I warned you a few weeks ago that this part of the church year tends to be where our readings reveal Jesus at his most challenging. As we continue in Mark 10, picking up near where we left off last Sunday, we get more challenges from our Lord. Just to remind you where we’ve come from, before we talk about where we are:
Last week Jesus left his disciples “exceedingly astonished” by teaching that not even a moral pillar of society, the man traditionally called the "rich young ruler," a man who had it all economically, socially, and spiritually, had the slightest chance at entering the life of God without giving up reliance on his achievements and following Jesus instead. When the man walked out on that offer, the disciples were not happy. (And how could they be? He could have been a potential big donor. An important supporter of the ministry. And Jesus alienates him.)
You’ll remember that Jesus comments to the disciples, “It’s so hard, for people like that to enter the Kingdom.” And at this point they can’t contain themselves: “If not him, Jesus, who? He’s got it all! If not him, who can be saved?” And Jesus, undaunted, true to form, cheerfully replies, “Nobody. It’s impossible. Only God can do it.” --What can you say? He has no fear, you know? Jesus is so deeply united with his Father, he knows so completely that God can be trusted with your every breath, that he just has no fear. I’ve been reading the Bible 35 years now and I still can’t get over it.
So as we come in today, the disciples have been trying to process this event. You can imagine the snatches of conversation: “What does he mean, impossible?” “He told the man to follow him.” “But that’s not impossible, isn’t it? We’re following him….” And their conversation eventually morphs into a hypothesis. It’s the kind of hypothesis you come up with when you try to fit Jesus into your preconceptions about religion. So here’s their hypothesis: all this security that makes Jesus so completely confident, all these resources he acts like he has, and that he seems to think so outweigh money and achievement that you could drop those in a second if you only understood -- maybe all that stuff is actually about to show up. Maybe Jesus is going to be crowned King, and reign in glory, and they’ll be the Cabinet, and whatever these riches are Jesus is so effortlessly secure in, maybe they’re going to become ownable and controllable and “ours.” “Mine.” Maybe that’s what’s going to happen.
And so two members of his inner circle, James and John, want to call the best seats. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now there is going to be glory. There are going to be infinite resources revealed. But it’s not going to happen in a way that fits their preconceptions about religion. The Son of Man is going to be glorified, all right, but glorified by being lifted up on a Cross, by showing the lengths to which God will go to give himself to us. Glorified not by collecting glory, but by giving it away, liquidating his assets and pouring them out over us in love.
Not exactly what James and John were thinking of. But you can’t blame them; we all think like that without God’s help. We all turn everything back to how it affects us, what we think we and others deserve, how we will benefit. That's Sin 101. I certainly recognize it from my own life, and I expect you recognize it too.
Jesus’ reply to their request is gentle, but also comical in its level of understatement: “You do not know what you are asking.” They don’t know that the way they interpret Jesus, according to their preconceptions about deserving and affording and controlling resources to benefit themselves, comes from being trapped within the system that Jesus abolishes. And so he tries to tell them. He tries to help them imagine how it is, in God’s system, God’s kingdom. He tries to explain that the way God does things isn’t the way the world does things. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. He came to give his life away, a ransom for many.” With God, the primal movement is not inward, it’s outward. It’s not about what comes to me, but about what I let go. It’s not about who respects me, but about giving honor and opportunity to others. It’s not about hoarding our blessings, but about passing them on.
This principle is all through the Bible. It began with Abraham way back in the Old Testament – that’s where our stewardship reflection theme this month comes from – when God told him that he was being blessed to be a blessing. This is not true in worldly thought, but in Christian thought, God doesn’t bless someone because they’ve been good or because they deserve it. He blesses us because he is overflowing love, and he wants to give us the chance to experience that love coming into its own in us. And through us. He wants to give us the chance to bless.
This principle is all through the Bible, and it baffles me how often churches act as if it weren’t. I’ve been around churches where you would swear someone just cut all those pages out of the book, where anything that has to do with giving -- and especially money! -- gets talked about as if God were very limited in his abilities and narrow in his priorities, and as if Jesus were completely unwilling to share his freedom from fear, and as if the Holy Spirit needed to be tied up in a closet somewhere until the annual pledge campaign ends. (Maybe we could let him out for Christmas, if he’s good.)
But all those pages are in the Bible! And God knows what he’s doing! And the most heartstoppingly beautiful example of that is Jesus. As I said last week, quoting the book King's Cross, the way he emptied himself out to death for us is so beautiful that when we really see it, when it really connects, it opens up the opportunity to feel all the other things that have ruled our hearts being drained of the power we mistakenly thought they had. We thought we needed them, but that was just the way the world did things. The way God does things is different. Acclaim is just acclaim. Status is just status. Money is just money. In Christ, we can have them, or let them go. He is enough for us.
You don’t have to believe that, of course. Christianity is hard to believe. And the Episcopal church is a safe place for people who aren’t yet ready to believe it, a safe place to ask questions and dip your toes in the water of Christian life. We are not one of those churches that is going to order you around and say things like “you have to be a tither or you can’t serve on the leadership team.” (Personally, I promise you that in almost every case I’ve ever seen, if you are a tither, you will have a lot more fun on the leadership team and everywhere else, because you will be serving out of your experience of the infinite generosity of a God who already gave everything away -- but whether you want to have fun in church is up to you!)
Carrie Headington, at the workshop several of us went to a few weeks ago, talked about having that kind of fun in church. She called it "serving from the overflow" – serving because we are full of the energy of a God who acts like Jesus. He blesses infinitely so we all get to be a blessing. He is always seeking to give himself more and more and more -- even to us, who so often can’t be bothered to open our hands and receive, because we’re far more motivated by trying to hold on to what we’ve got.
But when we do open our hands, when we do even start to look at Jesus and let go of trying to deserve and control and plan, when we imitate God and let giving conquer having, we’re filled – sometimes inundated! And the overflow spills out from us, and we say “Is that how it works? Why did I miss this for so long?”
You don’t have to believe that. But I want to tell you, it’s worth a try.