October 21, 2018 Doug Norris (Mark 10 :35-45)
So let me make an introduction for you. James and John. You’ve just met them in the story here, and I’m going to see, over the next few minutes, if something about their story has something to say about our stories, our practices.
We could think of these two brothers as the Doug Ford and Rob Ford of the Jesus movement. Impetuous, brash, prone to displays of power. They were the first two people Jesus beckoned, on the shore of the lake, the sons of Zebedee. In a blink they left their father’s business and joined the movement. In another instance, when the small band of disciples was not treated hospitably by a Samaritan village they eagerly asked Jesus “Can we call down some fire upon their heads?? Can we?” Jesus nicknamed them ‘the sons of thunder’. So there is a history of misunderstanding, odd behaviour, they are evidence that this first group of people to gather around Jesus were not necessarily all calm quiet saintly figures.
So perhaps Jesus is not surprised when they come up next to him with a proposal, as we heard. Suggesting that they should be, when the time comes, his inner cabinet. They were expecting to be part of a new world order, a regime change, this was one of the very compelling versions of the Jewish renewal movements of the time, and not unrealistic for them to think that once Jesus was installed as the new ruler, they would be at his right hand and his left hand. In positions of power.
So it was a teaching moment for Jesus, and then in choosing to include the story, a teaching moment for Mark, and now for us.
Goes like this, Jesus says – here’s what we are about : not to rise high, but to kneel ; not to kill, but to die, not masters but servants, not to grasp and clench but to release ; not position but humility. Are you up for this? Are you in? Can you drink the cup I will drink?
You have heard, he said, that among the nations, the rulers excercise power over their people, but it is not so among you… It is to be different among you. Different among us. And a defining distinctness for us will be how we use power.
Here is one of the enduring conversations, a perennial debate in the churches – our relationship to the culture. Is it best if we fit right in, look as familiar as possible, be as accessible as possible? Or is it our distinctness, our awkward-otherness that will be our strength?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
It is said of many churches like ours that we are ‘civic’ churches, that to be part of this is essentially part of good citizenship. That we preside over well mannered rituals and life passages, encourage charity and peaceful relations, and generally don’t rock the boat. We try to accommodate to the general values of society, and are ‘soft’ on dogma, so as to be as available to as many people as possible. In what we have come to call ‘Christendom’ the churches have lived near the centre, and fit in very nicely. In exchange we were granted for a long time, places at the centre. Authority, respect, some power. Which we have not always used graciously. The United Church has been a champion for many important causes, but we also ran residential schools and were often cheerleaders in times of war. We have been ambivalent about being a distinct voice.
Other churches take distinctness very seriously. In the Anabaptist traditions, which we would know as the Mennonites, Quakers, the Amish, the church was to be a contrast society, hearing the words of Jesus ‘It is not so among you…’ It is different with you. These churches were consciously uncompromising, lived with singular values and practices, refusing to take part in violence, resisting military service, and as a result were not easily co-opted by the culture, and so were persecuted. They did not fit in.
In the1980’s I spent a couple days in a Quaker peace camp, a non-violent protest at the edge of an RAF base in the UK, north of Cambridge. Molesworth. A small peaceful camp as a witness against the arms escalation. And my first role was to go to the village and get some food and beer, as the locals would not serve the Quakers, and would not serve me if they knew I was with them.
One of the main ways in which churches either lived near the centre or lived as a contrast, an alternative, has been the use of power.
We are easily drawn into the large conversations about power. We are easily provoked into the many geo-political situations where we long to change things. Hunger and poverty chafe at our conscience, we are angry at the apparent brutality of the Saudis, and children in cages at the Mexican border, the unliveable minimum wages here at home… So we write letters to editors and maybe take up a placard at Queen’s Park And a risk is the rising helplessness we experience. Power to make a difference seems very elusive. We used to have the ear of politicians and now we don’t. James and John have been ushered to the edge of the camp.
But I think where it could really land is much more accessible. Here’s what I’ve got : Within a day or an hour of leaving here there will have been a moment where you’ll have the option to use your power or to set it aside. In a conversation, in traffic, at work, at home… To act in a new way.
This power in us, this voltage, this fire, this breath, does not come from us, we don’t manufacture it, it moves through us, life and holiness rising in us, our work is to choose where we direct it. Toward ourselves or toward the other.
So the daily work is to watch, to listen, as a power rises in us, and to know when we see it the moment to kneel when we could rise, to give when we could take, to bend when we could be obstinate, to know, when we could for a moment rule and direct, to simply serve. And this will be the greatness, Jesus sys. This will be our greatness. We are pilgrims on a journey….