181021 – Be Careful What You Ask For

Yr B ~ Pentecost 22 ~ Mark 10:35-45

I’d like everyone to turn and look at someone else in the congregation right now, make eye contact, smile, and now say these words, “I’d like you to do for me whatever I ask of you.”
Did they say, “Sure! I’d love to! What do you want?”
Did they say, “Shyeah right! Good luck with that buddy!”
It’s a weird thing to say to someone, isn’t it? The logical response is to ask, “What is it you want me to do for you?” – Well, the likely response is to be very warry of anyone who asks the “do whatever I ask” question in the first place, but curiosity will probably get the best of you and you’ll at least ask what exactly it is that they want.

That’s how this scene starts out in Mark 10. James and John, two of Jesus’ inner circle, decide to ask Jesus to do whatever they ask of him. I wonder if they thought that because Jesus is such a nice guy that he’d just say yes? (Christians are nice people – they always say yes!)
Or maybe they thought because they were part of the inner circle that they could capitalize on their position and gain some benefits?

Of course, that kinda makes you wonder if they’d been listening to anything Jesus had been teaching all this time, but we’ll set that aside. There’s a reason why I like to call them duh-sciples! They often seem to really not get it (which makes me feel a little better about myself, I must say).

So James and John ask for a yes to whatever they ask – and Jesus asks what exactly they’re after – and they say, v.37, Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

And Jesus replies, v.38, “You don’t know what you’re asking!”

It wasn’t part of today’s reading but directly before this scene in Mark’s gospel Jesus teaches his disciples about how considering the path he’s on that he will surely be killed in the near future. It says, in Mark 10:32-34 that Jesus astonished the disciples with this teaching – even though it was the third time he’d taught them about his looming death! (Did I mention that they’re duh-sciples?)

And with that sobering teaching still ringing in their ears these two clowns run up to Jesus and ask to sit at his right and left hand in glory.
That means that they still think Jesus is going to be super-powerful and they want to share in that power. It is a remarkable exercise in missing the point!

Jesus says, “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?”

vv.39-40 They replied, “We are able.”

The Greek word is dynametha – as in dynamic, powerful – “we are powerful,” they say!

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.”

The language is a little odd and cryptic, and the metaphors are fairly complex – but I think what Jesus is saying here with the cup and baptism thing is that he’s on a particular path – the life of faith is a particular path – full immersion in the presence and love of God propels one into the Way of Jesus which is a particular path that has significant consequences – and if you are really a follower of Jesus then you need to be prepared to live out that love and follow that path and know that there will be consequences.

In other words, he says, “Be careful what you ask for!”

I’ll come back to this. I want to finish going through the scripture passage first.

Mark 10:41 When the [other] ten [disciples] heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.

I’m not sure whether the other ten disciples were angry because they understood Jesus’ deep teaching and couldn’t fathom why James and John didn’t get it, or whether it was because they wanted to be the privileged few and James and John beat them to the punch! I suspect it was the latter.

And then, as happens so often when you’re dealing with a bunch of duh-sciples, Jesus took them all aside and tried to explain it all again.

Mark 10:42-45 Jesus says, “You know that [for most people] 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.”

In the world out there people think that power means you become a tyrant and use it to your advantage. We can all point to countless examples of where that plays out. Sayings like “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” come from tragic experiences of the way the world usually works.
We’ve seen it. It’s ugly. It’s unjust.
It’s pretty rare to see a person with great financial power, or governmental power, who uses that power for the benefit of anyone other than themselves.

But Jesus says no. It is not so among you. You’re supposed to understand power differently.

People of faith, people like us, know that real power, spiritual power, God’s power, does not coerce, or enforce, or lord over, or bully, or take advantage of, or suppress, or command, or control.

No, real power, spiritual power, God’s power, serves, loves, yields, shares, helps, gives, empowers, supports, collaborates, cares.

Jesus and his teaching turns the world’s understandings upside down and totally redefines what real power is.
The world would have you think it’s all about ‘power over’ – Jesus teaches us that it’s all about ‘power with’.

When you threaten those who thrive on ‘power over’ by offering an utterly revolutionary, counter-cultural, world-inverting concept like ‘power with’ – an understanding that would unseat those who deal in ‘power over’ and render them power-less – well, that kind of threat usually gets dealt with in the harshest of ways, by those who would do anything to retain the privilege and perks that ‘power over’ provides.
Teaching what he taught, challenging who and what he challenged, it was obvious that Jesus could predict his eventual death.

That James and John yearned for a piece of the ‘power over’ pie that they mistakenly thought Jesus was ushering in must have broken Jesus’ heart.
It is not so among you.

They said they wanted to drink from Jesus’ cup and be immersed in the way he was.
And Jesus said, yes you will.
But be careful what you ask for.
Because if you’re really looking to drink from Jesus’ cup and be immersed in Jesus’ Way then you’d better be ready for a life of servanthood.

Not very many people – not even good, fine, upstanding Christian folks like all of us – are all that keen to say, “Hey Jesus, make me the lowest rung on the societal ladder so I can just serve.”

We don’t usually ask for stuff like that.
Our default is to look after our short-term self-interest.
We sometimes have trouble seeing past our immediate needs and wants and setting our sights on bigger values and benefits.

In a few minutes we’re going to end worship and a magical table of delights will roll out of the kitchen. On it will be all sorts of things. I will walk up to that table, survey it, and likely fail miserably as I reach right over top of the vegetable tray and select a chocolate chip cookie!
My short-term, immediate self-interest will outweigh any logical, fact-based argument about how broccoli is better for me.
Even though I oughta know better. I’m just a duh-sciple too.

You see, there’s a cost to discipleship, just like there’s a cost to healthier eating.
There are consequences of the decision to drink from Jesus’ cup, to immerse in his Way.

But Jesus isn’t talking about choosing cookies over vegetables, he’s talking about choosing what kind of power dynamic we think we ought to live by.
What kind of power should hold sway in this world?
We’ve tried ‘power over’ for several millennia.
Maybe it’s time we gave ‘power with’ a really good go.

Sounds good, but be careful what you ask for.

See, I don’t think we even realize that every day we do exactly what James and John did.

We here in this room are predominantly white and middle or upper middle class.
We enjoy a remarkable amount of privilege because of how ‘power over’ has worked to our general advantage.
We wield a significant amount of economic power. We have the power to vote, and the power to run for office without anyone raising an eyebrow over our candidacies.
We have the power of the majority to feel safe and protected – although, sadly somewhat less so if you are a woman.
We have the power to do as we please when we please, because, more or less, we have the means to make that happen for ourselves.
Sure, we don’t have ‘power over’ other people in some ways, but we definitely have ‘power over’ the vast majority of the world as far as quality of life, availability of opportunity, and freedom to choose goes.

And into our comfortable, middle class, safe, Canadian existence Jesus says, “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.”

Whoever wishes to become great among you, must be a person who is willing to sacrifice their own chocolate-chip cookie self-interest and be a vegetable-eating person (this is a hard teaching!) who joyfully, not reluctantly, serves, loves, yields, shares, helps, gives, empowers, supports, collaborates, cares.

If we’re honest, we all probably prefer to be served, rather than to serve.
And of course Jesus turns that on its head.
We’re here because we’re striving to be like him – to be followers of his Way. Well, this is the way he does it! If we want to follow him there are consequences.

And the best part of all this is that those consequences, which sound terrible if you’re looking for ‘power over’, are actually amazingly wonderful and life-giving. And ‘power with’, the power that comes from serving, is actually stronger than anything the world can imagine.

Jesus is inviting us into a journey that has the power to change the world – a journey marked by serving, loving, yielding, sharing, helping, giving, empowering, supporting, collaborating, and caring.

For people of faith, this is what we ask for!