a sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24B/Lectionary 29]
This morning in our gospel reading from Mark we hear what might actually be the first ever church conflict. There has been a lot of conflict in the church over the millennia. There have been conflicts surrounding religious practices and conflicts dealing with biblical interpretation and conflicts dealing with issues of race and ethnicity. There have been personality conflicts and arguments over the spending of money, and brawls over what color the sanctuary carpet is going to be. The Bible records much of this and, to get right down to it, probably half of the New Testament is written in response to some kind of conflict that the different early Christian communities were experiencing.
Out of a great many of these conflicts arose lots of resurrection moments where the story of Jesus was heard afresh and the community was strengthened. There was a big brou-haha early on, for example, recorded in Acts, chapter 6, between two groups of widows in the church, each of whom thought the other was getting more financial aid. That led to the creation of church ministers, like deacons, who worked specifically within the internal life of the church and distributed resources fairly.
But all that having been said, the argument that erupts between the ten disciples and brothers James and John on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus is the first conflict we have recorded. It is a conflict about the nature of God’s kingdom. It is an argument about what shape Jesus’ mission is to take. It is a debate about leadership and glory and the basics about how to go about in the world as a follower of Christ.
The argument centers around a request made by these two brothers, James and John, two of Jesus’ first disciples. The request they make is that they want to special powers and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. They are all heading to Jerusalem at this point, and James and John are fully expecting that Jesus’ kingdom will soon conquer all of the forces of oppression and injustice. They want to have special recognition and stature in that new constellation of leadership. Right and left hand. Can we blame them? Isn’t this how politics, as we know it, works? You put your money and your reputation and your faith behind a candidate with the hopes that if that person wins or claims power somehow, they will at least listen to close supporters a little more closely, if not place them in key roles of power.
James and John find out the hard way that, when it comes to requests of God, we don’t always get what we ask for. We don’t always get what we ask for because, as Jesus points out, we often don’t know what we’re asking. If James and John really knew what was in store for Jesus’ followers, if they really grasped what was going to befall Jesus once he reaches Jerusalem, they wouldn’t have asked it. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard says in one of her essays that if we really were aware of what we were doing when we worship and pray to God we should wear crash helmets. “Ushers,” she says, “should issue life preservers and signal flares.” The God at which we toss our requests is full of an awesome power, and he “may wake someday and take offense or,” she goes adds, “the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
That’s the God who James and John approach that day. And God draws them close in Jesus to a place where they will never return. A place of suffering and servitude. A place of humility and heartache. A world that is turned completely upside down where the folks at the bottom are really the greatest. “You do not know what you are asking, fellas.” They don’t know what they’re asking because they still aren’t grasping what the nature of Jesus’ kingdom is going to be.
And then Jesus asks if they can drink the cup that he drinks, and if they can submit to the same baptism he will undertake, an immersion in a life lived for others, not for themselves. On the one hand, the part about the cup is probably a tip of the hat to Holy Communion, the new covenant of love that Jesus will share with his disciples on the night before his death. It’s like Jesus is asking if they’ll stay at the table with him in their life ahead.
But on the other hand, the act of drinking itself involves a bit of commitment and risk. Once something goes down you can’t really cough it back up again, no matter how bad it tastes and what it may do to you. Currently our five-year-old will drink anything he finds around the house. We actually have to be really careful about leaving cups and glasses out on the counter or on the tables because he will just pick them up and drink them. The dregs of someone’s cold coffee. Pale juicy liquids that have been diluted by melted ice. He’ll twist the lid off his sister’s kombucha and chug it in one sitting. We’re always a little worried if he’ll end up getting sick later. So far he seems to have a stomach of steel.
Jesus has a bitter cup to offer his followers, a cup of hardship, and even if they are able to chug it down, even if they have a stomach of steel, he still cannot promise them the kind of glory and fame they are wanting. They want standard worldly power. That’s not his to grant. And they may get sick on what comes with following him. They may, in fact, die.
Are we ever ready to take that kind of commitment on, to drink that cup? Do we realize that today we are actually immersing little Blair here into a life of strange glory that will promise her some suffering? A life that, if we model it right, will teach her to shelve many of her own needs or at least see them as less important than the needs of those around her? She’s in a nice baptismal gown, but maybe we need to make her one of Annie Dillard’s little crash helmets, because God is going to come down and send her out to do some amazing good in the world that will bump her up against some hard injustice.
Jesus eventually calls the disciples all together because their arguing is getting out of hand. It’s not clear what specifically they’re angry about, but Jesus sees this as the time to spell out what his glory looks like. Glory with him looks like serving. It looks like the opposite of most worldly systems, which place the glory and the greatest people on the top of the pyramid. Glory, for now, looks like handing one’s desires for power over. Glory, for now, looks like hanging on a cross. The Son of Man, after all, comes not to sit at the top of the ladder and have people serve his every need, but to climb down and serve the needs of those at the bottom. And that is really where we are. We are there among the many that Jesus come to ransom. We are there among the many who are enslaved to our sin and the ways of evil, And he comes to offer himself at great cost, even as they make foolish demands and run from him and deny him and betray him. He pulls them and pulls us all together to remind us of his great love, a love that turns the world on its head.
There was a national news story this week right out of our own Chesterfield County of a retired top FBI official and Fortune 500 Executive who is now driving a bus for the public school system in response to their acute need. Michael Mason, who has debriefed presidents and commanded platoons and boardrooms of powerful people has now come out of retirement to drive a school bus for special needs students. He is donating his entire salary to charity. The report on CBS news that covered his story juxtaposes shots of him in White House Press conferences with footage of him lifting a child in a wheelchair onto a bus and strapping him in. “Whoever wants to be greatest must be servant of all.”
This conflict between the disciples about the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom and mission may or may not be the first church conflict. But it is definitely its longest-running. We are still having this argument, even as many of the other arguments have found resolution. This conflict rages daily. It simmers beneath the surface (and should simmer beneath the surface) within our congregations whenever we think about the ministries we undertake and how we allot resources. Are we making ourselves servants to our community? This conflict rages within our culture when we consider which people and groups we tend to adore and which ones we ignore. And the conflict about Jesus’ true mission and kingdom rages within the hearts of each of us, especially when we start to talk about freedom and rights, which are directly related to power, and are really being discussed a lot right now because of the pandemic. For the follower of Jesus, freedom is not the liberty to do whatever I want. It is not even the liberty to do what is best for me. It is the liberty to do what is best for my neighbor. As Martin Luther once famously said 501 years ago next month, “A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
I’ve really gotten a kick out of the song by country music artist Walker Hayes that came out this summer called “Fancy Like.” It’s a bit corny, but it’s got a good groove to it, and the message is as straightforward as you can get. As you listen to it, you realize he is redefining the term fancy as he describes his relationship with his sweetheart. Other people may consider a fancy night out something expensive and high-brow, but he and his girl are fancy like simple ordinary Applebee’s on a date night, and splurging is sharing the same Oreo shake. I like country music because it puts a lot of things in real plain terms, and that’s what I see Jesus doing today with us, his disciples, as he tries once again to settle this dispute about the nature of his kingdom and remind them what glory and faithfulness is like with a God who gives his life as a ransom for many. Jesus might just draw us close and, pointing to the Gentiles over there, whose leaders like to lord it over them, would say, friends, remember…
Yeah, we faithful like Son of God on betrayal night
Got that common loaf of bread with his body we are fed
And he’s whipped mean, hung on the cross too.
Three persons, one God, child, he got you.
Power like forgiveness in a wine cup
Seek-seeking out his lost sheep, loving them up
Some suffering Messiah, he’s our Savior, He’s our Light, (hey!)
That’s how he do what he do, he faithful like.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 “An Expedition to the Pole,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper Perennial, 1982, p 52