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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mark 10:35-45

Mark 10:35-45

The Request of James and John

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.’ 

Some friends were telling us about their recent trip to Disney World. Two dads almost got in a fistfight over the Dumbo ride. Dad #1 blatantly broke the rules. He sent his son one Dumbo ahead so they could both ride single. Everybody knows, when you ride Dumbo, you ride two to a car. Now, because of Dad #1, Dad #2 and his son, who have waited patiently in line for close to an hour, have no car. Dad #2 politely points this out to Dad #1. Dad #1 launches into a verbal tirade, screaming words you definitely aren't supposed to hear at the Happiest Place on Earth. Eventually, some cast members have to separate the two Dads.  The ride goes on. Dad #2 and his crying son watch from the front of the line knowing they'll get first pick of Dumbos on the next go-round. They also get a special golden ticket to reward them for their restraint. Meanwhile, Dad #1 teaches his son an important life lesson: Possession is 9/10ths of the law. And at the Dumbo attraction, where temperatures run high and the lines run long, position is the last 10th.

Possession and position. Two essential rules of the human race. In any race, possession and position make the difference between getting the ride you want and standing in line with the rest of the Dumbos.

Possession and position.

James and John, the Sons of Thunder, cut to the front of the disciple line. Away from and ahead of the other 10 disciples, they ask Jesus to give them whatever they ask. They use their position to get their possession. They ask Jesus if they can sit at his right hand and his left in glory. They want the best sky box seats in heaven. Maybe from their dad, Zebedee, they learned another important life lesson: if you don't ask, you'll never know. Obviously, no one else had asked Jesus for the good seats. What's the worst he could say? No. Which he does. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Right?

But when disciples #3 through #12 find out what numbers 1 and 2 have done, they're mad. Why are they mad? Because Jesus might have said yes. Disciples #1 and #2 cut line, and then had the nerve to ask for special treatment. Disciples #3 through #12 either were afraid to ask or didn't think to ask. Either way, they almost - almost - lost possession of top position for eternity. 

Possession and position.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Fortune favors the bold. It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. Words of wisdom. Words you might hear from a person of authority, a person of position, a person of possessions. No one wants advice from a nobody with nothing. 

So how seriously can we possibly take Jesus, when he says, "...whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all." Does he really expect anyone to believe that?

This is a hard saying. Maybe the hardest thing Jesus ever said. If possession is really 9/10ths of the law and position is the remaining 1/10, then Jesus just said something illegal. People who want to take the Bible word-for-word literally don't often mention this one. It's not just counter-intuitive, it's counter-productive. It's like Jesus just doesn't understand how the human race works. You give up your position, you give up your possessions, and what have you got?

"Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all."

I imagine that verse must be especially hard to hear in African-American churches. Or anywhere people have had to fight, tooth and nail for dignity, for basic human rights. 

O Freedom, O Freedom,
O, Freedom over me.
And before I'd be a slave,
I'd be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Amen. I'm not going to argue with that hymn, nor with anyone who carries that prayer in their heart. God bless you if this is your story and your song.

Could it rather be that just as Jesus' understanding of position and possession sounds so wrong to us, maybe his understanding of slavery and freedom is different than ours, too?

I'm a little uncomfortable suggesting that because (a) I don't really know the mind of Jesus as well as I often think I do, and, (b) I don't want to soften Jesus' hard saying to make it easier for us to swallow. Jesus said what he said about position, possession and slavery and maybe he doesn't care whether we feel good about it or not. 

Here's what I mean: In other places of scripture, Jesus himself says that his whole purpose is to bring release to the captives, good news to the poor, and freedom to the oppressed. It's like Jesus himself is singing, "Before you'd be a slave, be buried in your grave." But at the same time, he's also preaching to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all." The disciples must have felt like their heads were caught between two clashing cymbals.

Maybe Jesus wants these two messages to crash together between our ears. Who said the Bible was supposed to be easy?

In India, they have a saying: Live your life without ambition, but live as those who are ambitious. 

Sounds like one of those, "What's the sound of one hand clapping" things. But in a way, I think Jesus is saying kind of the same thing.

Jesus is saying, "Hey, disciples. If position and possession are what drive you, you're already a slave." You're a slave to your own ambition. If you hate what you have but want more of it, you're a hamster on a wheel, racing the other hamsters on a wheel. Which is kind of how we got a global economic recession based on money that doesn't really exist. Our world is a slave to its own ambition and nobody seems to know how to get off the hamster wheel.

To which Jesus says, "Ahem. Over here, y'all. Been saying this for 2000 years. Anybody ready to listen?"

You're not as free as you might think. What enslaves you? Debt? Your mortgage? How about your parents' expectations? How about the need to prove that you are somebody, that your life is worth something? How about a sense of control? How about the future you can't see, but haunts you late at night when you can't sleep? How about the mistakes of your past you can't shake?

O, freedom. O, freedom over me.

If you're going to be a slave, be a slave to those who are enslaved. Be a slave to setting free other slaves. A person who brings random acts of casseroles. A person who thinks about others' welfare before she thinks of her own. A dad who teaches his kids to give up a seat on the Dumbo attraction before you look like a Dumbo. 

Be a slave to Jesus' vision of who you already are: a child of God. A person whose future and whose past is already made right. A woman who doesn't have to prove she's worthy. A man who doesn't have to prove he's #1.

There's a guy out in California by the name of Dr. Larry Brilliant. Sounds like a joke, but that's his real name. For many years, back in the 1960's Dr. Brilliant was at the forefront of eradicating Small Pox in the third world. Dr. Brilliant has done just about everything, and is now the head of Google.org's philanthropic organization. Dr. Brilliant has gone from being rich to being dirt poor to being really, really wealthy. When asked the secret of success, Dr. Brilliant put it this way. He said, "There are people who get exactly what they want. You think they're the lucky ones, but they're not. The lucky ones are those who do what they are meant to do."

The competition for the best seats in heaven is kind of like winning the award for the shiniest shoes in the graveyard. 

...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.’