Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from Sunday, October 18
The gospel according to Mark, the tenth chapter:
[32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, 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; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’]
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
Some of you watched the recent presidential debates. The rest of you heard about them. You and I now know something about the men sitting to our right: Donald, Jeb, Mike, Ben, Ted, Marco, Rand, Chris, Carly and John. And we know something about Hillary, Bernie, Martin, Lincoln, and Jim, those candidates sitting to our left.
It’s still early. News outlets are giving a lot of advice to the frontrunners: look more presidential, pick yourself up, be different, get on the map. And, most importantly, be great.
We need only turn on the television or open the newspaper to hear candidates give us compelling stories to prove their greatness. And although we’d like to say that its only presidential hopefuls who are preoccupied by the question of greatness, deep down many of us know that we are all asking it, too. It’s a question that we are trained to begin asking early and conditioned to ask the rest of our lives: Who is the greatest student in the classroom? Greatest violinist in the orchestra? Who is the greatest parent, or manager at work, or writer, or gardener, or volunteer, or activist, or cook? It’s a question that we ask ourselves in more situations than we’d care to admit.
But just as we tire of the Presidential candidates trying to prove their superiority, we too get tired in trying to prove ours. In order to appear great we are often forced to cover up other things like our hurts and uncertainties, our fears and powerlessness. At home, in the workplace, and even at church, we sweep these things under the rug, pretend like they aren’t there, or attempt to write them out of our story. We do whatever it takes to keep these parts of us at bay. In the end, it’s exhausting business—this trying to be great—because it forces us to hide our most fragile pieces.
We often romanticize the duties that the disciples had been given—spending their days with Jesus, being sent out with the power to heal, and traveling from village to village to spread the message. But the truth is that they were living a pretty tenuous existence. They had given up their livelihoods to follow a carpenter from Nazareth, and in doing so they had left their families behind. They didn’t always understand Jesus’ teachings or catch the gist of his parables. They weren’t entirely sure what Jesus meant when he said that the Son of Man would be betrayed, killed, and rise again on the third day. Not much was certain in the lives of these guys, so we can sympathize with their need for a reasonable amount of control and just an ounce of greatness.
Commentators are hard on them, saying this is yet one more example of the disciples not getting it in Mark’s gospel. But I think we ought to look again; I think that James and John are actually headed in the right direction. After all, they are beginning to understand that Jesus is inviting them into the center of the action. They are beginning to understand that they’re not simply passive observers. They’re not simply messianic students. They’re not simply Jesus’ henchmen of healing. We see them begin to understand themselves as what God made them to be: co-creators in the commonwealth of God. I think this is a moment of brilliance on the part of these two disciples.
But before they can even pat themselves on the back for having discerned the incredible invitation, they make the mistake that so many of us fall victim to—that is, they equate co-creator with ruler and begin to imagine themselves into a great kingdom marked by sedentary thrones and opulence for those in control. No surprise, it looks an awful lot like Rome. James will co-create on the Son of God’s left hand. John will co-create on the Son of God’s right hand. Or vice versa; they’re not picky. It’ll be perfect.
They’re differentiating, getting themselves on the map. You know, being great.
But Jesus says, “not so fast, big guys. If you want to be great, then you need to be a servant.” In Greek the word for servant is diakonos. A diakonos is defined as one “who kicks up dust by moving in a hurry, so as to minister.” I love that image.
After all, this is a different kind of kingdom, Jesus reminds them, another kind of commonwealth. Here, we don’t cover up our hurts and uncertainties, our fears and powerlessness. Here, there’s no right hand and left hand. This is the commonwealth that Pulizer Prize-winning author, Marilynne Robinson, says shows up most clearly not on debate stages, but most clearly in places like emergency rooms—where “the profoundly counterintuitive [Christian belief] that your neighbor is as worthy…as you are comes to life.” Doctors take swift action with patients. Nurses have the presence of mind to ask family members if they’re OK. Strangers in the waiting room offer one another candy bars from the vending machine.
After my husband Paul’s cardiac arrest earlier this year, our lives were messy. I was learning to live with the memory of doing CPR on the one I love most. Paul was coming to terms with a new medical reality.
Paul’s parents came to stay so I could do some work here at the church during Holy Week. My in-laws didn’t know what to do in between all of the doctor visits and all of the emotions. So on Maundy Thursday, they asked if they could clean the house. And they did clean—clothes, floors, bathrooms, kitchen, even windows. It was a tiny miracle in the midst of days I hope will be among my worst. They were diakonoi, servants, quite literally kickin’ up dust, so as to minister.
One theologian says that saying “yes” to this kind of servanthood—this kind of dust-kickin’ life won’t get you a posh throne or “any extra protection to your well-being; it may in fact make things harder instead of easier, with one important exception: you will [not] suffer from a shortage of high purpose in your life. You will [not] wonder why you are here or what you are for, because from now on you know both where you came from and where you are headed. Your feet are pointed in a certain direction—toward full communion with God and neighbor; away from evil and despair; toward justice and peace among all people, away from anything that might persuade you to respect the dignity of some [of creation] but not all.”
It’s for this kind of life that Jesus came. And it’s into this kind of life that James and John, you and I are invited. Forget greatness; let’s kick up a little dust.
 Paraphrased for the sake of readability.