Careful What You Ask For

I preached this sermon at Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC on October 21, 2012.  The scripture passage for the day was The Gospel of Mark 10: 35-45.  The sermon is really about all of chapter 10 in Mark’s Gospel.  

Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark is not a walk in the park.

Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark takes us alongside Jesus and his disciples on the road to Jerusalem.  

Our passage is only part of the repetitive comeuppance that people are getting from Jesus just about every time they ask him a question.

It begins with the Pharisees who test him about divorce.  Jesus is clear and it’s a hard message to the powers that be of his day—no loopholes, no exceptions.  I wouldn’t be true to my feminist theological credentials if I didn’t pause here and say that Jesus’ stance on divorce is complicated even if clear.  His hard line on divorce was to protect women from arbitrary dismissal from wayward husbands.  But that’s another sermon.

The important point for us today, is that Jesus’ stance wasn’t good news for those accustomed to having power and privilege sufficient to make social customs and norms work in their favor.

Jesus says nope.  Sorry.  That kind of good-old-boy power isn’t what I am about.

And this bad news for those accustomed to getting their way in the world just keeps coming:

  • Some people think kids should not have access to Jesus, according to custom they should not be in circles of adults, but instead sequestered outside the mainstreams of community life.  Jesus says no, let them come.  Let them come.
  • And then comes the man who wants to inherit eternal life.  Hey Jesus, he says, I’ve dotted all my I’s, crossed all my T’s what else do I need to do.  Jesus rattles off the ten commandments, the guy says he’s got all those covered.  Jesus say, oh one more thing, sell everything you’ve got, give it all away, follow me and then you’re set.  The man went away grieving, scripture tells us.  It was not what he wanted to hear.
  • Jesus then delivers another blow.  “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter to the kingdom of God.”
  • And right before our passage for today “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

Friends this is not a feel good journey for those who are traveling down this dusty road to Jerusalem.

Jesus’ unrelenting message is clear:  when you follow him the world’s standards of power and might, privilege and prestige are turned upside down and inside out.

Just before our passage today, scripture tells us that Jesus pulled ahead on the walk, and that those behind him were “amazed” and “afraid.”  Were they starting to get a sinking feeling that this whole on the road to Jerusalem thing was different than anything they had seen before?

Not so for at least two of his disciples.  James and John sidle up to Jesus almost giddy in anticipation for what they think awaits them in Jerusalem.   Victory?  Prestige?  A triumphant resolution to the tension that had been building?

“Hey Jesus, “ they say, “We want you to do whatever we ask you to do.”

Careful what you ask for James and John.  Careful now.

“What is it that you want?”  Jesus replies.

James and John are very specific with what they want—seats at the head table, places of honor, prestige.  They want status, proximity to Jesus’ glory.

Careful what you ask for.

Now it is really easy to be annoyed at these two guys at this point.  Don’t they get it?  Don’t they see?

We do, don’t we?  We see where this is headed.  We know who ends up on either side of Jesus once he gets to Jerusalem—two criminals on crosses just like Jesus’, society’s rejects, castaways, the ones who are worth more dead than alive.

Careful what you ask for James and John.  Careful now.

“Can you drink the cup that I drink?”  “Can you be baptized with the same baptism I am baptized with?”

“Do you know what you asking for?”   Jesus says.

“Do we know what we are asking for, brothers and sisters?”  “Do we know what we are asking for?”

This week I was in Philadelphia for a denominational meeting of the Committee on the Office of General Assembly.  That’s the committee that oversees and assists the denominational offices that make sure the decisions of the General Assembly are enacted as directed.  And the General Assembly more and more is asking the church to look at ourselves and how we do things?  We’re asking ourselves big questions these days.

What is the purpose of a presbytery?  Do we still need synods?  How do we do evangelism?  How do we gather statistics in a world where membership is less and less how people affiliate with religious communities?  How do we grow the church in a diverse world?

The church is asking itself how can we more effectively be the church.  Truth be told, we are a denomination who had tended to have the cultural currency and the financial resources to do church the way we like to do church—decently and in order.   Some would say that the question today is simple:  how can we be the church today in a changing world?

Be careful what you ask for Presbyterians?  Be careful now.

Can we imagine a few Presbyterians sidling up to Jesus on that road to Jerusalem and asking him for what we really want?  Hey Jesus, can you get more people to come to church on Sundays?  Hey Jesus can you help our stewardship campaign?  Hey Jesus can you help people understand why they need to bring their kids to Sunday school?

Jesus might just ask us what he asked James and John?  Do you know what you are asking?  Can you drink the cup that I drink?

James and John answered Jesus with their bold proclamation:  “We are able.”

“We are able, Jesus.”

Yes, Jesus, we can do it.  We can follow you.  We can be your people.  Back to our questions about the budget, and Sunday school, and membership numbers, Jesus.  Could you help us out with that stuff so we can be your people, so we can be your church?

Be careful what you ask for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Be careful.

“Can you drink the cup that I drink?”  Jesus says.

“Can you be baptized with the same baptism?”

Jesus keeps trying to reorient those of us who follow him.  Whenever we tell him what we think we need, what we think we want, he reminds us what it means to follow him.

Mark’s 10th chapter doesn’t end when Jesus tells his followers one more time about the new order of things.

That straggling, struggling crew keeps making their way to Jerusalem and they come across a blind beggar sitting on the side of the road.

He has something to ask Jesus, too.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he shouts.

And the people in the crowd tried to quiet the blind man.  Quiet man, do you know who you’re talking to?

But blind Bartimaeus just shouted louder:  “Jesus, have mercy on me.”

My week in Philadelphia didn’t just include the denominational meeting where we’re asking big questions.  I also spent the day at a school in the middle of Camden, NJ, one of the most violent cities in America—where poverty is high and prospects are slim, where violence is the norm and hope can be hard to come by.

This school, called Urban Promise, is a ministry housed in buildings that could use some repair.  Nothing fancy, but they make do.  They’ve stitched together a campus in Camden by buying two old church buildings and a few houses here and there on the block where the buildings are. Their interns live in the neighborhood for the year they are there in training.  And the school invests in the community of which it is a part.

At Urban Promise kids are ministered to in every part of who they are:  as students, as children, as bodies, as human beings learning how to believe in a God who can feel far away from their every day realities.

And not just that, but the staff, teachers, and volunteers are also ministered to in their own truth, their own brokenness.  At the Urban Promise there really is no pretense.  There they tell the truth about who they are and what they hope for.  Mercy is what they seek to receive; and mercy is what they seek to give.

At Urban Promise they are walking along that road to Jerusalem, drinking from that same cup, where the first are last and the last come first.

Urban Promise is beautifully organic is how the ministry has grown, and utterly responsive in how they understand their past, present, and future.  In a conversation with staff and volunteers about a wellness center they are starting for the kids, one staff member explained her passion for the initiative this way:  “hurt people want to help hurt people.”

In other words, they’ve been there, they understand.

Jesus shows us that over and over again.  He walked in our shoes, in a body like ours—in a body penetrated by violence, in a body redeemed and regenerated, even resurrected by love.

Urban Promise responds to needs—not in a predetermined direction or form.  They started as a summer camp and then saw how much happened in a kids’ life during the school year so they started a school for high school aged kids who were falling behind.  Then they saw how hard it was to catch up once a child was that behind in school, so they started an elementary school.  Then they saw how much people wanted to come there and learn how to do urban ministry so they started an internship program.  Just recently they began to realize how deeply trauma permeates the lives of many of the kids and so they have set themselves to the task of developing a wellness center.

They are responsive to need, they are responding with mercy.

Blind Bartimaeus called out for mercy.  Jesus stopped and called him over. And Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and ran to him.

“What is it that you want for me to do for you?” Jesus said.

“Let me see again,” the blind man said.

Jesus healed the blind man, and Bartimaeus followed him.

Do we have the courage to approach Jesus in our weakness, in our blindness, in the place of our deepest need?

Healing is what Jesus has to give us—healing from our blindness, our brokenness, from our distorted notions of the way things are and they way we think things should be.

Some people claim this passage is about Jesus telling us we will suffer if we follow him.

But following Jesus doesn’t add to our suffering.  Following Jesus just means telling the truth about our suffering—telling the truth about our own suffering gives us the eyes to see and respond to the suffering of others and the heart to care.

When we ask to be close to Jesus, like James and John did, it won’t get us a seat at the head table.  It won’t secure the privileges any may be accustomed to having in this world.

“Jesus, have mercy on us” the blind ones cry out!

Jesus stops and says, “tell me what you need.”

May we have the courage to tell Jesus the truth and follow him.

Thanks be to God.




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