Psalm 91: 9-16; Mark 10: 32-45
First Church of Christ, UCC, Woodbridge, CT
October 21, 2012
A spiritual discipline that I have endeavored to apply over the years of my adulthood, especially as a pastor and mother, is the acceptance of disruptions. A disruption is any change in the status quo. It can be welcome or unwelcome, expected or unexpected, or merely a suspension of the usual process of living. Many a time I have welcomed a disruption, even planned for a few of them, such as moving away from my home in Massachusetts to Ohio, then to here in Connecticut, and resigning from full-time ministry. Some of these planned disruptions of ‘the way things are’ were of the most positive kind, like getting married or having children or returning to work, yet each also came with its own challenges as well. Most of the time I work at welcoming disruptions into my status quo; many of them are of the merely inconvenient variety, but usually they are an opportunity for ministry.
In fact, ministry is comprised mainly of disruptions to the status quo, the way things are in our lives. Someone loses a job or needs some help paying the bills or just moved into town or was in an accident or has just quit smoking or is in recovery or received disturbing news from a lab report or a relationship has ended or a loved one has passed away—and they need to talk, they need community, they need help.
Jesus knew this. Often he would try to get away by himself and pray but more often than not, folks who were sick or hurting or lonely would find him, and Jesus would give them what they needed most: healing, love, forgiveness, and a changed life.
In this morning’s scripture lesson Jesus and the disciples are headed for the biggest, most traumatic disruption of their life together. For the third time Jesus has told his closest friends and followers what will happen to him when they reach Jerusalem. He goes into great detail—betrayal, torture, then death, and at the last, resurrection.
Two of the disciples, James and John, have the strangest reaction to this disruption, this oncoming train wreck: they ask to be at the right and left of Jesus when he comes into his glory. The author of Mark does nothing to gloss over their request or to make them appear less connected to this impudent demand, as does Matthew by having their mother ask Jesus for them. Mark presents the disciples as very human. It would not be the last time that when a leader’s death or leave-taking is imminent, even one as beloved as Jesus, someone would make a power grab. This does not beg for a judgment but rather understanding. By asking for seats of glory, they betray their fear at losing Jesus and the intimate community from which they have received a new life.
Nevertheless, Jesus is as cool as a cucumber. As the ultimate transition man, he exudes an ideal non-anxious presence. He does not judge them for asking something from him, even as he is about to enter the city where he will meet his death. He responds to the ignorance that is masking their fear with gentleness, as though they are young students lacking certain life experience.
What the disciples do not understand is that disruptions can also be deep sources of transformation, especially the ones that cause a great deal of pain. Like a mother giving birth to a child, painful disruptions have within them the possibility of transformation, of birthing us from one life into another. It is how we approach and creatively handle these disruptions that determine what shape this transformed, changed life will take.
Jesus warns James and John that indeed they will drink from the same cup and share the same baptism, but who will be at his right and his left has already been prepared. I have often wondered if the two thieves who were crucified on the right and left side of Jesus were representative of these two disciples, illuminating the truth that on the path to glory there is no escaping pain and disruption, but that there is also transformation of the highest order.
You’d think that if the other disciples were listening in, they would have heard Jesus’ warning and heeded it, but no. Thankfully these other disciples are just as wonderfully human as we are. They become angry at James and John, perhaps because they made the request before any of the rest of them could.
Jesus then reminds them of the worldly powers that be, that there is a certain pecking order to be observed and obeyed but as usual with Jesus, it is turned upside down. Eugene Peterson puts it this way in his paraphrase The Message: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” Jesus 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.” And in so doing, Jesus has set the disciples and us free from any humiliation from the powers that be by commanding that we be humble instead, by living as servants and slaves.
Servanthood is a life lived in the service of disruption. The master calls, the servant responds, disrupting whatever task or chore they were currently doing or few minutes of peace they were enjoying. The servant is willing to disrupt his or her life for the sake of the master.
A few years ago I used to meet with a group of clergy friends for a monthly spirituality group. Each month we would take turns leading the group through a discussion, some prayer and singing, and sharing Communion. One particular occasion we shared Communion quite differently. We were instructed to take a sizeable chunk of bread and then to feed each member of the group with a small morsel of it, saying each person’s name with the words “I am willing to disrupt my life for you.” Communion reminds us that Jesus was willing to disrupt his life, even lay down his life, for friends.
You are currently living through one of the most challenging disruptions that can disturb the status quo of a congregation, a time of conflict, division and woundedness. Whenever, wherever there is conflict it is always tempting to root out the source, the cause of the tension and discord, like the disciples in their anger against James and John. We want to know who is to blame, because if we could just get rid of them, we are convinced that all would be if not well, at least better.
Father Greg Boyle, who for 20 years has ministered to gang members in Los Angeles, says this about what might be to blame: "There is an idea that has taken root in this world, that is at the root of everything that is wrong with this world, and that idea is that some lives matter more than others.” In our hearts we wish this were not true; we think we don’t operate that way. After all, the very fabric of our American society is founded on the words, ‘created equal’ and yet that same society is shot through with the very real truth that some folks don’t matter as much.
And yet it is Jesus who is calling us into the fracas, who associated with the ‘those-who-don’t matter’ of his time, who instructs us to love our enemies and forgive them. It is Jesus who disturbs our status quo by pulling our attention off of ourselves and onto him. Indeed it is Jesus who is the root, the cause of this disruption to the disciples by going to Jerusalem to face his death. When he says we will drink from the same cup and share in the same baptism, he is saying, “Look at what God is doing through me. Be prepared, for God will use you as well, for the sake of God’s kingdom.”
How might Jesus be the root, the source, the cause of the disruption of this church? What might God be trying to accomplish here by disturbing your status quo, by disrupting the way things are? Yesterday at the conference meeting I heard these words: We are a church obsessed with our doldrums. When our practice of church becomes an unconscious pattern, when the status quo holds the church hostage, such as giving the same pledge each year or the same people leading or the same people volunteering their time, it is then that a holy disruption is needed. Author Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “The truth will indeed set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”
God does new things. Our faith may be an old, old story but that story is about God constantly doing a new thing. Jesus Christ may be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow but Jesus is still and will always be the one who disrupts the way things are. Church consultant Gil Rendle puts it this way: “The church, right now, is under the illusion that it can build a new prison using the old prison’s bricks without losing any of the prisoners.” It may be a jarring metaphor but we do tend to think of keeping people here rather than sending people forth to be the church in the world. We can’t live a life with Jesus and think we’ll remain the same as we’ve always been.
I’ve said once, I’ll say it a hundred times: a life with Jesus is no rose garden. The only thing we’re truly promised is that Jesus will be with us to the end of the age; that God will unconditionally love and forgive us; that the Holy Spirit will continue to comfort and agitate, inspire and afflict us. There are no guarantees that we’ll be successful at this thing called community.
I’d like to share with you a quote by one of my favorite authors, Samir Selmanovic. He grew up in what was Yugoslavia, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother. He was raised culturally Muslim but as for religion he was raised as an atheist. At 18 he began his compulsory service in the army and it was through a friendship there that he converted to Christianity. His family disowned him, throwing him out of the house, and it was years later before he was able to reconcile with them. He is now a Christian pastor and the founder of an interfaith community called Faith House Manhattan. He says this about what is promised in following Jesus:
“Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him…to summarize his selling point: ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be empowered—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not. If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life. Follow me nevertheless. Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’”
Are you willing to disrupt your lives for each other and for the sake of Jesus? Are you sure you want to be a servant and a slave of all? Are you ready to learn to love well? Do the words of Jesus challenge you, provoke you? His words were intended to poke holes in our arguments, our resistance, in our status quo, to change our lives and our life together. For through those holes, through those holy disruptions will come shafts of light, to illumine our way to true servanthood, to glory, to transformation. Thanks be to God.