Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.  

Isaiah 53:4-12
Hebrews 4:12-16
Psalm 91: 9-16
Mark 10:35-45

So You Want to Be Great?

“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…”

As you know, a good number of our community is away this weekend at the Bement Camp and Conference Center, exploring what it means to be peacemakers – to live at peace within oneself, in relation to others, and in relation to the natural world.  We who have stayed behind have our own chance to reflect on the way on peace and non-violence as we consider today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark.

To open up this passage, I think it’s useful to see where it is placed in Mark’s Gospel.  If this were a good old-fashioned Protestant church, I’d be asking you to whip out your Bibles.  But since we don’t have a stack of Bibles in the pews, I hope you’ll bear with me as I walk through this myself.  

One thing to notice is that this story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, coming to Jesus to ask him to seat them at his right hand and at his left, in his glory, is their response to Jesus predicting for the third time that he is going to suffer, die, and rise again.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes this prediction three times, and each time the same thing happens: the disciples don’t understand, and Jesus teaches them what it means to follow him.

The first prediction is in Chapter 8: “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi… Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mk 8:27, 31).  But Peter doesn’t understand, and rebukes him, and Jesus turns and says those famous words, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mk 8:33).  He goes on to teach about discipleship: those who want to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross; those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake for the sake of the gospel, will save it (Mk 8: 34-35).

Soon after that comes the second prediction of the passion.  In chapter 9, we read, “They went on from there and passed through Galilee… He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘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 9:30-31).  Once again, the disciples don’t understand (“…they did not understand what he was saying,” Mk 9:32) and start arguing with one another about who is the greatest (Mk 9:33-34).  And once again Jesus teaches them about the meaning of discipleship, saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35), and then takes up a little child to illustrate his point.

The third prediction of Jesus’ passion takes place in chapter 10, just before today’s Gospel passage.  We read, “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them… He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him” (Mark 10:32), and then comes the most detailed account yet of the political trial and execution that Jesus will undergo, including his betrayal, trial, torture, execution, “and after three days he will rise again” (Mk 10:34).

Do the disciples understand this time?  Not a chance.  We move straight to James and John asking for positions of privilege and honor, to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and at his left, as if they are planning the administration of the new regime and want to claim the top spots, maybe cabinet member #1 and cabinet member #2. 

Have they been listening to Jesus?  Have they understood a word he has been saying?  Jesus is not making a grab for political power.  His life on earth is going to end not in glory but in shame, not in self-assertion and self-aggrandizement but in self-emptying.  He is not going to march in his troops to take over the city – he is going to be crucified outside its gates.  His glory will come only in heaven, after the resurrection.

James and John aren’t the only disciples who still don’t get it.  When the others hear what James and John were asking, the ten of them get angry (Mk 10:41), and you can’t help wondering whether they are angry because James and John tried to get an unfair head start in snagging the top places of honor, not because they misunderstood Jesus’ mission so completely.

And so, as Jesus did on the two previous occasions, he explains again to all of them what discipleship means.  “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 with you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:42-43).

When you read any story and the same pattern repeats three times, you have to ask: Why? Why does Mark repeat the pattern in which Jesus predicts that he will suffer, die, and rise again, the disciples misunderstand, and Jesus teaches them about the meaning of discipleship? 

Maybe the answer is that these events are historically true.  Maybe Jesus repeatedly spoke to his disciples of his oncoming suffering and death, and they repeatedly misunderstood or ignored what he was saying.  But maybe the repetition has a deeper meaning.  Like the disciples, we too need time to understand the way of the cross and to learn how to live it out in our lives.  Mark’s Gospel gives us many opportunities to identify with the disciples’ confusion and stubbornness and blindness, and to let Jesus speak to our hearts.

Take James and John, the sons of Zebedee.  They are not strangers to me – they are the voices inside my head that urge me to push myself forward and seize some power, to take what I want and never mind anyone else.  I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the human impulse to self-assertion, but when we forget that we are interconnected with other human beings, when we forget that other people are also made in the image of God and that their needs and hungers are as real and as valid as our own, then a healthy self-assertiveness can morph into a terrible lust for dominance and power.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, express the impulse that makes us cut someone off in traffic or cut someone off who’s talking to us.  They are the parts of ourselves that want to be totally in charge of what happens, to be in control, to have things go our way and devil take the hindmost.  They are the competitive inner voices that make us jockey for position and elbow everyone else aside.

But their voices don’t echo just inside our own psyche – they can take over the psyche of a whole community or nation.  We hear their voices on the world stage in the groups or countries that seek domination and unjust power, in the voices of threat and armed violence, in the voices that demand, as did James and John, “Do for me whatever I ask of you” (see Mk 10: 35).  In short: do it my way.

For all of us who long to be peacemakers and to be faithful to the way of the cross, I hear in today’s Gospel three calls.  The first is a call to self-restraint.  What would it look like for us as individuals to restrain or contain within ourselves the energies of the sons of Zebedee?  It might look like a willingness to listen rather than to speak, a willingness to set aside our own needs for a time in order to let someone else come forward.  Restraining the sons (and daughters) of Zebedee might look like a willingness not to jump immediately into every situation and try to fix it and change it and get our hands all over it, but rather to wait and watch for a while, to let it be. Sometimes the wisest way to live the Golden Rule — to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is to turn it inside out and to focus on not doing unto others what you would not have them do unto you.  Refraining from doing harm, refraining from interfering and intervening is sometimes the most loving “action” we can take.

Self-restraint.

I also hear in this passage a call to self-acceptance.  Jesus knows how clueless his disciples can be  — after all, in the space of three chapters they’ve misunderstood him three times!  And he knows how clueless we can be, too.  So it’s good to notice that he doesn’t criticize James and John for their selfish request.  When they come forward and make their demands, he doesn’t heap contempt on them for being arrogant or greedy.  He doesn’t push them away.  Instead he listens to them and patiently teaches them about the ways of the kingdom, in which nobody lords it over anyone else.  And, with their consent, he promises to share his life with them.  They will share the same baptism; they will drink the same cup.  In other words, Jesus invites James and John to stay close beside him and to learn from him until finally they live in union with him.

I think we can work with our inner voices in much the same way.  When we hear that inner clamor for personal power, that willful, anxious urge to dominate and control, maybe we can identify those voices as our inner sons and daughters of Zebedee.  Maybe we can give them a hearing, just as Jesus did, and ask them what they want.  And then we can bring them to Jesus, who loves them utterly and in whose company they can learn to move from power-over to power-with, from seeking fame and glory and success to seeking a way to serve.  Self-acceptance doesn’t mean that we like everything within us, but it does mean that we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge what is so.  And the more we accept ourselves, the less likely we will be to project onto other people the parts of ourselves that we are unwilling to face.

Self-acceptance.

Finally, I hear in this passage a call to self-giving.  If the way to greatness is to serve, then everyone can be great – because everyone can serve.  In the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed, there is room for all and love for all – love even, and especially, for those who are vulnerable, powerless, and insignificant in the eyes of the world.  Because we are baptized into Christ and we drink from his cup, we find ourselves wanting to stand not with the ones who abuse their power, but with the ones who are treated unjustly.  And so it was that a group of us from Grace Church led an interfaith protest this week in front of the Amherst post office, denouncing what amounts to the legalization of torture by our national government.  “Remember those who are in prison,” says the Book of Hebrews, “as though you were in prison with them; [remember] those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3-4).

The way of peace making, the way of non-violence, the way of the cross, asks us to practice self-restraint, self-acceptance, and self-giving, and not to count the cost.  Practices such as these are subversive in a society that above all values individualism, materialism, and looking out for Number One.  But they are practices that honor the one who came among us not to be served but to serve, and who gave his life to set us free.