First Congregational Church
October 21, 2018
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The story is told of two ducks and a frog who lived happily together in a farm pond. The best of friends, the three would amuse themselves and play together in their waterhole. When the hot summer days came, however, the pond began to dry up, and soon it was evident they would have to move. This was no problem for the ducks, who could easily fly to another pond. But the frog was stuck. So it was decided that they would put a stick in the bill of each duck that the frog could hang onto with his mouth as they flew to another pond.
The plan worked well - so well, in fact, that as they were flying along a farmer looked up in admiration and mused, "Well, isn't that a clever idea! I wonder who thought of it?"
The frog said, "I did…"
Ronald Reagan recalled an occasion when he was governor of California and made a speech in Mexico City: "After I had finished speaking, I sat down to rather
unenthusiastic applause, and I was a little embarrassed. The speaker who followed me spoke in Spanish, which I didn't understand and he was being applauded about every paragraph. To hide my embarrassment, I started clapping before everyone else - and longer than anyone else - until our ambassador leaned over and said, I wouldn't do that if I were you. He's interpreting your speech.’"
Reverend Paul W. Powell, retired Dean of Baylor University (name shortened here) Theological Seminary, once observed: "Pride is so subtle that if we aren't careful we'll be proud of our humility. When this happens our goodness becomes badness. Our virtues become vices. We can easily become like the Sunday School teacher who, having told the story of the Pharisee and the publican, said, “Children, let's bow our heads and thank God we are not like the Pharisee!”
Today’s scripture passage comes to us, once again, from the Gospel of Mark. Last week it was the description of the young rich man wanting eternal life, only to be disappointed by Jesus’ answer that exposed the young man’s honesty of heart. After Jesus mentioned that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for most of us to give up the one thing we hold most dear, whatever that one thing is, Jesus predicted his death a third time, and then, as they were walking along, toward Jerusalem and the approaching crucifixion, this happened.
Mark 10:35-45 (NIV) The Request of James and John
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, Kelly. I think that one of the best teaching techniques is that of contrast - especially when you begin with something already familiar to the learner. If you are attempting to help someone understand Congregationalism, it’s helpful to know if they are familiar with Catholicism, because we’re not like that. Or if they have experience with churches that use the same liturgy most every week, because we’re not like that either. If they are familiar with Presbyterianism, we can point out nuances, like their higherarchy of presbyteries and our associations with other Congregational churches within in the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. These comparisons are not injunctions against those of other practices, it’s just how we’re different.
Or say that someone wants to learn how to play the piano. So the teacher starts with a little song the student already knows - like Mary Had a Little Lamb or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Once the student has a mastery of that piece, they can learn to listen for melodies in other great works - or even to master them, like Mozart.
One of the other easy teaching techniques is employing opposites. The opposite of fast is: slow. The opposite of high is: low. The opposite of many is: few. One of the many opposites of great is: servant or slave - as Jesus explained.
Golf immortal Arnold Palmer recalls a game when he was at the final hole of the 1961 Masters tournament, and in his own words, he said, “I had a one-stroke lead and had just hit a very satisfying tee shot. I felt I was in pretty good shape. As I approached my ball, I saw an old friend standing at the edge of the gallery. He motioned me over, stuck out his hand and said, Congratulations." I took his hand and shook it, but as soon as I did, I knew I had lost my focus. On my next two shots, I hit the ball into a sand trap, then put it over the edge of the green. I missed a putt and lost the Masters.” He ended his accounting with these words. “You don't forget a mistake like that; you just learn from it and become determined that you will never do that again. I haven't in the 30 years since.”
I wonder how many of us “get” that illustration, because we’ve so been there. ‘Man, I’ve been so great with my driving, I haven’t had a ticket in over 30 years.’ (Refocus to the red and blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror.) “I’m so glad I haven’t had to eat any crow for the last many months, because I’ve been so good with wanting not to hurt those I love. (Envision scene in bed, covers pulled up, eye balls wide awake, replaying that uncomfortable conversation earlier that evening, wondering if you have to make an apology.)
Or there’s the eternal, “I feel really good about that sermon.” but no one says boo about it. Then there’s that other lesson we sometimes need to learn - whether the sermon was really just that bad, or it had touched people in ways that were not my responsibility, but God’s, and so don’t get yourself all bunched up, thinking you are so much better than you really are.
In case you were wondering, yes, the disciples had a very similar conversation just two chapters before the one for this morning. The Zebedee boys were in the popular group, Jesus’ inner circle, which also included Peter. Besides the brothers being known as the Sons of Thunder, they alone were present for the healing of Jairus’ daughter and for the Transfiguration when Jesus was glorified. If they were living today, they’d have had their own little texting group. More than anyone, they had reason to call “Shotgun” on the eternal stagecoach.
Jesus doesn’t call them derogatory names, shaming their presumptions, but essentially asked them if they could handle the cross. All these years, and yesterday was the first day that the idea came together in this small mind - of James and John asking for seats, overlapping the thieves who hung on Jesus’ right and left on the crosses.
I know there are many that are going to find this a little difficult to grasp, but sometimes I can get really worked up about injustices I perceive to be in the world. Yes, sometimes I can get a little crazy when I realize that not everyone knows what I know - regardless of how good or not good that information might be. And yes, sometimes, I hear something on the tv or I read something that I probably shouldn’t have spent much time on, and realize that I’ve used my soapbox to get onto my high horse - but hopefully not too often aloud. And I find myself wondering “what is wrong with people?” If everyone could be like me, we’d all be fine.
Thursday evening I attended a show at the Opera House, and was hilariously reminded, over and over, that it is “we” - not them, not they, we. We all do really great things and we all do really dumb stuff. We all get tired and we all think of ourselves as being better - than is probably healthy. We are the body of Christ - some better suited to be hands and some better suited to be feet and some better suited to be the skin that keeps us all connected. Much as we’d like to be sitting on either side of Jesus, he reminds all of us that it’s not about chairs or seating arrangements, but about serving. We are all called to be Christ’s servants.
I discovered a new nuance this week, that the word for servant (diakonos) originally meant to “heap dust because a good servant moved so fast that dust flew around him.” Some time after that, it was used for the boys who carried the towels in the bath houses, and so the word became associated with children. In the religious sense, the word “servant” took on the idea of one who ministered or rendered a service to another. The word “slave” (doulos), however, was one who did not have the right to refuse. The slave’s entire life was at the disposal of the master. So some might interpret this morning’s passage to be a requirement for us to be spinners for Jesus. (Just kidding.)
Whether it’s being crazy busy with the family and kids, gearing up or gearing down to or from a trip that is planned, having no energy or inspiration to be servants or slaves for Jesus, it’s perhaps easy to either blow off this reminder of who we are in Christ, or to become overwhelmed into emotions we just can’t add to our plate. But remember, it’s not all about seating in eternity.
Sometimes it’s serving someone who serves this church family; with a thank you or note of appreciation. Just a couple of sentences and the high horse is pastured and another individual has been raised up a little bit. Sometimes it about sitting next to the new person after church, because it’s so easy to sit with those we already know.
This servanthood mentality, this counter-cultural kingdom of God where the way up is the kneeling down of heart is not even a list of things to do, but a retraining or exercising of attitude. When we hear the line, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greatest of us all, we should see Christ’s face, and realize it to be a reflection of our efforts, regardless of how great or small, large or least those efforts might be. To pull that off, we best get first to praying.
Gracious, loving God, thank you for reminding us, again and again, what you desire for us. Remind us often in the coming week, that it is about we, not about them, or they, but about we - your people - all your people - doing our parts to bring your kingdom to life in this world. Give us strength and courage to do that which is beyond us, patience and understanding to that which seems least or insignificant. Thank you for those moments in our lives when we knew we were in that right place, doing what you needed of us for that moment in time. Help us to realize that we have so many of those opportunities around us at any given moment in time. And then help us to harvest those moments, that we might realize and embrace how good it is to be your people. For all the lessons and all the blessings and all those that are really “we,” all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.