Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon, Proper 24B, Mark 10:35-45

Each gospel has its own story to tell; or rather, its own version of the God story.  Each one has a slightly different perspective.  One of the things that stand out in Mark’s gospel is his generally negative view of the disciples.  They are slow.  They can’t seem to grasp the purpose of Jesus’ mission.  They are self-centered.  And they just don’t get it.

James and John approach Jesus and ask to be seated at his left and right hand when he comes into his glory.  Just before this passage, at verse 34, Jesus gives his third Passion prediction.  In the first prediction, over in Chapter 8, he tells the disciples to take up their cross and follow him.  In the second prediction, in Chapter 9, as well as in today’s passage, he tells them that they must be a servant to all.  These predictions from Jesus are not in parable form, they are not designed to have hidden meanings.  In all three places Jesus says, “The Son of Man will be handed over, condemned to death, die, and after three days will rise again.”  In both the second and third prediction the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest.  And, once again, the disciples just don’t get it.

James and John are scheming to get positions of power and privilege.  The other disciples are upset at both the brothers and themselves; the brothers for making the request in the first place, and themselves for not thinking of it first.  But again, their focus is on the power and glory aspect of Jesus rather than the purpose of his mission, his life and his death.

But the ministry of Jesus, his life and his death, is not about power, glory and greatness as we understand it.  The ministry of Jesus, his life and death, is about picking up your cross and serving others at great personal cost.

Jesus says something interesting in today’s passage.  He says, “You know the Gentile rulers lord it over them . . .”  And while Jesus most likely was talking about leaders in government, landowners, households and/or slave owners, I started to think about church leaders.  How many examples have we seen of church leaders, mainly clergy, lording their leadership over people?  We’ve seen it in sermons, letters, TV programs and interviews where it is proclaimed that you must do and believe exactly as I tell you.  And if you don’t, then you are not only not welcome, but you are effectively condemned to hell.

As an example, in 2008 there was a Roman Catholic priest who told his congregation that he would deny communion to anyone whom he found out that voted for Sen. Obama in the presidential election.

And lest you think I’m picking on conservatives, in 2010 a columnist wondered in print if any priest would refuse to administer communion to people who voted in favor of Arizona’s strong anti-immigration law.

Nothing says, “Welcome to God’s church” like people who insist on conformity and who use the sacraments as blackmail.
But it is not so among you: whoever wishes to become great among you must be servant to all.  Or, in other words, pick up your cross and follow me.

I’ve talked about that cross thing before, and how it is not your bad boss, bad job, nagging mother-in-law or some catastrophic disease.  Like Jesus, who took on the pain, suffering and death provided by the cross for our sake, our cross is our willingness to pour out ourselves, souls and bodies in service to the church and others.  It is service at a personal cost.

Your cross isn’t your mother-in-law, but it may be your costly service of caring for her as she physically and mentally deteriorates.  It may be caring for a member of this congregation who has needs that are difficult for you to provide but impossible for them.  Or it may be any person whom we serve at great personal cost or risk.  Welcoming those sinners who have been turned away at other churches for their “unacceptable lifestyles” may be our corporate cross as the parish of St. Luke’s strives to heal those who have been hurt by the church at large.

This idea of being a servant to all is in direct opposition to the desires of James, John and others who see the church as a place of power, privilege and dominance.  If we are more concerned with getting the Ten Commandments on the walls of federal buildings than we are with welcoming and including people different from us into the family of God, then we are doing it wrong.  If we use the sacraments as a form of blackmail to ensure conformity, then we are doing it wrong.

This whole thing about following Jesus and sharing the gospel story is predicated on serving.  We serve those in need, both friend and stranger.  We serve people similar to us and people different from us.  And that discipleship of service will make us uncomfortable.  It will disrupt our lives.

Following Jesus doesn’t make our problems disappear.  It doesn’t mitigate our own suffering.  It doesn’t mean our life is all Bon-Bons and fine wine.  Following Jesus means we are on the road to Jerusalem.  It means we are on the road to the cross.  It means we will suffer and die. 

James and John give us two examples.  The first is an example of warning for us not to get caught up in the pursuit of power and glory in the name of Christ.  The second is that, even though they got it wrong, Jesus allowed them to remain with him and learn from him.

We are exactly like James and John.  Sometimes we just don’t get it.  Sometimes we think that by following Jesus we will be afforded positions of power and glory.  The trick, though, is to understand that the mission of Jesus, and that discipleship of Jesus, is based on loving those around us and giving up ourselves, souls and bodies in a way that empties ourselves while making room for God to be present.  And the Good News in this is that, despite our faults, Jesus allows us to remain with him, abiding in his love.

The question for today is whether we want to follow James and John in their pursuit of power, or whether we will follow Jesus to the cross.


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