They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “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;they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
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.”
My sermon from the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 21, 2018) on Mark 10:32-45. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
On Friday, I rolled into Bergen Community College wearing my standard Sunday attire – black shirt, white collar, gray slacks, and pointed shoes. I parked my car, got lost, had to get back into my car to find the right parking lot, parked again, and eventually found my way to the Moses Center. I checked in with the two young congressional staffers at the front desk and walked into a large conference room. I and a bunch of other clergy from Bergen County were invited to have a conversation with Representative Josh Gottheimer at his 2nd Faith Leaders Breakfast. In that room were clergy and religious leaders from the many different faiths that call the 5th Federal district of New Jersey home. There were rabbis, imans, jathedar (jat-hey-daar), priests, pastors, deacons, heads of benevolence organizations, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, White-Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, and native born citizens eating store bought bagels and drinking hot Dunkin Donut coffee while sitting around some large tables. Rep. Gottheimer wanted each of us to share what our communities were currently seeing and experiencing. So that’s what we did. We talked. The issues we covered included refugees, recent hate crimes, immigration, family separation, health care, opioids, the expansion of divisive political rhetoric, and the unaffordability of Bergen county for poor families, recent retirees, and senior citizens. We weren’t there to workshop ideas or find solutions to the problems affecting our communities. Instead, it was a moment to share our story and discover that our different faith communities were experiencing similar issues. We were there to listen and to be listened to.
Now, listening is how community is formed. When we see that we are being heard, we learn to trust one another. We need the people around us to accept the totality of what makes us who we are – our good and our bad. And if they can’t accept that, then we build barriers to keep ourselves apart. Those barriers can, sometimes, keep us safe. But when they are misapplied, these self-generated borders diminish the humanity of the people around us. The listening that builds connection and community involves more than just hearing words. It requires reading body language, understanding histories, and discovering that our assumptions and experiences do not always apply to everyone else. We have to admit the ways we’ve failed to listen and we have to undo the walls that stop us from listening to those around us. Listening is one of the hardest skills our lives require. And it’s a skill that the disciples, in the gospel according to Mark, rarely display.
It’s probably safe to say that James and John were not really listening to what Jesus had to say today. We are still in the long beginning of Jesus’ climatic journey to the Cross and Jesus has, over and over again, tried to tell his innermost circle the truth about what’s going to happen. He is not, as the disciples hoped, going to initiate a political kingdom that would, through power and violence, establish a new Empire that would rival Rome’s. Jesus’ journey was going to be different. So on 3 separate occasions, Jesus shared that he was going to the Cross. And on those 3 separate occasions, the disciples failed to listen to him. At first, Peter tried to rebuke Jesus but Jesus told him to deny himself and take up his cross. Again, Jesus told them about the Cross but the disciples were too afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. Instead, they argued about which one of them was the greatest. So Jesus pulled them aside, brought the most vulnerable person in his cultural context into their community, and told the disciples to welcome them. And now, after this 3rd statement about what will happen in Jerusalem, James and John decide to interrupt Jesus. They want to be placed on Jesus’ right and on his left when Jesus finally comes into his glory. It’s a bit of an odd request since we know how Jesus’ story turned out. In his moment of glory, two crucified criminals will be on his left and on his right. James and John haven’t really listen to what Jesus has been saying. They saw his miracles, his casting out of demons, and his feeding of pretty much everyone – and these two want to stay close to that. But they articulated their request in a way that actually excluded everyone else. In Jesus’ day, power, prestige, and being the ultimate insider was expressed symbolically by saying what was on your right and left. James and John were not only asking to be close to Jesus but they were, at the same time, filling that space only with themselves. Today’s story doesn’t tell us exactly why they wanted that. James and John do not ask for any special power or secret knowledge or anything that would make them into some-kind of “super” follower of Jesus. But it’s possible that what they wanted was to just be “in.” They wanted Jesus to make them part of the in-crowd – the top two disciples at the popular table in Jesus’ lunchroom. This request was maybe not only about seeking power but more about trying to feel like they truly belong. James and John, after following Jesus all over Galilee and Judea, struggled to understand Jesus’ words because those words seemed centered on separation and loss. Death, we believe, is the way we finally lose each other. And that fear encouraged James and John to do whatever they could to keep Jesus by their side.
It’s normal, I think, to worry about losing Jesus. We carry with us certain expectations and assumptions about what a good faith life is supposed to look like. If we believe the right things, handle ourselves in the correct fashion, and make sure to dot our i’s and cross all our t’s – then our faith will always be secure and our spot in “the good life” will be permanently set. This kind of faith is usually not too hard on us, doesn’t really ask much of us, and is supposed to make everything completely manageable. But then real life happens. And we discover that the life we thought our faith secured is a life that doesn’t really exist. We might find ourselves wondering if Jesus left us or we might decide that since nothing is going right, we’re going to leave Jesus. We assume that the Kingdom of God doesn’t actually include us. We stop listening and, in that moment, forget that Jesus is already listening to us. In today’s reading, Jesus used a standard technique to listen: he took James and John’s request, repeated it back to them, and turned it into a question. They hoped to grab onto Jesus by becoming the ultimate insiders but didn’t realize that Jesus already had a hold on them. Every experience you’ve had, every question you’ve asked, every moment when you forgot about God and every time you thought God forgot about you – Jesus did more than just hear you in all those moments; he listened to you. He saw you. And even when you didn’t love yourself, he loved you. Following Jesus isn’t about trying to be the ultimate faith-based insider. Following Jesus is about trusting that he is for you and that he is with you. Our life of faith isn’t supposed to match our expectations. Instead, our faith knows that listening to God is intimately connected to our being able to listen to each other and to our neighbors. Our sense of belonging grows when we step away from the popular table and take a seat at the bigger, more inclusive one, say in a large conference room or at the table set by our Lord. This life of faith, this listening to God and to each other, is how we, together, live into God’s kingdom. And it’s how we finally believe and trust that we are loved.
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