Sunday, October 21, 2012

Last to First

Mark 10:35-45
October 21, 2012

There is a brilliant episode of The Vicar of Dibley.  Actually there are lots of brilliant episodes of this British sitcom about the first woman vicar to serve the small and slightly insane English village of Dibley.  But the one I’m thinking of in particular is about Geraldine, the vicar, and her sudden rise to fame. The show starts off with her being asked to fill in as the last minute guest on a radio show.  She accepts the invitation because she wants to talk about the importance of getting a nursery school started in the village; a worthwhile and important project.  The vicar is a success!  Geraldine is funny and wacky, much as she is every day, but this time a much larger group of people hear her.  From that appearance she’s asked to appear on all sorts of shows. 
Originally Geri promised herself and the church council that her media career would be temporary.  She knows that her place is with her church, not as the BBC’s newest rising star.  But the fame and the attention go to her head.  If you ever have the chance to watch this episode the montage of her photo shoot for British Vogue is absolutely hilarious!  It all culminates in an interview being done about her in one of the papers.  Geri tells the members of the council that a reporter will be coming to the village to interview them about her.  But it backfires.  The story about the vicar gets forgotten and it instead becomes a profile on the other characters in the show.  They are insulted, humiliated and just plain ridiculed. 
It’s horrible and embarrassing for the vicar and everyone else, and the rest of the episode is devoted to her willingness to make a public fool out of herself as an apology.  The vicar has a shot at personal glory and it doesn’t work out so well.  Geri doesn’t initially seek out glory.  It comes to her, but when she gets a taste of it she can’t let go. 
James and John, the sons of Zebedee we hear about when Jesus first calls his disciples, go to Jesus asking for glory.  One commentator describes the way they make their request of Jesus as being like a child to a parent.  “Dad I want you to do something for me.”  And Jesus, like any good parent responds with, “Tell me what is first.” 
“’Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’  And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’”  Their request is that they be allowed to sit at his right hand and his left when he is in his glory. There’s a sense of kingship and royalty to their request isn’t there?  You get the image in your head of a king on this throne, with his two most treasured and important advisors on either side of him.  I suspect that’s how James and John viewed Jesus’ glory – a great kingship.  I also suspect that Jesus recognized this too, because he says to them, “You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  James and John reply with a resolute, “We are able.”  So Jesus says then you will drink this cup and you will be baptized with this baptism.  But I can’t tell you who will sit at my right or my left.  That’s not my privilege to grant.  And in a very roundabout way, Jesus reminds them that the privilege is God’s alone.
This would all sound, if not okay, perhaps understandable, if we just read this story by itself with no sense of what was happening all around it.  But immediately before these verses, Jesus tells the disciples his third passion prediction.  They were on the road to Jerusalem.  Whenever we hear about Jesus being on the road to Jerusalem, we know that this isn’t just a geographical destination.  On the road to Jerusalem means that Jesus is on the way to the cross.  Jesus knows that everything will come to a head once he reaches Jerusalem. 
So for the third time he pulls the disciples aside and tells them, point blank, I’m going to Jerusalem to die.  I’m going to be handed over to the religious authorities.  They’re going to condemn me to death.  I’m going to be mocked, spit on.  And I will die.  But after three days I’ll rise again.
Jesus didn’t mince words.  He didn’t try to soften the emotional impact of this truth.  He just told them.  And as I said, this is the third time he’s told them.  The first time he told them, Peter rebuked him for it, because the Messiah couldn’t be someone who was weak enough to die.  The second time Jesus made the prediction, the disciples got into an argument about who was the greatest and he pulls a child into his arms to demonstrate that you have to receive the kingdom of God like a child in order to fully get it.  And after this third time of trying to make them understand the death that he faces, James and John ask Jesus for seats of glory. 
I think this calls for a facepalm. 
Because they don’t get it. 
When the other ten hear about James and John’s request, they get angry with them.  But I don’t think it’s because the ten were upset that James and John don’t get it.  I think it’s because they were offended that James and John would go grabbing for glory, and what if that means they don’t get any?  How dare they try to push to the head of the pack?!  Maybe that glory should be theirs.
The reason I believe this is because Jesus then pulls them all aside, one more time, and tells them that with Gentiles, or others, there are lords and tyrants that have the power.  But that’s not true for them.  If one of them wants to be great, then they must become a servant to everyone.  If they want to be first, they must become a slave.  The Son of Man came to serve, not be served.  The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.
One commentator at WorkingPreacher said that folks get so caught up in this last line in verse 45 that the rest of the story tends to get glossed over.  It’s a powerful image, indeed, to think of Jesus giving his life as a ransom for ours; to understand that in the literal meaning of this, Jesus buys back our lives with his own. 
But what about that whole grasping for glory party at the beginning?  How does that relate to us?  How does that raise conflict in our understanding of what it means to be disciples versus what it means to be successful? 
I realize it may be a stretch to make glory and success synonyms, but I think in this case it works.  The disciples, especially as Mark portrays them, had to battle their cultural understanding of the way things should be in contrast to the way Jesus said they were.  A messiah was supposed to be strong, invincible, a warrior, someone who would come and, pardon my expression, kick the butt of the oppressors.  Following that, messiah meant greatness and it meant glory.  It should bring about accolades and victory.  But Jesus turns all of these cultural assumptions on their head.  The Messiah has come to die.  In his weakness, there will be strength.  There won’t be fighting back.  There won’t be a great uprising.  He has come to make the love of God and the kingdom of God visible.  But guess what?  That happens through suffering, through serving, through compassion, through death. 
And that whole bit about glory and greatness?  You want to truly be great?  Truly being great means being a servant, a slave.  You want to be first, you’ll have to be last. 
It wasn’t easy for the disciples to hear.  It wasn’t easy for them to comprehend.  It wasn’t easy for them to live out.  And even though our cultural contexts may be different, it’s no easier for us.  We are bombarded with the message that success and greatness comes from being stronger and tougher and even more ruthless than everybody else.  We are inundated with the idea that those who are famous, who are celebrities are the ones who are supposed to be on top.  Why is it that athletes and actors and actresses get paid so much money for what they do?  I’m not complaining about what they do.  There’s nothing I love more than going to a good movie.  I have my favorite television shows like everyone else.  I’m not a rabid sports fan, but I do have my favorites; favorite teams, favorite sports.  Ask my friends Ellen and Stuart about my choice of phrases at a hockey game we went to in seminary.  I have moments of being an intense fan. 
Yet why is it that the people in those professions get paid so much more than say, teachers, social workers, and yes, I’m going to say it, clergy? 
As a culture we reward our understanding of what it means to be successful.  Glory equates to fame and fortune.  Reality shows buy into this concept.  The earliest reality show phenomenon was Survivor.  A show where people were voted off the island and the winner was the one who had the grit and determination to survive, regardless of the cost to others.  That was the whole point of the show wasn’t it?
We reward our understanding of what it means to be successful, whether it’s through fame, fortune, ratings points.  Success, glory is something to be strived for.  So of course we seek a certain amount of glory.  I can’t deny that I have dreamed of fame.  I’d love to do something that would earn me an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  And it’s hard not to want some recognition for being here, in this place, isn’t it?  It’s hard not to want some acknowledgment for discipleship, for trying to live lives that have purpose and meaning. 
Whatever criticism I may level at the disciples for just not getting it over and over again, the truth is I also want a little of what they asked for.  I want a little glory.  I want to know that I’ll be rewarded for what I’ve done, for what I’ve sacrificed.  But I think what Jesus tells them is that the reward doesn’t come at some point down the road, at some future, far off moment in time, the reward comes from doing.  The reward comes from serving.  The reward comes from giving more than receiving.  The reward comes when we finally realize that when it seems like Jesus is turning everything upside down, he’s really making everything right.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”

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