Sunday, October 22, 2006

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, will you do us a favor?"
36Jesus asked them what they wanted, 37and they answered, "When you come into your glory, please let one of us sit at your right side and the other at your left." [a]
38Jesus told them, "You don't really know what you're asking! Are you able to drink from the cup [b] that I must soon drink from or be baptized as I must be baptized?" [c]
39"Yes, we are!" James and John answered.
Then Jesus replied, "You certainly will drink from the cup from which I must drink. And you will be baptized just as I must! 40But it isn't for me to say who will sit at my right side and at my left. That is for God to decide."
41When the ten other disciples heard this, they were angry with James and John. 42But Jesus called the disciples together and said:
You know that those foreigners who call themselves kings like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over the people they rule. 43But don't act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. 44And if you want to be first, you must be everyone's slave. 45The Son of Man did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who will give his life to rescue [d] many people.

If anyone questions the idea that Canada is ruled by a small political elite, you need only cite the fact that the two front runners in the current Liberal leadership race were roommates in college. While most roommates were fighting about who bought the beer or who last took out the trash, Bob and Michael were apparently arguing (in perfect French) whether Quebec should be described as a ‘nation.’

Leadership races are complex things. The nature of the race is tied to the recent history of the party, but also includes perennial features that no race can avoid. As a party out of power, you look for an outsider, someone who has some distance on the recently punished regime. But not too much distance, of course, because the party continues to be made up of people who were loyal to the former leader and may still have tender feelings. Then there is the traditions: every other leader must come from Quebec, while any leader you choose must have enough French to eloquently take on separatists in Quebec because they have brilliant French.

Finally, the aspiring leader must insist they can represent the long tradition of the party while pointing out all the ways in which the party must change. They need to seem “leader-like” without appearing power-hungry. You have to give off the vibe that you are doing everyone a favour by running, and that it was hardly your idea in the first place. At the same time you need to make sure everyone knows that failing to choose you will lead to disaster.

“Teacher,” they said, “we’ve been rivals since college and we need to know: who will get to be leader and who will be deputy-leader when the seats of glory are handed out?”

“Now wait a minute,” Jesus said, “can you drink from the cup I will drink or undergo the baptism I will undergo?

And of course they said yes, naively unaware that the cup was the cup of suffering and the baptism was a baptism that meant death and only then new life. Meanwhile, the other leadership hopefuls, the fringe candidates and the ones with imperfect French began to get mad. They too wanted a shot at the seats of glory, imagining that all this desert wandering had to lead somewhere, and that if Jesus was indeed the King of Glory, then anything was possible.

Jesus answered all of them like this: we’re not like other parties. We don’t elect leaders that act like kings and rule the party like the head of an Alberta think-tank. We elect servant-leaders. If you want to be leader, you must be everyone’s servant first. Follow my lead, Jesus said, I didn’t come to assume the leadership of the party, but rather to be the first to give up everything for the sake of all people.


Imagine teaching a new idea that is really a very old idea and knowing that the people listening will bristle at the suggestion and find all sorts of ways to avoid the thought. Imagine that the suggestion runs counter to the “ways of the world” and may prove to be so unpopular that it would drive away the very people you hope to attract.

On Thursday evening, the Rev. Anthony Robinson, author and leadership theorist, spend some time describing a recent book and recounting some of the ways the book has been received. His book is called “What’s Theology Got to Do with It? It concerns the role of theological understanding in developing vital congregations. But before I talk about the theological idea that links Anthony Robinson and Mark 10, I need illuminate a bit of a divide.

If you gathered a group of church leaders, clergy and lay, and asked them to assemble a tool kit for transforming congregations, they would throw in any number of items: demographics and social analysis, for understanding our neighbourhood; a glance at pop culture to discover what engages people or what music they enjoy; a crash-course in welcoming to make sure we don’t blow the few chances we get at meeting new people brave enough to enter the building; a general toning-down of whatever may seem unsettling (get your minister to stop preaching against the banks).

Nowhere did you hear “explain complex theological ideas” or “teach people about the tradition” or “remind people that discipleship is costly and meant to be unpleasant at times.” You don’t hear it from the pews and you rarely hear it from the pulpit. It is easier to remind you to be good people and get you home by lunchtime.

At one of Rev. Robinson’s public lectures, a woman in the audience asked, “what about the idea of submission, no one ever talks about submission anymore.” You can imagine the uncomfortable silence. Imagine it first at some unspecified gathering and the words of the questioner lingering in air and then imagine it again at Ebenezer on Thursday night and the same question hanging in air as we waited to see how our guest answered the questioner.

“Submission to God,” he said, “means we submit to no other earthly authority.”

It was a tough sell. It was a tough sell precisely because teachers and leaders have spent the last forty years making Christianity more “user-friendly.” Less theology, fewer creeds, few rules, little or no certainty. We made ourselves distinct by lowering the bar to participation to the point where very few people participate. We made ourselves distinct by claiming to have more questions than answers and then one by one no longer posing the difficult questions. If the rule of thumb is that greater expectation leads to greater commitment, we took the opposite tack. And I can tell you from personal experience what happens when you pick the wrong tack. You watch the others sail away.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: we went to theological college to learn the things we could not no longer say with certainty. Don’t tell anyone I told you. It is our little secret. We also went to theological college to learn about congregations as “systems” to be adjusted or manipulated in order to get the best possible outcome. I must be in a truth-telling mood. Maybe I should stop. We also learned that congregational failure was most likely the failure of the congregation and that ministers were “set apart” and could only be expected to do so much with the raw material they are given.

“Submission to God,” Anthony Robinson said, “means we submit to no other earthly authority.”
Jesus was trying to teach the disciples about God’s way. God’s way had nothing to do with hierarchy and status and everything to do with following God’s will. It has to do with serving others as a means to serve God. It has to do with submitting to God’s desire for our lives rather than submitting to the desire that the world has for us. It was to do with being servant of all rather than being a leader over all.

Ultimately Jesus asked James and John to explain where on earth they got the idea that being a disciple meant getting some reward. Where did they get the idea that they were the top two of twelve and deserved the best seats at he banquet? And how on earth did they miss the lesson that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus said it often enough, so they had to have heard it. Submission to God means that we reject the world’s desire to label everything greatest, first and best. Submission to God means we serve God before we serve the marketplace, or popular opinion, or the way things have always been done. Submission to God means we belong to God alone, and all other relationships are subordinate to the one we share with the source of all life.

If we’re going to make this thing work, and if we’re going to submit to God’s desire for this congregation, then we will need to start by working together. We toil in this vineyard together, and no one has all the answers. Ministers need to let go of a desire to “fix” congregations and look to them instead as a source of wisdom and learning. Congregations need to stop expecting ministers to “fix” things and discover the wisdom and knowledge they already possess. Together they need to do some theology. What does it mean to submit to God? Can we say that Jesus is the Lord of our lives and the Head of this church? What if we never took our eye off the cup we must share and the baptism we must experience? May God bless us as we answer these questions together. Amen.


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