Sermon Delivered on October 21, 2012

October 24, 2012

Dealing With Jesus
Mark 10:35-45

35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I am really glad that this conversation was recorded by Mark. It’s comforting for me to know that raw self-interest has been present in the Christian movement from the very beginning. We modern Christians have refined it in some amazing ways, but we aren’t the first ones to confuse our devotion to God with the promotion of ourselves. And if anyone thinks lobbying doesn’t go on in the church you need to take a close look at this passage. In fact this may be the first recorded episode of lobbying.

And I don’t have anything against lobbying. That’s just how business get’s done in our socio-polical system, but in order to be an effective lobbyist you need to know what is meaningful to the person you are lobbying, and these guys just didn’t get it.

I’m reminded of that scene from “The Graduate”, when this upper middle-class couple is having a party in honor of the graduation of their son who was played by Dustin Hoffman. It’s largely a gathering of highly materialistic adults and the Dustin Hoffman character doesn’t want to be there, but he is, and he’s spending most of his time underwater at the swimming pool in order to avoid people. But there’s this great moment when he comes up for air in the swimming pool and a neighbor is waiting for him and delivers to him what he considers to be a hot tip on the future and says, plastics.

Now it may be that this was good financial advice. Certainly plastics have played a large role in our economy over the past 40 years, but this character played by Dustin Hoffman had no interest in plastics. And it’s the level of absurdity of that advice that reminds me of the absurdity of this request from James and John. It’s as if they had not heard anything that Jesus had been telling them for days. They just didn’t get who they were dealing with!

Jesus had just finished telling the disciples for the third time that when he got to Jerusalem he would be condemned, made fun of, spat upon, whipped, and killed. He also said he would rise from the dead. And it may be that they were totally understanding of what was going to happen and they were thinking of the kingdom that would emerge after his torturous death, but I don’t really think this was the case.

I think James and John are very representative of many of us who have such a hard time with the deep wisdom Jesus was trying to impart – particularly when we feel scared and insecure. In verse 32 of this same chapter, Mark refers to the alarmed nature of the disciples and the fear that the people had for what was about to happen. It’s particularly easy to react poorly to situations when we are filled with fear and alarm. It’s really natural for people to resort to primal instincts when circumstances are threatening, and one of our instincts is to seek protection from powerful figures.

Given what Jesus had just said their requests for positions in his glory come across as absurd, but I think they could only feel his power – they just couldn’t comprehend the way he was going to use his power. And this continues to be a challenge for us. It’s so hard for all of us to comprehend and embrace and trust the wisdom of how Jesus used power. In the face of a threatening situation James and John wanted Jesus to use his power to provide them with protection and security and positions of authority. And I can see myself wanting the same.

I think the way Jesus used his power is one of the most powerfully challenging concepts that any of us face. He was a powerful person, but he used his power so differently from the way we are inclined to think that power should be used.

I don’t know how it would feel to be an incredibly powerful and influential person, but I’ve had a sense of what it feels like to be around an incredibly powerful and influential person, and it’s seductive. You don’t think straight when you are around someone who has significant power.

I’ve never operated within the hub of power, but I’m related to people who’ve been there. Shortly after Bill Clinton was elected, Sharla and I were driving somewhere here in Little Rock, and we heard on National Public Radio that he had been out playing golf somewhere, but that he was headed back to the Governor’s mansion. We weren’t far from there so we drove by the Governor’s Mansion and we saw this motorcade coming toward the mansion. We got out of the car and we heard someone say that he would be coming out to greet everyone. It was a relatively small group of people and we lined up and he came along to shake everyone’s hand.

And when President Elect Clinton came to me I said, my uncle is Maurice Smith, and he immediately responded by saying “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him”. I’m not sure how many people he said that to, but sure enough when Maurice Smith died a few years later, President Bill Clinton came to his funeral which was held at the Presbyterian Church in Wynne. Maurice Jr., as he was called in Wynne, was married to my father’s sister, and they were members of the Presbyterian Church.

That church didn’t have a minister at the time and my cousin had asked me if I would conduct his service. I remember calling one of my uncle’s close friends to talk to her about Maurice Jr., and I distinctly remember her saying, “Yes we need to talk, you know the president is coming”. I said I didn’t know he was coming, and it shook me.

It was a surreal experience for my family and I. It was a strange thing to have President Clinton join us for the potluck meal prior to the service, and it was a unique experience for me to tell him when I thought it would be good for him to say something during the service. It was a pretty heady deal.

Now all of this happened right after President Clinton had been impeached by the Judiciary Committee and they were about to engage in all of those hearings to decide if he was guilty of high crimes. He wasn’t at what you would call the peak of his power, but he wasn’t an insignificant person, and I liked the way it felt to tell everyone in the church that we would now be hearing a few words from President Clinton.

And one of the things President Clinton shared with us was the way that he had been kept politically alive by Maurice Jr. when he was defeated after his first term as Governor by Frank White. He said after that election he was the youngest ex-governor the State of Arkansas had ever had, and his political career was seemingly over. He said many of his supporters abandoned him, but not Maurice Jr., and it was with his help that he worked his way back in to the good graces of the Democratic Party in the state. He expressed genuine gratitude for the way in which Maurice Jr. had used his power on his behalf.

So you can either blame or give credit to my uncle for keeping Bill Clinton’s political career alive. Certainly he didn’t use his power as well as he could have, but power is a hard thing for us all to manage. As annoyed as I was with President Clinton on the trouble that he had caused for himself and his family and our nation with his relationship with Monica Lewinski, I would have signed up to be the Chaplain of Air Force One if he would have made the offer.

Power is seductive. It’s hard not to want it and to seek it and to use it in really self-serving and self-deceiving ways. And it’s staggering to see how different Jesus was in the way he used his power and told us to use ours. He came to serve – not to be served.

And in doing what he did he really did change the world. Jesus was able to reveal this truth that we gain the most security and the most comfort by using what we have to provide for others. The world really hasn’t recognized and embraced this wisdom, but everyone who has encountered Jesus has been touched by this truth.

James and John didn’t really understand who they were dealing with when they came to Jesus with their request, but he didn’t condemn them. He understood them, and he assured them that they would come to understand and experience the most profound sense of glory that is possible. They didn’t yet understand what he was saying, and we share their slowness to comprehend, but the truth of God will prevail in all of our lives at some point.

The source of true power is not in Washington or on Wall Street. The source of true power resides in Heaven, and is at hand. It is at work in each of us and it serves to challenge each of us. We can resist it, but we can’t overcome it, and sometimes by the grace of God we claim it, and we join with Jesus in giving ourselves to it.

Thanks be to God for the ways God’s power is able to redeem us and lead us on to the path of true peace and reconciliation and joy.



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