It is possible to feel more than one emotion at a time. I can be frustrated at Diego our cat for jumping up again on a counter he has no business being on and been told that many times while impressed he could get up that high. Only one of my two emotions may be expressed in my words of frustration, but I can feel both. We’re used to juggling emotions and words, though we’re not always that great at delivering the complex workings of our mind and heart to others, nor to ourselves. We can be proud of our child and yet critical because he or she didn’t do something completely right. We can be grateful or glad on the one hand and sad on the other when we finish something important, like high school, or retire, since we have ended one thing but now the unknown awaits.
It’s a wonder we’re not crazier than we are. Sad and glad at the same time, scared and brave at the same time, depressed and creative at the same time, good and not so good at the same time. We’re not totally as we appear to others; heck, we’re not as we appear to ourselves. But the Lord knows us. God knows when we’ve done good and when we didn’t come through. God knows how much we wish we could have been more for that one person, a child, a parent, a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger, but we didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t. The Lord knows how we still feel about that and those times and how much we would take it back if we could, but we can’t. God knows about when we’ve done the extra, how much we sacrificed, how little we got thanked and how much we were forgotten, taken for granted, even though we were the one who made the difference and lived up to the ideal and was the steppingstone for someone else. When they say a river runs through it, it’s more like a lot of rivers run through it, through us.
There’s nothing wrong with this. We may want it simple, but that’s a façade. Be honest about yourself. Acknowledge what’s true. Be proud but also seek forgiveness. Be kind to yourself, but also seek to do better. We’ve been more than we appeared, and still are. It’s the way it is. Now make the best of it.
In our scripture today, it appears Christ is a master of this complexity of emotions, expectations, doing well and not doing so well. Jesus and the disciples are on the road to Jerusalem and as they walk on the road, some are afraid, and some are amazed; probably most of them are feeling both at the same time. They’re amazed because Jesus just told them that God can do the impossible, and it appears it’s coming true in this man they’re walking with. But they’re afraid because what he said doesn’t make sense and sounds
dangerous. Then Mark tells us that Jesus tells them something outrageous on many levels. “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles…; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
What Jesus says is so troubling and bizarre that the disciples can’t process it. So, they ignore it. Mark gives no commentary either. To give you the feeling of the swirl and all-too-real complexity of this moment, Mark lets James and John immediately take center stage. The next thing you know they’re asking Jesus for anything and everything they ask for. He’s just predicted his suffering and death, but these two confront, Jesus with “Hey Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Wow. This is entirely the wrong thing to say and the wrong time to say it. Talk about doing or saying something you want to take back later. Besides being tone-deaf, this is what you call chutzpah.
There was something going around on social media called the “24 Hour Can’t Say No Challenge.” Some kids asked their mom if she would take the 24 Hour Can’t Say No Challenge. The mom said, “Are you kidding me?” Nobody is going to commit to answering with a yes to every request, but this is basically what James and John ask. But Jesus gets to the heart of it: “What is it you want me to do for you?” James and John replied that they wanted to sit at Jesus right and left hand when he came into glory. They wanted to be Jesus’ favorites. They wanted to be his top guys.
Despite Jesus’ talk about what was going to happen in Jerusalem they still imagined great things ahead, worldly glory, and James and John wanted plum positions in Jesus’ cabinet. Not surprisingly, the other disciples were none too happy with James and John.
Why does this make the other disciples so mad? I mean, besides the fact that nobody likes the teacher’s pet. Nobody likes to see somebody sucking up to the person with authority. But what really rankles the other disciples, perhaps, is that they had not thought of asking Jesus first. It’s not like the other disciples are really into servanthood while James and John are into self-promotion. It’s not as if the other disciples understand what Jesus is about. There is no reason to think that the others are any different from James and John, who wanted to be top dogs in Jesus’ kingdom. They wanted to be Jesus’ favorites, and they weren’t alone in that.
Andrew Greeley, priest and novelist, told a story to go with this scripture. Once upon a time, there was a man who worked many years as an
usher in the church. He came early every Sunday morning and sometimes worked as usher for three services. Everything was done efficiently when he was on duty. Even though he was not technically the head usher, he was the one who took the collection money from the other collection plates and piled it into one plate to bring it up to the altar. If some of the other ushers were slow or inefficient, he didn’t bother to hide his impatience. It was a privilege to be an usher and one was supposed to work hard to live up to that privilege.
Then the man who had been head usher in the parish since before the flood moved away to Arizona. Personally, our man believed the retiring usher was a doddering old fool, but he never said that. He assumed his good work would be rewarded and he would be made head usher. But the pastor called a meeting of all the ushers and announced that a much younger man who had worked as an usher for only two years would be the new head usher. Our friend wrote a letter of resignation from the ushers’ group and went to church the next Sunday at another parish.
It’s not easy to be denied glory when glory is what you’re working for. Not to be recognized when being recognized is the motivation behind doing good will quickly reveal one’s true motivations. We aren’t what we appear to be many times. The truth is we are more than one thing. We want to serve, but we also want to be acknowledged. We want to labor for good, but we also want to labor for gain. We are selfless while still being self-concerned. Which wins out is never foreordained. Whom we listen to, which one of us, we must decide. Down which of the rivers coursing through us we flow we choose. Be more like Jesus in your choice. Be more servant than superior. Accept losing in the short term as it appears but build your character and your heart of love in the long run and for real.
I am struck by Jesus’ reaction to their James and John’s question. He doesn’t set them straight about how inappropriate it was. Instead, he asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus demonstrates grace and patience. He hears their request, to share in his glory, and he tells them they will.
Mark writes for an early church being persecuted because they are following Christ. It was tough back then. Like James and John, this early church would have to “drink the cup” that Jesus drank. Mark paints a picture of the Twelve’s misunderstanding of discipleship to remind his own community what Jesus taught about service and sacrifice.
Real Christian faith isn’t always to be measured by signs of institutional success: the size of church buildings; the numbers of adherents;
acceptance and esteem in the world; influence in the halls of power; invitations to sit at prominent places. But what would we expect from those following one who came, as Jesus said, “not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”
Pastor Thom Shuman wrote a poem, reflecting on this passage of scripture. It’s called “Where You Sit.” We leave our box seats at the symphony or ball park, and pray you won’t catch our eye as we pass you sitting with the homeless. We wait for a few minutes at the doctor’s office to get a free shot so we won’t catch the flu, while half a world away you sit for a week hoping medicine which will cost you a year’s wages finds its way to your village. We sit in our home theaters, watching the latest “reality” on our giant screens, while you sit in the darkness, rocking your child asleep, as she cries from the ache of an empty stomach. Lord Jesus: when (like James and John) we want to be at your side in glory: remind us where you sit.
James and John seem to have totally missed what Jesus had been teaching them. They come across as selfish and greedy and self-absorbed. They are overly ambitious. But Jesus treats their ambition as worthy of redemption. He redirects their ambition and points them kindly on their way. To their credit, they continue their journey as Christ’s disciples.
Things are not as they appear. God isn’t always so obvious or direct. Our journey doesn’t always take us on a straight path. When you run into an obstacle, often it’s only such because at the time we may lack imagination or insight or the spiritual strength to see it as it really is—God’s gift, a better path, goodness for you that you didn’t know was yours. Take that path: it’s more than it appears.
Can the church say Amen?