Sunday, October 17, 2021
THE JAMES AND JOHN IS ALL OF US
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
October 17, 2021
All of the teachings from Jesus over the past several weeks have been set in the context of his traveling towards Jerusalem. Last week’s passage begins with the rich man running up to him to ask about how he can inherit eternal life as Jesus is setting out on the journey for the day. In the paragraph between last week’s and today’s reading, Jesus has just told his disciples for the third time that he is going to be crucified in Jerusalem. This is the Jesus of our Hebrews passage who was obedient even unto death, a servant to all. Now on the road to Jerusalem it’s as if the disciples haven’t heard anything about the struggle that is to come and are more concerned with their position in the kingdom.
This rather remarkable story is one that is preserved in all three synoptic gospels which probably means there is a good chance that this event really occurred and that the disciples really did embarrass themselves with this fighting over who gets the honored place in the kingdom. Remember this was not witnessed by the world as many of the miracles were. This is a story that had to be told by the disciples about themselves. This is a moment where we get a look at the disciples as they really were, which is as totally and completely human, creatures of their time and culture.
The disciples are hung up on status and for their world, as in ours, this is not surprising. Jesus actually spends a lot of time talking about status and positions of power precisely because this was important in the first century world both inside the church and in the public world. This was an honor shame society and status was everything. This is one of the reasons that Jesus’ preferential treatment of the poor, the outsider, the sick, would have been so shocking to those in the positions of power.
Who sat where at a banquet was incredibly important. Those at the head table had better and more abundant food than those at the lower tables. Jesus speaks of this in several different teachings. We don’t have anything quite like that in today’s everyday world anymore other than possibly in diplomatic dinners or negotiations.
One commentary wondered if the first time people in the early church heard this they laughed at the absurdity of this story. How could James and John not realize what a ridiculous thing it was to ask to be seated and the right and left hand of Jesus? Another possibility is that they heard this and thought of people in their church who came to mind when they heard this passage. Maybe the laughter was nervous laughter when they recognized their own behaviors in this passage. For all of us, this can be an important moment of self-examination.
One thing is certain. We need to realize we all have some Zebedee genes in our makeup. Like James and John we all desire accolades, praise, respect. Just like with the rich man the question is does this motivate us, drive us, or control our actions? This is the problem with the request of James and John, which is all about them and not about being the servant. They have already forgotten Jesus’ statement that in the kingdom many who are first will be last and the last will be first. And it is not just James and John because the other disciples get upset that they have asked this and maybe some of that upset is that they realize that they did not think to make the same request.
What Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr would say about this passage is that James, John and all the disciples are operating out of their ego self, their false self, not their God centered, true self. In fact, I’m not sure if they ever figured out their God centered self until sometime after the resurrection. This is still a learning stage for the disciples and must have been very frustrating for Jesus. That they have not quite grasped what is going on should be clear since this is the third time Jesus has told them what is going to happen and they say they want to share in this cup and this baptism. Obviously they really haven’t been listening or at least at a point where they can really understand.
Ultimately this gospel passage is a lesson in Servant Leadership. Leading from the standpoint of a servant is very countercultural both then and today! I sincerely believe that this is in large part what is behind the fascination with the leadership style of Pope Francis. Here is servant leadership. I believe it is also what marks the leadership of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as so engaging and exciting.
I believe that is one of the things that I most respect about our Presiding Bishop. Having now see him in person in several situations he comes across as authentic and humble.
Servant leadership is what we are all called to do. Some of you may remember doing the training in this using the book Servanthood by Bishop Simms. Being the servant with our egos crying out for recognition is hard, but not impossible. Listen to the famous prayer by St. Francis from our prayer book for in this prayer is the way to live the servant life.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
This is the essence of servant ministry. We have many servants in this parish. To be honest it is the only way we can exist as a parish. We need all those people who see an issue and take care of it often anonymously. “Oh that’s broken” and within a day what ever is broken has been replaced and many times only a few people know. These people like it that way. Or they volunteer and do incredible work and say I don’t really want recognition and they mean it, but they go out of their way to thank everyone who helps them. Or they say I will take the lead in helping us meet a financial goal, but I do not want my name attached to this. This is not false modesty this is servant ministry. As a parish we really are pretty good at this, but we need to recognize it for what it is.
Servant leadership is also good stewardship. For stewardship is more than just the fall pledge campaign. That is only a part of the picture. Stewardship is the work that the vestry and finance committee do all year to care for not just the building and pay salaries and utilities. Stewardship is making sure that the programs that care for people are in place. Stewardship is caring for our building so the tutoring program, boy and girl scouts, toastmaster, the new grief group have a place to meet. Stewardship is the altar guild making our worship possible. Stewardship is the choir adding their voices in praise of God in worship. Our Christian Formation program is stewardship as we raise up our children to be faithful young adults and help our adults continue to grow in faith. Stewardship is pastoral care as we support those in need whether physically, mentally or spiritually.
We also need to realize that we are all called to servant ministry here at our parish and in the greater world. So go today, be instruments of God’s peace, sow love, sow hope, be the light, the beacon, spread joy, love without restraint. Live the prayer of St. Francis everywhere all the time. That is our call as servants leaders. Be the generous servant that Christ is calling you to be.