Sunday, October 18, 2009

Glory: Throne or Cross?

Twentieth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 24) – Year B (RCL)Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Sunday, October 18, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

Sometimes when I’m watching a movie or TV show, I find myself feeling really embarrassed for the character on the screen. It’s almost as if what were happening on the screen were happening to me. Even if the situation unfolding is not one that has ever happened to me, nor ever would likely ever happen to me, I still get very uncomfortable, as if I were the one in that situation. Well, I find myself feeling the same way whenever I read or her today’s gospel lesson – I always feel so embarrassed for James and John, the Zebedee brothers.

First off, they come in and have the gall to tell, not ask, but tell Jesus that they want him to do whatever they ask of him. But Jesus handles this open-ended demand with great tact. Then the Zebedee Boys come out with their real request. They demand that they be given the places of honor at Jesus’ right and left in the Kingdom of Heaven. In so doing, in the eyes of the other disciples, and in our eyes, they come off as brazen, opportunistic, self-centered, and uncouth. Again, Jesus uses great tact and finesse in responding. He doesn’t rebuke them for making such an outlandish and downright self-centered request. And he doesn’t flat out say “no.” Instead, he attempts to use the situation as a teaching moment. He says to them, “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus is referring to his impending passion and death. He is referring to the woe and suffering he will face. But James and John do not get it. These same images of cup and baptism could also carry with them joy and salvation. And it is this latter interpretation that they latch onto. They still think they are going to have an easy road to glory. So Jesus must flat out deny their request, because what they request is not for him to grant. And he needs to further educate them as to what the Kingdom of God is really about. He says, you think the Kingdom of God is about being great, about being exalted and adored, about places of honor, about being fawned over and served. Wrong! The Kingdom of God is about service. It’s not about being served, it’s about serving others. And frankly, the service that is sometimes required will not be pretty. It requires humility. It requires loving others even when they may seem unlovable. It means sacrificing yourself for the sake of another.

Poor Sons of Zebedee. Brazen, opportunistic, self-centered, uncouth, and thick-headed to boot. But I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. There’s no denying they are opportunistic and operating out of selfish motives. But we instantly assume that they are making a grab at power. That’s certainly what the other disciples seemed to think. Or maybe they were just upset because James and John had the nerve to act on what they had only thought about – that they beat them to the punch. But what if their motive wasn’t power per se, but something else? What if they were motivated by fear?

What we don’t hear in today’s gospel lesson is what happens immediately before this scene. Jesus tells the disciples for the third time that he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, tried, condemned to die, handed over to Gentiles who will mock him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him. This is the third time he’s had to tell them this. Up until now, it just hasn’t really sunk in. But what if this time, it did sink in, at least for James and John? Maybe the Zebedee Boys finally got what Jesus was saying lay in store for him. I’m sure they would have been concerned about what would happen to their friend and trusted leader. But humans being who they are, they would have also naturally begun to have some concerns for themselves. They may have begun to fear for their own safety, to become concerned for their own security. After all, three years before, they had left everything – their fishing business, their family, to follow Jesus. And now, if what Jesus was saying was right, this was all going to come to an end. What would become of them? What would they do after Jesus was gone? Would those who sought Jesus’ life turn their attention to his disciples and start picking them off?

If all this were the case, James and John would have immediately started working on figuring out how to take care of themselves, on finding a way to insure their own safety and security. Jesus had done a lot of talking about this wonderful thing called the Kingdom of God. It sounds like a pretty safe place, right? Well, if they could get in on the ground floor of that proposition, they would surely be taken care of, be protected. In their minds, they had found a way to continue to be with their master, thereby providing the ultimate security, at least for themselves. And that way would also provide for their personal glory. Not a bad fringe-benefit.

Of course, as we know, their logic was a little faulty. James and John thought the greatest security, not to mention the greatest glory, would be achieved by being seated at Jesus’ right and left at his glory. But what they do not yet understand, despite hearing all of Jesus’ teachings on the subject of the Kingdom of God, was that the Kingdom was not like any earthly kingdom. The rules are completely different. In the Kingdom of God, the rules have been turned around. They have been turned upside down and inside out, so that they are not recognizable. Despite what Jesus had tried to tell them, James and John did not realize, could not comprehend, that the glory that Jesus speaks of is not a throne, but is, rather, the cross. They did not understand that Jesus would not be exalted with pomp and circumstance, but with the sound of hammer against nails. And perhaps the greatest irony was that in his glory on that cross, Jesus would not be flanked by two of his faithful followers. He would not be flanked on right and left by two pious, devout saints. No, he would be flanked, on his right and his left, by two criminals.

We should not be so quick to condemn or criticize James and John. They were operating out of fear. They were merely looking for a way to provide a secure future for themselves. That’s something we all want. Particularly in difficult economic times such as our world is in right now, personal security is of concern to all of us, to one degree or another. As a result, we often find ourselves in the grip of fear, making decisions based on our fears, operating out of a place of fear.

And the church, being a human institution, is no exception. The church (and here I am talking about the church in general, not necessarily this particular parish) is a place gripped by fear. For decades, the mainline churches in this country have experienced a decline in membership. Gone are the glory days of the 50s and 60s when churches were bursting at the seams, when they had multiple services on Sunday, each filled to capacity. Yet, so many churches try to hold on to the glory days of old. We used to be the biggest church, the best church. We just don’t know why people don’t want to come be part of our congregation. But if we work hard enough, we might just get more people in the doors. We just might be able to recapture the glory that we once knew. With this attitude, we are operating out of fear – fear for our own security. Because the unspoken message, which no one would admit to, is that if we don’t somehow recapture that glory, we may be doomed. So we need to get more people in the pews. We need to get their pledges so we have enough money to keep the doors open.

This is focusing on a mistaken sense of glory. This is focusing on the glory as seen by James and John, not the glory as seen by Jesus. And to this, Jesus has a message for us all. Glory is not what we think it is. It is not sitting on a throne. No, the true glory of the Kingdom of God is to be found in the cross. That’s what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be [a] servant.” Whoever wishes to truly experience the glory of the Kingdom of God must give up notions of sitting on Jesus’ right and his left, and instead, be willing to take their place with him on the cross. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” And we, his children, his brothers and sisters, likewise, are not here to be served but to serve. We are called not to be a church seeking glory but to humble ourselves and to serve our neighbors. This is true greatness in the Christian life – the generous, sacrificial, serving of others out of genuine love, even when some of our neighbors may not be so easy to love.

This is what is behind the strategic planning process this parish is currently engaged in. Over the next few weeks, the planning team will be discerning where God is calling us to go as a parish, discerning what God is calling us to do, not only within our own walls, but more importantly, what we are called to do out in the world, to provide service to others. After all, we are the Body of Christ. And like him, we are not called to be served but to serve. And when we boldly step out in mission to the community, we are not operating out of that place of fear that can paralyze us, but rather are operating out of the sense of glory promised to us by our Lord – a glory that not only benefits us individually and collectively, but also benefits the broader community of which we are a part. For as one commentator notes, “The promise of the gospel is that in the sacrifice of self for others, not only will a higher and better self emerge, but the reign of God will continue to unfold” (Thompson, 192).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thomson, James L. “Mark 10:35-45, Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4, Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers17-Reign of Christ). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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