Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on October 18, 2009.
Mark 10: 35-45
No matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to escape thinking of ourselves and our relationships in terms of position and power. No matter how old we are, or what status of life we achieve or fail to achieve, there’s always an inner awareness we have of where we stand in the world.
A good friend of mine has twin sons who are now young adults. When they were younger they like to play Batman and Robert (better known as Batman and Robin). One day they got into a heated argument about who was going to get to play Batman and who was therefore relegated to play the role of Robert. That kind of play is cute and natural with children but it becomes divisive and destructive when adults play the game, “Who is the greatest?”
Ram Dass tells the story of a rabbi, who in a overwhelming fit of religious passion, ran into the synagogue and fell to his knees and began to cry out, “I am nothing! I am nothing!” The cantor of the synagogue saw this model of spiritual humility and was so moved he fell to his knees beside the rabbi, and cried, “I am nothing! I am nothing!”
Now the sexton, the building superintendent of the synagogue, was walking through the darkened synagogue couldn’t refrain himself either, and fell to his knees beside the rabbi and the cantor and cried out with all his heart, “I am nothing! I am nothing!” At this, the rabbi nudged the cantor and complained, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
This vignette from Mark tells us a not-so-complimentary conversation held between the disciples to determine who would be granted the roles of power and influence among Jesus’s first followers. James and John sidled up to Jesus and stated their request, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
It’s hard to fill in all the details with certainty what then happened among the other ten disciples. Was it an indication Jesus’ first group of followers were a group of ambitious and aggressive young bucks that were naturally sorting out the pecking order among them? Was it a power thing between James and John to settle between those two alone to determine which between them held the reins of power by knowing who would serve on Jesus’ right, the true place of power, and who would serve from the lesser position on Jesus’ left? Or was this a larger issue as these two brothers joined together in a power coalition against the other ten leaving only the decision as to who would serve as first in charge and who would serve as second in charge leaving the other ten with no real power to wield? Whatever the case, the issue reveals that the arrogance of the disciples was unbounded and that they wanted the places of power and authority without paying attention to those whom were shutting out.
Naturally, overhearing all this the other ten disciples were furious with them! “What nerve! How could they possibly think they might be the only ones considered for those positions?” Restated: “Why didn’t I think of that first?” So Jesus had to settle this kind of petty sibling rivalry and so too we might consider their struggle for power simply recognizing we too are power brokers when it comes to life’s relationships. Some give their power away afraid of its demands and questioning whether they think themselves worthy of it. Others overreach taking power and privilege away from those around them as a show of their own undernourished ego.
Jesus said it squarely, “You don’t even know what you’re asking for. Are you able to drink from the cup that I am to drink from? Are you willing to be baptized with the baptism I am soon to be baptized in?” meaning likely the baptism of death on a cross.
As Jesus and the disciples were deliberately traveling from the area around the Galilee south, climbing towards Jesus’ certain suffering in Jerusalem, only Jesus seemed to be in touch with the reality of what was to take place there. Centered in his thoughts were surely the struggle between power and the right to protect self and the suffering of body and soul that would be the death of ego itself.
The disciples were instead caught up with the success of the growing ministry among the towns and villages of the region. They witnessed the excitement of being a part of something larger than anything that had ever come to this part of the world since the days of glory created by David and the united kingdom when respect and might marked the zenith days of Hebrew history. They were caught up in the signs of power and missed the nature and source of power itself.
They could only see they were in the eye of the storm that had swept over the Galilean countryside. They couldn’t see down the road that a cost would be demanded of them for following Jesus. The days of glory soon turned to days of great personal cost to be a follower. The cost of their discipleship would be great and to be a leader among the followers of Jesus was a position not many desired once they became targets of the forces that opposed Jesus.
The church today needs to reflect upon these issues again. We lust for power without the willingness to bear what it might cost us in terms of personal commitment. We want the power and glory without paying the price of what that glory might cost. Few of us are willing to be a part of a kingdom that knows how to bless lowliness and to do as Jesus did by taking up a towel and basin of water and serving others by washing the grime from their feet.
Today we will ordain five new deacons who have committed themselves to serving the needs of the church. They are spectacularly normal. They are gifted and generous in love and acts of mercy, not afraid to risk and not afraid let their lives shine for Jesus. They’re also one of us, all of us, not worrying about power or prestige in this service because it’s simply not there. The role of deacon is to serve the tables and wait on the needs of the church and the community.
For it is in the places where people hurt and experience the loss of dignity and self-respect where we find Jesus at work. We know Jesus was in tune with the pain and suffering of people. He was able to reach across to them with the hand of friendship and avoided the usual reaching down from positions of plenty and power.
If we are to understand the words and the example of Jesus in kingdom matters, we must address the power-lust that it a part of whom we are and recognize our need for healing. We must open ourselves up to recognizing our willingness to drink from the cup that Jesus drank from and to be baptized in the baptism of suffering that Jesus experienced. Only then will we be able to find ways to be reconcilers, as Jesus wants us to be. Only when we find the way of humility and seek to serve and not to be served will we be able to be what Henri Nouwen calls, “wounded healers,” servants of God in this world. By that he means only when we recognize our own woundedness and the ways we have been broken can we be able to extend the hand of help to people. It’s our brokenness that enables us to remember what it means to be alienated from God. Only when we are in touch with our own alienation can we offer reconciliation.
We are God’s children, all of us, sons and daughters of God called to be a part of this large family. And God has called us to be a part of this work. So let us all commit ourselves to hide our love for each other less and be honest, to meet each other in the places where we hurt, because all of us hurt at one time or another, and then celebrate the unity of Christ’s love. Let us learn the greatness of serving one another and commit ourselves to meeting human needs, no matter how alienated we find them. Let us commit ourselves to the fact that this church will be open to all who are alienated from God and that we will seek to open not only our doors, but our hearts as well. For in reality, it is our brokenness itself that makes us more human. And it’s in our healing that we being to reflect the image of God. May God take our brokenness and woundedness and make us healers for God’s sake and for the sake of the world.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).