Let us pray: Holy and marvelous Parent, your love is all-consuming! We, your children strive for wholeness in our imperfect lives and in our imperfect world, and you continue to call us back to you. You continue to guard us a Mother hen protects her brood of chicks. Give us grace to hear the invitation you have extended through your Son, Jesus Christ. Give us the strength to surrender our ideas of power and success that we may find wholeness we seek as serve you in faithful discipleship. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you. For you, O Lord, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
My spouse will be the first person to tell you that I have a hard time listening. It is not that I find what he says unimportant or boring; it is just that when I am not engaged in one task, my mind is clicking away thinking about all that needs to be accomplished in any given day. Earlier this week, I tried to be productive as I drove to Syracuse for a meeting. In preparation for my sermon writing, I listened to a couple of my favorite podcasts as I drove. Both podcasts give insight into the weekly lectionary readings, and on one of them, I heard something about Isaiah I had never heard, or so I thought. I came home, and once the kids were down for the night, I attempted to impress my spouse with my new-found knowledge of Isaiah. To which he responded, “Carmen, I told you that. Don’t you remember?” Sometimes, we get caught up in our own agenda, and we forget to pay attention to what is going on around us.
Perhaps, that is what happened to John and James, the sons of Zebedee when they came forward to ask Jesus for a favor. Now, in order to experience the full impact of the brothers’ words, we need to back up a few verses to verse 32:
Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, with Jesus in the lead. The disciples were amazed while the others following behind were afraid. Taking the twelve aside again, he told them what was about to happen to him, “Look!” he said. “We’re going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the legal experts. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. They will ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him. After three days, he will rise up.
In the gospel of Mark, everything points towards Jerusalem and what will happen there. From the moment he declares the kingdom of God to be at hand and invites people to repent and believe the gospel, Jesus’ ministry and teaching is leading up to Jerusalem; Jesus’ life, healing, and teaching is leading his disciples and all who have come to believe the gospel through him to the cross where he tells the twelve disciples who have followed him the closest for about three years now that he is going to Jerusalem and will be ridiculed, spat upon, tortured, killed, and after three days will rise again. And, yet for the third time, Jesus’ closest disciples demonstrate that they do not understand what Jesus is talking about.
Jesus is leading the disciples and those who believe in him to the cross, and as some who are following begin to understand the depth and meaning of this journey and become afraid, the disciples are excited. James and John, apparently, are especially excited because if Jesus is going to die, then someone else is going to have to step up, and in the words of the popular musical Hamilton, James and John think Jesus needs a Right-hand, and this case, a right-hand and a left-hand man. Are these two just a bit power hungry? Are they just a bit caught up in their own success and daydreams about what it will be like to ride into Jerusalem mounted on steeds to the right and to the left of Jesus? Are we at all surprised that James and John are seeking after power and success?
Who does not dream of living a successful life? I have never met anyone who didn’t have a dream or an idea what success might look like for them: success is finishing our education with minimal debt and a job offer immediately after graduation. Success is being able to raise children who are kind, compassionate, and who will work to achieve their own dreams of success. Success is working enough while we are younger so that when we are older we can spend our days together in a house we have paid for on a little piece of property we have paid for and meet our daily needs in retirement. Success is appointing not one but two justices to the Supreme Court, riding on the wave of a recovering economy where there are 7 million job opportunities, unemployment is at around 3%–an all-time low, and mid-term elections are still two and half weeks away. Just like James and John, we all have a picture of what it means to us to be successful, to be powerful, to be in a position to affect change.
Jesus has an image of success, freedom, and power, too. After patiently receiving the request from James and John, Jesus tests them, and as often happens in the gospel of Mark, the disciples fail the test. “Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?” “Sure, no sweat, Jesus.” Then Jesus tells them, “Oh, believe me. You will indeed drink this cup and receive this baptism.” “You will be persecuted for your belief and faith and me; you will give up your life for the glory of God and the sake of the kingdom.” Noticing this conversation, the other ten disciples get upset. “Who are James and John to ask you to do this favor anyway?” Or perhaps, “why did I not think to ask you first?”
Then, Jesus, as he has done throughout the gospel of Mark, takes all twelve aside and reframes and redefines what it means for a person to achieve success, and what it means for a person to be powerful. Jesus contrasts the term ruler with servant leader. You see, for Jesus, a ruler is someone who is heavy-handed. A ruler rules out of a need to be in control of other people. A ruler trusts little, keeps his or her friends close and his or her enemies closer. A ruler will not tolerate dissent and will instead imprison, oppress, or kill anyone who gets between the ruler and his or her intended goal. The closer a person gets to the ruler, the higher his or her rank is perceived to be, but remove the ruler and everything in this built up kingdom will fall like pieces of glass shattering on a cement floor.
Servant Leaders in contrast to rulers do not depend of self, but offer themselves in service to a higher authority. In the case of the gospel of Mark, and the Christian church that higher authority is God. Servant leaders offer themselves in prayer, in worship, in communion, and in service to God in order that God might speak into their lives and direct them in the way they should go. Servant leaders do not hoard up treasures on earth, but offer their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their services, and by virtue of all of these, their witness in order to share the gift of God given through Christ with another person. Jesus says to his disciples, “for the Son of Man didn’t come to be served rather to serve and to give his life to liberate others.” Other translations say, “to give himself as a ransom for many.” Jesus is the only one who can drink the cup and receive the baptism he has been called to. Jesus is the only one whose death upon a cross is a ransom for us. And here is the good news, ransom here does not equate to some pre-determined amount of money for the release of a captive. Ransom as spoken here means redemption; Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the sole purpose of offering redemption to all of humanity in order to glorify God and draw each person closer to God.
Here’s where things get sticky: Jesus throws out an earthly understanding of power and speaks about a spiritual way of living our lives, and that is great—except, the kingdom of God that is at hand here in 2018 is an earthly realm. So, how do we live as servant leaders in a world where ruler is the status quo? Beginning next Sunday, we will be invited to consider the act of financial stewardship with the saints. We will hear about saints from throughout church history and how they offered themselves as servant leaders. We will hear from saints within our church and how and why they view financial stewardship one of their spiritual disciplines. Then, in a few weeks, we will all be asked to prayerfully consider our financial stewardship to this church. We will be required to examine our gifts, both our financial and non-financial resources, and in response to the redemption and life we have received through Christ, offer our resources in service to the church and by extension to the community and the world. The pledges we make are between God and each individual or family, and the pledges we make reflect our priorities. My prayer is that we will seek to model of the faithful of Jesus and offer ourselves in service and in witness to others as servant leaders and not simply rulers. Amen.