The Rev. Jennifer Adams – October 22, 2018 – Proper 24, Year B: Job 38:1-41; Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “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?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said 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?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)
I am just back from a week away. Some of that time was vacation, some of it was catch up, some of it was time to read and write a bit. On the weather front, it was sort of a boring 90 plus degrees every day in Gainseville. And then within the first 45 minutes of driving away from the airport in Grand Rapids we experienced sunshine, rain, hail and some slushy stuff that could have been called snow or sleet or both. And so, it’s good to be back immersed in some extreme and rapid seasonal variation, and as always, it’s good to be back at Grace Church.
While I was away, I had time for some good reads and some good conversations too. And one observation I’ll make (and note this is backed by the statistical accuracy of a pastor on vacation which means no statistical accuracy at all, this is more like a heartfelt guess) and that is that about ninety percent of those conversations and reads at some time circled through frustrations, anxieties, and fears, about current events, political realities, and the tensions that are no longer on the rise but always at a state of “overflowing.”
Now just so you know, I did spend time floating down a river, time walking and hiking and sitting poolside, during which none of this input was pouring in. But I’m going to save “floating on water” for another sermon, because these days, I think it’s almost more important to talk about how we can hold each other.
And so I want to share two insightful summaries that came from beautiful people, one on what people now call either fondly or disdainfully depending on your positions- “the right” and one from a person who has firmly established himself on “the left.” (To assure you that my pastoral motivated sampling remained statistically sound and somewhat balanced.)
From the left came an article that talked about our current ability and complete lack of ability to connect with each other, with world events, national events, even with our families and things going on in our own back yards. The author explored the gains and losses to human intimacy brought on by modern means of communication and our implementation of those means. Full discloser: I found this article because it was posted on Facebook.
One of the powerful quotes in this article and the quote that was posted by my fried was this: “The incipient political catastrophe in the United States [meaning this atmosphere to which all sides have contributed] can be summed up in a phrase: nobody believes the other’s pain is real.” Nobody believes the other’s pain is real. What an awful yet true statement. Hold that.
Because then, from the right – a phone conversation I had with someone here at home during which we both shared our frustrations and longings and rants. At the end of that conversation I asked what he thought could help us move forward in any semblance of productive ways. And he said this brilliant thing: “We have to able to accept the goodwill of the other side.” We have to be able to accept the goodwill of the other side. Please hold that too.
Because both of those statements have to do with the gospel we just heard read.
James and John schemed between them and at one point, they came up and requested the seats closest to Jesus, and not just for supper, for eternity. So first note is that competitions or claims over who is more deserving of proximity to the Christ? Probably not a good conversation topic ever.
Because in that very conversation of setting themselves up as “right next to the Christ,” James and John lost the essence of what they had been called to do. In fact they had come to resemble, “the rulers who lord and tyrant over each other,” Jesus said. They were competing rather than disciple-ing. And so Jesus invited them back the place he was creating for them all, the way he was opening for them all. Jesus talked about drinking the cup he had been given, the death and resurrection involved with following him, and the self that would be given for others.
We cannot fight so hard for the right and the left hand side that we lose the essence of what we’ve been called to create, to give, to offer, to receive. When we can’t believe the pain of the other. When we can’t receive the good will of “the other side,” we’re in trouble. The fight over who is closer to Christ or truth or even basic human decency isn’t going to get us anywhere. Because too soon we see only emptiness, or worse “evil” in those with whom we disagree.
And ultimately we’re in this together, and God is in this with us – and with “them” too. This doesn’t mean that all choices or all sides are equal on any given issue. But we need to regain the ability to discern a more common right and wrong. Nor does it mean that as church, and as people of faith, we aren’t called to stand for a common good – in fact that’s exactly what we’re called to do. Through common prayer to stand and offer a common and shared good.
But in order to do this, we need to re-hone our skills in some very basic areas of common life. We need to be able to believe the other’s pain, whoever that other happens to be. And we need to be able to receive goodwill, to foster it, and dig beneath the headlines to see who on either side is offering it. “Look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers said. No qualifiers there in terms of where you might find them. Always look for the helpers.
“Whoever wishes to become great among you, must be your servant,” Jesus said. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for many.” To serve is in so many ways to respond to the pain of another. It is to see that that other is hungry or thirsty or hurting or imprisoned and that that person needs something from you, because for whatever reason, they can’t give it to themselves. And you have food, or water, or safety, to share with them – at the very least you have yourself to give and Jesus reminded the disciples of that too.
The flip side is that to be served means to receive the goodwill given by another, to foster it and allow it to flow regardless of who it is coming from. It is very possible that those who believe differently, think differently, live differently, vote differently have something to offer too.
We need places and people who are not caught up in fights for the right and the left, which doesn’t mean there aren’t things and people for whom we as a community need to fight. We can cry out and stand up for justice and peace and still be able to listen to pain on all sides, fostering goodwill from wherever it happens to flow.
There is a larger good for which we are all longing. And according to this gospel, competition won’t get us where we need to be. But service will. We need to be those who hear and believe others’ pain. And those who foster just very basic, and loving goodwill unclogging the channels that need to flow far better than they are for anyone.
That is our work now, and in some ways it’s harder than it was twenty years ago. Facebook is a blessing and a curse, so we need to be smart, maybe even kind about how we use it. Same with other means of communication and engagements with one another. Complications abound. And on any given day we can experience extreme heat and cold and ice and rain of all kinds, everybody can and sometimes in a matter of minutes. So the pace is rapid too and the needs are in many cases genuinely extreme and immediate. All of which makes it even more essential that we hone the kinds of basic faithful skills that allow us to share ourselves, and to receive pain and goodness from beyond. Listen for the hurts. Be on the look-out for goodwill. Notice the helpers and be one. Serve.
Wolverines serve a Spartan! Spartan serve a Wolverine! Buckeyes get in there too, because we are going for it here! Hoosiers. Badgers. Hawkeyes. Those of you who don’t care and don’t have a particular favorite mascot, hop in too. Democrat serve a Republican. Republican serve a Democrat. I’m serious. And keep on with that list. And for the next several days and weeks do that. If anything can remedy the level of division and lack of coherence we’re experiencing this just might be it. Serve. And serve across the lines we’ve been falsely led into believing define us.
May we live the baptism to which we have been called, remembering that there is a river that flows through us, carrying us all and inviting us to “seek and serve Christ in one another, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” May we “preserve” and embody what this morning’s collect called “the works of mercy” that this world so desperately needs.