Saturday, March 7, 2020

"God’s Favorites" - March 8, 2020

Text: Mark 10:32-45

It is possible to feel more than one emotion at a time.  I can be angry at my cat for the chaos he has wrought even while I am proud of his incredible athleticism. 
We can at the same time feel both joy and deep sadness.  A mix of feelings is not unusual.

In our scripture today, Jesus and the disciples are on the road to Jerusalem and as they walk on the road, we read that the disciples have a mix of emotions.  They are amazed and afraid.  What a combination!  Amazed and afraid.

It is entirely understandable.  Jesus says, “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 (by this he meant the Romans); they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  

Dying in the midst of political upheaval was no big deal; it happened all the time.  Still does.  But the cruelty and personal nature of it, the spitting and mocking and flogging, is what makes this so awful.  From the disciples perspective, Jesus’ words are both amazing and horrifying.

In fact, what Jesus says is so troubling and so bizarre that the disciples just cannot process this.  They don’t know what to do with it.  So they more or less ignore it.  And the next thing you know, James and John are saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Jesus has just predicted his suffering and death – actually, this was the third time now – and how do James and John respond?  They say, “Hey Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.”

Wow.  This is entirely the wrong thing to say and the wrong time to say it.  Besides being tone-deaf, this is what you call chutzpah.  I mean, this takes a whole lot of nerve. 

There was something going around on social media called the “24 Hour Can’t Say No Challenge.”  Some kids asked their mom if she would take the 24 Hour Can’t Say No Challenge.  The mom said, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”  Nobody is going to commit to answering with a yes to every request.  I mean, that is ridiculous.  But this is exactly what James and John ask.  “We want you to do whatever we ask you to do.”  Jesus, we want you to take the can’t say no challenge.

But Jesus gets to the heart of it: “What is it you want me to do for you?”   James and John replied that they wanted to sit at Jesus right and left hand when he came into glory.  They wanted to be Jesus’ favorites.  They wanted to be his top guys.  When Jesus comes in to power, they want to be next in line.

Despite Jesus’ talk about what was going to happen in Jerusalem, his disciples don’t understand.  Or maybe more accurately, they just can’t fathom it.  They were still imagining great things ahead, worldly glory, and James and John wanted plum positions in Jesus’ cabinet.  Not surprisingly, the other disciples are none too happy with James and John.  They are furious.

Why does this make the other disciples so mad?  I mean, besides the fact that nobody likes the teacher’s pet.  Nobody likes to see somebody sucking up to the person with authority.  But what really rankles the other disciples, perhaps, is that they had not thought of asking Jesus first.

It’s not like the other disciples are really into servanthood while James and John are into self-promotion.  It’s not as if the other disciples understand what Jesus is all about while James and John alone are kind of bumbling.  There is no reason to think that the others are any different from James and John. 

A couple of weeks ago, we had a work day here at church.  I was cleaning out the closet off of the library.  I found a bumper sticker that said “God Has No Favorites.”  It was an advertisement for UCCM - United Christian Campus Ministry, an ecumenical campus ministry that our church supported and that was housed in our building before closing down a number of years ago.

UCCM handed out buttons and bumper stickers with that phrase, “God Has No Favorites.”  I would show you that bumper sticker but apparently it was not in the keep pile as I had thought.  But I do have one of the buttons.

What do you think?  “God has no favorites.”  This was an especially meaningful thought for UCCM, because they tended to draw folks who were often seen as being on the outside of God’s grace looking in.  But they said, “No, God has no favorites.  God loves us all.”

I agreed with the sentiment, but still, “God has no favorites” bothered me just a little bit.  I suppose that is because deep down, we all think we are one of God’s favorites.  Or at least we want to be one of God’s favorites.  I understood what they were saying and agreed with it in principle, but I kind of liked “We are all God’s favorites” a little more. 

James and John wanted to be top dogs in Jesus’ kingdom.  They wanted to be Jesus’ favorites, and they were not alone in that.  I’m not sure that we are really much different.

Andrew Greeley told a story to go with this scripture, based real-life happenings.  You may recognize someone you know in this story and you may even recognize yourself.

Once upon a time, there was a man who worked many years as an usher in the church.  He came early every Sunday morning and sometimes worked as usher for three services.  Everything was done efficiently when he was on duty.  Even though he was not technically the head usher, he was the one who took the collection money from the other collection plates and piled it into one plate to bring it up to the altar.  If some of the other ushers were slow or inefficient, he didn’t bother to hide his impatience.  It was a privilege to be an usher and one was supposed to work hard to live up to that privilege.  Then the man who had been head usher in the parish since before the flood moved away to Arizona.

Our friend personally believed that the retiring usher was a doddering old fool, but he never said that.  He assumed that his good work would be rewarded and that he would be made head usher.  Then everything would be done efficiently.  But the pastor called a meeting of all the ushers and announced that a much younger man who had worked as an usher for only two years would be the new head usher.  Our friend wrote a letter of resignation from the ushers group and went to church the next Sunday at another parish.
What is being a follower of Jesus all about?  Is it about getting ahead?  About making a name for ourselves?  Rising to a position of influence or importance?  Or, is it about something else altogether?

I am struck by Jesus’ reaction to their bold question.  They make this request – “We want you to do whatever we ask.”  It’s a big ask and if you ask me, Jesus should have set them straight right then and there about how inappropriate it was.  But he doesn’t.  In fact, he asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus demonstrates a lot of grace and a kind of loving patience with these disciples.  He hears their request – to share in his glory – and he tells them that they will indeed share in it.

And they will.  These two sons of Zebedee would share in Jesus’ glory: as his disciples they too would come to know suffering and dying in his name.  They had envisioned the past glories of David’s kingdom; but Jesus’ kingdom would be quite different.  They had imagined sitting with the powerful and triumphant in the halls of power; they certainly weren’t imagining the scene that would unfold in Jerusalem in only a few days.

Mark is writing for an early church being persecuted because they are following Christ.  Like James and John, they to would have to “drink the cup” that Jesus drank.  Mark paints a picture of the Twelve’s misunderstanding of discipleship as a way of reminding his own community what Jesus taught about service and suffering in his name. 

Christian faith cannot be measured by the usual signs of institutional success: the size of church buildings; the numbers of adherents; acceptance and esteem in the world; influence in the halls of power; invitations to sit at prominent places.  Jesus rejected worldly approval and insisted that his disciples will be found in the least likely places: on the wrong side of the tracks and the wrong side of popular opinion, among the poor and neglected and outcast and rejected.  In the eyes of the world and maybe even to some Christians, Jesus’ followers may look like failures - or at least look pretty insignificant.  But what would we expect from those following one who came, as Jesus said, “not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

Writer Frederick Buechner spoke of how Jesus’ way collides with the ways of the culture:

If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party.  The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business.  The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified.  The world says, Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own - and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love.  The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give.

In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks they can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.
Buechner is exactly right.  If we take following Jesus seriously, there are those times when we are going to come off looking a little bit off.  Christian living can be a very countercultural act.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott quotes a priest friend of hers as saying,  “Eternal Life is not so much a change of address as a change of glasses.”  By that, he means that you look at the same world, the same life, the same faith, but you see it differently.  You see it through different eyes.

James and John wanted to sit with Jesus in his glory.  And they would, but they did not know what it would really mean to sit with him.  For that, they needed to see the world differently, through Jesus’ eyes.

Pastor Thom Shuman wrote a wonderful poem, reflecting on this passage of scripture.  It’s called “Where You Sit.”

we leave our box seats
at the symphony or ball park,
and pray you won’t catch our eye
as we pass you sitting with the homeless;

we wait for a few minutes
at the doctor’s office
to get a free shot
so we won’t catch the flu,
while half a world away
you sit for a week
hoping medicine which will cost you a year’s wages
finds its way to your village;

we sit in our home theaters,
watching the latest “reality”
on our giant screens,
while you sit in the darkness,
rocking your child asleep,
as she cries from the ache
of an empty stomach.

Lord Jesus:
when (like James and John)
we want to be at your side in glory:
remind us where you sit.
James and John seem to have totally missed what Jesus had been teaching them.  They come across as selfish and greedy and self-absorbed.  They are overly ambitious, greedily ambitious.  But Jesus treats their ambition as worthy of redemption.  He redirects their ambition.

It occurs to me that perhaps greedy ambition is better than no ambition at all.  Where ambition exists, it can be redirected.  It can be transformed.  The transformation Jesus offers is like putting on new glasses, new lenses from which to view the world.

But where ambition is entirely absent, mediocrity can take hold.  Change becomes exceedingly difficult.  Ambition is not a bad word.  Ambition can be a good thing.  Jesus ministry was nothing if not ambitious.  “I am come that you may have abundant life,” sounds pretty ambitious to me.  We are called to be ambitious disciples; the only question is the kind of ambitions we have.

It is easy to demonize James and John, but the fact that they stepped forward and approached Jesus seems to matter to Jesus more than their immediate reason for doing so.  Jesus engaged them with respect and love, and in time, yes, they shared his cup, they shared his baptism, and they sat where he sat, and where he still sits today.  They came to see the world through new eyes.  They came to see all of Jesus’ favorites out there.  May it be so for us as well.  Amen.   

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