There's a few things that I need to put under this heading:
1. We left Princeton, NJ, and flew 3000 miles across the country to Southern California... in order to see SNOW!! That's right, we went snow tubing in SoCal last week when we went to Big Bear. We saw more snow there in 3 days than all winter up until then in New Jersey.
2. As I'm writing this our 2nd Semester has already begun. I still haven't bought my books, or even got my head around the fact that my final semester at PTS has begun. In just a few months I'll be kicked to the curb, and I'm just praying that we have somewhere to go by then, which turns me to...
3. While we were back in LA last week, spending time with Bridgette's family, going to Big Bear, eating In-n-Out Burger, seeing a couple of our good friends... I had my Final Assessment, and passed. It was so amazing, so much easier than I thought. I thought for sure that there'd be some tough questions to answer, some scruples with my theology or the presentation of my sermon, but the whole committee was supportive, encouraging and very positive. I was totally blessed and completely blown away. As I try to get back into the swing of things here, I'll let you read the sermon I submitted & preached (the second half of 'cause we were behind in the days schedule). Let me know what you think.
"An Inside Job"
One of the most prevalent memories of my childhood was the special, ultra-exclusive clubs that my friends and I would create. Sometimes they would include secret handshakes or code words or even identity cards that would allow you access to the group’s hidden clubhouse. We did not need locks or a guard, whoever was in the club, knew who was not and the knowledge that you were excluded was enough to keep even the most persistent at bay. But to be on the inside, to be in that inner circle… that was a very special feeling. And I do not think that it is something that we leave in our childhood. Don’t we all want to be on the inside? Don’t we all long to belong, to know that we are a part of a special group, that there are people who know our name and share our passions? Isn’t the prevalence of private Country Clubs, private schools, and even the phenomenon of mySpace evidence that friendships, the desire to belong, the desire to be on the inside, is just as true for adults as it is for children?
Looking at the text for our sermon, we find two men who by all outward appearances seem to be inside men with Jesus. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, along with Peter, seem to form the inner-circle of Jesus’ followers. In Mark 5, the three are the only disciples who remain in the room of Jairus’ dead daughter when Jesus heals her. And again, in Mark 9, the three are the only disciples who witness Jesus’ transfiguration. So the fact that the two of them would draw Jesus aside while on a journey, to ask a favour of him, does not at first glance seem out of place. Why wouldn’t Jesus grant a request of two of his closest friends, two of his ‘inside men’?
And their request was? Well, really, it was nothing more than confirming the status that Jesus had already conferred on them in previous occasions. So, they might have been squeezing out Peter a little bit, but their request wasn’t really all that out of the ordinary. Jesus was about to ascend to the throne. His Messiahship was unquestioned; he was indeed the Son of David that Israel had been expecting. They had witnessed with their very own eyes and ears God’s blessing on Jesus at the transfiguration. They knew it was only a matter of time before Jesus would claim what was rightfully his. They knew it was only a matter of time before Jesus squashed the ruthless Romans and removed them from the Holy Land. And Jesus would need some help. He would need a right, and a left-hand man. And who better to fulfill those roles than the two brothers who had been with him from the beginning? James and John were really the logical choices here. Jesus had to see that. There was no one else. Peter was prone to fly off the handle and make irrational decisions. One moment he’d be saying one thing and the next he’d be vehemently arguing against that point. He was certainly not the man Jesus would need at his right hand. Maybe a military post in Galilee would suit him. Peter just wasn’t made out of the same stuff as Jesus. When you got down to it, James and John were the right men for the job. They knew when to lay low, when to listen, just the right time to speak up. They wouldn’t overshadow Jesus. After all, Jesus would be in the center…
But even before they asked their question, James and John must have recognized that their request was somewhat at least a little suspect, for they initially ask if Jesus would grant them what they ask – before they even ask the question. It does seem a little odd to ask to make a request, doesn’t it? ‘Excuse me Jesus, would you mind giving us something? We’ll tell you what it is once we know you’ll do it.” Of course, Jesus made them make their request before giving them an answer. He knew, what we could tell from our vantage point, that their request wasn’t exactly appropriate. After all, hadn’t Jesus just gotten through prophesying about his death? But I guess they missed that one. And then there was the rich man, who’d just been told he should sell his possessions and follow Jesus – real prestigious there. But it seems they missed that one too. And who could forget everyone’s favourite Jesus story, the one with the little kids clamoring for his attention, and Jesus remarking that you must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of God. Hmmm… I guess James and John weren’t exactly getting the message.
Maybe James and John were too busy thinking up all the neat things they were going to do once Jesus got to the throne – for Jesus of course. Maybe they were preoccupied about their own status in the Kingdom, their own place, to see exactly what this community, this upside down kingdom was supposed to truly look like. In any event, this was not exactly the idea of the kingdom that they had gotten, at least not up until this point.
But before we chastise James and John too much, we should note that they are not alone among the disciples in this desire for a special place in the kingdom. The rest of the disciples, on hearing of their request, get angry. It seems that all of them thought this request was not appropriate – because they weren’t the ones making it. In fact, in order to find someone who ‘gets it’ you have to continue on to the following story, the healing of the blind man named Bartimaeus. In that story, we have a man who understood what to ask for from Jesus, what his true needs were – simply to have sight, to be whole. He didn’t ask for power or prestige or special status. He asked for his sight. This simple request, granted almost immediately by Jesus, is the perfect foil to the request made by James and John in the previous story. And here Mark’s irony is in full effect. It is a blind man, one who requests his sight, that actually sees Jesus and understands his message better than those who have been seeing Jesus regularly, and hearing him talk – even hearing him describe the meaning of some of his difficult parables. It is this outsider, this poor, social outcast who gets Jesus more than these privileged insiders.
This really is a theme throughout Mark. He often paints the disciples in a less flattering light. They’re supposed to get it, they’re supposed to understand the meaning of Jesus’ parables, understand his identity, his mission, but too often they do not. And Mark paints so many others, outsiders, in a light that says, at least for a brief moment, that they got it. They understood. They were really more on the inside, more in the know, than were Jesus’ own disciples.
The insiders – may not be as inside as they believe. And the outsiders – may not be as outside as they believe. I think this is also a word that Jesus has for us today. I have seen it time and time again in the Church today – there are insiders… and there are outsiders. And this is not even including those outside the community of faith… We so easily create invisible boundaries and decide who is in and who is out, who is part of our special circle and who is excluded from it. But if this word is for us today, than we are challenged, challenged to rethink the boundaries we have created. Maybe, just maybe, we’re not really on the inside. Maybe, just maybe, we’re not quite as special and select as we’ve thought ourselves to be. Maybe, just maybe, those we have excluded are more on the inside than we are…
When we take a moment to investigate our lives and our relationships, especially in the community of faith, I think we are good to return to this passage in Mark. Just now, we skipped over a very vital section. We had gone from the ten disciple’s anger about James and John’s request, straight to Blind Bartimaeus and his request for sight, moving from the indignant insiders to the outsider who actually got it. But we missed what Jesus said in between, Jesus’ words to his followers, to those who had believed themselves to possess a special status, and even the potential of preferment…
Jesus essentially says to them – ‘So you want to be special, do you? You want to be like those rulers among you, who hold positions of power, who control and manipulate and force you to do what they want? You want prestige and honour and power in my Kingdom? Well, that’s fine. But it doesn’t look like that – it doesn’t look like you think…’ And here the beautiful paradox of the Kingdom of God is spelled out - the truth about what it means to be on the inside... If you want to be great, if you want to be first, you have to be a servant, you have to be a slave. Leadership for Jesus is sacrificial. Leadership for Jesus is costly. Leadership for Jesus means being in bondage, submitting ones self to those around for their sake and not one’s own. That’s exactly what Jesus did. He came to serve, to offer his life as a ransom for many. And that is what he asks of us - to offer our lives for the sake of others. He asks us to set aside our possessions and our wealth, to set aside our desire for status and prestige, to set aside our very selves for others. By ourselves, in our own strength, we cannot do this. on our own we exploit others for our gain, we form cliques not communities, secret societies instead of seeking to serve those around us. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can stand up, break out of our ways of perceiving our work and truly step into our mission. Service - Sacrifice - Seeking those we perceive to be on the outside. THIS is our call. THIS is what it means to lead. THIS is what it means to be on the inside with Jesus.
Anyway, let me know what you think - feel free to preach it if you want, but I wrote it for the context of leaders, pastors, elders, etc. I'm not sure that it fits verbatim in a church. But if you want, just add the air quotes and attribute it to me...