(A sermon on Mark 10:35-44, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 10/18/2009)
This is not universally known as a great moment for the Sons of Zebedee.
In fact, it’s pretty unbelievable that they ask what they do. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, one and your left hand, in your glory.” (Mk. 10:37)
I read a sermon online by an Episcopal Priest named Suzanne Watson, who all but says that this might be the dumbest thing ever said by one of the disciples. She writes:
The disciples’ impudence and lack of understanding is beyond belief. How could two people who are so close to Jesus miss the boat so completely? Did they forget the encounter with the rich man that occurred just before their request? Or the encounter with the little children? And have they not heard Jesus’ own prediction of what was soon to happen to him? In light of all of this, their request is truly astounding.
The disciples lambaste James and John as well, and before it gets out of hand, Jesus must remind them yet again that they are to live by different standards...not as wielding power to put one into submission, but using their power to be a servant...”a slave to all.”
I intend this morning to do something that might be out of the ordinary. I wish to not only defend James and John, but I want to raise their boldness up for us all.
Now, let me just back off this somewhat outrageous claim for just a moment: I don’t actually disagree with what the Rev. Watson said...it is a reasonable to conclude that James and John are way off base here. Since the disciples in the Gospel are usually wrong about everything, Rev. Watson likely has a stronger case in concluding that these two guys are daft. The choice of the Isaiah and Hebrews passages suggest that those who put together the lectionary agree as well.
Perhaps I’m just in a rebellious mood, but I like James and John taking the initiative here. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” In other words, promise to do what we ask before we ask it. Jesus says nope, can’t make that promise until I hear the request. This isn’t really unexpected, and they make their request anyway: to sit at a place of power...the persons to either side of the ruler are the most trusted and the second in command.
Out of the blue, this seems like a grab for power.
However, before finalizing that opinion, consider the text that comes before this event...text we have not heard recently. There are three verses between the end of last week’s text...the account of the wealthy man...and this week’s passage.
32They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.
(a quick pause: what are they afraid of? By going up to Jerusalem, Jesus was provoking a showdown with the temple leaders. They were right to be afraid.)
[Jesus] took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “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; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
This is the third time Jesus has said something like this. The first time was back in chapter 8, just after Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah.
The reaction he got then, was Peter openly rebuking him, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with “Get behind me Satan.” (Mk. 8:27-33)
The second time Jesus says something like this is in Chapter 9, while passing through Galilee. Jesus says, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mk. 9:31)
The disciples’ reaction this time?
Mark 9:32 “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
The Gospel of Mark is all about threes: the third time is often the charm. Combined with the fact that they are heading towards Jerusalem, it is not unreasonable to conclude that James and John have figured out some of what is to come. So there request to sit at Jesus’ hands in his glory isn’t just about a heavenly place, like one might suppose, but a request to stand alongside Jesus as he squares off against the temple leaders. There is more than a bit of courageousness to their request.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” The students James and John are saying to their teacher: “allow us to take our place standing next to you. We’re ready...you don’t have to protect us.”
Jesus’ response is cautious: “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.”
It appears to me that Jesus is pleased with this answer, even though he certainly sees that James and John are somewhat naive:
“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.”
This is not a rebuke. In fact, I think Jesus approves of the enthusiasm and boldness of James and John, even if their request is a bit off.
I understand that this is counter to the common way that this Bible lectionary gets used. I can certainly see value in warning against seeking power and self-justification. But I wonder if sometimes we take this warning too far...
For the second time in the past few months, I have been reminded of similarities between theater and church. The first time it was Paul Lister who did so. He suggested how interesting and helpful it is for people to get a behind the scenes look in theater. Paul thought that knowing all that goes into a church service, and what is and isn’t asked of volunteers, would help people find where they would like to further participate. These led to our narrated service on Ministry Fair day.
In preparing this sermon, I read another comparison of theater and church in Ralph Milton’s web blog “Rumors.” Milton wrote:
The theatre and the church are children of the same womb. They spring from a deep human need to act out the mystery, to recount the story, to relive the drama. Perhaps that’s because so much of our faith can never be adequately expressed in mere words....
Theatre is not a vocation for folk who wait around to be asked. Theatre involves going after the parts you want to play – going to auditions and trying to convince directors that you are just the right person for that particular role and that you are immensely talented....
We have this “thing” in the church about not putting ourselves forward. We wait to be asked, never telling anyone what it is we would like to do, and then we feel hurt when nobody asks. But nowhere in the Bible are we told to cower in a corner waiting for our gifts to be discovered. We are explicitly told not to hide our light under a bushel, but to “let your light so shine” that people may see what you can do and they will let you do it and in the process declare the greatness of God.
James and John reflect this boldness in this morning’s gospel. They are willing to stand up, and take on the power that Jesus calls them to. Perhaps they overestimate their abilities...perhaps they attempt to bite off more than they can chew...perhaps they don’t really understand what Jesus is asking of them, and what it means to wield power not in dominance, but as a servant...but their willingness to try and put themselves forward is essential for us today.
The church, our community, and I dare say the world needs our commitment of time, talent and treasure. What we have to give is an essential part of making the puzzle whole...and we all lose out without some boldness in speaking up and giving of ourselves.
Finally, I want to close with a word about affirmation. One reason James and John are classically rebuked in this morning’s text is the sense that they are seeking affirmation from Jesus. It’s fair to say that our motivation should not be about seeking affirmation, but it is very human to want affirmation: assurance that what one is doing is alright.
People often get themselves in trouble when they go looking for affirmation: they want to hear ONLY their rightness, and that often means hearing that other different ways are wrong. Sometimes, when affirmation is mixed with critique or criticism, we hear only the negative. Looking for affirmation often leaves us disappointed or misguided.
Having said this, I think it would generally help us if we spent a little more time affirming one another. I’m not calling for us to continuously pat each other and ourselves on the backs, and I’m not saying that we should only comment on the positive in everything and ignore problems, but I think that we sometimes forget to praise and give thanks for the people we encounter in our lives. We need to let each other know when they are doing good work, or that they have made a difference, or just that their effort and presence is appreciated. There is so much uncertainty in the world and in our lives. Part of our communal calling is to be public witnesses to the good found in the world...and in the people...that God has made.