Read the gospel scripture and sermon below.
35James 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.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But 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?” 39They 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; 40but 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.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
This morning I’d like to talk to you about pyramids. Most of us are familiar with how pyramids work. They order things or show how things work or operate or how they should be if we want to get along in life well. So let’s start with the most familiar pyramid.
The food pyramid:
Now, this pyramid is supposed to tell us how much we should eat of different food items so our diet can be constituted as healthy. I feel like they tend to follow the fad of the day and whoever’s lobby money speaks loudest- but nonetheless, generally speaking, the food pyramid is a pyramid for ordering our intake carbs, proteins, fruits, and veg, so that we can establish a healthy lifestyle.
The pyramid of organizational structures:
Nearly all organizations are structured something like this: Corporations have a CEO, Nonprofits have an Executive Director, School systems have a superintendent, the United States and recreational organizations have a president, and ancient Israel had a King. There is one person at the top and then the structure moves from the most influential down the line. A hierarchy of power.
Then there are other pyramids:
Like this one, the pyramid of knowing. This pyramid shows how we get to the place of “knowing” through the intake and processing of data and information.
And there are many more like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and I am sure you’re thinking of some of your own that you experience in your world. But my favorite pyramid is this:
Ron Swanson’s pyramid of greatness. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Ron Swanson is a TV character on Parks and Recreation and, according to Ron Swanson, this pyramid shows how one might become great. And if you’re not familiar, I won’t be completely offended if you pulled out your phone to get a better look at the Swanson pyramid.
My favorite boxes are America and haircuts; three acceptable haircuts: high and tight, crew cut, and buzz cut.
Pyramids, organizational structures, hierarchy. For many of us, it’s the water we swim in. There are some assumptions in the world that we live with that give order and structure to how we experience the world. We assume someone is in charge, and their position gives them a certain amount of power, either perceived power or actual power.
It’s the “taken for granted” world we live in. And when I use the term “taken for granted”, I do not mean and something that has always been there that you didn’t appreciate. I mean something more like the water we swim in, the air we breathe, just the way things are, the way we see and experience the world. There are just certain principles and assumptions that are a given… taken for granted like… when you show up for church next week, this building will be standing here on 22nd and Guadalupe. Or that the color of the sky is blue.
We live in a world of taken for granted assumptions. It’s how we organize our lives and our minds. We want and need some structures in our lives to establish how we exist in the world.
But sometimes, those assumptions don’t serve us well. In fact, sometimes those assumptions can be harmful and exclusionary.
In our gospel text this morning we come across a familiar scene. Jesus and his disciples are walking somewhere again. They’re always on the move- on a journey. In Mark’s gospel at this point in the story, Jesus and his disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem. Three times at this point in the narrative Jesus has told his disciples he will be killed and suffer and die and rise again and that is why they are journeying to Jerusalem. In fact, the third time Jesus tells his disciples this is just before what we read in our gospel passage today in verses 33 and 34. Jesus says, “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.”
And so immediately following this statement, James and John pull Jesus aside and show that they certainly aren’t paying attention or that they even care to pay attention. They seem to be unable to capture to the scope of what Jesus is saying and make this glaringly obvious with their demand of Jesus.
Jesus points to his impending death and James and John say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” Jesus asks.
“What is it that you want me to do for you?”
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they reply.
Have the disciples not been listening? It’s like they are living on another planet. But to be honest, this is one of the things I love about the disciples; they are a group of misfits and hard-headed selfish folk who just don’t get it. Jesus is predicting his execution by the powers-that-be as they are walking towards the place where it is about to go down and the disciples are jockeying for position along the road. But… that is who Jesus chose to be his disciples.
And this isn’t far off from the conversation the disciples were having in chapter 9. In chapter 9, as the crew rolls into Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples what they were discussing along the way. And as it turns out, they were having the conversation about who was the greatest among them. And Jesus reminds them that those who wish to become first in the kingdom of God must become last.
And then again, just a few verses later, James and John are asking Jesus to give them the place of power and prestige in glory.
Where have they been? Have they not been paying an ounce of attention? Jesus responds “You don’t know what you’re asking.” They blindly reply, “Oh, but we do.”
They feel like they’ve got a good thing. They are following this rebel rouser, movement maker, and they feel like they’ve made it. They’re in. This is their thing. And they want to secure it and lock it down.
And when the other 10 hear about the request of James and John, they get upset. The text doesn’t explain why, but if the disciples like the rest of us regular folk, I can imagine they were getting a little anxious about what might happen. Maybe Jesus will favor them. How dare they ask!
Can we just pause and sit with that for a moment. From the playground to the workplace to the White House, who among us hasn’t had this feeling? We shrink back into that 10-year-old kid who wants to be affirmed that they’re part of the gang; that they’re in. I remember the feeling on the softball field as a freshman when the seniors invited me to run laps with them and offered me rides after practice. I felt like I had made it, and I didn’t want to do anything to screw that up.
And as James and John try to weasel their way into an even more inner circle with Jesus, they attempt to create a hierarchy, one like they know from the water they swim in.
And when the disciples all get in a huff about it (honestly probably because they didn’t think of it first), how does Jesus respond?
He points to the Gentiles and says “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”
Jesus points to the systems they know and then points to the circle of trust they’ve created and reminded them of what they’re experiencing now. Feel the difference. Lean into the discomfort of trying a new way.
Jesus comes establishing a different way. The Kingdom of God is different than that of the world. You know the story of the field workers who go out into the field at different times of the day but are paid the same wage? Or that part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” He is doing it differently. And the hierarchy of the Empire wants to kill him for it.
Jesus replies to the disciples and says, “But it is not so among you. 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.”
There is a different way.
In a world where the taken-for-granted assumptions would draw pyramids, Jesus comes in offering a circle of inclusion.
On Wednesday, I spoke on a panel for the Texas Freedom Network and the Transgender Education Network of Texas held here at UBC. There were about 6 of us on the panel and we were asked to respond to the question, “What do you say to someone who says that a person being trans is against their ‘sincerely held beliefs.’” All panelist answered the question well, but the answer that stuck with me was from Chaplain Remington Johnson who says when she is faced with that question, she often responds with another question: “How is this belief serving you?”
What a great question. How is this belief serving you? How are your beliefs serving you? How are your assumptions serving you? How are your taken-for-granted assumptions about the world, about hierarchy, life, serving you? Are they serving you? If they’re not serving you, then who or what are they serving? Are they serving some version of you that you feel like you need to be? Are they serving some hierarchy you feel like you have to fit into? Are they serving assumptions you have about how the world works? Are they serving a fear you might have about asking questions about all of these things?
Are they serving you well?
The roots of our faith are in asking good questions.
Asking these questions about the system, about life, about hierarchy, about what we assume to be true is the foundation of what Jesus was about.
James and John say “put us in the seat of perceived power and prestige”, and Jesus says you’ve got it all wrong. To live into the kingdom I come to establish you must turn everything upside down. The first must become last, and you must serve your sisters and brothers to be lifted up in the kingdom of God.
Where the world draws pyramids Jesus comes to draw circles of inclusion.
When we look at these stories of Jesus, every time, Jesus comes into question “sincerely held beliefs” and the systems that prop them up. He points to the heart of the matter– to how do we love God and how do we love our neighbor. Because that will re-frame everything. It will re-frame how we structure our lives, how we choose to live in relationship with the earth, who we elect into powerful life-long positions, how we choose to exist as the church in the 21st century, how we speak truth to power in the systems within which we find ourselves.
So it’s easy to point to James and John and say, “oh foolish boys”. But more often than not, I think Jesus is talking to us in this story. He looks to us and says, “you are trying to order your life like a pyramid, doing it like the world does it and like you’ve seen it done before. Why don’t you try something new?”
Because when we order our lives like Jesus, our gaze moves from the power-dominated center out to the margins. When we order our lives like Jesus, it becomes really clear that some of the hierarchies our world has established do not serve everyone well. When we order our lives like Jesus, we can begin to create some new ways for doing things that widen circles of inclusion.
So, are your beliefs serving you well? Are your assumptions serving you well? Is your worldview serving you well? Is your faith serving you well? If not, question it. Deconstruct your assumptions and your worldview. Do something new.
I can assure you, God can handle it. In fact, I think Jesus shows us that God encourages it.
Thanks be to God.