First Congregational Church
October 18, 2015
18th Sunday after Pentecost
“Whose Voice Is In Your Head and On Your Heart?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Since a good many of you are probably unfamiliar with Scandinavian humor and other myths, you may not realize that Ole and Sven, growing up together, had a real rivalry that developed over the years. They were always boasting of their parents' achievements to each other.
Ole: "Have you heard of the Suez Canal?" Sven: "Yes, I have." Ole: "Well, my father dug it." Sven: "That's nothing. Have you heard of the Dead Sea?" Ole: "Yes, I have." Sven: "Well, my father killed it."
Even as adults, they just couldn’t help themselves. Ole: "I can get in my truck first thing in the morning and drive all day before I reach the other side of my property.” Sven replied, "I used to have a truck like that, too!”
And any chance they could pull their cousin Torval into the one-ups-manship, it was a free-for-all. One day, all three were in the schoolyard bragging about their dads.
Sven said, ”My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, calls it a poem, and they give him $50.”.
Ole said, ”Well, get this, my dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, calls it a song, and they give him $100."
Torval said, ”I have both of you beat. My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!"
Before we get to the scripture for today, we need a little large picture backdrop. Way back in Mark’s chapter 8, Jesus cured a blind man and Jesus proclaimed his coming death. But none of the disciples “got” the prophecy, and in fact, Peter rebukes Jesus.
In Mark’s chapter 9, Jesus repeats his declaration of death, but the disciples start arguing over who is the greatest, again, because they don’t get it. “So he puts before them a child and tells them that leadership and greatness are about welcoming the vulnerable.” (David Lose)
Once again, in Chapter 10, Mark has Jesus proclaiming his death and resurrection, and again, the disciples don’t get it. And after another “incident” of “greatness contention, Mark ends the great section with the healing of blind Bartimaeus.
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, Myra. Isn’t it interesting how the healings of blindness bracket Jesus’ three pronouncements of his impending death, the disciples’ failure to understand, and Jesus’ ongoing teaching about what constitutes greatness? Granted, it is sort of cherry picking out that section from the rest of Mark. But David Lose, of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh thinks that “Mark tells the story this way because he knows that Jesus’ words – indeed, his whole life! – run contrary to our natural tendency to think about power, leadership, and all of life according to the terms of the world and therefore take time to sink in.
I think Rev. Lose is on to something there. In that first sentence, James and John really ought to be Gibbs smacked upside the back of their heads. For those of you not raised in Minnesota, to blatantly tell a person what you want them to do - just isn’t done. Granted, these were adults, but across the lake and Wisconsin, you’d best learn the polite way of asking for favors or someone will teach your backside some manners!
And then when Jesus asks if James and John can drink his cup or be baptized with his baptism, the J boys are like non-Minnesotans: “We can.” Minnesotans would hang their heads, scuff the ground with their toe and say something like, “I suppose I could.” To be fair, perhaps it was the writer of Mark that was so brash, having James and John answer so bluntly. But even so, asking such a bold question and making such a brazen answer certainly revealed that James and John certainly weren’t thinking about the other ten disciples. It was like bringing gum to class, but not enough to share with everyone.
It is interesting, tho, how some things, some voices, some ways of doing things are so right there at the front of your memories. And isn’t it humbling to be reminded that our perception is sometimes so very, very wrong?
In today’s reading, for instance, James and John think greatness comes from status and power. And in response Jesus points out the 180 degrees of those things - that there is no escaping service. We either willingly, even joyfully, serve others, or we become a slave to our illusions that we can be free, and secure our future through status and power (or, in our modern day, wealth or youth or fame or possessions, or whatever the illusion.).
So we’ve heard it before and we’re likely to hear it again - perhaps until we “get it”: who will you serve? The voices of our culture that say that we can be free – indeed, must be free – on our own and at any cost. Then there is the voice of Jesus that calls you to find your freedom, in fact, your true self, through service to neighbor.
But, darn it, Mark, Jesus, God, I’m tired! I’ve done my bit, sometimes even to the detriment to my family or my own self. I make my way to church, I even do nice things for other people on occasion. You, better than anyone else, know how much I’ve got on my plate at the moment. If you would just make my hip better, I could do more, I promise. Why do you keep nagging me - even when I try to ignore you?
I made up the question that was used as the Meditative Sentence in the bulletin this morning, and if you didn’t get that far in the reading, the question is this: When have you “given” of yourself for the sake of another and received back so much more than you’ve given?
It might be interesting to hear all the responses to that question. But if we were to have a moment of sharing, I wonder how many of us would feel like underachievers. There are missionaries, doctors without borders, peace corps members, and all kinds of other people that often find themselves in those places of being able to give and receive altruistically.
Karoline Lewis, from WorkingPreacher.org asked this question: “What is it about us that we locate our ableness in our own efforts?” Her question, in regards to what we can do for others is like looking for a fall color tour on the ground in front of us. When we lift up our eyes, to the hills, from whence our help comes, we see that there is so much more to this whole serving others way of life.
What we are able to do now is not the same as what we were able to do in days gone by. And it won’t be what we will be able to do in the future. But Jesus’ words are the same - today, then and in the future. We become “great” by serving. That’s the voice we need in our heads and our hearts.
Poet Mary Oliver had this to say about our abilities and ableness.
“I have refused to live locked in the orderly rooms of reasons and proofs
The world I live in and believe in is wider than that.
And anyway, what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I’ve seen.
I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one.”
So, do you see the soul needing a smile or a kindness? Do you see the professional person, who is rightly held to a high bar, as a person who has a life away from their office or field, a life that is possibly, normally rather usual, but for whatever reason is steeped in chaos and uncertainty? Whose voice do you want in your head and heart when you encounter someone down on their luck or when someone has wronged you? And we do well to notice that Jesus didn’t say anyone needed to be a doormat when it comes to serving others.
It’s interesting, going back to the long distance view of this morning’s scripture passage, to remember the three predictions of Jesus’ death bookended with healings of blindness. Maybe that is our need of healing: to be able to see the opportunities and the need that lie all around us, needing a moment of listening, a time of just “being” with another person, an invitation for someone to come out into the world of light and life.
It’s so easy to get caught up on what we think is important or pressing. So we need to have our hearing retuned, our eyesight recalibrated. So shall we pray.
Great God of more than we can possibly ever know, thank you for reminding us that you are also the God of detail and relationships. Thank you for reminding us that what we sometimes think is so important, is perhaps not so in the larger vista of life. Help us to remember that our ableness to serve you comes from you through us, for others. Help us realize how holy those moments are, even in their mundane ordinariness.
For those moments when we heard your voice and we knew we were on holy ground, we are deeply grateful. Help us to never take them for granted. For those times when we were able to set aside this world’s to do list and take up yours, thank you. Help all of us grow into your greatness, which is really and truly, your greatness. For such a calling - in following you - all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.