A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on October 17, 2021
Mark 10:35-45 (The Message translation)
James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.”
“What is it? I’ll see what I can do.”
“Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.”
Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?”
“Sure,” they said. “Why not?”
Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.”
When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
We just heard about two brothers, James and John, who wanted to make sure they got their fair (more than fair?) share of the glory they were sure Jesus would soon be handing out.
Give me mine, they ask. And Jesus tells them they don’t know what they’re asking for. They insist they do, and you can hear Jesus kinda thinking, well ok, sure, you’re going to get what you’re asking for….. Heaven only knows what James and John thought when they asked for power and wealth…. what did they think the other disciples would say, or do? Well, they found out right quickly that their friends weren’t impressed by their attempt to sneak around behind them to get ahead.
This leads to the first important thing to remember about today’s lessons – Jesus said to them all, You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
What’s important is not power, not wealth, but service. It is not what we have but what we do with what we have to make the world better for everyone.
Years ago, I went to a bookstore with a friend and her children. She’d told the kids they could each spend no more than, maybe, $10 for a book, and I was astounded when I realized that they were competing to find the $10 book with the most pages, because then they would “win”. They didn’t care what the story was, they didn’t care whether they were even interested in the subject of the book; they were totally in on a contest to get the most pages for $10.
They were living out the story of the Pharisees in Luke’s reading…. keeping meticulous accounts on stuff that doesn’t matter and skipping out on the essentials because you can’t really count and calculate the value of kindness.
My first parish was a three-church yoke in semi-rural Maine about halfway between Portland and North Conway, New Hampshire. Two small churches in adjacent towns, and one other church that was teeny tiny – three services every Sunday morning in the summer…. in the winter, the smallest church closed because it had no heat.
There were only really two major expenses in our church budgets – the pastor’s salary and maintenance of the buildings. So, as you can imagine, our trustees were careful in their maintenance of the building. One of the churches lent its fellowship space to a local food coop and once a week, the parking lot was filled with the cars of younger families, waiting to pick up the good veggies and other supplies, the coop brought into town. One day, one of those families backed their car right into a porch support. It didn’t bring the porch roof down, but it sure looked bad.
My favorite deacon and I were looking at the damage on Sunday after church, and he sighed as he said, “guess we’ll ask the food coop to leave. . . “ He wanted to protect the church building from any more damage, and that was a laudable aim. Except there was not, at that point, anywhere else in town that had our combination of convenient parking lot and big enough space to spread all the food out so it could be picked up – all the cauliflowers in one spot and the carrots in another and so on. So, if we asked them to leave, they’d have to close the coop, and there were families in town who would not be able to afford that quality of food (or that abundance…)
The Deacon and I talked, and then we talked with the Trustees. They didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford continual repairs. But by the end of the conversation they had decided that their building was a mission, and that if it were not being used for the good of the community, they were folks who were all talk and no action. They decided that the perfection of their space was not as beautiful as when it looked as though it had been used, and maybe was going to need a new coat of paint soon. And they then went out and fixed the porch support, with the help of some of the coop folks. And the coop stayed open.
Cheesy, penny-pinching, being mean about the things that don’t matter, grabbing all the power you can…it happened back in the day, and we still find ourselves slipping into it today.
James and John were ambitious. Judas wants to sell the expensive perfume the disciples have gotten as a gift.
Someone else is worried that they’re giving away too many napkins with the meatball subs and forgets to smile with the folks who need the food so desperately, and who need a friendly face even more.
In this week to come, take the time to notice when you get grabbed by little petty things; take the time to know when you need to be grabbed by the important. If you have to count the napkins, count them, but when you do, be sure to give away buckets full of love…. because we can always make do with paper towels if the napkins run out, but there’s no way to live in a world without love.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child