Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 21, 2018
Mark 10: 35-45 – The Message
James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”
36 “What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”
37 “Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.”
38 Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?”
39-40 “Sure,” they said. “Why not?”
Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.”
41-45 When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
James and John asked Jesus for the privilege of sitting at the highest places of honor in his glory, “one of us on the right, one of us on the left.” It’s seems like a pretty-obvious self-serving idea. Can you imagine anything more arrogant?
Well, I suppose I can. Asking the Supreme Court to maintain the highest places of honor for white people. Legislators in North Dakota, my home state, took away the right to vote for American Indians and the Supreme Court said, “OK.” They did this not by tricking them in some back-room deal, but by stating very clearly, this land is our land. They didn’t want to do something that’s simply “pretty obvious” but so obviously outrageous there is no doubt as to their intention. Stop Native people from voting.
One of the things many of us who have gone on our trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have learned is that the postal service doesn’t deliver mail to the homes of Native American families. Larry Swallow told us his white neighbor across the road gets home-delivered mail but he does not. Something about sovereign nation stuff, which doesn’t make sense to me. But for good reasons or not, many, maybe most, American Indians living on reservations do not have street addresses but post office box numbers. A light went off in the head of some gleeful white supremacist. To vote, require an ID with a street address! Now, it’s not that you can’t get one, but it is an impediment that will discourage and possibly delay voting in this election.
It’s another in quite an arsenal of disenfranchisement. When gerrymandering isn’t enough, limit voting by making charges of rampant fraud, even if there is no evidence. Shorten early voting or consolidate polling stations to “save money.” If that doesn’t discourage voters, slow down on processing registrations and let them sit on the desk of the Georgia Secretary of State… If all that is not enough, as they did this week, then just go out and pull elderly African American nursing home residents off buses on their way to vote. Sounds like a story Terri told last week about Fannie Lou Hamer. In 1963, a busload of African Americans trying to register to vote was pulled over because the bus was too yellow. Poll taxes, literacy tests… Can’t get away with those anymore. So, Georgia enacted “exact match” voter IDs, affecting 909,000 potential voters. Or require a street address for people who don’t have street addresses, affecting just enough votes to swing the election.
So, back to James and John. Familiar names, but I thought, now who were they again? The sons of a fisherman named Zebedee, James and John were the first two of the 12 disciples to answer yes when Jesus said, “Come, follow me;” brothers who then walked away leaving their father sitting in his boat mending nets.
But I had forgotten that their mother was Salome. You might recognize her name as one of the women who went to the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Salome also provided financial support to Jesus and the disciples as he traveled the countryside teaching – lessons that didn’t sink in too deeply for her two sons. I wonder how she felt about that.
Some scholars suggest Salome was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Somehow, I never got that before. Obviously, that would mean that Jesus, James and John were cousins, suggesting a different dynamic between them when they came bounding forward and asked Jesus to give them special places of honor. And could be why Uncle Zebedee didn’t object to being left behind to carry on the family business.
But in the middle of all that, there are two little details we can’t overlook: Salome had money to buy spices and support Jesus. And Zebedee was a fisherman who owned his own fleet of boats. This was not a peasant family. James and John were not leaving their family destitute to go off and follow Jesus. That’s not to say they were any less courageous in leaving everything behind. I can’t say they weren’t any less dedicated; after all, James was ultimately executed by Herod Agrippa, the only one of the 12 to become a martyr.
And yet, their request for special places of honor on his left and on his right in glory certainly smacks not only of ignorance but a certain entitlement, not as cousins but wealth then and now has a way of making people feel entitled. But, as Jesus kept saying, and what they kept missing, was that to follow him was not about power and glory. As Henri Nouwen describes it, a Jesus-life is one of downward mobility that substitutes power for love – over and over. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. The good news is that the last will be first, the first will be last. Of course, that’s not such good news for James and John, or any privileged and entitled.
These guys had been following Jesus now for almost a year, 24/7. This wasn’t their first lesson, day one at school, with him. And yet, as the Gospel of Mark keeps reiterating, they absorbed very little of his teachings. This was now the third time Jesus had told them what was coming. In the verses immediately before today’s passage, “They were on the road walking to Jerusalem. He told the 12, ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
James and John obviously only heard the last part and came bounding up, “ooo, ooo, let us sit next to you when you rise!”
The first time Jesus told the disciples about his impending suffering and death, Peter told him to stop talking like that. Jesus responded by telling him, “Satan, get behind me.” The second time, after Jesus spoke about his suffering and death, an argument broke out among the disciples about who was the greatest. What could Jesus do but shake his head? Now, after this third time, two of them ask for a place of glory. But for what else would someone who is used to places of honor and glory ask? Only the entitled think suffering is for other people.
One of the things that really struck a nerve with the Kavanagh hearings was his absolute entitlement to being confirmed. “I worked my butt off. I went to Yale. I know a lot of important people. I like beer. A lot of people like beer. Don’t you like beer?” As Jonathon Capehart described it, “The entire spectacle was one long ‘but you promised’ tantrum of a grown man denied” that to which he felt entitled.
Lisa Miller explains entitlement as “the presumption that elites are elites because they deserve to be, a false correlation between status and good character, and an intolerance of dissent. No one who doesn’t live inside is allowed to criticize those who do, and all who do, are bound by a frat boy defense – what happens here stays here. Not unlike bishops who protect child abusing priests.” Kavanagh said of Dr. Ford, “we did not travel in the same social circles.” And that matters why?
MeToo is dangerous because it is all about depriving privileged men of that to which they feel entitled. The president said this a scary time for boys and men. “Mothers, you should be worried for your sons.” Not because they might be killed for driving while black,
But none of that is of any consequence when a white man is denied what is rightfully his: women, low taxes, and the exclusive right to vote, arguing that was the original intent of the Constitution. The so-called “originalists” being packed onto the Supreme Court today still agree that voting is properly for white, property-owning, men. Preferably Christian.
But, like the entitled James and John, white Christians often have no idea who Jesus really is. When they want to impose their version of Christianity, they are not talking about the Jesus of the Gospels. Misunderstood or simply ignored when they don’t like what he said, such as, “The first will be last. And the last will be first,” challenging the thinking of the privileged and entitled like James and John and white American Christians today, myself included.
My friend Katy from seminary said, the most common reading of this text in liberal churches is to heed it as a call to charity. To “honor” the poor, the last and the least. But not to subvert the social order. It encourages misplaced compassion, which just plays into the hands of the entitled like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan who want us to get riled up and question “entitlements,” like food for senior citizens and a place of dignity to live. It’s quite rich that the entitled want to dismantle entitlements. And do so without any whiff of hypocrisy. As though they would even care.
But as Katy said, “The challenge of today’s text for white Christian America is that it is a direct affront to the systems to which we owe our allegiance. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and the greed of capitalism don’t do well here. Jesus inverts every one of these heresies. This text should have us shaking in our boots, threatening our foundations. And if it doesn’t, if it doesn’t cause us to tremble, we aren’t hearing the gospel.” (https://liturgyoutside.net/last-first-and-the-call-to-revolution/) The first shall be last. The last shall be first.
We shouldn’t mistake the Kingdom of God for American democracy or elevate democracy as the will of God, but there are at least hints within democracy to a vision of equality among citizens and the people of God. Paul said, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one in Christ.”
It’s like a vision of every vote counted. A vision where people in nursing homes don’t have to get on a bus to go the polls but poll workers are sent to seek them out in their homes; where poll workers go under bridges to look for people and travel on long, winding reservation roads so that everyone can be found, and every voice is included. Of course, in the Kingdom of God, people don’t live under bridges nor are there any reservations, but you get the idea.
Can you imagine what this country would look like if everyone voted? I guess that would be pretty scary. And can you imagine Christians as the fiercest advocates of voter rights? Because as Henri Nouwen describes it, a Jesus-life is one of downward mobility that substitutes power for love.
But, before we totally embrace powerlessness, our call is not to become doormats. That’s another misinterpretation of this text. But out of fierce love, we first have to fight like hell to get power and control out of the hands of the privileged and entitled. Our call is not to become their patsies but to take their power so that it can be shared, given away, that then, at last, we might love one another and embrace each other as members of one body, one country, one earth.
Yes, that means we must get out there and vote until everyone can vote, but we must also recognize this is only one election and only one step in a thousand until we realize the vision of a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. As Dr. King said, “we must do more than register and vote; we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with enthusiasm.”
That is something to which we are entitled.
 Richard R. Losch, All the People in the Bible, Eerdmans Publishing, 2008, p 365
 Mark 8: 27-33
 Mark 9: 33-37
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world