Sermon on Mark 10:35-45 for Pentecost +21, Oct. 18, 2015
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.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 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?” 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; 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.“
Today we will be reflecting about the depth dimension of life and what it means for us personally and for our community. What do I mean by the depth dimension of life? Well, we could examine it in a couple of ways.
First, have you ever had that experience that I have, that you see yourself in the mirror, and at first you think, “is that really me?” There is a moment of uncanny oddness, that we both know ourselves better than anyone in the world will ever know us, and yet, a part of us remains a mystery. Sometimes I get the same feeling looking at old pictures of myself. Am I that person? And yet, I am. There is a depth dimension to my being that is both undeniable and unfathomable.
The same is true of our experience of other people, even people close to us. People surprise you; they are not who they seemed to be. You discover that there is something beneath the experience of our impressions of them. There is a depth dimension to everyone.
Our relationships with people reveal two qualities at once: both the amazing, life-giving, soul-filling power of people joined together, and yet the mysterious abyss that is the inner life of others, the depths of which we will never plumb in any complete sense.
Nature itself is not what it seems to be on the surface. We see trees and water, grass and sand, not molecules, nor electro-magnetism, and certainly not the weird quantum world. We do not see mathematical properties or Boson fields.
There is a depth dimension to nature. On the one hand, it can be terrifying in enormity and vastness, even dangerous and life threatening, and yet it supports and grounds our lives. Of course, at a surface level, we take from nature the resources that sustain our lives, but that is not all. We also encounter the vastness and beauty with wonder and awe. That too is the depth dimension to nature.
In fact, is it not true that we experience a depth dimension in every aspect of our lives? I think this is deep within our DNA. We experience life as more than the sum total of individual moments. Perhaps this is the experience of depth that gave our ancient pre-human ancestors the impetus to bury their dead.
The Depth Dimension in Suffering
One of the ways we encounter this depth dimension of life is by noticing what has brought us to this present moment; what has made us the people that we are now; what experiences have shaped our lives. Often, it has been the difficult straits we have passed though that have been occasions of growth.
Georgetown University professor John Haught, in his book “What is God?” suggests that after passing through great difficulty, there is often “a sense of contentment that transcends mere gratification” such that, people will report feeling grateful for having gone though the experience.
I do not mean to lump all suffering together and put a smiley face on it. Some suffering traumatizes people and causes permanent damage. Nevertheless, who has not had the sense that it was the struggles we went through, even the failures we experienced, that taught us, and formed us into the people we are today. There is a depth dimension even to tragedy.
Professor Haught suggests that this depth dimension is one way we should think of God. God is the depth dimension of life. Not directly experienced, but as the horizon of our experience.
Last week we spoke of the need to replace immature and literalist concepts of God, especially in this post-holocaust world, with more adequate concepts. This is one direction in which we might go. So, it is not that God is a being, separate and aloof from the world, but that the world exists in an through God, and God is known though the world of existence, as the depth dimension of that world. Perhaps we could say that God is prior to the category of existence.
A Discipleship-Failure Story
Now, returning to the depth insight: that we grow and learn through failure and difficulty, we come to this small piece of the story of the life of Jesus. This is what we call a discipleship-failure story. What is going on in this story? The disciples do not yet understand the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus has been teaching about. They are still stuck in the literalist phase. That is always inadequate, if not entirely mistaken.
So, thinking of a literal kingdom, they want top rank in the ruling cabinet. James and John want to sit on the left and right of the throne. This is so tragic on so many levels. It is not just that they misunderstand the kingdom – that they do not get that the kingdom of God is already present, and everywhere present, precisely where God’s “will is done on earth as it is in heaven” – as the Lord’s prayer teaches.
But at a deeper level, James and John make the classic mistake that, Jesus says, all the “gentiles” that is, unenlightened people, make. They think that life is about power and status, prestige and control. Jesus says,
“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.”
It is true, a great many people live their entire lives believing that their titles, their roles, their social standing and their assets are themselves. They think their family, their tribe, their nation or race or religion define them. These are the important to establish, to give us an adequate sense of our selves, but they are only the project of the first half of life.
It is simply not true, it never has been true, that these are enough, and thinking they are has only led to frustration and suffering. All of those ways of identifying ourselves are what Richard Rohr calls our “false self” or our “small self.” None of them goes to our core. Except for the people, anything that we would loose if our cruise ship capsized, and left us stranded alone on an island are in that category of the false self.
The small, false self is the self that is forever comparing and competing with other selves, for approval, for recognition, and for control. This is the self that gets offended.
As we grow, in what Rohr calls the second half of life, we become aware of the depth dimension of life. We recognized that our lives are grounded in an essential way that would still be true on that island alone, still true on our death beds, still true in a tragedy. That even without all of those other ego supports, there is an ultimate ground to our existence. Religion simply names it; we call that ultimate grounding God.
Learning the Jesus Path
So James and John are still living in the first half of life, wanting control, and when the other disciples hear of it, their small selves get offended; it is all about comparing and competing for them, still, so Jesus has to gently nudge them towards a deeper understanding.
“whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus did not just come to help isolated individuals, he came to form communities. Notice that the whole story of Jesus is the story of Jesus forming a community of people. We call them the disciples. There were twelve in the inner circle, but we also know that the circle grew and included women and children. The story is told as a journey story. They literally followed Jesus on his path, as he taught them what it means to be a fully alive, authentic person.
He taught them, as in this lesson, with words, but he also taught them by his life. He was different. Unlike others, and contrary to expectations, he was radically at home with people of all sorts. He seemed to go out of his way to be a welcoming, gracious presence to the people who had been marginalized or excluded, to the suffering ones, the overlooked ones.
All of this was a lesson in how the new community could be. Instead of being a community of comparison and competition, this could be a community of self-giving service. A community of people who recognized the depth dimension of life and knew that they were ultimately grounded in God, and therefore were free to love, to give, to serve, even suffer for each other.
It is exactly in those times of openness to each other and service to each other that we experience the depth dimension of the presence of God. When two or three are gathered, when a cup of water is shared, when we use the gifts God has given us to serve each other, something of that abyss of the mystery of ourselves and others falls away, and we experience the divine. When the least of these are served, the spirit of Christ is present. When the stranger is welcomed as guest, God is there.
When people gather to share about their lives together, as we have been doing on Wednesday evenings, amazing things happen. When people get together to paint a house, God is there. When people step up and lead projects of mercy to the refugees fleeing Syria and other terrible situations, God is there. When people share gifts of music or teach our children or help kids with their homework, or volunteer on a Habitat house, God is present.
The Jesus path is not trouble free. Jesus tells James and John that they will drink a cup of suffering and be baptized with a baptism of pain; that is true for all of us. But being grounded in the depth dimension of life, we can wait, in those times of suffering, with trust. Being grounded in God, we can, as Jesus showed us, even face our death with the confidence that we are in supported by “everlasting arms.”
And as a community of God-grounded people on the Jesus path who trust in the depth dimension of life, we are there for each other in our times of tragedy, in our suffering, and even at our deaths.