Sermon October 21, 2018, Mark 10:35-45,
the Rev. Chick Carroll, St Paul’s Episcopal Church
I could be pretty dense growing up. Well, the truth is I can be today also, but to share stories of recently cluelessness would cut too close to the knuckle; so I will keep my observations to my growing years. I grew up in a very old (1628) town in Northeastern Massachusetts. At that time it was strictly a working farming town, and I suppose I wound up working on every one of them, from the age of 7. There was a lot about it I really didn’t like, but my father was pretty adamant about working, and I did get to keep what I earned.
Around age 13, I worked closely with a wonderful old man in his early seventies,( yes I am aware of the irony of calling him old). His name was Ralph, but to me he was Mr. Marsh. A farmer all his life, he did things all by hand, and therefore so did I. And one day we went to sharpen the sickles and scythes on a large hand operated sandstone grinding wheel. He had been doing all the sharpening that summer, and I was finally to be given a lesson in how to do it. This was a great privilege he was giving me. I think I should say again that Mr. Marsh was just so kind and patient with me.
So, on we went into the upstairs of the corn shed where the grinding wheel was. He showed me how to use it, how to run water to lubricate it, and so on. Then he let me try it, and did I love it. I could really make that wheel go and go, and go and go, and go. In fact, I forgot all about the fact that we were there to sharpen tools, not to play around. After 5 minutes or so, I realized I was there alone. This old man had said nothing to me, but simply left to carry on other tasks.
This is not a funny story, only what in my eyes was a completely humiliating one. I had been so oblivious of his gift to me. Now I had to go to find Mr. Marsh, apologize, and then, worst of all, listen to his extreme kindness, as he gently suggested we try it again tomorrow. An old yankee, that was just his way. No anger; no criticism, still available, here today, here tomorrow. I don’t know if he was a churchgoer, but to me he was the closest thing I had met to a saint And perhaps still is.
I have done plenty of other clueless things, but it was this story that came up as I read the stories in Mark. And, anyway I don’t want to tell you about my more recent blunders.
Today’s reading is an an old story- about a modern problem, status, prestige and power. Well, perhaps not just a modern problem, because James and John, the Zebedee brothers seem to have plenty of the prestige problem.
Let me just recap the scenes of the last few weeks. As I recall the story for you, I have changed the sequence a little, but not the content. Jesus has been saying now for a while, as they wend their way to Jerusalem, that he will be killed. At first, the disciples, especially Peter are very upset, and even angry at Jesus. You will recall that he rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing. And Jesus rebuked him back, if there is such a term, saying, Get Behind me Satan. You have your mind on earthly things and not on divine things.
Well this whole trip had gone like this, the disciples not getting the picture. Jesus does a number of healings. He feeds the 5,000 and then the 4,000, and there is plenty left over. Yet, as they are crossing over the sea one day the disciples begin to worry because they forgot to bring a loaf of bread, and have only one loaf on the boat. And he asks them, how many did we feed back there. 5,000! And when I broke seven loaves and fed 4,000, how much was left? Well, seven baskets left. And he asks them, do you still not understand? Will they continue to worry just about human things? Well, I’m afraid, yes they will, until God intervenes. And, what about us. So simple to imagine change. So hard to do it. Is it possible without God?
So, as if the feeding miracles are not enough, some days after Peter says that Jesus is the son of The Living God, Jesus takes Peter and the Zebedee brothers up on the mountain where Jesus is dramatically transfigured in glorious white, and Elijah and Moses are there. And what do the disciples do? Peter says why don’t I make 3 huts, for you and Elijah and Moses. Now, it is a kind gesture, but another unnecessary one. He has already acknowledged Jesus’ divinity. He doesn’t need a hut. And just to make things clearer to them, the Father comes out of a cloud and says this is my son, listen to him. Can you imagine anything more convincing than that?
And what else happens on this trip to Jerusalem? Well, the disciples are unable to do a healing and Jesus, a bit annoyed, mentions to them a lack of faith and prayer. And he reminds them again he will be betrayed and will be killed, and will rise again. It is doubtful to me that the disciple would know what “rising again” refers to, but they are so flummoxed by what Jesus is saying, they don’t even ask a question. They are intimidated, I suppose.
Well, it continues to go poorly. The disciples can’t figure out what is important. What does it really mean that they are traveling with the son of the living God? Can they believe that? Do they get the point he has been making? Well, not so well. At one point Jesus asks them what they’re arguing about. Well it turns out to be a kindergarten argument: who is the greatest of them all ?
With what seems to be great patience, he sits them down. Whoever, he says, wants to be the first, must be the last of all and the servant of all.
Well, it goes on. At one point Peter chidingly reminds Jesus how much each of the disciples has given up to be with Jesus. Jesus responds that each who has done so will get a hundred fold back, but he reminds them again that the first shall be last and the last first.
And now, we get to today’s reading. The Zebedee boys, think they have it all figured out. They are still on The “Who is the greatest?”kick. It is them! They deserve the power, prestige and fame. “Grant us to sit, one at your left hand, and one at your right.”Jesus answers a bit teasingly, “ Really? Are you able to drink from the cup I will drink, and be baptized the way I am to be?” And, of course, not really knowing what he was talking about, James and John confidently assure him they can.
And if you think you should be first, you must be last. Jesus reminds them still again that whoever wants to be first, must be slaves of all. “For the son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for many.”
So what really is going on here? Are the Zebedee boys unusually blind? Actually, if you look ahead several weeks to Pentecost, James and John and almost all the other disciples wake up. What is this transformation? They no longer seem blind, do they? We read of them in Acts. They become useful and responsible citizens in the Jesus movement, the original one.
What is the answer to this puzzle. Surely, it has something to do with the shame of having fled the crucifixion, of being absent at the death of Jesus, having seen him resurrected. And surely something happened to them at Pentecost. They begin to speak in different languages, as they have been blessed by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps these different languages are a metaphor for seeing and speaking of things in a different way. Didn’t this happen to the Zebedee brothers. They looked at everything through an earthly lens, until after Pentecost, when they began to see differently. We are very much aware of Paul’s transformation from a murderous prosecutor of the Jesus movement to its evangelist. It seems we pay less attention to the transformation of the disciples. Less than we should, perhaps.They all receive a gift, the disciples, Paul, —- and in God’s time, you and I.
Our mind works on earthly things naturally. We are wired that way. We must forgive ourselves, while praying for another way, where is another possibility:
Perhaps the most important exchange of today’s reading is this: “Children Jesus says, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God… and they asked, Who can be saved, then? Jesus looked at them and said, For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.”