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They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

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.’

Mark 10:32-45, NRSV

Preached Sunday, January 28, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman

Life is getting real for Jesus and the disciples. For a third time Jesus has told them what’s coming—that he will die and rise again. And for a third time, the disciples totally miss the point. The first time he says it—that he’s heading toward Jerusalem and a cross—Peter has just proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah for the first time. But then, upon hearing Jesus’ prophetic words, Peter rebukes him. “Get behind me, Satan.” Remember that?

Then, a chapter later, he tells his disciples again of what’s to come, but the disciples, instead of taking Jesus at his word, totally miss the point and begin arguing about who’s the greatest. And now, for a third time they hear Jesus tell them what’s to come—the repetition in Mark of this prediction indicates its weight, its significance—and, for a third time, the disciples totally miss it.

You know, if I’m honest, that gives me hope. I mean in some churches, these very disciples who miss the point time and again are considered Saints today.  And I find that promising because God knows I miss the point all the time.

But in typical Jesus fashion, Jesus takes the disciples’ misunderstanding and uses it to teach—to teach both them and us. Now there are two main lessons in this passage. The obvious and dominant one is about service—about who we serve and how we serve. Jesus takes our common perception of power and greatness and turns it on its head. Greatness isn’t about having power and lording over people—it’s about serving. The greek for servant is diakonos, where we get our word Deacon as in, Deacon of the Day. But in Jesus’ time, there was a service below diakonos on the social ladder and that was doulos—slave. Jesus tells us to be great, we don’t just have to be servant to all, but slave to all. Now I don’t know about you, but that does’t sound like what I signed up for. I mean, I’m glad to do service—to take care of folks. But everyone’s slave? I don’t know about that.

The second lesson is really the first if we go in order of the scripture, but its entirely dependent on this teaching about being the servant.  And it starts with this question: are you able?

Jesus is trying to get his disciples to think more deeply about what it is they’re asking for, about what their priorities really are. He’s trying to help them grasp the depth of what’s at stake, the significance of it all. “Are you able to drink the cup?” he asks. “Are you able to be baptized with my baptism?” The question he asks isn’t can you be baptized or can you drink the cup. It’s are you able. There’s question of willingness implied: can I do something is not the same as am I willing to do something. And James and John jump at the chance to answer his question: “We are able,” they exclaim.

Jesus’ question of ability is at the crux of our faith. It’s not a question asked in terms of physical or mental capability. In fact, I would say “are you able?” is the central question of our faith. Nearly every other turning point in our journey of faith is facilitated with or confronted by this singular question. Are we able to believe it? Are we able to follow? Are we able to serve? Are we able to drink the cup? Are we able to be baptized with the same baptism? Are we able to be healed? Are we able to hope? Are we able to grieve? Are we able to proclaim? Are we able to journey? And, as we move toward Holy Week, toward Good Friday and that cursed cross, and toward the glory of Easter—are we able to walk with Jesus in the dark days and the light ones? Are we able to watch at the foot of the cross? Are we able to sit with the women outside the tomb? Are we able to find that tomb empty the next day? Are we able?

But here’s the thing, this question—are we able?—isn’t dependent on our faith, it’s dependent on our willingness. There are days that I don’t know if I believe it all, if I buy it all. I know I don’t get it all. But I’m willing—I’m willing to believe it and buy and get it. And for so many of us today, I think that could be a turning point—not flipping a switch a believing it right now, but finding the willingness to believe it first—a willingness to see things the God does—not through rose-tinted glasses, but through God-tinted ones.

After I studied in Copenhagen for five months, I backpacked through France and Spain for a month before coming home. And during those six months away, I took three books. I took my Aunt Jane’s Bible. I took a book of poetry by Rumi—a 13th century Persian poet and mystic who once wrote, “I walk into the Muslim mosque, the Jewish synagogue, and the Christian church, and see the same God.” And a book of poems by Mary Oliver, my singularly favorite American poet. Oliver and Rumi were tossed in my daypack and went with me everywhere. It’s a powerful moment to sit in the parks of Nimes with Roman ruins and wild grass surrounding you, read her words:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Since then, I’ve been a faithful follower of Oliver who at 82, is still writing new work. And I recently stumbled across this poem from her most recent collection, Felicity. It’s a poem about expectation and order, about questioning how things are and wondering what it means to think in a new way. And it’s a poem about willingness. So today, it’s what I leave you with—that and the promise of your own willingness, the one that lives deep within you and will guide you home.

The World I live In by Mary Oliver

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs;
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway.
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.

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