St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, September 23, 2018
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20B)
First Lesson: Jeremiah 11:18-20
Second Lesson: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”
If you’re even a little bit familiar with contemporary musical theater, you probably recognize this popular refrain. It comes from a show that some people already consider one of the greatest musicals ever written. Of course, I’m talking about the Tony Award-winning musical, Hamilton, which debuted on Broadway nearly three years ago and was written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with this musical, Hamiltontells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of our country, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and the creator of our national banking system. The narrative begins with Hamilton’s arrival in the British colonies only a few years before the start of the Revolutionary War and spans his entire life, culminating in his famous duel with Aaron Burr.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the musical yet. Relatively speaking, not many people have. Even though it’s been three years since it debuted, it’s still very hard to get tickets, even for the national tours. But, if you listen to the original cast recording of Hamilton, you’ll quickly notice that it’s very unique and unlike any other musical that you’ve ever heard. The story is told not only through dialogue but also through a beautiful and intricate combination of hip-hop and rap and various other styles of music, making it accessible and entertaining to a wide variety of people. Once you hear it for the first time, it’s hard to stop listening.
But, for me, what makes Hamiltoneven more compelling than the music is one of its most central themes – a theme that can certainly be found in the Gospels as well: we all live; we all die; and our story continues through the people that we know and love, the people who carry us with them in their hearts long after we’re gone. In the Gospels, we see this clearly in the close, intimate relationship that Jesus shares with his disciples, who carry on with the story long after Jesus is gone. The final number of Hamiltonalso captures this idea that we continue to “live on” through those who continue after us. You see, the finale of Hamiltonisn’t told from the perspective of the main character but through his wife, Eliza, who shares with the audience all of the many things that she’s able to accomplish in her life after the death of her husband. She keeps his memory alive by sharing his story with future generations and by continuing to do important work in her own life. In the final moment of the show, the company sings the refrain, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” provoking the audience to ponder these questions as they leave the theater.
“Who lives? Who dies? Who tells yourstory?” What kind of legacy do youwant to leave behind? It seems rather appropriate for us to consider these questions this morning with the Gospel lesson that we heard just a few moments ago.
In our lesson from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is aware that his disciples have been arguing amongst themselves during their journey through Galilee. When they reach their destination in the city of Capernaum, he asks them, “What were you arguing about along the way?” They remain silent, but Jesus already knows the answer. He knows that they’ve been arguing about who is the greatest among them. So, he sits down, calls the twelve disciples, his most trusted friends, and tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus wants his disciples to know that true greatness can’t be measured by one’s station in life or how much power and wealth one has accumulated. According to Jesus, the only way to achieve true greatness is by living a life of service to others.
In our Gospel lesson for today, the Greek word that the author uses for “servant” isdiakonos, which is where the English word “deacon” comes from. In the first century, at the time in which Mark’s Gospel was probably written, the term diakonoswas often used to refer to people who served as table waiters. These were considered the lowest of the low in society, the people who served everyone else before sitting down to enjoy the meal themselves. So, when Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he’s saying that, in order to be first in God’s Kingdom, they must be willing to give up any sense of pride or selfish ambition. They must be willing to be like the table waiters, always ready to care for the needs of others before their own.
If you’re like me, you probably find this Gospel lesson to be very challenging. Not much has changed in the two thousand years since Mark’s Gospel was written. Like the first generation of disciples, we live in a world where wealth and power determine how society views us. We’re constantly tempted to give in to selfish ambitions in order to advance our station in life. We put our pride and the need to fulfill our own egos ahead of just about everything else. Never satisfied with enough, we strive to accumulate more and more, thinking that it will make us greater than we already are. In the musical Hamilton, we encounter a protagonist who falls into the same snares. Throughout the show, it’s made abundantly clear that Hamilton’s primary concern and motivation is to increase his status is society. He wants notoriety. He wants fame and wealth, and he’s willing to do anything to achieve his goals. Eventually, he becomes so wrapped up in his work that he neglects to spend time with his family. According to one author, “Hamilton believes his worth is determined by what he accomplishes.” To quote another line from the show, “He will never be satisfied.”
Is this the kind of legacy that we want to leave behind? Is this how we want our children to remember us? Do we want to be like Hamilton, consumed with the need for greatness and obsessed with impressing the people around us? Or, do we want to be like Jesus and leave behind a legacy of service? Do we want to be remembered for what we did to improve our own lives? Or, do we want to be remembered for how we served others?
Each of us has an important story to tell, a story that will surely be told long after our time on earth has come to an end. Our lives are unique to us as individuals because of the stories that we have to tell, and yet, as Christians, we’re also part of a single, ongoing narrative, one that began long ago and one that will continue for generations to come. When we commit our selves to Christ through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we add our own, individual stories to that ongoing narrative as if we were to insert our own chapter into a book that was already being written. Even though we all lead different lives, we’re joined together by that central story – the story of Jesus, the one who lived and died and rose again, the one who calls us to lower our selves and serve others above all else. May we share that story with the world, and may we show the world that greatness isn’t determined by material things and worldly ambitions but by our willingness to serve with love and humility. Amen.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of the sermon.