by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood – October 21, 2012
Sermon Text: Mark 10: 35-45
For the past month or so our lectionary cycle has had us steadily marching through the meaty middle of Mark. Right before today’s passage begins, we have Jesus – for the third and final time – attempting to explain to his disciples what it means to be the Messiah. Explaining that he will be betrayed, tortured, killed, and then rise again.
In today’s passage, after Jesus predicts his death for the third time, his disciples James and John respond by saying, “So, Jesus, we were wondering – after all this torture and death and resurrection business, we were really hoping we could be awesome with you for all eternity.”
Wait, what? Is that really what they said? Yes, yes it is.
Jesus just told them he’s going to be tortured and killed and their immediate reaction is to wonder if they can somehow ride on his coattails into glory.
In his sermon on this text, Martin Luther King, Jr. called this desire to get ahead, to be up in front – leading, being showered with accolades – the “drum major instinct.” And he says we all have it – at least to some extent. It seems to be simply a natural part of being human, this desire to be loved and to be given attention. He reminds us that from her first cry, a baby is seeking love and attention. As adults, King says, we still never really get over it. He says, “We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it. Now if you don't believe that, you just go on living life, and you will discover very soon that you like to be praised.”
So true. So true. I’d like to think that if I was with Jesus that day, I would have taken the time to think about something other than myself, but I don’t know – I might have been right there with James and John. Scared about the future, worried for myself, wondering if I could find a way to the top of the heap when all the craziness shook out.
Dr. King says it doesn’t have to be a problem – this drum major instinct – if you can find a way to keep it in check, and I believe he’s right.
Jesus presents an alternative vision for greatness when he responds to James and John. Jesus doesn’t scold James and John for acting out of this natural human desire to be applauded and praised. Instead, he gently and brilliantly teaches them there is another way to be great.
In the midst of a world that told the disciples that greatness was hierarchical and only the people at the top of the heap were worthy of love and affection, Jesus calmly and quietly presented another way to look at things. In short, he did what Jesus was always so very good at doing: he turned the world upside-down.
That guy was always taking the norms and just flipping them over.
Want to live forever? You’ll have to die first. Want to be rich? You’ll need to give away all your possessions. Want to be first? You need to be last, actually. Want to sit with me at the head of the table in heaven? Well, I don’t actually know much about the seating chart up there, but if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you a new way of being great.
As I was driving through Brown County this past week, I saw a small country church and the sign said, “Jesus gives hope and peace.” Jesus gives hope and peace.
In the midst of a world where we are bombarded by messages telling us that we need to get ahead, Jesus gives hope and peace. When we are told we need to be worried about getting that promotion, making tenure, buying a bigger house, throwing the best party, getting the best grade on that project, looking better than all our friends, owning the coolest new gadget….Jesus gives hope and peace.
That’s what the Messiah does, folks. He gives hope and peace.
He tells James and John that if they want to be great, they have to be wiling to drink the cup that Jesus drinks and be baptized the way he is being baptized. That’s code for, “You have to be willing to die.” And after you do? “Well,” he says, “I still can’t promise you’ll be sitting at the head of the table because I’m not the one making those arrangements.”
The hope and peace that Jesus gives to James and John is the same hope and peace he offers to us today – we don’t have to buy into this notion that being great is all about being number one.
We don’t have to be worried about whether we get to sit at the head of the table because, truly? It doesn’t matter.
We are freed from running around and around on the giant gerbil-wheel of life, trying to get ahead. We are freed from constantly comparing ourselves to everyone else and wondering if we’re better than them. We are freed from worrying where we get to sit at the table because it turns out we’re not supposed to sit at the table at all.
The great people? The truly great people? They aren’t sitting down at the table. They’re the ones cleaning the table, cooking the food, serving the food, and washing the feet of the weary travelers who have come to eat dinner.
On Tuesday night this week, when the presidential debate was happening, one of our members posted this little gem about her husband on facebook: "While folks are talking about how they will ‘help’ people, Lanier Frush Holt is leading the first shift at the first night of this year's Interfaith Winter Shelter. Now that is sexy, folks."
And, of course, Lanier wasn’t the only one here. Do you remember just how many of you stood up last week to be blessed as we begin the shelter season? And there are so many more who work tirelessly behind the scenes – giving money, offering prayers, giving praise or a kind word to those who work the shelter week in and week out.
This service business can sometimes feel pretty thankless and lonely, but I want to say to you today, Jesus says you are great.
Jesus gives us a new way of thinking about greatness – one that is rooted is selfless service to the other. Now you might not always get thanked when you serve other people. It’s not the praise that makes you great, it’s the deep and true connection you have with the other – and with the Holy – when you reach outside of yourself to be a part of something bigger.
Jesus says that to be the Messiah means that he’s come to give his life as a ransom for many.
That image, Jesus as a ransom for many, probably conjures up images immediately in your head of Jesus dying on a cross to somehow magically wipe all our sins away in some big cosmic chess game that God made up. I want you to walk with me for a minute into this ransom image, but first, I want you to put away the image of God and the cosmic chess game with the weird rules.
Instead, let’s look at it from a sociological perspective. In the Ancient Near East, a ransom would have been given to purchase slaves. Typically, if a person was used as a ransom, the worth of the person would have been calculated and you would often get a one-to-one trade. This person for that person. Now, I have to say, I really don’t like talking about trading people and owning people – obviously, that image is pretty abhorrent to our modern sensibilities, but it is the language being used here, so hang with me.
Jesus is being given as a ransom to buy some people out of slavery. But notice that he’s not being used to buy just one person or two or three. Jesus is so great, so grand, so amazing, so wonderful that he is able to be a ransom for many people. There is something about Jesus that enables him to buy back many many people from slavery.
Slavery to what? Slavery to whom?
Well, in my experience, Jesus has the ability to ransom us from all kinds of slavery. That’s what makes him our savior. That’s what I’m mean when I say Jesus saves.
In this particular instance, I think Jesus is rescuing us from being enslaved to that drum major instinct.
Jesus sees two of his dearest friends, James and John, struggling so mightily with this human desire to be praised and given attention. Instead of scolding them, he lovingly shows them a new way.
He guides them gently through the pain of the cup and the waters and he shepherds them ably to the shores of a new world where they can be freed for service. He reminds them that all they need to do to be truly great is forget themselves a bit and seek out ways to serve others. He reminds them that they are linked to every other living creature in this world through the love of God. He helps them remember that as nice as it feels to be praised, it sometimes feels even better to praise someone else.
If we are called to follow in the Way of Christ, then we are called to preach this message – this good news – to the world around us. In the words of Dr. King, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.”
We need to say together to the world, “Do you want to be great? Do you want to be praised? That’s fine. That’s natural. We know a way you can be great. This guy Jesus told us about it. He told us that it feels really good to serve other people. He told us that the more and more we worry about others, the less and less we’ll feel anxious about ourselves. Here – come and walk alongside us. Come serve at the homeless shelter. Come with me to my shift at Community Kitchen. Here – come with me to the Habitat breakfast or the MCUM luncheon and learn about these amazing organizations and help me as I support them. Do you want to be great? Come to the nursing home with me, or the jail, or down to Seminary Square. Sit with me for a bit as I talk with these people that the rest of the world has forgotten.”
The Church – and when I say the Church, I mean the “big C,” universal Church, not specifically First United Church – has spent too many millennia obsessed with being great according to the world’s standards. We Christians have, on many occasions, found ourselves way too worried about filling up our pews, building bigger buildings, adding more people to our roll books, and stuffing our coffers.
I want you to invite a friend to church – not to sit in the pew with you and share our belief system, but to walk with us in the CROP walk, to give blood in a blood drive, to clean a cot for a guest who doesn’t have a home, to donate cloth diapers to parents struggling to make ends meet, or to do some new thing that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
We, too, can be like Jesus. We, too, can be a ransom for many.
We can call out to those who haven’t yet discovered how good it feels to serve. We can be a place for those who want to serve and don’t know where or how to plug in.
As we have been saved, let us reach out to others and share the secret: “Do you want to be great? We follow someone who taught us that we have to serve others, just like he did. Come along with us. Let’s be great together.”
 With credit to the Social Science Commentary on the Synopic Gospels by Bruce Malina for this understanding of “ransom.”