Psalm 91:9-16; Mark 10:35-45
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Psalm 91 is one of the most beloved in the Bible. Most often we hear it read at the bedside of those who are ill. And, as we read the words, it’s not hard to imagine why this might be chosen as a source of comfort to the ailing. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty…because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him (says the Lord); I will protect him, because he knows my name.” Listening to these words, we might be tempted to think that God’s promise of refuge means that trials and tribulations will miraculously disappear for those who believe. I’m here with contradictory news. This is decidedly not so.
Now, I’ll be among the first to tell you that there’s no doubt that the Almighty is awfully good to have around when trouble comes knocking at your door; but notice that the text of the psalm (specifically, verse 15) says: “I am with him in trouble.” So, what we know is this—whether you call out to God or not, whether you are faithful, charitable, and kindly disposed to others—trouble (like death and taxes) will still arrive. Believing in God and having faith, isn’t some magical cure for avoiding trouble; nor is faith a form of denial, of refusing to acknowledge the tragedies which confront us. What Psalm 91 is telling us is that faith in God doesn’t promise us that either by belief or following the Almighty, we will avoid trouble. Instead, God promises us that God will be with us in trouble. And this, I tell you, is Good News. Several years ago, Lynn Anderson had a hit song you might recall, it’s called “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.” Think of this song as a theme for today’s readings.
Let’s take a look at the Gospel passage given us this morning. Right before today’s lesson, Mark describes Jesus clearly explaining to his disciples precisely what is going to happen to him. He’s pretty blunt, saying: “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; and they will treat him no better; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Really—it would be difficult to be clearer than this! And yet---immediately following this most-ominous of predictions—and really, if you think about it, it’s difficult to get more distressing than a statement of impending death, right after this we come to the lesson for today where we discover James and John, standing before Jesus with an audacious request, which goes something like this: “Can we have the number one and number two positions of power in the coming Jesus Administration?” Clearly, of all of the gifts (and they were many) that James and John possessed, humility wasn’t going to be listed in the top ten. I can imagine our Lord rolling his eyes toward heaven, taking a deep breath, and trying again. He says to them: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”; referencing here his coming death. James and John don’t seem to understand our Savior’s words, nor do they seem to grasp metaphorical allusions. Nothing, it seems, is going to quash their expectations of glory, and they respond with an ebullient “Of course we can.” At this point Jesus seems to have given up. He knows he’s talking to the wall. They still don’t get it, so Jesus shakes his head and says, “You will suffer and die, but honors are up to God, not me.” And we shake our head at the density of the disciples.
But here’s the other side of the story. Perhaps we should be a bit more charitable to James and John. Because, bear in mind that this moment in which they are approaching Jesus is, in fact, a time of crisis. Jesus has just announced that he is going to suffer and die—and, what do James and John do? Well, they think about themselves. They intuitively react with a request for self-protection. Not only do they ask for seats of glory, they do so apart from their companions, as if they believe that somehow glory is a commodity that is limited and there will not be enough to go around, and so they conclude that they better be about the business of elbowing the others out of the way so that they can get there first. No wonder the other disciples are angry. They see the writing on the wall. James and John are trying to edge them out—aiming for the luxury box behind home plate while everyone else is left scrambling for a spot in the grandstand.
So, ask yourself this…are you and I really all that different? When we feel under attack, afraid or anxious, isn’t the temptation to move toward higher ground—to stake a claim for self-protection? We give into our fears about scarcity, and begin to look around, seeing our companions as rivals rather than friends. We start stockpiling, hoarding, if you will—the days of scrambling to purchase toilet paper come to mind. We hold our money closer to our chest, we are thrifty with our time and our resources. We start scoping out the exit signs, making plans for a swift retreat. In short, we make the same mistake as James and John. We forget who it is that we serve. It’s a good question for us to ask ourselves: “Who do you serve?” The quick answer is that since the steward is not the owner of that which he or she manages, the answer can never be “me”. As followers of our Savior, stewards live not to be served, but to serve.
The Rev. David Lose writes: “Jesus invites (James and John) not just to re-imagine but actually to redefine their understanding of power, prestige, status and leadership. In this case he defines leadership as serving the needs of another. What this means is that glory comes not from individual accomplishment but from service.”
And what we know from Jesus is this: that in this service, in the act of following Christ, there will be times of suffering. Think about the worst you have been through. No matter how scared, lonely, lost and forsaken you have been, Jesus has been there. Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Jesus has been there? Have you ever wondered how you were going to make it one more day? Jesus has been there as well. And the promise of the Gospel is this; that where Jesus is now, we are going. The Gospel is that God brought Jesus through the dark places, through the suffering, to the other side of the cross. The Gospel—the Good News, is that God can and will carry you through as well. As the psalmist says so eloquently, God is with us in times of trouble.
So, consider this. God is not promising you, me, or anyone else a sweet walk through a rose garden. The path we’ve been called to follow as servants of our God is not an easy way forward. Ours is not a painless journey, there will be times when it is far from smooth sailing. To follow Jesus is to travel the way of the cross. But here is the good news—the finest of all the promises we have been given. The mystery of the Gospel is this—that it is precisely by following the Way of the Cross, that we discover the true peace of God, and, indeed, our hearts greatest joy. (paraphrased from The Rev. Delmer Chilton). In Jesus’ name. Amen.