Psalm 91: 9-16
Years ago, a relative of mine and I were visiting at a family get-together when the subject of church came up. She told me that she was attending a new church, one that practiced full-emersion baptism, and, instead of welcoming her in as a new member, many of the members of this new congregation told her that she wasn’t really “saved” because her baptism, done when she was an infant, was done by sprinkling rather than full emersion. She was receiving the direct message that her baptism didn’t count, and that, by extension, neither did she. Was she in the right church, she wondered. I didn’t know, I told her, but as we visited, we tried to find meaning in what had happened. We talked about baptism and what it means. Taking her back to her roots in a more liturgical tradition, I reminded her that baptism is a sacrament, that it is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” and that it is the same whether it is done by sprinkling, pouring, or full emersion. Baptism, I reminded her, is a “once and done” sort of thing. All baptisms mean the same, and once it’s done, it’s done – no need for a second baptism, with more and deeper water, is ever needed.
There is often so much energy spent in gatekeeping in our Christian practices that we often fail to anticipate life beyond – life beyond that gate, life lived in meaningful discipleship. As in this example with my relative, so much emphasis was paid on how one is baptized, that the essential energy of making people more like Christ may have gotten lost. We like to have churchy things “right” and good…as well we should. But, I think we
sometimes miss the important fact that we should spend more time in the prayerful practice of living our baptized lives - that is, lives spent living in vulnerability, some suffering, and always seeing death as a way to new life. This is what we are called to. These are not the values of our culture, so there is good reason that we look the other way. But, the gospels continually point us to the daunting demands of discipleship. What are disciples to do?
Just prior to this portion of Mark which is our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus has announced for the third time, that he was on his way to Jerusalem, and there, he would be flogged, spit upon, and eventually killed. The first time he made this announcement, Peter rebuked him. The second time, the disciples sang that old favorite, “Who’s the greatest?” and now, the third time, James and John, with some cheek it seems to me, considering that Jesus had just announced his own impending crucifixion, announce that they want Jesus to do their bidding, to grant them positions of prestige in his kingdom- a familiar and sad act. Clearly, they have missed the point, and their spoken wish jolts us in its insensitivity.
Now, I bet many of you have been directed by a child at some point in your lives, to do their bidding. When she was a bit younger, my granddaughter, in a plea for something I’d turned down, said to me, “but Grandma, I want you to do what I want you to do.” Gentle life correction there, but she is, after all, a child, and that is expected of a child. But when one reaches adulthood as James and John had, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” is unexpected. Some knowledge of the social systems of the first century is helpful. Two aspects of those social systems are particularly pertinent.
Jesus lived during a time of the Patronage System. In this arrangement, two socially
unequal persons were paired. The higher-status person, the patron, would look after the lower-status person, the client, in a way that paralleled a family relationship. In that way, the client had his basic needs met and the patron had a worker, a follower. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Malina and Rohrbaugh, p. 388) Jesus would have served as a patron with his client followers or disciples, but it is interesting to consider how the clients related to one another.
These client relationships were considered to be factions. So when James and John came to Jesus with their tactless request that they be honored above the rest of the core group, their behavior was in line with the nature of a faction, or members that are related to the benefactor, Jesus – but not to each other. James and John approached Jesus on their own behalf, but in complete disregard for the others. Of course, that provoked the envy and anger of the others, as we heard in v. 41.
Given this, Jesus’s two-part answer was understandable. Were they, he asked able to share his aforementioned fate (to drink his cup, which, in the Bible often referred to whatever God had to offer a person in life, either in entirety or in part.) Then Jesus stated that God alone is the Patron, capable of handing out such patronage. Jesus was not, he told them, the patron in the Kingdom of God.
The two move directly into denial, perhaps as we might have. But, Jesus, with compassion, revealed what Kingdom behavior really takes, and it is the opposite of what James and John have asked for. You see, said Jesus to the two (who were moving from denial through many emotions and into a good deal of entitlement) greatness is found in humility. And, it seems that what the two disciples were after was greatness alone.
We humans get trapped in the fiction of self-greatness. The one-ups-man-ship, our egos want to prove ourselves to get the attention we feel we deserve, though we would clearly want to deny it. We even sometimes fall into the “It’s all about me” pit…or the “it works for me” pit. You know that one? The “it works for me!” says what works for me is what counts. That is privilege speaking, and Jesus’ teachings challenge privilege. Jesus challenges anyone with power, and let’s face it, we all have power. So, Jesus’ teachings challenge everyone.
Part of our discomfort, as we read the words from James and John, may have something to do with the fact that we must begin to see that we, you and I, are all, in some ways, the sons or daughters of Zebedee. We all have the capacity of making self-centered, self-indulgent requests of others. We want the best seats in the house. And, though we may not be completely open about our self-centered yearnings, we know that deep down, privilege is usually pretty attractive.
Being good at things, being at the top of the class, winning a game…nothing wrong with any of them. But, the challenge offered in the gospel is that when our sole purpose in life becomes winning or showing we are better than others, then it is time to consider our understanding of the gospel. When our identity or self-worth is tied up in the position we hold, when we use our position to lord it over others rather than serve them, then we wonder if we have understood the gospel.
Such understanding takes gospel knowledge and prayerful time of introspection, and then the will to face our own insensitivities. Our task, then, is to face our humanity and to live the new life of discipleship Jesus calls us to. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Only those who fa
ce their wounded condition can be available for hearing and so enter a new way of living.”
A couple of examples come to mind. The first is from my own experience, a confession of sorts. Michael, as many of you know, has taken a couple of falls recently. In the end, we found out he had torn his quadricep muscle completely away from the bone to which it should be attached, and then had to have reparative surgery. He’s been pretty much out-of-commission for about three months, and now, living within his restrictions is pretty much routine. But, in the first few days, when he was limping around the house, yet undiagnosed, and I was in my usual state of “busy,” I found myself feeling a bit peeved that I had to do all the work – I had to take the garbage out, pull the garbage up the hill to the street, I had to do all of the shopping, cook the dinner, and take the dog for a walk, and I mean, I had other work to do, and wasn’t that more important? When I reflect back on that time, I feel regret for the incredible insensitivity I felt at the time.
And congregations, faith families, can be just as good at lacking insight as individuals. I took a class during seminary at a downtown Vancouver church. The history of the congregation who once worshipped there is interesting. The church building is located in downtown Vancouver’s eastside, where over the past decades the homeless population has swelled, along with patterns of drug use. The congregation continued to worship there, but the neighborhood was changing rapidly around them. Members of the congregation would arrive on Sunday morning and enter through the basement parking lot and then ascend up the inner stairs into the building and look out to see all of these PEOPLE all over their front steps, and they felt annoyed with a bit of righteous indignation
It was as if their pristine building were dirtied with these others, these not-like-us neighbors, especially given that the church had so much to do …so many ministries…so much outreach. Hmmm. In the end, they saw their own lack of gospel understanding and literally turned the keys of their building over to those homeless neighbors and to the UCC church to run a resource center there. Painfully, they each said good-bye and then each found another congregation with which to worship. That wasn’t easy. I’m thankful for their self-knowledge and gospel understanding.
A third illustration…a well-known American psychotherapist, Donald Meichenbaum, tells of the time that his car was struck by lightning while he was driving. Once he was safe and at home, he, deeply shaken, began to share his ordeal with his teenage son – expecting, of course, at least some small degree of sympathy. Instead, the son interrupted and said, “Dad, let’s go buy a lottery ticket. They say the chances of being hit by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.” James and John were every bit as self-absorbed as the son in this story. They, like we, are called to another reality.
All of these simple illustrations remind us that in order to be fully human, we are called to be like Christ. To have it all, and then, to surrender it all. Simone Weil, a French religious philosopher and mystic who lived at the beginning of the last century, said that to be human is not to do what is possible, but to do what is just. The truly human choice is to have the power to do whatever you want to, to whomever you want, but to choose to act with justice and love toward others. It’s exactly what God does. It was what Jesus did. He didn’t choose to live a long life and lord it over others. He chose to accept the cup given to him. “For Jesus gave his life as a ransom,” or an act of securing release for us. For that we gl
orify him and then act with justice towards others.
Are you able to drink the cup Jesus drank, or to be baptized in the baptism he was baptized in? May it be that our prayers to God are not so much about having a great job and a good income, but that we may become more fully human by emulating Jesus and treating others in a just way. This is not what society would want, but it is what our baptism, done by water and the Spirit, calls us to.
May it be so.