Saturday, October 20, 2012

Not There Yet...

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my Twitter friends, Barb Vaughan, Jimmy DeSpain, Allison, Carlamatic, and Paul DeBaufer for helping me talk this sermon out.I also received extensive help from Rolf Jacobson on "Working Preacher," Kathryn Matthews Huey, and (I am certain) many others.

Mark 10:35-45
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." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." 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?" 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; 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."
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 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. 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. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t know what it is about these disciples. We pick up this morning’s Gospel reading immediately after Jesus has, for the third time, spoken openly and in detail about his arrest, trial, death, and resurrection. No beating around the bush, no metaphor, no big words that would be over the disciples’ heads. The road that Jesus is on leads to Jerusalem, leads to the Garden of Gethsemane, leads to arrest, to beatings, to the scourge, and to the cross.

Yet every time Jesus speaks of this to the disciples, they react in ways that boggle the mind. The first time, Peter pulls Jesus to the side and starts to try and correct his thinking, because Messiahs don’t die, and ends up getting himself called “Satan.” The second time, the disciples immediately started arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest.

And this time? Well, here’s what happens, reading the three verses prior to our Lectionary Gospel passage: They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’”

That’s the kind of clarity that, even if, by some wild stretch of the imagination, the disciples hadn’t understood before, even they could not miss!

Now, I cannot with honesty say how I would react to that kind of statement. It’s far too easy, on this side of the resurrection, to claim that I would respond with sad reverence, thanking Jesus for sacrificing himself for me and for the world, and expressing hope in the Resurrection.

I don’t know… but I hope I wouldn’t act like James and John did!
I am pretty sure you are familiar with “calling shotgun.” When you’re going to be a passenger in a car carrying other people, if you want to ride in the front passenger seat, and you’re a kid, you have to call “shotgun,” right?

That’s how James and John responded – they tried to call shotgun.

And you could almost – almost respect them if they’d had some tact about them. You know, structure a persuasive argument, detailing their plan to assist Jesus, maybe have a PowerPoint presentation about how their co-kingship would give Jesus the tools he would need to effectively preside over his coming Kingdom.

Nope. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” James and John, come on! Are you five, for cryin’ out loud?

Now, I’ve heard some scholars say that the way they approach Jesus was a proper formula in that day and culture for asking for a gift, and perhaps that’s so… but doesn’t it sound awful, especially in the context of Jesus just having talked about his brutal execution at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities?

Maybe they don’t get it, sure. But that seems unlikely, given the facts. I mean, I may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I think if you tell me something three times in a row, I might get a clue eventually.

Maybe the disciples hear it, but maybe they are like untested soldiers, ignoring the horror of battle in light of the glory they’ll attain in victory. Perhaps the disciples hear it, but, in their anxiety, they’re seeking reassurance and security. If they know that, on the other side of it all they’ll be taken care of, they can face whatever terror is coming their way.

Maybe it’s gross ambition… maybe it’s fear… and maybe, just maybe, it’s deep faith.

Maybe they are so certain of Jesus’ final victory that they immediately sign up to go with him. After all, James and John were there with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They’ve seen him calm the storm. They witnessed Jesus walking on the water. They tasted the bread and fishes when he fed the five thousand. They’ve witnessed blind eyes given sight, they’ve seen lepers cleansed, they’ve gasped in shock when the dead were raised. If anyone could be completely convinced of the outcome of all that is about to occur, it would be these guys.

Whatever the case, as Jesus points out to them, they really have no idea what they’re asking for. Jesus tries to clear it up, speaking about the cup he must drink and the baptism he must undergo, but they really have no clue what they are saying.

And neither do the other ten. They get into an argument, not because James and John were being utterly crass and insensitive, but because they called shotgun first!

Their minds are locked into the structures and systems of human power. We get a clue of this in last week’s reading, when Peter compares all the disciples have forsaken to the rich man’s unwillingness or inability to give up his fortune to follow Jesus. Peter was asking, in effect, “so what’s in it for me?”

If Jesus is indeed Messiah, if he will indeed reign in an everlasting Kingdom, then to be in his shadow surely guarantees power for those closes to him, right?

After all, we know how these things work. The people with the most power sit closest to the CEO at the conference table. The people with the most power have the corner offices, and the closer your office is to the boss’ office, well, the more influence and authority you have.

Things like love and grace are limitless, abundant, infinitely available. They are meant to be shared, and shared lavishly, egregiously, wildly.

In contrast, power and authority, in our world, are sharply limited, nonrenewable resources. There’s only so much to go around. For one person to have more power automatically means another person has less, after all, and authority only has context when it is exercised over another. In our world, power only works as a force against another.

God has a different view. Jesus’ power, his glory, his authority are not predicated on the subjugation of another. God’s power exists not because the powerless know their place, and are kept there by fear or by coercion or by accident of birth, but simply because God is.

Thus God never has to worry about losing power, or relinquishing authority, never has to fight another to gain more power or keep what God has.

God is.

Thus in the Kingdom of God, the power structures and trappings of authority have no context. They are not simply unimportant, they are irrelevant. As followers of Jesus Christ, as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, among the things we are set free from is the need for power, the necessity of security, and the importance of being important.

When, after repeatedly trying to get James and John to see what they are asking, Jesus says, “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,” I wonder if it is coincidence that, when he is crucified, Jesus has – at his left and right hands – two condemned criminals?

“…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.”

It is a sad truth that, through the years, these words have been used by people in authority in the church against others. Slaves were kept in slavery, women were kept in subjugation, and those in abusive relationships were shamed into staying there.

In other words, instead of being set free from the lust for power, many even in the church still cling to the need for title, authority, honor and recognition.

What if we understood these words as instruction not for those who are without power, but for the people who have authority, and those seeking authority? What if the “least of these” – not the people with the titles, not those with the greatest income or the most education, not the most famous – really were the greatest? What if we really acted on the words of Jesus?

We are God’s sheep – not the sheep of any religious or political leader. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God.”

But can I be honest? It seems to me the height of irony to stand here, in the pulpit with its implication of authority, and talk about having freedom from the need for power.

It may be dangerous for me to suggest giving up security, because I cannot know what that word means for others.

And let’s don’t even start on the importance of being important. I’ve said it before: the most dangerous place on Earth is between me and an audience.

I want to make sure I say this correctly, so please bear with me: Christianity has its context in community. We are the Body of Christ, after all. That being said, the idea of abdicating our security, giving up everything to follow Jesus, I don’t see these as minimum standards. This is not where we start from.

While I am absolutely certain that there are people who, through experience or a particular giftedness, are able to exemplify the words of Jesus, to be servants and slaves of all – Mother Teresa comes to mind, or people like Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero and others who literally gave their lives for their faith in Christ – for most of us, we are not there yet.

Try as they might, the disciples won’t understand who Jesus is until after he rises from the dead. That is the event that will finally pull the curtain all of the way back so that Jesus' followers will finally understand that he is a servant king – the kind of king that God had always wanted Israel's kings to be. 

But even then they – and we – see, as the Apostle Paul says, only in part, as in a mirror dimly. Peter was far from perfect, even after Pentecost. He stumbled, made mistakes, was corrected, and grew. Paul himself had his struggles and shortcomings, his “thorn in the flesh.”

The choice before us is to look at Jesus’ words and, like the rich man in our reading last week, walk away, convinced that what he demands is impossible, or to acknowledge that we are all on a faith journey. Though we meet one another as wounded healers at different points on the path, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we travel this road, learning along the way what it means to serve Christ, what it means to serve one another, what it means to serve the forgotten, the least, the marginalized and despised, growing in the process ever closer to our loving Creator, who in Jesus Christ gave all he had for us, getting closer every day to the place where we shall see Jesus face to face.


  1. Wishing the "what ifs" to become a call to action. In my life. In the world. Thank you for these words, my friend.