Mark 10: 35-45 (RCL Proper 24B)
Oy Vey! What a mess. You’d think Jesus would be about ready to tear his hair out by now.
--I mean, things all seemed to be coming together. The days of teaching and preaching and praying together, the healings and exorcisms, the feeding of the multitudes and all the miraculous signs. And then that high moment, Peter at Caesarea Philippi: Thou art the Christ. Mark 8:29. And Jesus really for the first time begins to share with them something of what lies ahead. The Cross and the Empty Tomb.
Not the end of the story. But you do get the feeling it’s a turning point. A new chapter.
But then, before you know it, rolling into Chapter 9 of St. Mark, and the disciples are arguing among themselves, and it's all laid out there: ego, ambition, pride, self-centeredness. If you thought that Peter's declaration of faith was a guarantee of a life in which all Christian virtues would be fully expressed—think again. As if Caesarea Philippi never happened.
And Jesus catches them in that and preaches that little sermon to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9: 35. And to give emphasis to that all—last of all, servant of all, he sets that little child in front of them.
And we recalled a few weeks ago that in First Century culture that little one was not the precious character of our post-18th century Romantic world, but instead the human being of the very least value. The child in that culture regarded as something almost pre-human, without importance, to be tended by slaves or by the women of the household out of the way and behind the scenes, until he was grown. But here, Jesus says, that we would somehow aspire, if that’s the right word, to be last and least, to be servants ourselves, even to this one. The very end of the line, the bottom of the pile.
A pretty good sermon illustration, and you’d think we’d get it this time. Finally. We disciples. But no. We hardly catch a breath, still in Mark 9, and the disciples want to put a stop to the outsider who is calling himself a disciple of Jesus and using Jesus’ name to perform exorcisms, even though he’s never been a part of their group. Jealousy. Egos in full outrage mode. “How dare he! We’re the real disciples! Who does this imposter think he is?”
And Jesus sweeps that all away. He’s fine—don’t worry about it. Probably trying to do some good. I guess if Jesus were English he’d say, “Don’t get your knickers in a knot.” And then Jesus points to the same little child he pointed out a while back, and talks about how if you really feel like you need to worry about something, worry about yourselves. This maybe like the image of worrying about the splinter in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in our own. Worry about what might happen if you fall short of your responsibility and the call to good stewardship that is yours as one of my disciples. Better a millstone around your neck, at the bottom of the sea.
And then moving along into Mark 10—I’m just trying to map out the context here for this morning’s reading--and the exchange with the Pharisees about divorce, which was not as common in those days as in ours, though still a reality and concern in a rather different context of family and social and economic life. And Jesus stuns them by lifting up an ideal that is above and beyond the legal procedures provided in the Scriptures—again concerned with pride, “hardness of heart,” this concern about legal technicalities. And then there is the dodge for the Pharisees: it depends what your definition of is is
What a mess we make of things: marriage and family, husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend—the whole encyclopedia of relationships, where love dies, promises fall apart. . And then another sermon, right away, Rabbi Jesus interrupts his teaching with the disciples as they once again are thinking only about themselves, and puts it all into focus, because a much more important group has arrived to see him. “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.” Kids again. (I remember how when I was in seminary if you were assigned to a parish for field work where they wanted you to do Sunday School and Youth Group, it was a real loss of status. What you wanted was the chance to preach at the 11 . . . . To swim with the big fish.)
And finally--this followed right away the encounter with the Rich Young Man, as perhaps Stacy worked him over with you last Sunday, who is a good and faithful person in so many ways, but in the end cannot follow Jesus, because he is unable, unwilling to give away all that he has. You can’t hold on to power, prestige, wealth, importance. Not on this journey. Camel and the eye of the needle. And the disciples seem to catch his drift--anxious though that makes them. Then who can be saved? This momentary flash of humility.
And so finally we pause, this morning, and forward come James and John: “Hearing all this, Teacher, we have one thing to ask of you.” --“What is it?” -- “Would you please announce now that of all your disciples, we two are the first, the best, the most trusted, the ones who will sit beside you at the head of the table in the new Kingdom of God?”
As perhaps Jesus said, "Oy Vey." --Well, anyway: what a mess we are. Back to Square One. --It just kind of takes your breath away to see these scenes, these conversations, lined up together one after the other. They’re right there with him, they hear him, see him, day by day. But somehow, some critical part of this all just doesn’t seem to sink in.
For sure they’re all well-intentioned, trying their best. But take your eye off the ball for a second, and the old Adam seems to rush back onto the scene with all his original energy. “What about me?” Me. Me. Me. And Jesus can’t do any more, I guess, than just to say it all again, for the 490th time: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” And it all just seems kind of hopeless. If this were the end of the story it would be all just some kind of tragic comedy—Jesus and the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Invincible ignorance. Theirs. Yours, mine, ours.
But the great thing is, and this where I’d leave us this morning: Jesus doesn’t give up on them. Not once, not ever, not for a minute. He stays with them patiently. Preaching the same sermon, over and over and over again. Yes, they are clueless most of the time. But he knows, he trusts that they’re coming along. Not all at once, but gradually, and down deep, a little at a time. Three steps forward, two steps back; and sometimes two steps forward, three back. But down deep, a little at a time. He sees, even if we don’t. He knows their hearts, and our hearts. He sees, even if they don’t see it yet themselves. He seems to know that they will, in time.
And so he repeats again and again through these chapters, in the midst of their stepping forward and their falling back, what will happen soon in Jerusalem. First at Caesarea Philippi—what the professors of theology would call the doctrine of the Atonement. Which is going to take a long, long time for them to figure out not just in theory but in the realities of their own lives.
How the one whose midnight birth was marked by the songs of angels and the gifts of kings will at midday be stripped and beaten and hung on a cross to die. And how through that death the force of wrong would be broken once and for all, and how then from that death he will rise to new life. And how nothing would ever again be what it was before. It’s a lot to take in, a lot to comprehend, for the disciples, for any of us. What will it mean, what could it possibly mean, for us to be a part of that story? But he is patient and generous and kind, and he stays right there with them.
We might come forward to the altar this morning—I guess you’d say inspired or “convicted” by these readings from St. Mark over the past few Sundays--with a sense of embarrassment. Even guilt. –All the ways we’ve missed the boat. In so many corners of our lives. Don’t even begin to make lists. It’s too depressing. Missing the point, falling short. Doing the wrong thing even when we know it’s the wrong thing to do. Just not getting it. Family. Friends. Work. Community. Planet Earth. We have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. And as the weatherman says, the forecast is more of the same.
But for all that, as we would see in these readings, and as Jesus says in John 14: let not your heart be troubled. Because he sees through all that, beyond all that. That’s the best thing in these stories, one after the other. The places where we get hung up don’t hang him up at all. He knows who we are, and who we are becoming. And he is faithful and generous and forgiving, and in him there is blessing, and the healing of what was broken.
Through it all, “just as I am, without one plea,” we might come forward this morning instead beyond any embarrassment or guilt, and let it be instead all thanksgiving. Depending on his grace and mercy, and not on our own efforts, or in our rationalizations or casting of blame on others.
Depending on him: for second chances and third chances, and more beyond that--and for the space and time to grow step by step, each of us in our own way, at our own pace. Jesus with us all the way. Thanksgiving for what miracles of transformation and new life he can see beginning to happen in us, ragtag group of disciples that we are, even before we are aware of them ourselves.