A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 21, 2012.
Psalm 104:1-9, 24; Mark 10:35-45
As a child, did you ever play church? I rather doubt that our children today give church much thought when they’re not here, so it probably isn’t done anymore. But back in the day, before iPods and video games and all that stuff, when we entertained ourselves in simpler ways, we occasionally played church. It was usually when there were girls around, because when they weren’t we boys played ball.
You had a preacher, of course, and you sang hymns… such as they were. You issued an invitation and someone, in response to that, had to be the sinner who walked the aisle. Did you ever do that sort of thing?
Up to this point in the conversation, it could be argued that the disciples of Jesus had been, more or less, playing church. Until now, it had been something of a romp: a miracle-a-day, watching and observing as Jesus did one great and wonderful thing after another, healing this sick person, giving sight to that blind person, restoring whatever needed restoring, drawing huge crowds and portraying God’s presence in everything he did and said. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? It was the greatest show on earth!
So it is quite understandable that the Zebedee brothers, James and John, would ask Jesus to give them positions of authority and leadership in his coming kingship when, by everything Jesus has been telling them, things are going to get even better and more exciting. The other disciples were thinking it too. They all wanted to be Jesus’ top dogs. Who wouldn’t?
It’s just that James and John got to Jesus first.
Maybe Simon Peter assumed, since Jesus had talked to them about how he, Simon, would from now on be the Rock and Jesus would build his church on the Rock, that he already had the position sewn up. It could very well be that Peter took it for granted that he was the one who would be at Jesus’ elbow when the heavens parted and the kingdom would emerge in all its glory. That decision had already been made, so he didn’t need to give it a second thought. But then, James and John wedged their way in and beat him to the ask. They got to Jesus first, and messed everything up… at least as far as Peter was concerned.
You know how, on television or in the movies, a scene is focused clearly on the person or object in the foreground – that is, closer to the camera – and then it moves to another person farther away in the background and places its focus there? Let’s do that.
Put your focus first on James and John as they are whispering in Jesus’ ear. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Now, zoom your lens over their shoulders and take a look at Simon in the background as he is watching them intently. He knows what’s going on, and boy, are his ears burning. See the smoke coming out, the anger and envy he must be feeling at this moment, knowing that his position has been usurped by these two young whippersnappers who have done an end-around on him.
There’s a lot of stuff going on in Jesus’ disciple group just about now, and quite frankly, none of it is very good.
Jesus said that whenever two or three people are gathered together in his name, he would be in their midst. Well, it’s just as reasonable to expect that when two or three people get together, for whatever reason, politics are going to be a part of the equation, if not the discussion. In fact, you can find politics in just about anything on any level. Any time anyone tries to climb the ladder of success, chances are you’re going to have to climb over someone else to get there, and you can’t do that without operating politically.
I once asked a young man to consider joining my church. He told me he had grown up in church, so no thanks. No offense, but if it was all right with me he’d just like to come and worship. Joining meant he might get caught up in the politics of it, he explained, and he had witnessed enough of that during his growing-up years that he didn’t want any part of it.
What could I say? It’s not as if he wasn’t right. People in the church have been misbehaving before there was even such a thing as church. Jockeying for position, climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, rolling over folks… When you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense as to why people would behave that way, but still, there it is.
But then, this request of the Zebedee brothers to Jesus doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Not after Jesus has told them the third time – the third time – that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be tried, convicted, die on a cross, and then rise again on the third day. It’s as if they’ve turned a deaf ear to everything Jesus tells them they don’t want to hear.
Now, let me ask you: does that sound familiar? It should, because too often that is how we operate.
We read our story from Mark’s gospel, but you will also find it in Matthew and Luke. And though it is second in the New Testament order, do I need to remind you that Mark was the first gospel written? In fact, Matthew had it in his hand when it came time for him to write his own version of Jesus’ life and ministry. That means he was quite familiar with this story and was aware of Mark’s version of it. Charles Campbell has suggested that “Matthew was so embarrassed by the disciples’ lack of understanding that he got them off the hook by having the mother of James and John make this request of Jesus” (Matt. 20:20-22).1 Embarrassing now, perhaps, but at the time, when it happened, when they were still playing church, it must have seemed like such a very good idea. Except, as they make their way unknowingly to the cross, the time for playing is now over.
Somewhere along the way, in most places I know of, that message has somehow gotten lost. There’s a sense in which we’re still playing church, that what we do has little resemblance to the way it was in the beginning.
Let me illustrate what I mean. This is the way it works… Today’s New Testament reading is from the lectionary, which means it rolls around on the third Sunday of October every three years. I have preached on this passage before, three years ago in fact, and six years before that. That means that those of you who have been here for awhile have heard me talk before about this conversation between Jesus and the Zebedee brothers. Do you remember? Of course you don’t remember, because Sundays come and Sundays go, sermons come and sermons go, and we just go about each day living it the best we can without giving much, if any, thought about the demands of Jesus that lead to a way of life that is self-sacrificing. Am I not right?
Don’t feel like I’m chiding you. But even if I am, I can’t help but point to myself as well. I confessed Wednesday night to the folk who were here that on any given Wednesday it’s hard for me to remember what I preached on the previous Sunday, if for no other reason than I’m so focused on the sermon that is waiting for me the following Sunday. We know how it is. We’ve been around the block a few times.
But at least we’re not as bad as some folk.
In a sermon preached almost thirty years ago, Gordon Kingsley states the situation quite directly. He tells about his “father who began his pastoral ministry in a little Missouri church in a little Missouri town. He was on fire with the gospel message,” Gordon says, “and with a sense that all believers were servants of God, ministers of reconciliation. He started preaching that message and teaching that truth in the little church. The members weren’t quite ready for it,” Gordon says. So, a well-meaning deacon in the church, a wonderful man who was trying to help the new pastor, took him aside and said something like this…
“Son, we hired you to do the preaching and we hired you to lead the singing and we hired you to do the praying because not many of us pray out loud (I pastored a couple of churches like that myself in my early days) and we hired you to do the visiting. Son, if you do those things, we will do the paying. And let me tell you, son – we have had preachers like you before you came and we are going to have preachers like you after you have gone, so just don’t get too excited about anything and we’ll all get along just fine.”2
Playing church… which may be why some folk use the church to build up their own sense of self-importance. They play the power game and, like the Zebedee brothers, seek to gain the authority that comes when others vest them with any kind of position.
At this point, you may be wondering where the sermon title comes from. Or maybe not. But just in case, I’ll tell you. I borrowed the phrase from Barbara Brown Taylor. She says, “…power thrives in the rare air at the top of any given hierarchy, where those who have it generally require tinted windows and bodyguards. One sure sign that people have power,” she says, “is that other people want to get near them – to photograph them, to attack them, to cheer them, to inhale them – it hardly matters what their motives are. It is the power itself they cannot resist, the chance to get close to someone who has something they do not (my emphasis) in hopes that some of it will rub off on them. This fascination with power has been going on forever. It is how the world works.”3
James and John want Jesus’ power to rub off on them. They too want to heal the sick and raise the dead, preach the gospel and see people come to God. That in itself, of course, is not bad. You and I should covet the same for ourselves. Oh, we may have no interest in healing the sick or raising the dead – imagine what kind of firestorm that would cause! – but that part about helping people come to God? Yes, we should be interested in that… though, truth be told, most of the time we are not.
In fact, if power, as it is defined by Jesus, is the sum total of what we should seek in terms of our faith in Jesus, we might just want to turn elsewhere for it because the question comes down to this: what is that power that enables us to do that sort of thing, and how does one get it?
Jesus uses an imagery for it: the cup, the cup that he will drink, the bitter cup of the cross, of death and sacrifice, and humility. It is the oddest form of power, if for no other reason than it is the kind that nobody really wants. Even Jesus didn’t want it, but he chose it for himself because that is what his Father asked him to do.
Then he tells all his disciples, after they complain about the high-handed maneuvering of their colleagues, the Zebedee brothers, that when he comes in his kingdom those who seek to be first will find themselves last, and the last will be first. It’s not getting any better, is it? “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” he says. And then he adds those words with which you are probably quite familiar “… and to give his life a ransom for many.”
But you’ve heard all this before, haven’t you? And you still don’t know what to do in light of it. This servant thing is a hard pill to swallow, and many are the times when we just aren’t in the mood for another dose.
May I ask you to consider this, however? The reason Jesus didn’t allow James and John to sit at his right and his left – in addition to the fact that he said it wasn’t within his authority to grant such a thing – is that the only way to have those positions is to do what he did on the cross, and that is something they didn’t have to do because he was prepared to do it for them. Only one person could possibly drink that bitter, bitter cup, and Jesus did it for us all. As a nun once told Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, “You don’t have to suffer for the sins of the world, darling. It’s been done.”4
So what are we left to do? May I suggest this? Throw away the ladders we have constructed that are designed for us to climb higher and higher, toss away the tinted windows and discharge the bodyguards. Real power, the power of the kingdom, is found in humility, and in service to others. Where will you find that kind of power? Only in the back of the line, my friends. Only in the back of the line.
Lord, show us how to serve as you serve, to live as you live, to be as you are. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Charles L. Campbell, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 189.
2J. Gordon Kingsley, “Ceremonies of Servanthood,” (unpublished sermon), September 25, 1983.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1997), p. 42.
4The Christian Century, “Century Marks: Unself-Conscious,” August 9, 2011, p. 8.