(a sermon for October 3, 2021, the 19th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Mark 10:35-45)
I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that for a time while I was in college and seminary, I worked nights and weekends for the Bangor Daily News, in various capacities as a security guard, phone operator and janitor.
It was a great place to work, but looking back on it now, I realize that the real value of the job was in what the experience of working there taught me. For instance, I learned that even before the days of online access, the fact that a newspaper actually gets published every day of the week is nothing short of a miracle, and it took more people to make it happen than just the reporters and photographers who get all the credit for it (or the blame, for that matter!). It also took copy editors, layout artists and typesetters; the guys with ink on their hands who worked the printing presses; the truck drivers who carried their bundles from one end of the state to the other; and, yes, the custodial staff who cleaned up the whole mess, so that the process could start up all over again the next night! What I discovered early on that getting the paper out every day was a team effort, with every member of the team playing a valuable part; but I also came to see that not everybody saw it that way.
In fact, I began to realize that some of the editors and creative people upstairs were quite oblivious to the efforts of the blue-collar workers downstairs; even and especially those who were cleaning up after them (I found out, for instance, that some of those people in advertising could not hit a waste paper basket on a bet!). And oftentimes this obliviousness was to the point of being rude and insulting: there was one man on the maintenance staff, for instance, who was a good and hard-working employee; it was just that, well… he wasn’t that pleasant a person to be around. He was clearly uneducated and crude in his speech, he had a tendency to shoot off his mouth from time to time, and if we’re being honest, personal hygiene was not a priority. I would watch people in that building go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to talk to this man or even stand next to him; and the things that were said about him behind his back were often downright cruel! It was kind of sad, actually, because in truth the man was very outgoing, he could be quite funny and even personable when he wanted to be. But this was to no avail, because most everybody at that plant just looked down his or her noses at him.
Everybody, that is, except for one of the head executives at the News, the Publisher, in fact. Early almost every morning, just about the time I was ending my night shift, I’d see this man in the well-tailored three-piece suit down in the little lunch room we had there, drinking his morning coffee across the table from the janitor with the dirty jeans and mis-buttoned shirt. They’d be trading hunting and fishing stories; talking about how the Red Sox did last night or rehashing the other headlines in the paper that day; all the while laughing together the way old friends do. Nothing all that amazing, really; just everyday workplace conversation exchanged between two people over a cup of coffee.
But the sight of it made a big impact on me; because here were two men from completely different places in life: one at the top of the corporate ladder, the other working for that minimum wage, one respected for everything he was, the other ridiculed for everything it was perceived he was (!); but both of them living and working together, earnestly and joyfully. It served as an apt reminder for me that whether we’re talking about the task of putting out a newspaper six days a week or dealing with all the various and sundry challenges of life, though we might be at different places on the road, we’re all on the same journey; and ultimately, it is the journey that matters.
Which, when you think about it, is also a pretty apt description for what our shared journey as God’s people is all about.
Our text for this morning is a story about “pride of place,” that is, the all-too-human desire to be first and greatest. Specifically, as Mark tells it, it regards a request by James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, to be granted favored positions beside Jesus in the kingdom of heaven. “Grant us,” they say, “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” It is worth noting here that this was not the first such discussion amongst the disciples; in the previous chapter of Mark, they’d already been squabbling about who among them was the greatest, and in both instances, the debate comes right on the heals of Jesus explaining to the disciples about how “the Son of Man will be handed over the chief priests and the scribes” and be condemned to death and be killed “and after three days… rise again.” So what we have here pretty much reflects a complete misunderstanding and denial on the part of the disciples as to what Jesus was telling them; sort of a selective hearing, really, as though all they were interested in was the fame and glory that would come from being a follower of Jesus! It’s reminiscent of a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” when even as they’re falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemene, the disciples are singing, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried/Then when we retire we can write the gospels/So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”
It’s a clearly inappropriate request that James and John make to Jesus (and they knew it, too, by the way: did you notice that they begin the request by saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” which does seem to suggest they were expecting a negative response!) but what’s interesting is that Jesus does not respond with anger or a rebuke; he just answers simply and not unkindly, you don’t know what you’re asking! “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Of course, James and John – starry-eyed, overconfident disciples that they are – answer that they can and they will! But Jesus says that while that might well be true, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Jesus then proceeds to turn this whole notion of “sitting in glory” upside down, letting all the disciples know – because by this time, Mark tells us, the other ten disciples had become “angry” with James and John (they “lost their tempers,” says The Message) – about how “whoever wants to be great must become a servant [and] whoever wants to be first among [them] must be your slave,” after the manner of Jesus himself, the Son of Man who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
To put this another way, what we need to realize is that where the kingdom of heaven is concerned, those who see themselves as closest to Jesus are going to have to put themselves in the places of those who would appear to be the farthest from it! Do not think, Jesus says, that because you are here with me now that you’ve arrived at the final destination, that you have all the right answers, and that you’ve won the door prize. Do not forget that I have called you to follow me where I go, and where I’m going is to the lost… and the hurting… and the dispossessed… those who are crying out for love, and for God’s hope.
What James, John and the others had yet to learn, and what we too often forget in our own lives is that faith is a journey, not a destination. William Willimon puts it this way: “Christianity is not a set of beliefs, first principles, propositions. It is a matter of discipleship, following. Faith in Jesus is not beliefs about Jesus. It’s a willingness to follow Jesus… a simple willingness to stumble along behind Jesus. The faith [you see] is in the following.” And following Jesus means “imitating the moves of the master in all we do,” what Martin Luther himself referred to as “the nature of God to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to enlighten the blind, to comfort the miserable and afflicted, to justify sinners, to give life to the dead, and to save those who are desperate and damned.”
It turns out that that the acid test of our faith, yours and mine, is ultimately not so much doctrinal as it is experiential; not so wrapped up in our proclamations as by how closely we’ve walked with Jesus in the ongoing journey of life and faith. It is no accident that the earliest name for followers of Jesus, according the Book of Acts, was “The Way.” A way of life and of faith, yes, but most prominently, a way of walking. To believe in Jesus means you are not going to be staying in one place in your life: it means movement, and growth, and change in tandem with the Lord’s purposes and not our own; it means walking the way of Jesus Christ even as you walk along your own pathways of life.
And that’s an important distinction. All too often we church people do tend to carry ourselves and our faith as though we have somehow achieved something fixed and stable, that we’ve made this onetime decision for Christ that requires nothing more from us than to accept the “rights and privileges thereof.” Too many of us act like James and John in that we assume our “religious” nature is more than sufficient to get us to the head of the line where the Lord is concerned. But that’s not the gospel, you see; the gospel tells us that there’s not a single one of us here who will be able to say we’ve arrived at that final destination until that moment we stand face to face with the Lord and not one second sooner! And the truth inherent in our faith and discipleship is that each one of us has a long way to go yet! Each new day, every new experience, each new step along the way always ends up as another twist and turn along the pathway of our walk with Jesus; a journey of service… and servanthood.
And here’s the thing… ours is not a journey taken alone. There are others along the way; plenty of others, as it turns out. Some have been on the road a long time, while others are just starting out. There are more than a few travelers who are struggling with the first few steps of faithful living – if they’ve taken those steps at all – and perhaps there are a few who have stumbled a bit and are trying hard to get back on track; basically, these are people who are at different points along the road, but who are on the same journey as you: all the more reason to reach out to them as we’re on “the Way.”
As a pastor, I get asked a lot what it is that sets the church apart from the rest of the world. And I understand the question, to be sure – in fact, I could offer up a few answers to that kind of question – but maybe the better question is what is it about the church that brings it closer to the rest of the world! And the answer to that question is found on our journey as the church, as true disciples of Jesus Christ; what happens along the way in our worship, our work, our fellowship, and the love we share with others… all others! Because when it comes to being the church, beloved, it’s the journey that matters: it’s how we embrace one another even if at times we don’t quite have the same point of view, or view the horizon in quite the same fashion; it’s how we care for those lagging behind at least as much as we look toward those who are leading the charge; it’s how everything we seek to do, individually and collectively, is done as a servant of all.
The church is never about “lording it over others,” in the manner of the Gentiles, “the Godless rulers” that Jesus spoke of; nor is it ever to be in first place and best of all; at the end of the day, it’s not about the destination of glory! You and I, as true disciples, are called to model ourselves after the Son of Man who “came not to be served but to serve,” to give our lives to others willingly, earnestly, joyfully and lovingly. It’s the journey that matters; and so might it always be for you and me along “the Way.”
Thanks be to God who gathers us together for that journey!
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.