Rev. Teri Peterson
be my best
18 October 2009, Ordinary 29B
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 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?’ 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; 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.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
You can’t always get what you want…hard words for a child of the 80’s, part of the first generation of girls to be told “you can be anything you want to be” with any real sense of truth to that statement. “You can be anything you want to be,” said my mother, who had been told that “girls aren’t marine biologists.” I’m not sure “preacher” was ever a line my non-churched family imagined for their little girl, but there you have it—you can be anything you want to be. Of course, that line was usually followed up with “you just have to work the hardest, do your best, try hard, be the best you can be.” In other words, you just have to be the Best…which of course means being better than everyone else.
There’s danger in being the best. Sure, it can open doors and you can be anything you want. It can also close the mind, making it hard to see when the things we’re seeking are not the things we ought to be doing.
James and John only wanted to be the best—the best disciples, with the best place of honor. And, since they knew that they could be anything they wanted to be, they just asked. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Jesus lets them tell him what it is they want him to do before going all Rolling Stones on them—“you can’t always get what you want.”
Part of me wants to go easy on James and John—after all, didn’t Jesus say, “ask and you shall receive”?? Aren’t we supposed to go to God with the deepest desires of our hearts? Aren’t we supposed to want to be the best, strive for the greater things, work toward that place of honor? What’s wrong with asking for what you want? Isn’t that sort of what prayer is about—asking God for things?
I’m pretty sure this is the sort of halfway understanding of prayer-as-magic that floats around in our nominally Christian western culture. When we pray, we ask God for what we want, and we hope God will do it or give it to us. The stereotypical version is the prayer for a parking space, but this is a pretty common approach in a lot of situations, I think. We ask God for peace, for comfort, for healing, for hope, for sunny days, for courage, for partners and friends and colleagues, for justice. And we hope that God will grant those things, at least at some point—though preferably sooner rather than later.
In some ways, it’s a little like we pray to a Jeez-O-Matic, a vending machine God. We press D-8 and we hope for Twix…and if Twix are not what come out, we try C-12 and E-4 and any other combination the vending machine offers, and some it doesn’t offer, hoping for the response we want. Taken to an extreme, this soon becomes a “what’s in it for me?” approach. Sure, I’ll come and follow you—what will you do for me? Yeah, I’ll think about helping my elderly neighbor, but…what’s in it for me? Yes, something needs to be done…but what good will it do me?
“We want for you to do for us whatever we ask of you….in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
But, as Bishop Will Willimon says, Jesus is not a technique for getting what we want out of God; Jesus is God's way of getting what God wants out of us.
While we are praying, asking God for things we want, talking to God about things that matter to us—often life-or-death things—God is also talking to us, in some ways praying to US to do these same things—to bring peace, to do justice, to have the courage to comfort hurting people, to offer hope to those in despair. We pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and that is also what God wants…and what God wants us to do. To live as transformed people who help build the kingdom of God right here on earth. Jesus came to show us God’s will, to be God’s voice and hands and feet…and then to call us, US! the Body of Christ—God’s very own hands and feet and voice and heart right here on earth, where the kingdom is nearby, at hand, coming even now.
We all know that we have to try our hardest and do our best and be all that we can be…but what does it mean to Be My Best in the kingdom of God? Jesus tells us—unlike the rest of the world, in the community of God’s people, in the body of Christ, in the kingdom of God, the greatest is the servant, the VIPs are the slaves of all. When we serve others, when we work for peace and justice, when we comfort the downtrodden and cry with the grieving and laugh with the joyful, when we help those in need, then we are the greatest. The lowest of the low are the ones who end up with the greatest place of glory. Being the best, in the sense of being better than others, won’t get us the place of honor. Instead, Jesus tells us to find our identity in him, to Come, Follow, to wash feet and feed the hungry, to have compassion, to heal. Then we will be our best—our best selves, fully the people God calls us to be. This is exactly what we need.
You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
Thanks be to God.