Mark 10: 35-45
October 21, 2012
Some say that preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the gospel lesson has not brought much comfort to any of us in recent weeks. Do we really need to be afflicted that much? Sunday after Sunday we are confronted with the cost of discipleship. In the verses leading up to our reading this morning, Jesus tells the disciples for the third time that he is going to die. The first time he tells them Peter rebukes him. The second time, the disciples begin to argue about who is the greatest and now James and John ask for the place of honor on his right and left. Or as Mark Davis put it, “James and John call ‘Shotgun!’” (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com) Were they even listening to Jesus? How could they respond to Jesus’ prediction of death by asking him to honor them?
Hearing is a funny thing. It is so easy to hear what we want to hear. It is clear to Jesus that James and John haven’t really heard him and so he asks them if they are able to drink the cup he drinks or be baptized in him. “Of course we can! We are ready, willing and able. Now if we can just have those thrones…”
We read this text knowing that Jesus died with someone on his right and left side. Those weren’t places of honor and it wasn’t his distinguished disciples occupying those places.
Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon on this text called “The Drum Major Instinct”. He said that all of us have a desire to be recognized, to be first. It is simply our nature as humans to crave distinction. I’d like to argue with him, but I know the truth of that in me. Recognition feels good. Affirmation feels good. How many times have we hoped that we would be chosen for a place of honor? We know that we shouldn’t admit out loud that we want those seats of honor, but secretly we hope we will get them. I don’t know what those seats of honor look like for you, but they exist in many forms – being chosen captain of the team, being asked to chair an important committee, or some kind of public recognition for our hard work. But there is another side to recognition and honor.
I had a conversation this week with someone about how many people don’t see a need to be in church. We hear a variety of reasons for that – church is irrelevant, church is a waste of time, church is full of hypocrites. But I am wondering if there is another reason people choose not to come to church. What if they read this scripture? What if they really listened to the words and found the cost to be too great?
Will Willimon, former dean of the Duke University Chapel tells this story:
“Back when I was at Duke Chapel, I once lamented to a group of students that we attracted so few students in our services on Sunday at Duke Chapel. "Go easy on yourself," said one of the students. "Duke is a very selective school with very bright students," she said. (I'm thinking, "Yeah, bright but not all that humble.")
"I think most of them are smart enough to figure out," she continued, "that if they gave their lives to Christ, he would only make their lives more difficult. I think it's amazing you get as many students to come to Jesus as you do." (http://day1.org/1474-good_news)
There are many stories of people who have lived this truth. They followed Jesus and their lives became much more difficult. Today is an historic day in Rome. Kateri Tekakwitha (KATeri TekakWITHa), is the first Native American woman to be canonized as a saint. A few years ago, our J2A pilgrimage went to Montreal to the sacred sites of Kateri’s birth and death. When she was 4, Kateri lost her family to smallpox and was badly scarred. Her extended family raised her and planned for her to marry. Kateri was baptized at age 20 and her tribe shunned her for her commitment to Christ so she fled to Canada where she could live a life of religious devotion. She was 24 when she died. She is one of many who experienced the cost of discipleship. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that following Christ asks little of us. He asks everything of us. Yet, rather than giving up all to follow Christ, we try and fit our faith into life as we know it.
Being true to my call has cost me, but I live a very comfortable life. I read Jesus’ words and I wonder if I have what it takes to be a servant of all. I’m not sure I understand what he means by those words, but it sounds pretty impossible when I consider where Jesus’ journey takes him.
Albert Schweitzer said, “Life becomes harder when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier.” I know Christ calls us to shift our focus to those around us and live with our hands open ready to respond. It’s that simple and that difficult.
One of the great gifts of a faith community is the opportunity to be part of something larger than ourselves. Here we can make a difference in the lives of those who are hungry through the food pantry. We can come together and walk the streets of our neighborhood encouraging them to vote. We can touch the lives of children by teaching or sharing the goodness of God’s love in Children’s Chapel. We can offer our voice and sing in the choir. We can extend the love of Christ beyond our walls by taking communion to those who are unable to get to church. There are so many ways for us to experience greatness here. The funny thing is that it has nothing to do with spotlights or rave reviews. Greatness happens while holding the hand of one who is afraid, or listening to the wisdom of a child, or cleaning up after coffee hour where people have shared their lives that morning.
Here is the amazing thing about greatness – there are no educational requirements or resumes needed. We simply come as we are and offer ourselves to God. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well:
“And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that [the one] who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's your new definition of greatness…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct” a sermon preached February 4, 1968)
So here we are in the middle of the fall pledge campaign hoping for words of comfort and we are given words of affliction. Pledge campaigns are tricky. We tend to get touchy when the subject of money comes up because we don’t want to experience discomfort. We like the idea that we might ride shotgun. When we are reminded that there is a cost to following Christ, we start to squirm. Through the years in many settings, I have heard comments that the church just “wants our money.” The church is not them – it is us – all of us. We come together to be the church - to follow Jesus and there is nothing that says it will be painless. I think the church gives us an opportunity to be great week after week. Here we can offer ourselves to Christ’s service. Here we can share our resources so that all may experience the power of God’s love. Here we take our places at Jesus’ right and left and discover what it is to be great.