First Congregational Church
October 17, 2021
21st Sunday after Pentecost
“Grace and Greatness”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
An unemployed man is desperate to support his family of a wife and three kids. He applies for a janitor's job at a large firm and easily passes an aptitude test.
The human resources manager tells him, "You will be hired at minimum wage of $5.35 an hour. Let me have your e-mail address so that we can get you in the loop. Our system will automatically e-mail you all the forms and advise you when to start and where to report on your first day.” Taken back, the man protests that he is poor and has neither a computer nor an e-mail address.
To this the manager replies, "You must understand that to a company like ours that means that you virtually do not exist. Without an e-mail address you can hardly expect to be employed by a high-tech firm. Good day."
Stunned, the man leaves. Not knowing where to turn and having $10 in his wallet, he walks past a farmers' market and sees a stand selling 25 lb. crates of beautiful red tomatoes. He buys a crate, carries it to a busy corner and displays the tomatoes. In less than 2 hours he sells all the tomatoes and makes 100% profit. Repeating the process several times more that day, he ends up with almost $100 and arrives home that night with several bags of groceries for his family.
During the night he decides to repeat the tomato business the next day. By the end of the week he is getting up early every day and working into the night. He multiplies his profits quickly.
Early in the second week he acquires a cart to transport several boxes of tomatoes at a time, but before a month is up he sells the cart to buy a broken-down pickup truck.
At the end of a year he owns three old trucks. His two sons have left their neighborhood gangs to help him with the tomato business, his wife is buying the tomatoes, and his daughter is taking night courses at the community college so she can keep books for him.
By the end of the second year he has a dozen very nice used trucks and employs fifteen previously unemployed people, all selling tomatoes. He continues to work hard.
Time passes and at the end of the fifth year he owns a fleet of nice trucks and a warehouse that his wife supervises, plus two tomato farms that the boys manage. The tomato company's payroll has put hundreds of homeless and jobless people to work. His daughter reports that the business grossed over one million dollars.
Planning for the future, he decides to buy some life insurance. Consulting with an insurance adviser, he picks an insurance plan to fit his new circumstances. Then the adviser asks him for his e-mail address in order to send the final documents electronically.
When the man replies that he doesn't have time to mess with a computer and has no e-mail address, the insurance man is stunned, "What, you don't have e-mail? No computer? No Internet? Just think where you would be today if you'd had all of that five years ago!"
"Ha!" snorts the man. "If I'd had e-mail five years ago I would be sweeping floors at Microsoft and making $5.35 an hour.”
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Thank you, Scott. American Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr once said, “Christianity is a lifestyle - a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving.” Boston University School of Theology Assistant Professor of New Testament, Luis Menéndez-Antuña says that the writer of Mark lays out a series of teachings that seek to structure just how the prospective community should organize itself, particularly around governance issues. So it makes sense that Mark’s writer would include such an anecdote about who is greater and who will sit where in the coming kingdom.
Even so, there is an aspect of today’s passage that is rather paradoxical in nature - in that although the disciples didn’t know the magnitude of what they were asking, it’s also true that if we don’t ask for what we want, we most likely won’t get it.
If we follow that line of thought just a little bit, there is a paradoxical aspect to this life of faith, in that when we pray, God already knows what we need and want, so praying may seem like an unwise use of time. Except that the real point of prayer is not so much what we are asking for, but in the exchange of sentiment between us and God, what changes in us when we make our needs and wants known, because it’s not just a one-sided conversation, but two sided - with God having a part in the exchange. And just as there is more to prayer than what meets the eye, so it that point true in today’s passage.
When the disciples asked a question that some might consider less than tactful, Jesus didn’t reply by yelling or belittling or using derogatory language. His answer was one of grace, with the corrected truth of God’s decision of who will sit where and when.
Without rancor or irritation or impatience - that we know of - Jesus points out that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Sidebar - the Greek word for slave is interchangeable with the word child - so let that flavor your coffee for a while.)
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m getting the point, Jesus. How many Sundays have we heard the 'first shall be last and last shall be first thing’? But maybe the early gospel writers had already figured out what communication experts have known for a long time - that if you want someone to take action, they need to hear the request at a least seven times - and please be careful with that information and the person closest to you. At studentdoctor.net, they say that one needs to read through class notes 2-5 times before they “get it.” So the writer of Mark does us the favor of making the point - repeatedly.
I doubt that the lectionary preparers had any magical abilities or insight into where we would be as a nation and world when they assigned this passage for this day, but it is certainly apropos. Grace and greatness are both highly desirable character traits, but we can’t buy them anywhere, regardless of shipping container or transport issues. And I wonder if greatness is nothing about power or volume or fist pumping as much as it is about genuine care and the way one lives life.
Chelsey Harmon, from the Center for Excellence in Preaching, put it so plainly. “Jesus Christ is both the Lord and Master and the servant and slave of humanity. He came to earth as part of us in order to serve us, giving his life as the payment for our deliverance—including deliverance from the rat race, the battle for power, prestige, and position….He lived and died so that we can be from from the need to be great over others.”
A couple of weeks ago, part of the 100 Years Ago in Benzie County section read “When a farmer sold his corn recently and tried to explain to a banker the necessity of a loan to tide him over a lien., the niceties of market problems faced by the farmer now were outlined. "But," the banker said, "I don't understand why you should want to borrow money when you have just shipped your corn. What did you do with the money?” “De ducks got it,” replied the farmer. “What do you mean by “de ducks?”
“Shipped the carload to market and sold it for 52 cents a bushel. They de duck freight, that left 31 cents; de duck 1 cent commission, that left 30 cents; de duck elevator charges, that left 27 cents; de duck husking, that left 15 cents; de duck hauling, that left 5 cents; de duck the hired man’s wages from that, and you are a darn sight better farmer than I am if you find anything left.”
There is nothing that is de ducted from us when we are kind and embracing and conscious of serving those around us, even if we do so imperfectly. There is nothing de ducted from our character when we stop mid-sentence - to rephrase or re-express ourselves so that we maintain dignity and kindness - in others as well as in our own selves. In fact, when we take those second runs at making a point or connecting with someone, it not only reaffirms our practice of serving others, but it actually serves others.
There are temptations to think that we’ve done enough serving of others, or that what we’ve done is good enough. Jesus doesn’t ever hint at that, nor does the rest of the Bible. Jesus and the Bible continually point us to the way of service and grace, because that’s where and when we become great.
Perhaps the empty store shelves of the past eighteen months have embedded the idea that there is only so much to go around. While that is true in some parts of life, it is not true in faith or love or grace or greatness.
Retired pastor-poet Steven Garnaas-Holmes put out a prayer this week that bid the reader to “beware of a faith that is no more than James and John’s request: believing what you need to believe in order to go to Heaven - and receive all the benefits appertaining thereunto, including getting to be with Jesus in glory. What if Heaven means the perfection of serving, the deepest bliss in kneeling at the feet of the undeserving, the most profound join in pouring out your life for another? At the heavenly banquet newcomers are the guests, but the real angelic souls are the servers.”
Our bodies may cause stumbling blocks to opportunities to serve, and the pressing needs of family may cause stumbling blocks to opportunities to serve. But it’s not even so much about the actual serving as it is the heart - the heart of serving - because that is what shines through - regardless of age or circumstance, ability or opportunity. So shall we pray?
Holy, Holy God, thank you for not giving up on getting your point across to us. Thank you for your encouragement, your direction and those who have served us in allowing us to be where and who we are. Forgive us when we willingly or unknowingly turn away from those opportunities to not only serve others, but serve ourselves in the process. Renew our passion to follow the ways of your Son, to become the community you have seen us to be from so long ago. For these and all the blessings that come from your Spirit, your Son and our servant, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.