Update: I've been waiting for our church to upload the text from the sermon and now that it is loaded, I'm including it below.
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop University Presbyterian Church October 18, 2015
We all have our Tom Sawyer painting the fence chores, don’t we? Those things we will desperately try to convince someone else to do unless we absolutely have to do them. Mine are scrubbing toilets and taking out trash. I was able to convince my sons that all kinds of house hold jobs…like cleaning the algae off the fish tank…were really awesome…until they heard about Tom Sawyer. Busted!
To this day I can manage to get most of the chores done before Lou gets back to town…except the toilets and the trash. Funny the way that happens! This week I kept eyeing the kitchen trash and wondering how much more I could squeeze into it…knowing I couldn’t put off emptying it much longer. Then Lou called and said he would be getting to town after all and I made that bag last two more days!
And then there are those things that aren’t chores, like making the coffee. When someone else does them for you, they take on a new dimension. That may be why my coffee tastes better on Saturdays, the day of the week when Lou is here to make the coffee…for me, even though he doesn’t even drink it. A simple act, done from love. An act that conveys love.
Today we find Jesus talking about being servants and, God forbid, slaves. Serving others as a way of living out our love for God. While the disciples are busy fighting over who gets to sit next to Jesus when he enters his glory, he’s trying to open their eyes to love. Doesn’t their behavior remind you of the school cafeteria? Everyone jostling for position and trying to get to sit next to, or at least across from, or at the very least, at the same table as, the “cool kid.” What’s especially funny to me about this scene is that James and John get the question in first, and the other disciples are mad that they didn’t think of it! This is another wonderfully human scene in Mark. And I know you may be getting tired of hearing me say it, but I think we need to continue to thank this author for his honest portrayal of the fear and uncertainty experienced by the disciples as they look into the face of discipleship. Mark does not sugar coat things. He shows us how many times the disciples just don’t get it. And don’t get that they aren’t getting it! Mark affirms our times of searching and seeking and questioning. Mark affirms our humanity.
When Matthew tells this same story, he is evidently so embarrassed by the brothers’ behavior that he inserts their mother into the scene to advocate for her children. She’s seen her sons give up their former lives on this earth to follow this unknown teacher, so why wouldn’t she try to secure something for them in the next life? But Mark’s not having any of this. He isn’t going to let them get off that easily. No, he tells us that it is James and John themselves who ask for the best seats in the house.
To really understand the implications of their request, we need to zoom out a little and get the big picture. Mark employs a series of scenes involving disciple-defining moments to illustrate for us the complexities of following Jesus. These scenes are bookended by Jesus healing two individuals of their blindness. This isn’t a coincidence. This is brilliant writing.
In Mark 8: 22 – 26, Jesus heals a man who is blind, but unlike any other healing, this one takes two tries. He places spit on the man’s eyes, but the man can only see vague forms. So Jesus places his hands on the man’s eyes, and then he can see perfectly. This man’s vision was so dark that his restoration took an additional effort from Jesus…an interesting lead in to Jesus explaining to his disciples three times that he is going to suffer and die.
He heals the man who was blind and then he asks his friends how he is described by others. “Some call you John the Baptist.”
“Some call you Elijah!”
“Some call you a prophet!”
“I say you are the Christ,” says Peter. And no sooner are the words out of Peter’s mouth, than Jesus explains how he will suffer, die, and be raised on the third day.
Fast forward to Mark’s ninth chapter. Jesus and his friends are on their way to Jerusalem, and he again explains that he will suffer, die, and be raised on the third day. None of this makes sense to his disciples, and he hears them arguing. They aren’t debating what he has told them about his future; they are fighting over which one of them is the most important! Grown men arguing over who is the teacher’s favorite. Are they so self-consumed that they can’t think of anything but themselves, or are they too frightened to process what Jesus is telling them about the pain he must face?
Which brings us back to today’s conversation about “saved seats” in heaven. Is it me or is this just the craziest conversation? These guys get to take turns sitting next to Jesus at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the week. Do they not realize what they have in this life? Which makes you wonder about their motivation. You either want to sit next to someone because you love being with them, savor the conversation and the companionship, or you want to sit next to someone because you want to be seen sitting with that person. You want the prestige of being in that person’s inner circle. It would appear that – in this moment at least – the disciples are all about the status instead of the relationship.
This scene becomes even more awkward when we hear the sentences which serve as a backdrop to the conversation:
Mark 10: 32 – 34
32 Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, with Jesus in the lead. The disciples were amazed while the others following behind were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he told them what was about to happen to him. 33 “Look!” he said. “We’re going up to Jerusalem. The Human One [Son of Man] will be handed over to the chief priests and the legal experts. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. 34 They will ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him. After three days, he will rise up.”
And the next thing we witness: James and John, Zebedee’s sons, coming to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” It’s such a strange disconnect. Again, we wonder if they are listening at all to what Jesus is telling them. How dense can they be?? But Jesus doesn’t get offended or hurt that they seem disinterested in things to come. He just asks, “What do you want?” It is as if we are watching a folk tale in which the protagonist is given three wishes, and we despair as the wishes are wasted one by one. If Jesus asked you what you wanted, I doubt that you would ask for the best seat in heaven. I imagine you would ask for healing from whatever wounds you carry or freedom from the things that bind you, or discernment as you try to walk in God’s ways. A nice seat? I don’t think so.
But then you and I have the advantage of knowing the whole story. We get to read Mark’s telling of these events. A man is healed of blindness. Jesus tells of his death and resurrection, and then he challenges them to consider who he really is. They take a step closer to Jerusalem. Again, Jesus tells of his death and resurrection, and then the disciples argue over who is Jesus’ favorite! They take another step towards Jerusalem. He tells them one more time that he will suffer, and die, and be raised up. What do they do? Maneuver for the best seats in heaven. Argh!!!! But he doesn’t promise them where they will sit. He lets them search for the answer to their own question by explaining to them that the last will be first. That serving is the means of grace in this life. Serving one another is how we will experience God’s presence in our midst.
Mark wraps all of this up by relating the story of Jesus healing another man who was blind. It’s too bad the disciples couldn’t read this story as they were living it. They might have caught on to the symbolism enveloping Jesus’ three attempts to explain his life’s path. They might have realized that Jesus was trying to heal them of their blindness. They don’t need to sit next to Jesus to experience his power and love. In fact, they (and we) need to move out into the world and live out his love in service.
We have to read almost to the end of Mark to hear a mention of anyone being placed beside Jesus. Remember this? “They crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left.” 15:27 Jesus isn’t too concerned about where the disciples will sit at the heavenly banquet. He knows they will understand one day. They will move from the initial fear of Easter morning, to the deep joy of understanding. The ones who need to be an arm’s reach from Jesus are the ones who don’t know if they are loved, who don’t know if they are forgiven, who don’t know if they are welcome in God’s realm. So on his right and on his left, within an arm’s reach, are not the disciples, but two individuals that the world condemned, that the world abandoned. Jesus lives out his sacrificial love in the most empathetic way possible: he dies beside them. He dies with them that they – and we – might know the face of Love.
You and I have the opportunity every Sunday to gather around Christ’s table and sit with him, break bread with him, share the cup with him. But even if we didn’t meet him in the breaking of the bread, we would find him within arm’s reach, on our right and on our left. Jesus is there. He is on the face of your brother and sister. And when you walk out those doors, and back into the world, he will be there, too. Sometimes in an unlovable form. As he reached out his arms for everyone the world abandoned, so we are to do the same. For the first will be last, and the last will be first. May our eyes be opened that we may be set free to live into the baptism of the servant’s life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.