Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24B] - October 21, 2012 (Mark 10:35-45)

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Come to think of it, haven’t we heard quite a bit of that kind of sentiment lately? However, in our case, it’s addressed in a slightly different way. It sounds more like this: “Presidential candidate, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

For example: “I am graduating from college in two years. I want you to ensure I have a job offer.”

“This economy stinks. I want you to do something to get it going again.”

“I am afraid Iran might get a nuclear bomb and terrorists will strike again and I want you to ensure the world’s safety…or at least mine.”

“I don’t think my tax rate is fair compared to what the other guy is paying and I want you to fix it.”

“Get rid of the BCS series and institute a real playoff system for college football.”

Written down on little index cards and spoken politely into the microphone, or fired off to campaign headquarters in a passionate email, or shouted out from the floor of a campaign rally our demands fill the air at this campaign season. We expect so much from our candidates and still they so constantly promise to deliver. There is such a slight difference between the word “voter” and “devotee.” We all have ideas and we’re all ready to follow, ready to pledge our support, ready to stand in line. And it’s not just open democracies like ours that exhibit this tendency of demanding from our leaders whatever we think we deserve. It takes a little more effort for dictators and despots to be responsive to change, but in all systems of human governance, those who think they’re closest to the seat of power—be they a big-bucks contributor or an all-powerful undecided voter chosen off the street—often feel they can ask a few favors.

The same type of thinking apparently creeps into the disciples’ minds as they continue getting closer to Jesus. At this point, it is becoming increasingly clear that they are getting closer and closer to the capital, Jerusalem. And although he has now three times predicted his suffering and death at the hands of the ruling class, the disciples still seem to assume he will be gaining some kind of power once they get there. And they want a piece of it. They want a piece of the prestige—a plum cabinet post, a place of honor at the head table—once Jesus comes into his glory. They want to be associated as closely as possible with God’s new regime of hope and change. In their vision of the future as God’s plan plays out, people will look to them and understand the nature of glory and authority.

Yet much to their chagrin, such requests are apparently not Jesus’ to dole out. “You don’t even know what you are asking,” Jesus responds as if to say, “You have no idea what I’m about to get myself into.”And although James and John, the Sons of Thunder, still claim that they are willing and able to follow him wherever he leads—drinking from whatever cup Jesus is given, taking on whatever experiences Jesus is getting ready to take on—the places of glory in God’s kingdom, as it turns out, are not so easily dispensed and dispersed. Despite all the power on display as he makes his way to Jerusalem, not even Jesus will have the authority to grant such requests.

So, at this point it is clear that none of what Jesus has been going over for the past several miles has sunk in. Jesus will not be going to Jerusalem to assume control at the standard levers of power. His most recent explanation to his followers of his impending fate—coming just prior to this episode with James and John—has been the most graphic: the Son of Man will be handed over to the people currently in power, then condemned to death, then mocked, spit upon and flogged. Then he will be killed. On the third day he will rise again. Jerusalem had been a capital city for centuries, a key strategic location to which kings and armies had laid siege and over which they had fought time and time again. It is entirely understandable that the disciples would have thought Jesus’ conquest of the place would have followed suit.

However, what was not yet as apparent was that in the death of Jesus, God would be completely re-writing the definition of power. Power will look eerily like weakness. In the suffering of the Son of Man, God would be re-defining the way things will really get done. Getting things done will look like serving, not as much delegating. And on the cross of Christ, God would be turning the notion of glory on its head. Glory will involve utter humility and handing over whatever you have. Could you imagine such responses from either of our candidates as they approach Washington, DC? “The hard times of this economy you will be baptized with, but a job after graduation or lower prices at the gas pump are not mine to grant.” The campaigns would be over before they began!

"Crucifixion," Jacopo Casentino
It is so easy to laugh and shake our heads at the disciples’ foolish request. After all, we have the benefit of standing on this side of Easter morning, on this side of the good news of Jesus’ victory over all that suffering. Yet, all the same, I wonder how often the old, former definitions of power and authority and glory often creep into our thinking about God, and even into our ministry? How often do we really expect God to show up at the margins of life, and be glorified in our moments of weakness? Or is more likely for congregations think things like, “If we could just have a bigger, more well-designed church building, our congregation would be set for the future.” Or, “If our youth programs could just be more attractive, more hip, we could have the most popular church on the block.” How often do congregations, for example, measure their growth and influence by the number of members in worship rather than the number of people in the community they’ve served or the number of new people they’ve reached with the gospel? Or maybe we still measure too many things to begin with, obsessed with the health of our ministry, our legacy, the effect of our sermons.

Yes, in many of our requests of God we often hide that old theology of glory rather than confidently display the new theology of the cross. We often still harbor the misguided notion that God only is present in the good times, that God is only able to work through the big and loud and prominent, often forgetting that greatness, if it must be measured, is measured through service, and influence through the relinquishment of authority. The cross of Jesus, however, once and again reminds us of that. The cross lays bare all our designs on glory and human claims to power. In going to die, Jesus exposes the futility of that way of thinking, as well as the futility of violence, the cruelty of lording it over each other…and thereby displaying the true power of humility.

I can’t help but think this week of the example of that 14-year-old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, singled out and gunned down by the Taliban on her bus to school. In her humble, peaceful defiance to get an education, she had become a symbol for all those in that part of the world who long for basic human rights, especially girls and women. With no weapons or economic sanctions at her disposal to change the ways of those who oppressed her, Malala took to blogging about her desire to go to school and her belief that all should be able to receive an education. She also wished not to wear the burqa the religious authorities forced upon her because it made walking in a war zone more complicated and dangerous. Her only tool was a blog that she wrote. Yet, afraid of this humble form of power, the Taliban used their futile ones and put a bullet in her neck and another in her head. Miraculously, she survived. She’s up and talking now, I hear. The result may have temporarily stopped Malala from blogging and going to school, but her vulnerable witness—and her injury—has once again exposed the depths of their cruelty and barbarism…indeed, the cruel and barbaric potential of all of us.

In one poignant scene from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the elder Father Zossima lies dying, and all of the younger monks crowd around him hanging on his final words of wisdom before he breathes his last. Some of them will stay in the monastery and keep the brothers in line. Others will leave its cloisters, venturing out into a world that is unpredictable but exciting. Near the end, he utters his best wisdom for living wherever the Spirit takes them: “A loving humility is a terrible power,” he says, “the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it.”

Nothing compares with it. Father Zossima, Malala Yousafzai, the everyday servants of this and every congregation all echo that reality we come to know at the foot of the cross, and again at the humble meal of bread and wine, in the splash of water at the font. That is, in the end, the only power that truly transforms the world, the only authority that truly gets every knee bending and every voice singing, the only leader that receives the devotion and love from every subject is not the power that is elected to office in Washington, or Tehran, or Moscow. It is not the power that returns favors based on brilliance or even loyalty. It is the power, rather, of the one that drinks the cup of suffering and undergoes the baptism of death. It is the power of the one whose life is given as a ransom for many. It is the power of the one dies with people at his right and his left, but they are not his disciples. They are the criminals of Calvary. It is the power of the one—the only one—who has ever walked out of the tomb.

“Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Rise. Rise from the dead.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.