we have inherited through generations and generations of followers of Jesus: “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What is Our Freedom For?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Festival of the Reformation + October 30, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

There’s an old Jewish story about a man with the habit of gossip. One day he decided it was time to change his ways, to repent of his sins, and to try to make up for the harm he’d done in his years of spreading rumors, hurtful stories, and lies.

He knocked on the door of the village rabbi and asked, “Is there something I can do to make amends?”

 The rabbi stroked his beard and replied, “Go home and come back with a pillow.”

 Relieved, the man soon completed the odd errand. Would such a simple gift be all that was needed to atone for this sin?

 When he returned, the rabbi continued. “Now, slice it open.”

 It was a windy day, and the breeze picked up the feathers, wafting them over the housetops and into the fields.

 “Now, go gather all of the feathers again and put them back in the pillow.”

 “But that’s impossible!” exclaimed the man.

 “In the same way, it’s impossible to repair all the damage that your words have done.”[1]

The point of the story is to visualize how our words can have effects that run far beyond our reach and our control. The image of feathers scattered through a village and across the fields might also help us understand what Jesus meant when he said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Just like those feathers got out of that gossipy man’s control, so our sins can get out of our control — and too often they control us.

There are many ways to relate to that metaphor of being slaves to sin. One way is by thinking about the consequences off our misdeeds. We might do something wrong in a hot moment and immediately regret it, but the consequences of that one instant can have a hold on our lives for a long time. Some sins entrap us, like the classic case of a person who lies once, then must continue to construct lie after lie to avoid getting caught in that first lie. Some sins become habits and addictions, and it comes to feel less I am making a choice and more like that desire or that habit is taking over my body and my mind. Some sins are sneaky, like social sins; we may not even realize that we are trapped in sin because it’s the norm of behavior, everybody’s doing it. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” Jesus said, and we all know what that can feel like.

But of course, that wasn’t the main point of Jesus’s message. Jesus came to give freedom: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus proclaims that we are no longer slaves to sin; now we are children of God.

The promise given here is not that God will be the enabling parent who bails us out every time we do wrong; nor is God a heavenly eraser following behind us, rubbing away all our mistakes and wrongdoing. As I’m sure you’ve figured out during your life as a Christian, even after baptism, even after being born again, we still have to deal with the consequences of our sins. And we still have to work hard to break sinful habits or change the way we see the world or even just admit that we are wrong. We are no longer slaves to sin, but we are not getting off scot-free, and we are not made into perfect angels. This is why Martin Luther said that even as free Christians we are still sinners.

Our true God-given freedom is this: God will not define us by the sins we have committed. Other people will (at least some of them), but God will not. No matter what, God see us as God’s children, as justified, as forgiven and lovable. This is why Martin Luther said that though we are still sinners, we are also saints.

This freedom showed itself clearly in Martin Luther’s own life: before the epiphany of his core belief — that people are “saved by grace through faith” and not by our own efforts — Luther was paralyzingly fearful about his sinfulness. He thought of God as jailer and executioner, and he spent hours at a time in confession, fasted, did all sorts of acts of penance.[2] He was a slave to sin through his fear of being sinful and condemned. When he discovered God’s grace, God freed him from that anxiety, from that fear, from that feeling of being trapped. Today we celebrate how that freedom enabled — even demanded — that Luther boldly witness to the gospel, changing the church and the world through that same message of freedom.

From our beginnings Lutherans and other Protestants have been accused of uplifting this freedom to such an extent that we throw out the law and ethics and any idea of the need for good works. This is a misunderstanding of Lutheran teaching, but sometimes I think we deserve the criticism. I remember times in seminary where one classmate would make a claim like, “God wants us to care for the poor,” and at least three people would respond, “BUT WE ARE NOT SAVED THROUGH WORKS!!!” Sometimes we focus too much on what we are free from, on our freedom itself, and we forget to emphasize what God frees us for, what God frees us to do and to be.

Freedom in itself is never the goal. Freedom is what we need in order to live in a different way — and that difference is what we really desire when we desire freedom.

Let’s go back to the metaphor of slavery. Maybe, if we imagine with all our concentration and all our powers of empathy, we might imagine the faintest hint of what it may feel like to be a slave, to be owned by another human being. Your body, your time, your energy, your relationships, your future, are all controlled by someone else. As a slave, freedom would be your chief desire. But even then, it’s not freedom itself is not exactly what you would be dreaming of; it’s all that freedom offers; it’s freedom to live a different life in all its details. Freedom to work for your own profit; freedom to keep your children by your side; freedom to rest when you need to rest; freedom to come and go and sing and love and dream.

We might be able to relate a little more easily to a soldier’s longing for freedom from wartime service. That longing is not simply for an end to the war, for freedom from bullets and bombs and trenches; it’s longing to be free to live differently. In the TV series Band of Brothers, the soldiers share dreams of what they long to be free to do. One man, Liebgott, says: “First thing I’m gonna do is get my job back at the cab company […] Then I’m gonna find me a nice Jewish girl…marry her, then I’m gonna buy a house, a big house, with lots of bedrooms for all the little Liebgotts we’re gonna be making.”[3]

In Forrest Gump Forrest’s wartime friend, Bubba, dreams in detail of going home, buying his own shrimping boat, and cooking up “shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo…pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp…shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes…”[4]

At the very least, I think all of us can relate to the desire to be free from particularly stressful seasons in our life. But at those times we don’t just imagine a life free from piles of paperwork or constantly being on the road; we imagine being free to do other things with our time. When I was in school, during finals I didn’t daydream about not having to write papers, I daydreamed about being free to read novels, go out with friends, and sleep for a full eight hours at night.

As Christians freed from the slavery to sin, what are we free to do?

The answer is not “we are free to sin without fear!” Or at least I hope that’s not what you were thinking.

Martin Luther wrote a paper called “On the Freedom of a Christian.” In it he pointed out that as Christians — freed from fear and anxiety about our sin, our forgiveness, our lovableness, our eternal fate — we are free to boldly serve God and neighbor, to boldly do good works. That is what God dreams that we do with the freedom God has given us.

It sounds like kind of an obvious answer, or even a trick. “Freed from slavery…to be a servant? That doesn’t really sound like freedom at all.” But consider how hard it can be to figure out the right thing to do. I know I’m supposed to love my brother: but in this situation does loving him mean paying off a debt he owes, or making him face the consequences of his actions? Sometimes it seems like one Bible passage teaches me to act one way and another Bible passages teaches me the opposite. Libraries of books have been written in attempts to discern what exactly is God’s will, how we are to read certain passages of scripture, how to make the right decisions based on specific situations. And let’s be real, there are no easy answers to the hard questions. Fear of sinning and earning divine wrath could leave us frozen, but through Christ we are free to take the risk of acting, hoping and praying that we are doing good, but knowing that we cannot lose God’s love.

During today’s service this year’s confirmands will be publicly affirming their baptisms, and the rest of us will promise our support to them in their life in Christ.

Baptism reminds us both that we are free from something and that we are free for something. In baptism we are freed from slavery to sin, from fear of punishment, from the thought that God might not love us or forgive us. And in baptism we are freed into a covenant with God, rooted in the forgiveness and new life that God gives us. We are freed to:

…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.[5]

 This is God’s dream for our Christian freedom. May we live it out. Amen.

[1] Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), ch. 7, kindle edition. Based on a traditional Jewish story as told in Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Harper, 1998), p. 3.

[2] James Kittelson, Luther The Reformer, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, 1986) p. 79.

[3] Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight,” episode 9, directed by David Frankel, written by John Orloff, (based on the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose), HBO, October 28, 2001.

[4] Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Eric Roth (based on the book Forrest Gump by Winston Groom), Paramount Pictures, 1994.

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 236.

WWJD? Serve and suffer.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 21st Sunday After Pentecost + October 18, 2015

Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

My brother, John, is a senior in high school this year. I called home the other day, and he answered: “You’re talking to the new president of the Science Olympiad Team!” I congratulated him, and he continued, “I don’t know why they voted for me. My campaign wasn’t very strong, and the other candidate was really good.” I asked him what his election platform had been. He said he’d run under the slogan “What would John do?” I laughed first, but then I thought: well, that’s not such a bad slogan. If I trust what John would do in most situations, that’s a good reason to give him my vote. And I guess it worked.

Later I told a friend that story, and that got us reminiscing about those “WWJD?” bracelets that were so popular in the ‘90s. Kids all over the school had brightly-colored bracelets tied around their wrists to remind them to ask “What would Jesus do?” in every situation.

But since my time at Lutherock this summer, I can’t think about those bracelets without hearing Pastor Alex Hoffner’s voice in my head. He was in seminary when the bracelets were popular, and he told us — in his unforgettably intense, southern preacher-storyteller way — about a professor who hated the bracelets. When he saw a student wearing a WWJD? bracelet, he would get in real’ close to them and say: “What would Jesus do? Jesus would die! Are you ready to die? Then take that thing off!”

I guess that professor thought the WWJD? fad represented a watered-down form of Christianity, like it just skimmed the top of the question of what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes. A lot of the time, when we think about what Jesus would do, we think about being kinder. Being nice even to those that are mean to us; being generous in giving to charity and maybe the occasional beggar; if we’re feeling particularly spiritual, we might even ask the “weird guy” if he might like to sit at our lunch table. Which matches how we remember Jesus most of the time: as a kind, compassionate man who knew how to turn the other cheek and love everyone. And being that kind of person is difficult. It is a way of putting other people before ourselves that requires some suffering on our part, some acting out of the “dying-to-self” part of our baptism. But that image of Jesus is just one facet of who Jesus is. It kind of makes Jesus into a teddy bear.

I did not expect this when I googled “teddy bear Jesus.” From the Teddy Bear Museum in Jeju Island, South Korea. (More pictures here.)

But while Jesus was compassionate, that compassion could sometimes come out fiercely — less like a teddy bear, and more like a mother bear ready to defend her cubs. Jesus publicly condemned the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed and thirst for power and position (Matt. 23); Jesus dares to say that the rich will lose their position in God’s kingdom (Lk. 6:24-26); Jesus speaks up for those who are being abused by those in power. Jesus welcomes not just the outsiders, but the sinners (Lk. 15:1-2). Jesus is arrested, suffers, and dies, and Jesus demands that his followers carry that same cross. How many of us saw all those harsh stories when we looked down at our WWJD bracelet?

It’s been said that the Gospel of Mark was written for an early group of Christians who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to the work of the messiah and who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to discipleship.[1] The cross — meaning suffering, shame, death, and not just death, but laying down our lives — is not just an accidental part of Christ’s mission; it’s not just an incidental part of God’s plan that we have to get past in order to get the “real” stuff of the plan. The cross is the real plan. Jesus could not have been the messiah without being a suffering servant; and we cannot be true disciples without being suffering servants as well. That’s what the Gospel of Mark is all about.

In today’s gospel reading, we see that yet again the disciples themselves are missing that point. Just a few weeks ago we heard a story about the disciples arguing over who is the greatest of the disciples (Mark 9:30-37). And Jesus explains, “You’ve got it all wrong. Whoever wants to be the greatest must be a servant to everyone.”

And now, just a few stories later, they’re at it again. Two of the disciples ask to be granted special places of power in Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus answers in the symbolic language of “drinking the cup that I drink” and being “baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.” Because we know what is about to happen to Jesus, we know what he is warning them about: those who wish to be leaders like Jesus must be prepared to suffer like Jesus.

Then the rest of the disciples get word of this conversation, and they’re mad: Who are you two to ask for a special place? Who are you two to be rulers over the rest of us? But Jesus gives them almost exactly the same speech he gave them before: “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.”

Mark tells these kinds of stories over and over because the people he was writing to didn’t get it. He thought they needed to hear over and over that following Jesus is not about getting rewarded; it’s about suffering like Jesus suffered.

But Mark wasn’t alone in this effort. The entire New Testament is filled with the language of crucifixion, suffering, sacrifice, servant, slave, death.[2] It seems every writer felt the need to make the same points, because so, so many early Christians were having trouble taking in the same message: following Jesus is not about “living the good life” or about being better than others because we believe or because we go to church or because we follow a strict moral code: it’s about being willing to sacrifice and suffer so that others might live.

From the very beginning Christians have struggled to take in that message, and America’s Christian culture today is missing it, too. We tend to focus on what God’s love for us gives to us: forgiveness, peace of mind, strength, comfort, assurance, hope. We think sometimes about what God’s love for us demands of us, for our own good: repentance, change, obedience, courage.

But it’s more difficult to think of what God’s love for others demands of us: sacrifice, sharing, giving up our rights, speaking up on behalf of others, taking the place of servant so that others may feel the real effects of God’s love in their lives. We are called to sacrifice and to suffer not just so that our own lives may be better for it, but — and perhaps even more importantly — so that others’ lives may be better for it. And if we are truly called to do what Jesus would do, then we are called to be suffering servants — and that might mean making our lives worse for the sake of others. And if we are called to sacrifice and suffer for others even in ways that do not make sense, that do not seem fair, it is because we are called by the grace of God. And God’s grace does not flow from reason or fairness — thank God — but from love.

We are about to sing the hymn “By Gracious Powers,” (text / choral recording) which is based on a poem written by German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer just a few months before he was killed by the Nazis in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned for two years for undercover work against the Nazis, and was executed when he was linked to a conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer with confirmation students, 1932. Image from German Federal Archive, available via wikimedia commons.

Amazingly, while in prison he was still working as theologian, writing essays on what he learned of God from his experiences. He planned out a book with this as the main point: that the greatest and most fundamental thing about Jesus Christ is that he existed for others. His power, his wisdom, his might — all this is grounded in his existence for others. Bonhoeffer wrote: “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable — that is not authentic transcendence — but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.”[3]

And for Bonhoeffer this wasn’t just abstract thinking. This was something he knew about because he was living it. And he knew exactly how painful it could be. Bonhoeffer was saintly in his willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of others. He had taken a teaching position in America in 1939 in order to escape the necessity of swearing an oath to Hitler, but soon returned to Germany because he felt he must suffer with his people. Later, while he was in prison, a guard offered to help him escape and go into hiding, but Bonhoeffer turned down the offer, because he feared it might bring further suffering on his friends still in prison.

But what is most amazing in all this is Bonhoeffer’s faith that God was with him in the midst of his sacrifice and his suffering. This is what we hear in the poem, in language that sounds like it comes straight from today’s gospel reading:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

we will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.[4]

God’s love so filled Bonhoeffer that he could not help but choose to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for others. And even in the midst of his very human fear and despair, Bonhoeffer found some joy in that participation in Christ’s existence for others.

It’s unlikely that any of us will be called up to be a spy for the sake of the gospel, or to be imprisoned, or to die. But we are called to make radical, sacrificial choices every day as bearers of God’s grace to this world. May we listen more closely for those calls and be ready to sacrifice what they demand, in Jesus name. Amen.

[1] This is a common interpretation of Mark, but I’m riffing directly off of Fred Craddock, who was quoted by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton on the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week. The show’s blog is available here.

[2] This idea, too, comes from the work of Rev. Dr. Chilton and Rev. Dr. John Fairless in their Lectionary Lab Live Podcast.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition), ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 381.

[4] Bonhoeffer, “Powers of Good,”  Letters and Papers from Prison, 400.