Some Hard Truths for a Small Church
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.”
This reading from Mark is prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday. It's impossible to separate this reading out from the others we've heard from Mark's Gospel along the way this year. This reading is directly tied to Peter's earlier declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, and then the argument that the two of them have over the nature of who the Messiah is and what kind of expectation people had for Jesus. The first century Jews expected God's anointed one, also called the Messiah, to be the coming King that would lead a revolution to overthrow Roman oppression and restore independence to their country with God's selected king on their throne. But the way of God, the way of love, that Jesus preached had nothing to do with that. In fact it seems that the nature of God, Abba, that Jesus preached rejected a reign of God, a kingdom of God, that looks anything like that. Jesus knew and taught that God's reign didn't compete for political power. God's way had nothing to do with who was or wasn't on the throne. The way of God could be practiced even under and in the midst of oppression, because the way of God was giving not just your coat but your cloak also, turning the other cheek, and forgiving your enemies and oppressors.
Anyone who would be God's Messiah, the one anointed to be the fullness of God's way, God's love, God's "kingdom" or reign, could not look like the world, but had to look like God. The Messiah must look like the kingdom that they would represent. And so Jesus knew and tried to teach his disciples, that the Messiah could not lead the people to freedom by overthrowing Roman oppressors, but faced with the evils and struggles for power in the world, the Messiah would instead come to suffer and be put to death.
DRAFTJS_BLOCK_KEY:6ll6nThis reading from Mark is prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday. It's impossible to separate this reading out from the others we've heard from Mark's Gospel along the way this year. This reading is directly tied to Peter's earlier declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, and then the argument that the two of them have over the nature of who the Messiah is and what kind of expectation people had for Jesus. The first century Jews expected God's anointed one, also called the Messiah, to be the coming King that would lead a revolution to overthrow Roman oppression and restore independence to their country with God's selected king on their throne.
We see a version of this conversation play out again in today's reading. The disciples still don't get it. They're still looking for power. They want to be this coming king's advisors, seated on his right and left hand at his throne. But Jesus is trying to tell them, the cup that he must drink and the baptism he'll be baptized in are the ones of submission, non-violence, and enduring suffering and death.
This broadens out to the teaching I am concerned with for us today. The model for following Jesus is made perfect clear here in this teaching, there is no room for anything else. Following Jesus means rejecting power, rejecting control, dominion, rejecting the kind of authority that tries to lord or rule over others. True greatness is laying down your life, true greatness is becoming servant or slave to all.
This seems to me to basically be the guiding principal for following Jesus. The way of love Jesus teaches means orienting our whole selves and our whole lives around serving others. We're called to reject greatness as the world sees it, greatness as being powerful or strong, as having control or power over others. We're called not to seek our own way, our own benefit, our own success, but to serve and love others, and to lift others up.
I want to apply this to life together in our congregation, because sadly I think this gets so often lost. In my experience, there are some people drawn to small congregations because it gives them an opportunity to feel important. Some people use a small church as a place to carve out a small dominion, a place they can be in charge, and have control. I think the operable word here much of the time is control. Especially in times like we live in today where our world seems out of control, where it can feel like we don't have agency over our lives because so much is dictated to us because of the pandemic or other factors. Human nature can drive us to seek to have at least something we can control in our lives. And small churches are an easy place to try to get some control and power over something.
Perhaps you've been in our small church for a long time. You know how you'd like to see things be done. You don't like changes you see. You want things to be a certain, the way you like them. And it can be very tempting to try to use words and actions to gain control over the situation so you can shape and manipulate things to be how you'd like them to be. Maybe you think you deserve to have some legitimacy, authority, some say in how things should be done, since you've been around for a long time or involved, or put in a lot of sweat equity into the place. After all, shouldn't you after so many years of hard work to keep the church going, or all the money you've donated?
Those ways of thinking are completely natural to the way the world works, and completely natural to the way we're taught to think in our everyday lives. But here's the hard and inescapable truth: they have nothing to do with the love of God or following Jesus. Actually the really hard truth is that they go against the love of God and the way of Jesus.
If we want to be followers of him, there's no other choice but to take up our cross and follow. There's no other way than drinking the cup he was called to drink and being baptized into the same baptism. That means laying down our lives, laying down our own ambition, control, power over the situation, self-aggrandizement, and that entire way of thinking that says, I know what's best, or I know how things should be done, or I should have a say after all I've been here for X number of years and this is my church.
The questions we ask when we follow Jesus are who can I serve? Who am I called to love? How do I lift up other people, especially the people I don't like or are hardest to love? How do I act in a way that makes this place more welcoming, loving, and inclusive of more people, especially those people most different than I am? How do I give up myself for the sake of others here?
In my experience of small churches, including my experience of Incarnation Holy Sacrament if I am being honest, those latter questions are rarely asked. I think that we see glimpses, glimmers, and have many opportunities to ask them or live into them. Often we try to embrace that way of following Jesus. Sometimes we do better and sometimes we do worse. But anything else but following that way, and we are making the same mistake we see the disciples make in the Gospel.
All other issues are irrelevant in light of this revelation: money, what we can afford to do as a small church, attendance, getting new people to come, growing our church, how the space should be used, for who, what, and how, etc. Even positional titles like rector, or vestry mean nothing if they do not serve the way of Jesus, if they do not follow the pattern of God's love and kingdom he taught the first followers, the disciples. If the way live and act as a congregation doesn't follow that servant love model, it is actually harmful to God's mission in the world, not building it up. This is a starting point, following this way in our lives and in our parish church. Everything else must serve following these teachings of Jesus.
So are we able to drink the cup that he drinks? Let's pray that we are able, and ask for the grace and strength to follow the servant way of love that Jesus calls us to follow.