Dear Working Preacher,
Sometimes the challenge of preaching is finding a connection between the appointed biblical reading and our life today. The passage seems so archaic or foreign that it's hard to find a corollary to our present circumstances. Yes, sometimes that's the challenge ... but not today. Today's reading from Mark could be drawn right out of the weekly or even daily experience of any of us. And for that reason it offers a perfect opportunity to draw our listeners into the biblical story that they might meet the living God.
Let's briefly set up the story: Jesus has announced for the third time his intention to carry his mission to Jerusalem and anticipated that this will culminate in his death. As with the previous two announcements, it is followed by the disciples' failure to understand, not just his words but his very mission and character. The first time, Jesus' disclosure comes immediately after Peter confesses him to be God's messiah. But Jesus' redefinition of what it means to be the messiah proves too much for Peter, who immediately rebukes him. Peter imagines that redemption will be achieved by strength, not by the apparent and appalling weakness of dying on a cross (8:27-33).
The second time Jesus discloses his mission and destiny the disciples are soon debating who will be the greatest. In turn, Jesus scoops up a child into his arms and tells them that greatness rests not in phenomenal deeds but in receiving and welcoming one such as this vulnerable child (9:33-37).
This third and last disclosure is followed by what can only seem a self-serving move on the part of James and John. Apart from the rest of the disciples, they approach Jesus and ask whether, once Jesus has come into his glory, they may occupy positions of prestige in his kingdom. Two things strike me about this scene. First, I'm utterly astonished at their denseness. I mean, where have they been? Jesus keeps talking about suffering and death and for some reason they can't seem to get that through their heads. Their talk of glory immediately after Jesus' anticipation of the cross is nearly impossible to explain as anything other than denial. Perhaps punch drunk on earlier successes, they can imagine no other outcome than triumph and glory.
My second reaction, however, is more charitable. Indeed, it is to recognize that I often fall into the same trap that they do. In a time of crisis, when Jesus has just announced that he is going to his death, they react with the intuitive move to self-protection. Indeed, not only do they ask for seats of glory, but they do it apart from their companions, as if they believe there won't be enough glory to go around and so they'd better get theirs first. No wonder the other disciples are angry; they see that James and John are trying to edge them out.
And are we any different? When we feel under attack, or afraid, or anxious, isn't the temptation always to move toward self-preservation, give into our fears about scarcity, and see our companions as rivals rather than friends? And of course it doesn't work; it never does. But what's the alternative?
That's what Jesus articulates. As in the two previous scenes around these issues, Jesus invites them not just to re-imagine but actually to redefine their understanding of power, prestige, status, and leadership. In this case he defines leadership as serving the needs of another. Which means that glory comes not from individual accomplishment but from service.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Then why is it so hard? Two reasons. First, given the witness of both Scripture and our experience, I think it's safe to say that as a species we are just insecure enough to believe that there is not enough to go around -- not enough money, enough time, enough love, you name it -- and so we seem hardwired to look out for ourselves rather than our neighbor.
Second, we are bombarded 24/7 with cultural messages that play upon this insecurity by asserting that glory rests in possessions, or wealth, or fame, or individual accomplishment. Why else would we pay professional athletes and movies stars millions upon millions while school teachers and nurses -- and for that matter pastors -- such modest wages? Although we pay lip service to serving others, the fact of the matter is we have an entire culture encouraging us to "look out for number 1."
How can we possibly combat these messages and our own proclivities? Again, two ideas: First, if we're honest we can probably admit that our stuff hasn't made us any happier. In fact, the dream of extreme capitalism (where growth and productivity are no longer means to an end but an end in themselves) is on the brink of imploding. Credit card debt has exploded, mortgages are underwater, and more and more people are so stressed by trying to "keep up with the Joneses" that that they can't enjoy even enjoy what they've attained. If we can create even a small space for candor in our worship service, we can make room to admit that the world's route to glory is a dead end.
Second, we each have also had moments where we've experienced the truth of Jesus' words. Moments, that is, where we have put someone else's needs first -- not because we wanted to please them or wanted something in return but from the sheer delight of serving. Each of us has volunteered, or helped out a friend, or encouraged someone down in the dumps, or lent a hand to someone in need, and when we did so experienced the joy of giving ourselves to another. Each of us, that is, has fought our insecurity about not having enough by making ourselves vulnerable to the needs of another and found that vulnerability rewarded not simply by the gratitude of the recipient but by our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, and courage.
So this Sunday, Working Preacher, I'd invite you take a few moments for a sober comparison of the world's understanding of glory and the one Jesus advocates. But don't stop there. Then invite parishioners to share stories of when they have given of themselves for the sake of another and received back so much more than they've given. Stories, that is, of service. It should only take a few moments, but in the time it takes to share those stories we can begin to tell an alternative narrative, a true narrative, about the nature of leadership and greatness.
One last thing: The popular religious culture in our country tends to get hung up on the second half of last line of this passage: "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." But I have a hunch that understanding the second half of that verse correctly rests in taking the first half more seriously. Maybe, that is, Jesus' giving his life as a "ransom" doesn't describe some elaborate and rather gruesome mechanism by which God has to brutally punish Jesus before God can love us. Maybe Jesus "buys us back" by showing us a way out of the devastating cycle of looking for glory, joy, and peace on the world's terms by teaching and showing us how to receive by giving, how to lead by serving, and how to find our lives by losing them for the sake of the people around us that God loves so much.
Keep up the good work, Working Preacher. It matters more than ever! Trust me, I know at times proclaiming the Gospel can seem like a tall order. But we are encouraged and accompanied by the one who came that we might have life and have it abundantly and his promise is sure. Blessings to you on your ministry and life.
Yours in Christ,