Sunday, March 08, 2020

Service, Not Stardom — a sermon for Lent 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Service, not Stardom
Mark 10.32-52 (NIV)
8 March 2020, NL2-27, Lent 2 (Letting Go: fasting from being first)

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’
‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.
They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’
‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’ ‘We can,’ they answered.
Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means ‘son of Timaeus’), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’
So they called to the blind man, ‘Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.’ Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’
‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. 


Every time I hear this story I have to laugh. Because James and John are just so....human. Remember last week we heard about Jesus talk about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and that our reliance on ourselves and our possessions is actually blocking us from entering the kingdom of God. And the very last line of last week’s reading was “so the last will be first and the first will be last.” This morning we picked up at the next verse — that saying is what everyone was amazed and afraid about. 

Jesus takes the opportunity, walking along the road, to remind his disciples what he’d told them before: that he was headed for pain and suffering and death. That his type of messiah was not what they expected, and they needed to prepare. 

And somehow, from those two conversations about the first shall be last and about the coming crucifixion, James and John thought they’d better ask their question now.

Now, I don’t know about you, but never in my life have I ever approached someone, even the best of friends, with the opening line “I want you to do for me whatever I ask.” It seems a risky move, to start there. And more than a little bit cheeky. But that was nothing compared to what came next. 

Jesus asked “what do you want me to do for you?” And somehow, from the depths of their being, came their truest desire. Remember what Jesus said about what comes out of a person — it reveals more than what goes in. What came out of the mouths of James and John was a request that they could sit on either side of Jesus’ throne at his first royal banquet. When he attained the glory they knew must be coming, they wanted to be there, basking in it. They wanted him to honour them above all others. They wanted to be first.

Jesus’ response to them seems to start out by humouring them, but he soon realised that they didn’t really know what they were he clarified by stating flatly that the head of the line was not his to assign, that asking for glory is not the way to get it.

Then the other ten disciples come crowding into the story, and we discover that they’re upset with James and John....but it sounds an awful lot like they were upset that they didn’t think of this first! Why wasn’t Peter or Bartholomew the one to come up with the idea of asking Jesus for assigned seating in the throne room? Again, I have to laugh, because I know exactly how this conversation went. Aside from having a little brother, I also spent time teaching P1s who were desperate to lead the class when we lined up to go to another room....and I’ve spent a lot of years in Presbyteries where I’m pretty sure jockeying for position was basically a part-time job for some ministers. 

But Jesus wasn’t having any of it. Instead of laughing along, or giving in to their me-first antics, he sat them down and gave them a stern talking to. He explained more of what he meant about that first and last business: that, essentially, if we want to follow him into the kingdom, we actually have to fast from being first. We have to give up being first, let go of that desire to be first....and focus that energy instead on serving. This isn’t about getting glory for ourselves, it’s about giving glory to God. And the way to do that is by giving up that desire to be better than others, and putting ourselves in Jesus’ place: kneeling at the feet of our neighbours, reaching out to people no one else wants to touch, sitting at the table not with guests of honour but with the poor, the sinners, the foreigners, the outcasts. To put ourselves in Jesus’ place means to give up glory and give our lives for others....for the kingdom of God. 

It’s easier said than done, to fast from being first. Honestly I would rather fast from chocolate or even cake! We are conditioned to want to win, of course. But Jesus wasn’t talking about a football match or a cross country race or a pub quiz. He was talking about a mindset of superiority. And he could not be more clear in teaching that those who follow him will need to let go of that. Whatever form it takes, whether it’s the insidious white supremacy that infects our whole culture and language, or whether it’s the more obvious sort of playground bullying, or sectarian bigotry, or racism or sexism or economic colonialism or even just a run-of-the-mill sense that I’m better than someone else....we are going to have to give that up. Not just for Lent, but forever. But Lent is a good time to start practicing a fast from being first.

Perhaps we could take the next bit of the story as our example. They got up from this impromptu schoolroom and continued on the road, and Mark tells us they were leaving Jericho and heading for Jerusalem. Remember that this is the very road on which the parable of the Good Samaritan takes place — a road known for its danger and, at least in Jesus’ stories, for people pretending not to notice the plight of others. There, on the side of the road, was a man....a man who can’t see. At least not with his eyes. But when he heard that Jesus was coming, he began to make himself known, and the people around him couldn’t take it. They wanted him to be invisible. If he couldn’t see, then why should be seen? 

But Jesus was not like the people who typically traveled that road. He did not treat people as if they were invisible, no matter what others thought he should do. He made time even for the man who could not see him. And Bartimaeus, whose name literally means “Son of the Unclean”, who was blind and a beggar, threw off his clothes, his one possession, and came to Jesus, baring his soul.

Jesus asked him the very same question that he asked James and John a few minutes before. “What do you want me to do for you?” 

Imagine the answers that could have come from this man who was well below the bottom rung of the social ladder. He was disabled, he was homeless and poor, he was named Unclean, and he was naked, literally and spiritually, in front of a renowned rabbi. The only way he could have been any lower would be if he had been a foreigner. Yet Jesus asked him the same question he asked his own disciples. And his answer was startlingly different. He did not ask for glory. He did not ask to be raised from his station. He did not ask for wealth or for revenge on those who had treated him as invisible all these year. He asked for vision. He wanted to see....not just the world around him, but the people around him, and also the truth around him. He had insight already, but now he wanted vision. It might not change his social status but it would change his life, and his ability to participate in it.

Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t even need to reach out a hand. With a word, he gave Bartimaeus sight...and Bartimaeus did the only thing he could do in response to such a gift: he followed Jesus along the road. 

He didn’t run about saying “look at me! I’m the one Jesus healed!” But he also didn’t go back to his invisible place either. He followed Jesus. He left behind any possibility of fame in his hometown, and took a place at the back of the crowd of disciples.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus asks the same question twice and gets such different responses? I wonder, when he asks us the very same question, what our answer is. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks...are we praying for things that bring us glory, that move us to the head of the line, that will help us be first? Or are we praying for the vision to see his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?

This week we are invited to take up this practice of fasting from being first. To instead take up a place at the back of the crowd of disciples and follow Jesus wherever he is going, without thought for our own status or power or prestige. The journey to the cross is not glorious, it won’t make us famous, and indeed it may look like the opposite of all we have been taught about self preservation and smart choices and getting ahead in life. There may be mockery or derision from those on the sidelines. But the last will be first, and the way of Christ is a way of service not stardom, and with God all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.

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