29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 18, 2015

Proper 24 – Mark 10:35-45

Jesus agrees to give James and John that which they request and the admonition “be careful what you ask for” comes to mind.

This exchange comes on the heels of Jesus’ third passion prediction in Mark and after the brothers’ request reveals the disciples’ ongoing inability to understand what the glory of Jesus entails. But how can they possibly not get it? Jesus takes them aside and tells them what will happen to him, tells them in stomach-turning detail: They will mock, spit, flog and kill. Can you handle the cup that is filled with that sour wine?

James and John do not know what they are asking but they ask it anyway. Beg, really. The word for “ask” is more like “demand.” James and John are insistent. Jesus basically says, “so be it” – but… there is a part of this request that even Jesus can’t grant. Only those for whom it is prepared may sit at Jesus’ right and left hand and we are left wondering who those elect are. Or are we?

Perhaps Mark reveals for whom those coveted positions have been prepared. If the cup and the baptism and the glory find fulfillment on the cross, then the ones on Jesus’ right and left are a pair of bandits (Mark 15:27). It seems in keeping with Mark’s grand reversal narrative, doesn’t it? Mark 8:35: Those who want to save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it. Mark 9:35: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Mark 10:44: Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. Should it surprise us that the ones on the right and left of Jesus are bandits?

Jesus came to save sinners, call tax collectors, restore those chained to a living death among the tombs and touch lepers. What exactly were James and John expecting when they yearned to be Jesus’ right and left hand men? Perhaps they have yet to make the distinction between Gentile glory and Jesus’ glory. Maybe they are still hoping to lord it over others. It could be that the passion predictions, dire and repeated as they are, are overshadowed by the transfiguration experience James and John witnessed a few chapters back. Don’t we all want to go from glory to glory? Palm Sunday to Easter with no Good Friday in between? The birth of Jesus with no talk of judgment and the Second Coming? Building booths on the mountain rather than returning to the mess in the valley?

Truth be told, we often go with cheap grace over the cost of discipleship, and in our context it is easy to get away with such a trade. We have to be intentional about living out our servant identity and welcome whatever that costs. We don’t seek out suffering, we live out our baptism and anticipate that born again lifestyle will make us different, conspicuous and certain to run afoul of those who benefit from the Gentile, lord it over, tyrant status quo.

When we come up out the waters of baptism and drink from the cup of salvation we are marked as God’s own, children of the covenant, participants in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, servants loyal to the One who came to serve. We become part of God’s great reversal where slaves have the highest status and death has lost its sting and worth is conferred and not earned and the meek inherit the earth and Jesus is the one and only Lord of us and of all. Are we able to live such a sacramental life? It might land us on Jesus’ right and left hand, bandit-like.

The questions to wrestle with this week are: What does it look like to live our baptismal identity? How do we take up the cup of salvation and drink of it daily? Are we able to give God the glory regardless of what such attribution does to our own status?

As you may know, I live in Columbia, South Carolina; as I write this the flood waters are receding just as the recovery process is beginning. Many are reaching out to help, doing what they can with what they have. One hair stylist is offering free services to those still without water. A friend in an unaffected country is collecting plastic bins and other supplies to bring to impacted areas. Cars have been loaned, homes have been opened, those with strong backs have shown up and moved soggy belongings to curbsides. GoFundMe sights abound. Random pizzas appear at lunch time, little kids pass out water bottles. Many of you have sent messages asking, “What can we do?”

None of this, in and of itself, is all that grand. Those who might be glorified, people who braved currents to rescue neighbors, have shunned the limelight. There is a spirit of servanthood, of shared humanity, of caring connection that pervades in the midst of this disaster and, I suspect, in the midst of most disasters. No one cares what stripe of election sign was in the yard of their neighbor’s flooded yard. A Republican governor praises a Democrat president. Religious affiliation is irrelevant when everyone is dealing with water, too much in our homes and not enough coming from our taps. Who can tell the CEO from the janitor when all of us are clothed in jeans and soaking wet?

For a while this will be our new normal. I pray for recovery and for those who have been devastated to be made whole again soon. I worry about the people who were already close to the edge of poverty and for whom this storm will push them over that edge. But I also pray some of this new normal will be our forever normal. In a year in which this small, quirky state has seen major devastation, both natural and human-made, I pray we will remember what it is like to long to be of service, to ache to be an agent of healing, to be side-by-side with one another, one at our right hand and one at our left, working together for good, with not even a thought about who gets the glory.

This week:

  1. Take a look at the other Gospel passages where James and John are present. What do you make of the fact that the two of them are often with Peter during critical times in Jesus’ ministry?
  2. What does leadership look like in your congregation? Is there a sense of “lording it over others” or is there a spirit of servant leadership?
  3. Consider the sacramental language of this text from Mark. How are the Lord’s Supper and baptism connected to Christ’s passion? How are the sacraments related to our identity and mission?
  4. This week’s text from Job, Psalms and Mark all have something to say about knowing our place as humans. How do these texts speak to our proper place in the created order and also our limited knowledge?
  5. Have you ever said to Jesus, “Teacher, I want you to do for me whatever I ask of you”? If so, what have you asked for? Did Jesus grant your request? Was it what you had hoped and expected or not?
  6. The word for “know” in Mark 10:38 is the verb “see.” What difference does it make to translate verse 38 as “You do not see what you are asking”? Could this relate to the next story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus?


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