35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- When my parents and older brothers started getting out the camping equipment in mid summer. Just the smell of canvass meant we were headed to the cool fresh air and cold clear creeks of the Great Smoky Mountains- to camp out for a week. I may not have said it but no one had to ask me, 'Jimmy do you want to go?' My body language said a thousand ways... “ Count Me In.” And I was equally eager to 'Jump into the cold mountain water' anytime I was invited.
- I see the childlike eagerness of James and John in this gospel scene. Before we tear into them can we at least acknowledge they wanted to be players in the game of life and in their understanding of the Kingdom of God? At least they were saying with enthusiasm, “ Put me in coach, I'm ready to play.” Even if they were in fact not ready at all.3. My son does many things to improve the pleasantness of our living space. He recently made us a good size pond with fish and all. Imagine if I brought a fish to the pond in my hand. That fish would be flopping and jumping and if it could speak would say, 'For God's sake Put Me In. The water is my element. Where I belong. That is where I can do what fish are meant to do.'I. We see this very healthy and natural instinct being expressed by James and John. Obviously I can't do this sermon without pointing out their immaturity and lack of insight and wisdom and all that. But that is so easy to do. But you will see I am not taking delight in criticizing them this morning. Unless I also acknowledge they are being necessarily human, perhaps even acting out one aspect of the 'image of God' in them. For are not many descriptions of God showing God's self involvement , self interest and even desire for control of His space and seeking to be at the center? Look at Jehovah as portrayed in Job. Why he parades unendingly his great accomplishments and how he is the Greatest. So James and John, who must have had something going for Jesus to have been drawn to them and to see their potential, are presenting to each of us a picture of ourselves and how, at one level, we actually are. At least I hope we have their attitude of 'Count me In. I'm ready for life.' They just don't know that no one is really ready for life are we? You may be 15, 35 or 80 but do you take any assurance you are ready, actually prepared, for tomorrow and the challenge it will bring? Its good if you have a kind of confidence that, in spite of your imperfections and partial consciousness, you still chose to 'jump into tomorrow' and see what happens. So let's get clear that James and John are showing an attitude , however self interested, is necessary for living as a human being. It is not something to get rid of but one that needs to be balanced by its opposite which Jesus describes as being a servant to others. Without the opposites of life being balanced either side becomes distasteful. Self-seeking can result in a person becoming a tyrant and aggrandized total servant-hood risks making Jack a very dull boy or a robot personality. Balance or as Jesus says 'wholeness' is always the goal of healthy person-hood. The healthiest relationships are invariably mutual relationships.II. We Westerners, ever since the beginning of the Age of Reason began some 400 years ago, have become experts at separating things out from each other. This was a new psychological experience for humans to see so clearly and objectively with no fuzziness or gray areas the 'opposites'. 'this and that', 'here and there', 'hot and cold', 'up and down', 'good and bad', 'spirit and flesh.' So when we read a gospel story, or seek to understand most anything, we are quick to identify what we call 'good and bad' behaviors and attitudes . And then we try to identify ourselves with the good and to see ourselves as having none of the bad. So the lesson becomes simple for us... James and John are selfish and greedy but Jesus points this out and tells them they need to not be concerned about being first or greatest but to become only interested in being of service to others. So we conclude that we need to as a matter of will power also decide to not be interested in place or rank but only to set our mind on being the servant of others. The lesson is clear, clean and we feel we are done with that. And who can argue with it? This has become for us conventional and expected wisdom. Because we have said something we think we have somehow mastered it. Yet it seems that in the world and the church where such moralizing has been common is as self serving and position grabbing as ever. Why do such objective , obviously true lessons of 'right and wrong' not seem to get applied very often? They truly do not sink in. I think if it were a simple matter of will power than most of us would master the desired goals far more frequently. But its never that simple. My fear is that if we take such stories as simple contrasts of good and bad that it teaches us how to be better judges. Thus assuring we will contribute our full share of judgmental-ism to the world, a central thing that Jesus so strongly warns us about.III. We might find entering into gospel stories more stirring and challenging if we took them as 'one whole image' and determined that we truly see in ourselves both that which we call 'bad' and the parts that we desire to develop toward which we call the 'good.' If we totally disparage what we see in James and John we fail to see that some 'self interest' is absolutely necessary in our steps toward greater service to others. Without instinctual self interest the impetus for 'jumping into life' is totally lost. So we might give ourselves permission to see how necessary some of the James and John quality is. Do you really think that the others who were chastising James and John were all that less craving the top places or did they just more easily see that mote in the two instead of the beam within themselves?IV. The story makes clear that James and John simply 'did not know', were not conscious of what they were getting into or the meaning of what they asked. They likely did embarrass themselves by being naively presumptuous. Did any of us have much of a clue when we were youngsters or even young adults what a life of 60 or 80 years would include? And even if we are now 80 do we really think we have 'seen and experienced it all?' I do not like the rather cocky expression 'been there done that.' No place or time or event is exactly like any other unless that is all we let ourselves see. When we said 'count me in' did we know what all we were saying yes to. … the disappointments, the hurts, illnesses, seeing loved ones- maybe even our children- die in ways that seem so unfair and unjust? Jesus says to that 'count me in' part of us all ' You will be baptized with such grief and tears if you live long enough.' This is all part of what it means to jump into the pond of life. It's humbling to be reminded that 'we just don't really know' but even so we are given permission and freedom to say. 'Count me in.' And that fish, when it enters the water we can expect it to be very much taking care of itself cant we?, establishing its own corner of the pond and seeking out food for itself and not likely sharing it with another fish. Or maybe fish and other animals do show a form of service to others occasionally?V. But surely Jesus must have believed and I suspect you and I do also, that it is possible , it is within the human made in the 'image of God' to make great strides and have times and moments of being very concerned about the whole pond and about all the fish and creatures seeking to live from it. That there are times that we can expect our often self serving aspects to be transcended by something that is a part of us and we find ourselves truly fulfilling why we wanted to 'jump in' in the first place. That we are motivated at a deeper level than just self interest to say, 'count me in.' That we find that part of ourself which actually does want to make a difference for good, not just for myself but for others as well.Yes, it is correct to engage our will in choosing desired behaviors but to also know that we can rely on something stronger than our will power to balance our ever present self interest. Occasionally one of us, makes no difference who, may find oneself mounting unexpected courageous action for the benefit of many- not just a few, even 'giving oneself as a ransom for many.' Such developments can even be world changing. But they will be something that 'comes' like God's Kingdom , not the product of clever plan or will power alone .
When Is Anyone His Greatest?VI. My guess is we never lose the capacity and self interest of sitting at some kind of higher place but I think we can become more aware that that is not the very best part of us, not the part that brings us the greatest sense of life and living and of what is the higher meaning of being in the pond. And we can more naturally look for and carry a hope and a prayer that we will more and more experience that higher part of ourselves that might connect to some others as, " come on in, the water is fine. Maybe I can show you around and be of some support to you as you find you find your way around here.” Maybe we can sometimes see that it happens in us, first here then there ,that being first or being in competition with my fellows is not what I am about after all. That there is a grander reason for being in the pond and I can expect and trust it to make itself known and expressed. Cooperative service to others is also part of my natural made in 'the image of God' self.
Perhaps if we approach the story in this way, of seeing that the story is giving us a 'whole picture of ourselves', as we really are and as we can expect by God's grace to become, the story will have transforming power in us. Deciding that each of us is seen in the 'whole story', like it or not, can serve to create mutual humility and provide faith that we will be increasingly inclined to enjoy being the server and not so much the grasper. And that we can, by God's grace, help make the pond a better place for everyone.
May God grant us a measure of the Spirit that thrives on being of service to others, each in his/her own very unique way. Amen