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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Second thoughts: We want you to do for us whatever we ask! (B29O)

The Zebedee brothers, with their infamous request, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you," stand in for a lot of Christian and even pre-Christian history in our relationship with God and the gods. The author of Mark goes out of his way to try to let us see how wrong the disciples are and how wrong this approach is; it misses utterly the reality of Jesus and his meaning for the world. We'll see just how Mark does this on Sunday, when Jesus heals another blind man in Jericho, his last stop before entering Jerusalem from the east.

I'd like to think that Mark is holding up the disciples for us, with their continual misunderstanding of who Jesus is and what his ministry means, just for this reason, so that we who also want to exchange good deeds and moral, law-abiding lives for a merited crown, will also see how off-the-mark we are. Because nothing is merited. Everything is already given and present. We can't make ourselves "good enough" for God, there is no path to that. But it doesn't matter. "Only God is good," the Torah teaches. To enter into goodness, we need to be like God. To be like God, we need to walk in God's life, in agape, which is to say, to love without thought of self-promotion or reward. To love even strangers and enemies, always and only because every human being is a child of God, and not because anyone has merited our love any more than we merit God's. To love is to want the life of the other to flourish with the same passion that we want our own to flourish. This is the meaning of the "golden rule," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." Well, yeah. Don't we all? Even our psalm Sunday had us pray, "Let your mercy be on us, O Lord, as we place our trust in you." Even the psalm seems to be asking for payback, like Peter did, when, after the rich man was sent away in the gospel a couple of weeks ago, Peter said, "What about us? We've left everything to follow you." And Jesus answers him in a positive way, but needs to be heard. To follow Jesus, to leave the past behind, isn't like following a general. It's being formed in the image of the servant of God, in the image of agape, being the one who allows self to go into the place of shame, abasement, and death knowing that there is life there, that God is there, so that the fearlessness of the victim, that unknowing but faithful fearlessness, can make a way of faith for others. As Nadia Bolz-Weber defines leadership in her congregation, it's saying, "OK, screw it. I'll go first" into whatever fire or hell or place of unknowing and lovelessness requires it.

That is the cup that from which Jesus is going to drink, and about which he has three times, in this section of Mark, told the disciples. "Follow me" means "follow me to the cross," because that's the place from which he can show us that death has no power, the darkness into which he can empty himself because of his faith that the light of Abba is there, to give him life, and those who follow him, life again.

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want world peace. We want the end of hunger, disease, and poverty. We want the end of war and armies and hatred.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want to be safe. We want our children to grow up without fear and violence. We want everyone to have enough, to be treated as equals, to be able to live freely.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

We want you to do for us whatever we ask.
We want to be happy, we want our lives to mean something.We want to be remembered, to be imitated, admired, respected. We want to stop being afraid. We want to live together in peace.
Can you drink the cup that I drink?

Our civilization, economy, borders, and collective wisdom tells us that in order to get what we want, which is what everyone else wants, we need to protect what we have from everyone else, stick together, define ourselves against the other. The gospel says we are the other, that we are all the handiwork of the same God who wants us to be like a family, looking out for one another's good. The cross is the place where those worlds collide, and the truth of agape and falsehood of the world of ambition and violence is exposed. The cross is the price of participating in God's project of saving the world from itself, for being a bridge-builder, and for refusing to be a part of the culture of violence and greed that is civilization by the powerful, for the powerful.

Jesus didn't come simply to do something for us. He comes among us as God's word, God's self-expression, to help us do something together. Atonement, "at-one-ment," is not by proxy. It is participatory. Jesus invites us into God's project of saving the world. Ambition and self-aggrandizement are just off the table, they are counterfeits of divine presence. Greatness in the reign of God is defined by service, the greatest of us all led by washing feet, by refusing to be defended by the sword, by laying aside the very name and accoutrements of divinity and showing us, literally step by desert step, a different way to be together.

We want God to do for us whatever we ask. God sees that we want the wrong things, things that have proven over and over that they cause harm and not happiness; or that we want the right things, but we want them for ourselves and not for God's other children. He shows us in a short life time the Way to the empire of God, a world of peace and justice. But the question still remains, even as we heard it again Sunday: Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? And he keeps moving down the road. Like you, I don't know whether to follow, or not. The destination seems right; the path seems too terrible.

Jesus seems to know that, and love me anyway. Like Pastor Nadia, he says to me and all of us in so many words, "Screw it. I'll go first."

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