Listen to the sermon from Sunday, October 18, 2015 titled “What is Your Point?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Jockeying for power. It happens in every group. So two disciples approach Jesus as they’re walking along and begin with the standard prayer I suppose all of us pray: “”Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” “What do you want?” Jesus asks. “”Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” As D. Mark Davis puts it, “James and John call “shotgun.”
As Michael Scott from “The Office” says, “The rules of ‘shotgun’ are very simple. The first person to call ‘shotgun’ when in sight of the vehicle gets to sit in the front seat.” After adolescence we learn to be more subtle about it, but jockeying for power and status is only human. In his classic Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietzsche said the will to power is the essence of life:
[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body… will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant – not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power… ‘Exploitation’… belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.
So as clumsy as they are in their gambit, James and John can hardly be faulted for asking. You remember James and John, a.k.a. “the sons of Zebedee,” a.k.a. “the sons of thunder,” though it’s not clear whether that refers to their stormy bickering or Zebedee’s booming temper, which could explain why they left their father fast as lightning when Jesus called them from their fishing boats.
Jesus doesn’t give an immediate “no” but says, “You don’t know what you’re asking.” Isn’t that true of so much of our prayer? And he asks them: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” A reference to to the bread broken and the cup poured out in communion, of course, which is a reference to the cross. In Mark, the identity of those for whom the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory is revealed in chapter 15: “And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27). More than any, Mark’s gospel emphasizes there is a price to be paid for following Jesus and doing things his way. It is not an escape from suffering, but a call to a particular kind of suffering, redemptive, and serving.
All people suffer. All people serve something and give themselves up doing it. Christians suffer like everybody else, but in a redemptive way. As Rob Bell puts it in his wonderful little book Drops Like Stars:
We are going to suffer.
And it is going to shape us.
We will become
Bitter or better
Closed or open
more ignorant or more aware
We will become more or less tuned in to
the thousands upon thousands of gifts
we are surrounded with every single
moment of every single day
This, too, will shape me.
The only question left is, how?
In His book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen suggested the Christian way is not to think we can avoid suffering, but to use our suffering to help others. As our reading from Hebrews suggests, Jesus is able to help us because he knows what it is like to live in human skin, to struggle as we struggle, to suffer as we suffer.
“We are able!” James and John reply, boldly, brashly. They still don’t understand, do they?
Meanwhile the other ten disciples catch wind of the conversation, and they are not pleased. And don’t you know these twelve angry men aren’t angry because they think James and John have missed the point of Jesus’ teachings, but because they want one of those high places themselves. James and John – who do they think they are?
Jesus calls them together 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…”
Doubtless he is referring to the absolute power of the Ancient Near Eastern monarchs, wielded arbitrarily and lethally.
The immediate reference might be King Herod the Great who went crazy with power and became paranoid and murderous. He was so jealous of his throne he had several family members executed, and of course he is the one who had the boy babies around Bethlehem killed when the wise men told him a King had been born there.
And things didn’t change much over the centuries. The Medieval King of Seville, Pedro the Cruel, murdered his half brother by hand and then sat in his tent to finish his dinner. Read the histories: Henry the Eighth, Catherine de Medici, Otto the First – this is what power does. It took us a long time to get past these cruel kings who would stop at nothing to gain and hold power.
Things are different now. Or are they? Some would say the banks and corporations are the places of power now, where decisions are made without regard to their negative and even lethal impact on millions of people so that power can be held in the hands of the few.
But before we judge the corporate powers, let us look at our own lives and the way we operate on whatever pile we seek to climb. What are we willing to do, who are we willing to hurt trying to gain power or status in our own sphere of operation? What are your goals and what are you willing to do to attain them? Who are you willing to hurt, who are you willing to leave behind? What is your point in what you are trying to do?
When you get to the top of the heap, will the heap be worth having? And is it worth the price you must pay to get there? In the human race to reach the top, it’s always good to ask when you get what you want, what will you have? And, what will you have become?
“It is not so among you,” Jesus tells the disciples. This is not our way. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus modeled this behavior consistently, but nowhere more than when he took a towel the night before his death and washed his disciples’ feet.
And the life of the slave in Roman times was hard, a goal no one would seek, the very bottom of the social ladder.
“For the son of man came not be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is Jesus’ way. This is who we follow. “What does this mean?” asks Robert Cornwall?
We should understand this word in the context of Jesus’ ongoing revelation of what lies ahead. He understands his move toward Jerusalem as being a move toward the cross. The cross will stand as a call to a new form of life, where all are called to be servants. In doing so, Jesus sets us free (ransoms us) from the system that seeks to dominate and tyrannize us. In moving toward the cross he sets us free from our captivity to the systems of this world.
What is your point? In this life we all suffer and struggle. We all serve some system, pay a price to reach certain goals, become a certain kind of person as we do. “So I’ll ask you again,” writes David Lose:
Who will you serve – the voices of the culture that say that you can be free – indeed, must be free – on your own and at any cost, or the voice of Jesus that calls you to find your freedom and, indeed, your true self, through service to your neighbor.
The call of Christ is that we become servants, for helping others to become our way of life. By losing ourselves in service we gain our lives and become followers of Christ in deed as well as word.
That does not mean we escape suffering, but turn our suffering to the work of being wounded healers in Jesus’ name. In Jesus’ name that is our point. That is who we follow. That is who we are called to be. Amen. May we pray?
O God show us how to let go of the race to the top, the grab for power, the jockeying for status that costs us our souls and drives us away from healthy relationship. But lead us to follow your way of loving service that we may be rich in relationship and whole-souled in experiencing this good life you offer. We pray as we would live, in Jesus’ name. Amen.