Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Lessons in Power (Mark 10:35-45)
You can rest assured, if you have been here most Sundays lately the gospel readings have tread down similar paths. In Mark, chapters 8 through 10, the narrative prepares to move into the critical days of Jesus drawing near the fateful time in Jerusalem, and three times Jesus predicts what will unfold. Each time, the same pattern occurs: Jesus predicts his passion. The disciples miss the point. Jesus gives a corrective word. The repetition might seem a bit redundant however we see in each instance, the disciples are not quite ready to embrace the fullness of Jesus’ discipleship. Jesus asks them to follow a path that is not easy.
As the old hymn asks, “Are you able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?” The response to Christ comes from disciples the hymn calls the “sturdy dreamers”, the ones who will say yes to a life shaped by a cross-carrying, gospel attuned life. Unfortunately, for the disciples in Mark’s gospel, they daydream of power and influence. They do not know that the real story of discipleship unfolds in sometimes harrowing ways. As Gandhi said in more recent times, people tend to want a religion shaped by worship without sacrifice.
The disciples keep falling back into familiar ruts or “scripts” innate to human nature, grasping the ways they know rather than risking themselves fully and taking up the way of Jesus. Even after hearing of the passion about to come, James and John, the Zebedee boys, are more worried about the seating chart in the glory and power to come. I find it remarkable that Jesus did not bawl them out on the spot. No, Jesus keeps it gentle. To follow the way of Jesus Christ, the power that the world lifts up is not what you learn with Jesus’ teachings. He gives a lesson about power that the Zebedee brothers might not catch onto right now. Be careful what you ask for, as the way of Jesus will be one of sacrifice. Behold the rest of the gospel after this, as Jesus stands up for principles and evidences unshakable obedience to God.
By the gospel’s end, it is unmistakable: Jesus’ difficult way and the bravado (the false or untested bravery) of the inner circle followers. As Jesus dies on the cross, his disciples have scattered, Zebedee boys included. Those at his right and left are two anonymous men, two criminals, who die alongside Jesus. The way of Jesus is not easy, shaped by a glory strangely unknown amid the competing views of fame and power.
The brothers Zebedee need a lesson in humility. They ask for favor when Jesus comes into his glory. Jesus tells them of the difficult days ahead and his foreknowledge of the same difficulties await those who follow. For all he knows, for all he teaches, Jesus still reserves the last word, the final authority to God alone.
A few years ago, psychologist and writer Robert Coles recounted a conversation he had as a young man while working with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day was a fiery spirit, comfortable staring down civic and religious authorities if it allowed the basic needs and rights of people to be met, particularly for those who were poor and marginalized. Day noted that such a life of service and advocacy was not easy. Some days, it seemed as if the work was endless and the results were minimal. Day observed that it can be a long stretch of time before one has a sacred moment, a time when one has great clarity about one’s purpose and service to God. You have to learn how to live in the times of “sacred moments and long secular days”. (AMERICA, Nov. 1996)
The Zebedee brothers want confirmation they are on the right path and indeed will experience a great payoff in the end. The life of faith does not work that way, though we sometimes try to make faith about what we would like to have rather than what the way of Jesus asks us. We are called as the finite and fallible people we are, people with individual strengths and weaknesses. We follow, taking leave of the world’s scripts about what matters as well as our own ego, desires, passions, and myopias. It is a challenge to put into checks our fears, anxieties, pretenses, and sinfulness, so that we can live out our lives in Christ. (And that’s just the list of things I need to work on!) We follow, working out the edges of our lives all the days of our journey on this earth. And to live the life of faith, one able to wait, to watch and pray, this takes a fair acquaintance with humility.
To be humble is to know your place in the scheme of things. The saints of God, those who followed Christ and are remembered by the Church, were not people with their heads up in the clouds. They practiced a form of obedience to God and a witness to the gospel that each one of us is called to undertake.
As we near “All Saints” in the church calendar, think of those “greats of the faith” known to you in your life, and you will see a common thread: persons who were merely human yet lived a life of trust in God. They might be among those some parts of the Church has put on a list declaring them “saints” or they could be people just known to a few. There have been saints among us, those who follow Jesus intentionally. And pray for yourself and for these others around you this day that you might too be in this good company.
Humility often gets elevated to a high and unattainable standard or confused with a veneer of piety people put on so as to appear important or “holy”. Humility is a stripping down of self, allowing the goodness of Christ to suffuse and reshape us. You cannot follow Christ without being humble in your discipleship. From the ancient witness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we are reminded of a wise Christian woman named Syncletica, who observed, “A ship cannot be built without nails and no one can be saved without humility”. (The Desert Fathers, edited by Benedicta Ward, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003, 161)
A few years back, I heard an interesting pair of people speak about their faith. One was Roman Catholic and the other was a Quaker. The Quaker lecture was given by Bain Davis, the Bennington, Vermont, Friends (Quakers) Meeting. Bain’s task was to explain Quaker ways, especially in relationship to the tradition’s social activism and pacifism. For most of the outside world, Quakers are known for being silent in worship (something admittedly puzzling to Baptists) and their commitments to be a “peace testimony church”. As Bain explained Quaker ways, he noted that the tradition aims to bring the best out in a person by helping a person develop religious habits that enable a more peaceable life. In turn, a person who is so attuned enables others to discover this goodness within them. Quakers strive to see the goodness in all persons, even those who might be considered less good or without much good at all. Humility brings the best within us to the surface and empowers us to move through the world with peace, love, and grace. We give ourselves over to becoming the person where the label “humble” just seems to fit.
One of the books I treasure is Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus, a small book he wrote on Christian leadership. Nouwen’s book is a quick read, yet he traces a model for ministry that still serves as a touchstone in my own work. I read it for the first time on a college choir tour, however, I read it from time to time even today as a reminder of what I am called to do. Nouwen wrote the book after a period of life where he felt a bit lost. His successful career in academia had grown less attractive, and Nouwen found himself searching for new meaning in his life and ministry. Nouwen was invited to live among disabled persons as part of a communal living approach to disability care. Nouwen served as a chaplain to a gathering of disabled persons and their care providers, learning a markedly different way to serve and care as a minister. As he recounted later, he was not the Ivy League professor or noted author to the members of this community. He was called simply to be Henri.
Humility is not easy. It disarms us of our pretenses. To be humble admits the Christian story ends in a way shaped by the cross and points to the new life Christ gives us in his resurrection glory. We do not seek out the seat at his right or left. We allow ourselves to flourish in our simplicity and our devotion, not in the pursuit of matters seeking to self promote. We are humble because we have chosen to be nothing else.
It is similar to the story drawn from Nikos Kazantzakis’ book about St. Francis. As Francis instructs his followers on living simply and trusting God alone. Francis tells his disciples,
Strengthen the world that is tottering and about to fall: strengthen your hearts above wrath, ambition, and envy. Do not say: “Me! Me!” Instead, make the self, that fierce insatiable beast, submit to God’s love. This “me” does not enter paradise, but stands outside the gates and bellows.” (St. Francis, p. 309)
To illustrate his point, Francis tells of a holy man who goes to the gates of heaven after living a devout life. Each time the holy man comes to the gate, a voice cries out, “Who is there?” And the holy man says, “It is me.” The voice says, “There is no room for two here. Go away.” The holy man winds up plummeting back to earth, given a chance to learn again and approach the gates when he has learned his lesson.
Finally, after a number of times approaching the gates with the same result, the holy man realizes his error. When he approaches the gates, the voice calls out again, “Who is there?” And the holy man says, “It is you.”
With that, the gates to paradise open. (See St. Francis, 309-10).