Sunday 18 October 2015

Dumb and dumber: a sermon

Oh dear. James and his little brother John. The sons of Zebedee, known as the “men of thunder” (Mark 3:17). What dudes! But as Mark Twain said: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is the lightning that does the work.” But lightning – enlightenment – is just what, in James and John, is conspicuous by its absence. It did no work, it was unemployed. The “dudes of thunder” were Dumb and Dumber. Astonishingly so. Come along, let’s follow them following Jesus in Mark.

Recall that James and John, along with Simon and Andrew, were the first folk that Jesus called (Mark 1:19-20). They were with him from the get-go. From kindergarten they sat at the front of the class, teacher’s pets. On the occasion when Jesus went to Jairus’ house and healed his daughter, the only disciples he took with him were Simon, and James and John (Mark 5:37). When Jesus went up the mountain and was transfigured – a sneak preview of the resplendent resurrection itself – again, the only disciples he took with him were Simon, and James and John (Mark 9:2). So far, so good.

But then the next we hear of John, speaking for his big brother too, he’s boasting to Jesus about how they got heavy with a freelance ghost-buster, telling him to stop his exorcising and bugger off because he wasn’t in “our” gang (Mark 9:38). How dare an outsider use Jesus’ name! But Jesus gave short shrift to such a monopolistic claim on miracles (Mark 9:39), a claim that was especially ludicrous given that just a few verses earlier the disciples themselves had failed miserably to heal a boy with an evil spirit (Mark 9:17-18). “Anyone who is not against us is for us!” Jesus exclaimed (Mark 9:40). James and John – the first anti-ecumenists, the prototypes of all Christians who think they have exclusive rights to name the Name.

So the stage is set for things to go from bad to worse – in our passage (Mark 10:35-45). Before, it was in-group resentment at “outsiders”; now it is rivalry among the “insiders” themselves. James and John want a favour from Jesus: they want him to give them the “big seats”, to his left and right, in his glorious kingdom, to appoint them (if you like) Foreign and Home Secretary in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. An invidious request, to be sure – and reflecting so poorly on the pair that Matthew, in his version of the event, puts it in the mouth of their mother (“They’re such good boys, Jesus”).

But it’s worse than embarrassing when you look at the passage immediately preceding ours (Mark 10:32-34). It is the third and final prediction of the passion, the third and final time Jesus has spoken of what’s going to happen when they get to Jerusalem: his betrayal to the Jewish authorities, his condemnation by the Roman administration, his torture and his death. James and John have just heard this, Jesus’ explicit renunciation of social and political power, and yet they ask Jesus – for social and political power! Imagine our Lord’s irritation, exasperation as he listens to two-thirds of his inner circle.

Characteristically, Jesus answers their question with a counter-question: “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? Can you be baptised in the way that I am going to be baptised?” Again, he is speaking of his death. But how interesting: in doing so Jesus takes James and John back to where it all began, just before he met them and called them – to his baptism; and then forwards to where it will all end, just before he leaves them – to the Last Supper, to the cup he will drink – to the dregs. Can they take the dip? Can they take the sip? “The question is of course rhetorical, but Mark cannot resist [the] sarcasm. Oh yes, say James and John; no problem” (Ched Myers). And, actually, forwards even further – from bitter sarcasm to bitterest irony – Mark is such a clever writer: for who and where will there finally be one at the right and one at the left of Jesus? The two condemned criminals hanging on either side of his cross. Some throne, some distinction.

But that’s not the end of this episode. The other ten disciples hear about James and John trying to gazump them, and they’re troubled. So, kudos for them? Hardly! For they are not cut up by the request itself – oh no – but at the fact that James and John have tried to put one over on them. They are envious. Their cry isn’t “Don’t be stupid!” but “It’s not fair!” All twelve want the trappings of privilege and power. All twelve want the key positions on the front bench. None of them has his mind right, his head straight. None of them feels Jesus. Dumb and Dumber speak for – and take the rap for – all the dummies.

Jesus settles them down and tries again. Yes, it’s all about power. In the world, Jesus says, people in authority throw their weight around. Look at any government, any organisation. Is it not so? People take positions of leadership and what happens, always and everywhere? They get a little power, it goes to their heads, and they want more. And more. Power is a drug, an addiction: you’ve got to have it, and inevitably in bigger and stronger doses. It takes over. It corrupts. You think you have the power; in fact, the power has you. That’s Jesus’ analysis. Is it not so?

But, Jesus says – emphatically – that’s not the way it is in my community. First, as we’ve learned, the boundaries of the Jesus group are porous, permeable, not patrolled and policed. And second, the Jesus group is not authoritarian but egalitarian. But here’s the thing – and here is where Jesus’ analysis gets really interesting: equality is actually a very unstable relationship. It’s like a seesaw: just as you get to a balance, up goes one end and down goes the other. So how to keep the “equal” in “equality”? Counter-intuitively, by each ceding authority to the other. Jesus says: You must be a servant – literally, a “slave” – to each other. It is not that there is to be no leadership in the Jesus group, but it is that it will be a leadership not of domination but of subordination. Politics as usual? No, politics as radically unusual. As unusual as the Servant King himself, who came not to be served but to serve, to the point of laying down his life for his friends – and for his foes too.

Do James and John, and the other ten, do they finally get it? Well, what happens next? The incident of the healing of a blind beggar on the approach to Jerusalem (Mark 10:46-52). Bartimaeus cries out for Jesus to take pity on him. The crowd – which includes the disciples – tells him to shut up. Jesus tells him to speak up. He asks Bartimaeus, as he asked James and John, “What can I do for you?” But whereas Dumb and Dumber asked for positions of privilege and power, which Jesus denied them, Bartimaeus asks simply for his sight, which Jesus gives him. Then Bartimaeus follows him. Is not the point clear? Only if we renounce the will to power – that is to say, only if we recognise our spiritual blindness and seek true vision, the vision of majesty in meekness, of worthiness in weakness – only then do we have the mind of Christ.

Next stop, last stop, Jerusalem. There Jesus will again speak specifically to James and John (with Andrew and Peter), about the future, about the Big Trouble to come – “Be prepared, lads!” (Mark 13:3ff.). Dumb and Dumber, I imagine, are as dumfounded as ever. For, finally, after his last meal, Jesus will take them (with Peter) to Gethsemane, looking for their encouragement and support in his hour of need and anguish. No imagination necessary here: they fall asleep (though I imagine them snoring). And then, when the cops arrive, with the rest, Dumb and Dumber do a runner.

Yes, oh dear. And now here we are, the descendants of Dumb and Dumber. And what dire straits we are in: a church in decline, even freefall. Once the national church was a powerful institution; once the local church was at the centre of the community. Now look at us: marginalized, ignored, aging, tired. We feel vulnerable and powerless, yes? Allelulia! God be praised! Vulnerable is exactly what Jesus calls us to be, for it’s in situations of powerlessness that God does his thing. Only those who haven’t been paying attention and listening to Jesus can be dumb and dumber enough to think that God is working his purpose out in the corridors of power, that it is nations, armies, and the Fortune 500 that are the agents of God’s will in the world, or indeed that it is the mega-churches with their CEOs and performance-enhancing gospel that are the kingdom’s final hope in a post-Christian culture. Don’t you believe it!

Just be faithful. Do what Jesus did and what he tells us to do. Forget greatness. Didn’t Jesus? Redefine power as vulnerability. Didn’t Jesus? Reject the ways of manipulation, coercion, certainly violence, and the speed that is often the fuel of violence – festina lente. Didn’t Jesus? Welcome the stranger and work with the willing, however odd or outlying. Didn’t Jesus? Be kind, gentle, and patient. Hasn’t the Lord been kind, gentle, and patient with you? Yes, just be faithful, faithful to Jesus. What he did and tells us to do – it’s not rocket science. Even Dumb and Dumber, tradition tells us, finally got it. Kingdoms will rise and fall, churches will come and go. But Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. So tell me: what’s the worry, what’s the hurry? Go slow, keep faith! Remember: “Winter under cultivation / Is as arable as Spring” (Emily Dickinson).

1 Comment:

Martijn van Leerdam said...

Brilliant! I preached about the same text this morning in Maassluis, the Netherlands. Not as witty as you did, though. I like to think we ended up at the same conclusions, more or less. Gotta love the fact that all around the world, pastors preach about the same texts on the same Sundays.

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