We Definitely Need To Talk

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “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?” They replied, “We are able.” 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.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles 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.”

The midterm elections are coming up.

Do you all know what those are?

I’m sure you haven’t heard of them. I’m sure that you’ve been able to watch your favorites shows on television, and listen to your favorite radio station, and even get on the computer without hearing about who is running and where.

All of us here don’t care about politics. And we certainly never talk about politics. Not here at church when we’re milling around before the worship service. Not at work when we’re sitting around at a common table with fellow employees. Not at home when we’re catching up with a neighbor over the fence.

No. Politics are a rather boring endeavor these days. It’s just too bad that we don’t care about our politics enough!

So, for the vast majority of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about (read: sarcasm), the midterms elections will be taking place on November 6th. They happen every four years, and they always fall during the mid-point of a president’s four-year term in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, and there are 33 being voted on in the Senate. 

In certain places there will also be state governors on the ballots in addition to ordinances that pertain to the local community.

All in all, it is just another voting day.

Yet, in all of its regularity and perfunctory nature, all the research and data made available points to the conclusion that more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on the elections by election day, with at least 1 billion of that being spent on television ads alone.

4 billion dollars for an election.

Now, don’t get me wrong – elections are important, they are part of the fabric of our country, and they represent a freedom many people in other parts of the world will never know. And, of course, not all politicians are bad or evil or corrupt. Some of them feel called to run for office because they want to make things better.

But, at the same time, I want to just say again… 4 billion dollars!

That’s more than what it cost to make every single Marvel movie, combined!

What does it say about those running, and those of us financially supporting those who are running, that we are willing to spend 4 billion dollars on an election?

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James and John were two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he referred to the sons of Zebedee as the sons of thunder. Why? We don’t really know, but if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us.

The thunder brothers were pretty self-absorbed.

Jesus has just predicted his passion for a third, and final, time. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn me to death; then they will hand me over to the Gentiles; they will mock me, and spit upon me, and flog me, and kill me; and after three days I will rise again.”

And what happens next? The thunder brothers approach Jesus, immediately after he told them for the third time what was to happen. Like the children they were, they said, “Hey Jesus, will you do whatever we ask you?”

“What do you want?!”

“Allow us to sit at your right and left in your glory!”

They wanted all the power. They wanted to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be the junior and senior State Senators. They wanted to be the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate of whatever Jesus’ kingdom would be.

And yet, their question comes on the heels of Jesus laying it all out for the disciples. So either they were not listening to what their Messiah said, or they were just plain dumb.

Which makes me wonder how people reacted to this story the first time they heard it. Did they laugh? Because it is laughable.

Did the other 10 point their fingers and ridicule the thunder brothers for their idiot question? Well, apparently not. Because, lest we bash the thunder brothers alone, the rest of the disciples fared no better. Hearing Jesus’ utter rebuke of their request, the rest of the disciples got angry. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture these would be rag-tag followers of the holy one bickering with each other about who was the best, and who would get the authority, and who held all the power.

It was such a squabble that Jesus had to respond with his teaching about true greatness and true power: “You know that among the Gentiles 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.”

The whole story reads like a comedy. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, we know that the tomb is empty, but did any of us feel like laughing when the text was read today?

We, for some reason, feel either defensive about their behavior, or we’re apathetic. 

We might not like to admit it, but we can feel for the thunder brothers; maybe they just want to make sure they’re protected should anything serious happen to Jesus, or perhaps they’re just seizing their moment and shoring up future opportunities…

It’s far too easy to bash the thunder brothers across the sands of time, because all of us here have a little bit of that same thunder in us, and maybe our thirst for power and security has us asking for things that we do not really understand.

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Surely, we know better than to make outlandish and insensitive requests like the thunder brothers did, but most of us still want to be first in line at the grocery store, we want our children to go to the very best schools, we want to pay the lowest amount of taxes possible. 

We want, we want, we want…

We actually want a whole lot of things that we’d never actually admit out loud.

But maybe the thunder brothers were just desperate. And then, could we really blame them? Here they are, getting close to the end of the gospel, Jesus has thrice told them about his impending death… Maybe the thunder brothers just wanted to make sure their pension was going to be okay. 

So, perhaps it was just pure desperation that propelled them to ask for such a crazy thing – and therefore their desperate clutch for power blinded them from the truth of the Messiah they were following.

But desperation, particularly in the face of the cross, is a strange thing to experience in the kingdom.

And we really are no better. Each of us, in different ways, are desperate for our own power. From the frightening ways that we are so gripped by the politics of our time (4 billion dollars!) to the strange ways we isolate ourselves from experiencing anything other than what we might deem as normative. 

We are a people hell bent on securing our futures, rather than risking the way of the cross.

Even the church itself is guilty of the thunder brothers temptation. We water down the gospel and present it in bite-size pieces in order to appeal to as many people as possible. We want all the grace without all the transformation. We want Jesus to fix our problems, but when someone else is in need, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

We, sinners and saints, are all filled with insecurities and fears that drive us toward greed and covetousness. As individuals, and families, and communities, and political parties, and even as the church, we do it all the time. 

Overcoming these deep seated insecurities is no easy thing, and it certainly can’t change overnight. But it does start to transform into something else through service, whatever that might mean. Because it is in serving those we might otherwise deem unworthy, that we are confronted with the profound truth – we are unworthy.

In the other we see the sin of our desire for power.

But serving others, putting others’ needs first, doesn’t “fix” us. It’s not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. All serving does is reorient our perspective, while transforming the world for someone else. Serving the other helps us see how often our thirst for power is what drives us away from the cross instead of toward it. 

Jesus’ rebuke of the thunder brothers, and the rest of the disciples, might sound harsh to our modern and prejudiced ears, but it’s actually a promise. Jesus promises that we need not live in fear, we need not wake up every morning worrying about our security, we need not scheme to accrue as much power as possible. But Jesus doesn’t promise our protection, or our safety, or even our power – Jesus promises us the cross!

The way of prosperity and power, though decisively tempting in a time like ours, is but a shadow and shallow promise of what the empty tomb ironically contains. Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, is a way of resistance to the dominating systems that are all around us, and are within us. 

Those domination systems are those that do whatever it takes to maintain and exert power dynamics that keep the weak weak. From politics, to families, to churches, the thirst and hunger for power lives and breathes by controlling people, subordinating the marginalized, and further dividing the weak from the strong, the powerful from the powerless, and the rich from the poor.

But the way of the cross is the ultimate alternative to the domination systems that plague our existence. Jesus lived and breathed not by amassing power and prestige, but by bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus regularly resisted the kind of power that is still all too present in the world. From being tempted with ultimate power in the wilderness, to the temptations of the crowds jeering while he hung on the cross – Jesus always believed in something that we often forget.

True power comes through weakness, true power comes through service, true power comes through sacrifice.

We know that among others those whom they recognize as their rulers, the politicians and the powerful, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it not so among us; whoever wishes to become great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. 

For Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For us.

And that changes everything. Amen.

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Authorized for What? – Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32

Matthew 21.23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to the, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

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Jesus does what Jesus wants. He has gone all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, bringing sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. He has fed the multitudes miraculously, walked on water, and calmed the storm. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a derelict donkey, charged into the temple and drove out the money-lenders while overturning the tables. Radical and revolutionary, Jesus does what he wants, and now the chief priests and the elders want to stop him in his tracks.

“Who in the world do you think you are? Who gave you the authority to do these things?” Of course, “these things,” refer to him cleansing the temple, curing the blind and lame, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, listening to the weak, and giving hope to the hopeless. The question has been posed to Jesus before, but never has the question been more ominous; Jesus is in enemy territory and those asking the question will constitute the court that will later sentence him to death by crucifixion.

What gives you the right to come in here and tell us how we are supposed to understand the world?” They do not really want an answer to their question. Instead, they are seeking an opportunity to trap Jesus by means of his response. So Jesus does what he wants: He ignores their question for the moment and proposes a counter-question that they too cannot answer without getting in trouble.

“I will ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests and the elders argue among themselves about how they can answer. This is a classic Catch-22; “If we say his baptism was from heaven then Jesus will ask why we did not believe him and have him beheaded, and if we say it was an earthly thing the crowds will revolt against us because they all regard John as a prophet.” Caught in a dilemma of their own making, they recognize that there is no way they can answer the question without putting themselves in a worse position, so they answer with the answer that students have relied on for centuries, “We do not know.”

I imagine then, that Jesus smiled while saying, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

When I was in seminary a professor named Warren Smith led my class through the great wonders of Church History. We studied some of the greatest theologians and mapped the various trajectories of theological positions that have brought our church through the centuries. After a semester of heavy reading and writing, Dr. Smith ended his final lecture with a story…

When he was a young pastor he was appointed to a church fresh out of seminary and did his best to proclaim the Word, serve those in need, and live into God’s kingdom on earth. For months the church listened deeply to his sermons and prayers, and grew in their love of God and neighbor. However, there was one older woman who never spoke to Dr. Smith after worship. She would sit patiently in her pew, unaffected by his words and gestures, and would return to the parking lot without saying a word to the young pastor. That was the typical routine until one Sunday she made her way in the receiving line following church.

Who do you think you are?” she began. “To come into this church and tell us how to live our lives. I have been a Christian longer than you have been alive. What could you possibly teach me about what it means to follow Christ?” And with that, she left.

Her words struck deep in Dr. Smith’s soul. Was she right? What could he possibly teach someone who had been following the Lord for decades when he had just graduated from seminary? Dr. Smith however, is not one to go gently into the night.

The following Sunday, Dr. Smith made his way to the pulpit and began to preach with words that resonated throughout the sanctuary: “I know I may look young from this pulpit. I know that some of you might be concerned with my ability to preach and teach in this church considering my age. But when I stand in this pulpit I AM 4,000 YEARS OLD. I speak with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Christ because the Lord is with me even to the end of the age.”

“So too,” he said to my class, “remember that you have been authorized to do incredible things and you are older than you think.”

When Dr. Smith’s authority was challenged he responded by recalling the great tradition of the living Word that is brought forth into new life on a regular basis. He looked back in order to look forward. He validated his responsibility by acknowledging his earthly youth while at the same time affirming his divine wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus’ authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders he responded with an unanswerable question, and then with a parable. The parable becomes the lens by which they can see their error and envision a proper understanding of God’s reign in the world.

What do you think? There was a man with two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later he changed his mind and went to work in the field. The father went to the second son and asked him to work in the field as well. The second son agrees to work, but never went to the vineyard. Which of these two sons did the will of his father?

The chief priests and elders respond in unison, “the first.” It is obvious that even though the son refused to work, the fact that he did, in the end, is far better than the son who agrees to work and never enters the vineyard. Jesus then uses the parable to draw the unmistakable conclusion that they, the chief priests and elders, are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but they did. Even after you saw what he did, you did not change your minds and believe. You preach and preach, but you never practice the words you proclaim.

Jesus responding with a parable is typical of the gospels, and helpful for bringing about new understanding. He uses a story in order to open up the kingdom of God to show that it works in a way that is approachable and livable.

What do you think of the parable? In your faith journey do you feel like the first brother? Was there a time that you rejected the calling of God on your life, refused to believe, only to find yourself caught up in the grace of God and working in the vineyard of the kingdom? Is your faith vibrantly alive and fruitful?

Or do you feel like the second brother? Was there a time that your faith was so alive that you were willing to say “yes yes” to God’s call on your life only to find yourself apathetic to the work of the church in the kingdom? Is your faith stagnant and fruitless?

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Individually, we can respond to God’s call in faithful ways by reaching out to others in our community and letting God’s love abound in their lives through our actions. But collectively, as a church, it can be quite difficult to be Christ’s body for the world.

This week I met with a handful of other Methodist clergy from the valley and we discussed our local churches, some of the challenges facing our congregations, and the fruit that has come forth during our time of service. We talked about new ministry ideas that might help share the Good News with people in our communities while also affirming the many challenges of being the church for the world today. But, to be honest, most of the conversation was a time for the leaders to complain about the lack of enthusiasm in their churches, their inability to see the call of the church and the mission of God in the world. At one point a friend of mine shook his head and said softly, “It can be so depressing to hear that most of our churches are far more concerned with maintenance, than mission.

One of the hardest things to admit, as a church, is that we are more often like that second son than the first. After all, here we are sitting in the vineyard, preparing to go out to harvest the grapes. But as Christians, we can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. How sad is it that “church work” can quickly degenerate into conversations about maintaining our building, with no excitement about what God’s living Word and grace are doing in our community? How sad is it that the majority of our conversations and budget are focused on making sure that the church will still be here next Sunday instead of focusing on the renewal of the church and the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Like the second brother we say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path. 

I’ll admit that our church is changing, we are slowly moving away from the maintenance model and are becoming lively and excited about the ways we can be Christ’s body for the world. We are no longer content with just being a building where people can sit together on a Sunday morning. A church is not a building. A church is the work of the people for the vineyard, for the kingdom.

Jesus was authorized by his father in heaven to do the will of God on earth. To overturn the tables in the temple, to call out the leaders of the people for their hypocrisy and limited vision, to seek out the last, least, and lost, to bring them a sense of wholeness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make disciples.

In the same way, Christ has authorized us to be his body for the kingdom of God. Today we have the remarkable responsibility of acting like God’s son, and the first son from the parable; even when we doubt our responsibility to the mission of God we are needed in the vineyard.

What are we doing as a church? Are we giving our tithes and offerings to God so that the church will stay open, so that we can hear an articulate and thoughtful 15 minute sermon every week. Are we content with letting our discipleship look like maintenance?

What are we doing as Christians? Are we radical people who believe that God continues to do amazing things in the world? Do we hope and pray for God’s will to really be done here on earth among us?

We have been authorized to do great and wonderful things in the world. Let us remember and believe that the Lord will provide, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, and that we have been called to work in the vineyard.

Amen.