“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.” 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.””
Prayer – God of inclusive grace, we come this morning hearing a story of two of Jesus’ disciples who want to be closest to him. They want to be not just included, but close up and personal. When the others learn of this they become angry thinking that somehow they may not be good enough, or that their colleagues are getting ahead. Help us, O God, to understand that we all are more than good enough; we don’t have to earn your grace and love, that we are included no matter what – amen.
I can imagine this is not the sermon you thought you were going to hear this morning. I can imagine you are wondering just how in the world Mike ended up here on this Blessing of the Animals, trying to get ahead of others Sunday scripture that truly reflects our broken humanity. Well to be honest with you, I’m not sure I can answer that question, but I am going to try.
When I first read our passage for this morning I was thinking what spoke to me was the frequent expectation that when we ask God for something we think, we believe, that just because we asked, we are going to get it. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard families in the ICU pray for that miracle, that unexpected blessing in the face of medical realities, believing with all of their heart that because they have asked for a miracle, they will get it. More times than not, they have been disappointed. In fact, I had one of those instances this week with the wife of a critically ill patient. When I talked with her the first time on Tuesday, she was certain that God would respond to her prayers for hope and a miracle. By Thursday, it was clear to us and eventually to her, that her prayer wasn’t going to be answered.
But as I thought and reflected about this passage for this morning, what kept circling in my mind was the thing under the thing with this passage. This may be one of the most human experience passages in all of Mark. We have two of the disciples seeking the ultimate disciple privilege of sitting beside Jesus at the table while the others are simply going about their everyday business, until they learn of James and John’s request. Then the remaining disciples respond in a very humanly manner – they were ticked off, pouting, whining and complaining that James and John’s request wasn’t fair, that somehow they may not be good enough to be included while their ‘brothers’ could have gotten ahead. This passage is a blueprint for human behavior. And what is amazing is that even in all of their human bucket-head-ness, Jesus included them, he loved them even in their humanity. That is what it means to be included.
A big part of our human condition is thinking that we can earn our way, work our way, be all we can be, that where we end up in the world is solely based on what we do, what we accomplish as human beings. So much of our western philosophy and society is based on that notion that we can make our own way in the world; we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Though a majority of Americans claim they believe in God, most of us function in our lives as atheists. Little seems to cause us more trouble than the godless belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. Parker Palmer calls this “functional atheism.” This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.
This shadow causes pathology on every level of our lives. It leads us to impose our will on others… stressing our relationships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression, and despair, as we learn the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact. Functional atheism is the shadow that drives collective frenzy as well. It explains why the average group can tolerate no more than fifteen seconds of silence: if we are not making noise, we believe, nothing good is happening and something must be dying.
Functional atheism is not a new affliction for the believer’s soul or the human soul. The rough and tumble scramble of our daily lives reveals our hidden atheist. Our unbelief makes itself known in our worry and irritability. We see our betrayal of God in the way we clamp down on having things our way and in insisting that we are right. Such unbelief gives us heartburn, high blood pressure, sleepless nights, and anxious days. Try as we might, we will always fall short of being able to be God in our own lives. Such an enterprise only leads to misery and feeling that we are not, cannot be included.
Jesus speaks to our human atheism when he reminds the disciples and us that what we accomplish isn’t what life is about. Rather it is about serving others, helping others to stand on a level playing field. Jesus’ words of inclusive behavior goes against the human grain of getting ahead, taking advantage, making sure that we get our fair share. And still, Jesus’ love and inclusion of all people, all of creation, including our pets, is a reminder that our soul is not made for competition, our soul is not made for hierarchical behavior. Instead, Jesus’ radical inclusion of the least of these is a divine mantra that we all are included. And like the disciples as human beings, that is not an easy thing to understand or accept.
I can only speak for myself but I would much rather God exclude people who believe differently than me. I would much rather exclude the people who think that political leaders are divinely appointed by God. I would much rather exclude people who think that they have all of the divine answers to life and salvation. I would much rather exclude the evangelicals who put the progressive’s down. I would much rather exclude those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, that women should not be in leadership in the church, that homosexuals are going to hell. I would much rather exclude those who treat LGBTQ folks, minorities, women, immigrants as being less than. I would much rather exclude the James and John’s of the world who think they can expect privilege because they are believers and want to sit beside the Christ. There are far more that I would want to exclude than include if I was the one deciding. AND, even as I share those preferences with you I realize that my exclusive desires reflect my own atheism – thinking that somehow my desires are somehow the same as God’s.
I wonder how many of us are like that. When you look at the divisiveness in our political world you may notice as I do that it not too different than the divisiveness across the theological world as well. And that sense of inclusion and exclusion is as very real as the day is long. Much of that inclusion/exclusion dyad is about competition, about being acceptable, about being one up on someone else. But again the thing under the thing is that we all have an innate desire to belong, to be included, to be connected to one another and to something bigger than us.
So how do we redeem or reconcile these two very different positions within our human experience – we think that is the question. Notice I said, “How do WE redeem?” as if redemption and reconciliation is up to you and me. Notice how it easy it is to fall into the trap of functional atheism when we take a little bit deeper look at our ways of doing things as human beings. Where is, how is reconciliation and redemption received when we live in a world where some are included and many are excluded? Where is congruence between inclusion/exclusion and that deep desire to belong, to be included? Perhaps this is just one of the tensions of what it means to be human.
What is difficult to understand and accept is that as a human being it isn’t about me – which is what Jesus is trying to say in our passage. It is about being inclusive, it is about others, it is about servanthood. Perhaps the good news, the radically good news is that Jesus includes very human beings as disciples – people like me, people like you who want to be included and would just as soon exclude others. Jesus includes and accepts the human-bucket-headed-ness of his disciples and loves them anyway, accepts them and includes them in his work and most importantly as recipients of his grace. Jesus never excluded the people he encountered. He let them be human, he tried to show them what God looks like in human form. He came not to change God’s mind about us; rather, to change our minds about God. It is kind of nice to know that God isn’t like me – willing to exclude or push out those I would prefer not to include. God is merciful and inclusive of all and that is what redemption is all about – that is what it means to be included – and so, thanks be to God – amen.