American Lutheran Church, Long Prairie, MN
October 18, 2009
In the name of Jesus.
Membership has its privileges.
I understand that this phrase is actually trademarked by the American Express Company, so I’m not sure it’s even legal for me to use it in this sermon.
But too late—I already have….so before the trademark police come to haul me away, I better get to the point.
Membership has its privileges.
We all know what that means, and although it sounds a little uppity, we could get used to it—right? We can envision our name on a coveted American Express Card that gains access, opens doors, and identifies you as a “force to be contended with.”
Membership has its privileges….which is another way of talking about power…
…and power is what’s afoot here in this gospel lesson from Mark chapter 10.
James and John, two of our Lord’s inner circle followers, come up to Jesus and ask him to write out a blank check: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus asks them what’s on their minds and they blurt out their request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
If that image—of sitting at the right and the left hand of Jesus—doesn’t make sense to you, think about the Cabinet meeting room in our own White House. Who gets the choice seats, closest to President Obama? Let me give you a hint: it’s not the secretary of education or the secretary of agriculture! They are low men on the totem pole. The choice spots—the spots closest to the President’s ear—go to the highest ranking cabinet members—Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Timothy Geitner, the secretary of the treasury. Everybody else has to lean in and listen closely.
What James and John ask here is to have the seats of power on Jesus’ cabinet. There can only be one person directly to Jesus’ right and another person directly to his left—and why shouldn’t James and John have those seats?
Very quickly, of course, this three-way conversation becomes more public. The other ten disciples—leaning in, listening closely—are none too happy with the sons of Zebedee. And why? I think it’s because James and John beat them all to the punch. I hate it when that happens—don’t you?—when someone butts into line ahead of me, boldly asking for what I was thinking about asking.
Make no mistake about it: this gospel lesson is about power—power grabbing, power over others, power to work your will and get things done. James and John and all the other disciples wanted that power….and they thought Jesus would give it to them….but as usual, in Mark’s Gospel, they all missed the boat entirely.
So, as we’ve seen time and again in these last weeks, late in the Pentecost season, Jesus has to call for a time out, invite the disciples into a huddle and try—one more time!!—to straighten them out.
“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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
When it comes to power, you see, there are two ways: the Gentile way and the Jesus way.
The Gentile way is the garden variety way power gets exercised in this old world, day in and day out. Those who lack power seek to gain power, and those who have power cling to it for dear life. Power makes the world go around. It’s how you assert yourself, pursue your dreams, accomplish your goals.
The Gentle way is about “power over” someone else, it’s about bending others to your will whether through raw force or subtle persuasion. It’s an ends-justify-the-means game, with winners and losers…and everybody scrambling not to be at the end of the line or the bottom of the heap.
James and John, putting two and two together, sized up Jesus and reckoned that he’d be taking over any day now, so they wanted to get in on the power while the getting was good. “He who hesitates is lost,” they thought….so they jostled to the head of the line and called first dibs….and all the other disciples wanted to clean their clocks.
That’s the Gentile way, the customary way, the default position we all have when it comes to power.
And Jesus…Jesus will have none of it! Not that Jesus doesn’t care about power, mind you. But Jesus has such a radically different “take” on power. Jesus’ power is a power unlike anything that we know in this world.
When it comes to power, there’s the Gentile way, and there’s the Jesus way…and never the twain shall meet!
Because if the Gentile way of having power is to pursue a power over others….the Jesus way is a power under, a power with, a power alongside.
If the Gentile way is about grabbing and hanging onto power for dear life, the Jesus way is about letting go, giving up, tossing away your life….not to control others for your own sake….but to fulfill others for their sake.
Jesus knows full well the Gentile way, he lived under it every day of his earthly life. But it was never his way. Jesus has another way, and he boldly says so here in verse 43: It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
It is not so among you, Jesus flat out declares to us. He doesn’t say: I sure hope I can persuade you to see things my way. No. Jesus doesn’t command or cajole here, but rather he announces a change that is already coming over us, simply because Jesus is the one standing before us, speaking to us and we now belong to him: “it is not so among you.”
Jesus imprints his way of power upon us. Jesus does that by living out his “downwardly mobile” way of having and holding power, coming down from heaven, squeezing himself into Mary’s womb, being born in the meanest of surroundings, walking among the poorest of the poor, giving himself away at every turn, and finally allowing this Gentile-way-world to edge him out of it, up onto a cross “for us and for our salvation.”
Where the Gentile way says: go, gain advantage, grab, hang on to power for dear life…..the Jesus way counters by saying follow, make yourself vulnerable, let go of life, give yourselves away for the sake of others—to help them be all that God has created them to be.
That’s not just a great goal to shoot for, either. It is our destiny in Christ Jesus: it is not so among you, Jesus tells us all….”for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Membership has its privileges. James and John thought that might be true…but they had only the tiniest inkling of what they were getting themselves into….and so Jesus had to open their eyes, even as Jesus is opening our eyes again here and now, today.
But really now, what does this look like in the hurly-burly of daily life? How does the Jesus way actually play itself out among us?
• Think back to the last time you vowed to throw the book at someone who messed up. Jesus’ way takes you in a different direction—Jesus’ power leads you and me to show mercy when the Gentile way would say “get even.”
• Or remember when, instead of proving your superiority and gaining the upper hand over someone—remember when you stepped aside, took yourself out of the running, deferred to them, let them shine? That’s Jesus’ power in you, cracking open such wild possibilities!
• Or recall an occasion when you denied yourself, put yourself out for another person, spent yourself for them, redirected your time, talent or treasure for their benefit. Jesus’ power frees us for such reckless service.
• Or ponder how we do that corporately, in the way we “do church.” Friends, our Lord calls us at every turn to “do church” his way, not the Gentile way. And so we refuse to play power games with one another, we shun coercion, we listen to one another, take one another seriously, make room especially for the least of those among us, and we finagle ways to give away what we have, to spend ourselves utterly for the sake of the world.
Dear friends, when God graciously leads us to bypass the Gentile way of power-seeking and power-grabbing…..when God mercifully allows us to live, in even the tiniest of ways, the Jesus way in the world….God amazingly shows forth, indeed re-presents to the world another way of having and using power: the Jesus way, the way of him who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Lawrence Robert Wohlrabe was born in Mankato, MN. He graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Luther Seminary, St. Paul. Luther Seminary awarded him a Doctor of Ministry degree with distinction.
Ordained in 1981, he served parishes in Willmar, MN; St. James, MN; and Moorhead, MN. He was also on the staff of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and the SW MN Synod ELCA, Redwood Falls, MN. Larry was elected bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod on June 10, 2007. He was re-elected bishop of the synod, to a second 6-year term on June 7, 2013.
Larry's wife, Joy, is retired after working many years as a hospital and hospice social worker. They have two young adult children, Erik and Kristen (married to Aaron) and two grandchildren, Olivia and Micah. Note: the views expressed here are Bishop Wohlrabe's views--not those of the NW MN Synod.