Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 20, 2003


Godly Dissonance
The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad

Associate Professor of Preaching
Union Theological Seminary
New York, New York

(This sermon is also available in audio)

Gospel Reading: Mark 10:32-45

When I was serving in a parish in the Bronx, one of my regular visits was to see Beulah at the nursing home. Our visits would usually start in the hallway where Beulah sat greeting passersby and sharing her favorite Bible verses. When it was time to share communion we’d slowly move into her room for a bit more privacy. But it wasn’t really a quiet space either because her roommate wanted the television set on at all times. It wasn’t only ON it was on LOUD. There was no way to turn it down without large protests. So Beulah and I went on with our small liturgy with the television blaring on the other side of the thin curtain separating the beds, the scripture reading competing with All My Children. Jesus’ words of remembrance at the table could hardly get a word in edgewise:

"Beulah, this is the body of Christ given for you"

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"Beulah, the blood of Christ shed for you."

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Perhaps Gospel words always make a dissonant sound in the world. There is dissonance in the air this Lent. Sounds clash with one another. Car commercials interrupt air raid sirens in Kuwait City. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. We are on our way to Baghdad, surprising many with an early morning strike on "selected targets" in that city. Jesus was on his way to die. We are on our way to victory. There is dissonance in the air.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, for Jesus’ life was marked by dissonance. Peter boldly confessed Jesus to be Messiah. But moments later, when Jesus said he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Peter refused to hear it. It’s not clear if Peter heard the part about rising again. But if he did, it probably sounded as strange to him as the first part. It was all dissonance in his ears: Messiah and suffering didn’t belong together.

Now for the third time Jesus tells his disciples about suffering and death. It seems that James and John might have finally heard Jesus say, "and after three days he will rise again." They wanted to be part of Jesus’ victory party so they come with a special request: "Grant us places of honor when you come into your glory." Jesus asked them hard questions to which they unwittingly answered, "Yes! We can do whatever you ask." (Of course we know what happens in Jerusalem. James and John weren’t at Jesus’ right hand or his left. All of them abandoned him.) Well, the other disciples were furious about James and John’s request--probably wishing they’d gotten to Jesus first! But Jesus turns to them all with dissonant words:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them…But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Did they hear the dissonance? Great/Servant. First/Slave. Jesus had come among them saying, "The kingdom of God has come near you." But what kind of kingdom is this anyway?

That remains the question. What kind of kingdom is this? It is at least this: a kingdom of Godly dissonance that clashes with the very word "Kingdom." Jesus wasn’t the king they expected. Even when they arrive at the gates of Jerusalem in the next chapter, they were still hoping for victory--for they knew that Roman generals rode into the city after battles in far flung places. They only wished that Jesus’ feet weren’t almost dragging on the ground. He looked a little, well, a little unkingly.

Godly dissonance is the mark of discipleship. Jesus has been singing a dissonant song all along the way to Jerusalem.

What will it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life?...Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.

And just before the third passion prediction Jesus told a rich man, "Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor." Then to make it clear the disciples had heard him, he added, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God." What kind of kingdom is this anyway? It is, at least this: a kingdom of dissonance with the values of this world.

Are you sensing any dissonance in your heart today? We want to trust our leaders. We long for the safety not only of our troops but the people of Iraq. We long to believe, against the protests of many around the world, that the United States has the best interests of the Iraqi people at heart--that we have no vision for conquest or occupation or oil. Military victory seems certain. How could it be otherwise? Our military budget is $396 billion a year (not counting this war); Iraq’s military budget is $1.4 billion. Given those odds, it isn’t hard to imagine that people in many parts of the world will be cheering for Saddam Hussein even if they don’t approve of his harsh rule. He will become even more of a folk hero to millions who feel like underdogs in the world.

And our country will move ever closer to being an Empire. "A righteous empire," we will surely claim, "a benevolent empire. An empire that will bring democracy, freedom and the American way of life to the whole world, the Pax Americana."

This vision of our role in the world was set out in "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America" last September. According to this blueprint:

  • America will strike any nation or any group that it deems dangerous, whenever and however necessary and regardless of provocation.
  • America will invite allies to join is these ventures but reserves the right to act alone.
  • No other nation will be allowed to surpass or even equal American military power.
  • Other nations are advised to limit or destroy any weapons of mass destruction they may have. Only the United States will have large reserves of weapons of mass destruction. [Apparently because only we can be trusted to use them justly.]

After the agony of Vietnam and the terror of 9/11, many presidential advisors and ordinary citizens believe that America has now come into its rightful and necessary glory.

"What is it you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked James and John. "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." They had hoped Jesus would establish an empire. They weren’t prepared for his strange, unkingly kingdom. Neither are we. Those of us who follow Jesus to Jerusalem must be attentive to the Godly dissonance of power made perfect in weakness. We have an urgent task before us in these days of Lent and the days that follow. As our country marches to the drumbeat of righteous Empire, we must listen for the dissonant sounds of Jesus’ kingdom. "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant."

Some Christians are supportive of this war as a tragic choice that had to be made in a complicated world. Some of you here today feel this war is necessary. If you support this war, there are still questions Christians must ask: Will we help rebuild Iraq? Will we give resources so desperately needed for this rebuilding? Will we feed the people of Iraq or run out of patience?

Some here today are opposed to this war and continue to oppose it. If you oppose this war, the danger is to fall into cynicism. No one hears us. Millions of protestors were dismissed as focus groups. There’s no point in saying anything. As Christians, we dare not give in to cynicism. Though the war wasn’t stopped, there are other questions to be raised. Questions about the great economic divide within our country and around the world. Questions about working with other nations rather than going our way alone. Too much is at stake to be silenced by cynicism. All of us who name the name of Jesus are called to listen for the gospel’s dissonant sound.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has been launched over the skies of Baghdad. Operation Valiant Strike has opened up in Afghanistan. Who will follow Jesus in Operation Servanthood? Don’t be naïve, preacher. Our times are far more complicated than Jesus’ time. We can’t stand by while dangerous terrorists threaten our land. But nothing is more naïve than thinking victory over Iraq will end rather than escalate terrorism. Terrorism thrives on desperation as much as despotism. To our surprise, Jesus’ time may have much in common with our own. My colleague Larry Rasmussen takes us back in time:

I used to wonder what it might have been like to figure things out in the first few centuries of Christianity when the world in the Mediterranean basin was religiously eclectic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Crowded. Given to a thousand competing spiritualities and philosophies with more than a little apocalypse in the air. A bad case of world-weariness and fatigue-- and one superpower in the center of a shaky stage. In just such a setting Christianity was born and took fire. It was especially attuned to it.

Is it now so attuned?...I guess we’ll find out. I hope we’ll do better than the first time around when, in the fourth century, orthodoxy and moral conformity came by joining altar and cross to throne and sword.
1995 Larry Rasmussen, A Reforming Church…Gift and Task,
Kirk Publishing Company,
Minneapolis, MN )

Will we listen to the Godly dissonance of the Gospel? Will we remember that even the most benevolent empire cannot claim to be the Kingdom of God? Do not be alarmed by the dissonance you hear during these troubling days.

I assure you…we will accept no outcome but victory.
(President George W. Bush in address to the nation, March 19, 2004)

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.
(Mark 10:43)

Godly dissonance--"The body of Christ given for you."--while the television is blaring. The gentle King riding into Jerusalem in a very different victory parade. Listen. Do you hear the dissonance, the Godly dissonance of Jesus?

Mark 10: 32-45
32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." 35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." 36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?"
37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." 38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." NRSV

Copyright 2003 The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad

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