Sunday, October 18, 2009

Proper 24

Mark 10
35James 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.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But 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?” 39They 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; 40but 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.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In Oceans Eleven (1960), a group of army buddies (led by Frank Sinatra) reunite to rob the Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, and The Flamingo in one night.

In The Italian Job (1969), Michael Caine and his group of lads try to steal 4 millions dollars of gold from Fiat in Turin. 2003 remake is an abomination, never see it.

In Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), a group of car thieves reunite to save one of their own by stealing 60 high-end cars in a single evening.

In Oceans Eleven (2001), a group of career thieves led by George Clooney and Brad Pitt gather to rob the Bellagio, The Mirage and the MGM Grand.

In The Perfect Score (2004), the thieves are teenagers, trying to steal the answers to the standardized college admission test (SAT) and get the perfect score.

The genre “caper film” has a fairly standard plot, demonstrated by each of the films named. The first act is the planning stage, where the crew is assembled based on expertise and the unique needs of the job. Next, there is the heist stage, where the job happens with one or more glitches. In the third and final act, things unravel completely and eventually the story is resolved: a bus full of gold teeters on the edge of the Alps or a Mustang named Eleanor foils our hero once more.*

I think there is a story in the fact that in 1960 crime in film was not allowed to pay and now it can and does. But that is a whole other sermon. For today, I want to look at Mark’s Gospel as a “caper film,” where a group of buddies assemble to pull an ancient near-eastern heist.

The story begins with assembling an appropriate team. Jesus starts with fishermen: "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men and woman.” From this core he begins the work of travelling about and driving out demons while he continues to build his team. When the last apostle is called and anointed, he begins to instruct them. He uses parables such as the Sower Who Went Out to Sow and the Mustard Seed to outline his plan, and the action begins.

In the second act of Mark’s Gospel, the troubles begin. The apostles argue amongst themselves regarding who is the greatest. They try to stop others from healing and driving out demons in Jesus’ name. And they try to stop the little children seeking a blessing. In the final glitch in an otherwise perfect caper, James and John go rogue.

Of course, this is a common element to the caper film. Following the cliché “no honour among thieves,” James and John decide that they want the seats of honour in the life to come. They approach Jesus in an almost childlike way and say, “please say yes to the thing we are about to ask.” Not falling for it, Jesus demands to know what they want. When they tell him that they want a greater share of the heavenly loot, Jesus says, “Do you know what you’re asking? Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

James and John claim they can. Jesus insists that the seats of honour are not his to give, and the whole group descends into conflict. Jesus finally regains control of the group by telling them how other heists have failed. Usually a strongman takes charge and “lords it over the others,” but Jesus won’t allow that to happen. They have to work together, he insists, by serving each other and being willing to die for the rest.


Before I reveal the ending to this caper, there is one more element we need to address. As the history of the church unfolds, we find rings of development. First Jesus, then the twelve, then the others, then Paul and his fellow evangelists, then the early church and so on. The rings expand, yet the centre remains. Our task as believers is to look back and take our cue from the twelve and Paul and those that followed, but especially the twelve. They stand in for us: we are them in the story, and they have much to tell us about ourselves.

Now, it makes sense that believers would look to the scriptures of their religion to learn how to behave. It would seem logical to include the norms and standards required to live a life of faith. This would explain the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commandment, the Great Commission and all those parables.

Where the logic fails is in the foolishness of the disciples. Or the problems of David, Israel’s greatest king. Or the scheming of Jacob. Or Peter, the rock on which Jesus builds his church, who cannot admit he knows the Lord when the fateful moment comes.

So you have great goals and great teaching and very flawed actors moving through the narrative, showing warts and all. I can tell you that this puzzles non-believers and makes them crazy. They want us to pass the “hypocrite test,” where words are matched by actions. Sadly this does not happen. How do I know? The Bible tells me so.

From the first narrative (Hey Eve, aren’t you gonna share that delicious looking apple?) to the last (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) human failure is at the centre of the story and serving God does not cure human failure, it only puts it into perspective. Of course they wanted to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in glory, because the human story has always been best hope and least result.

Best hope, least result and our God’s seemingly infinite capacity to forgive. Thanks be to God.

Wait! What about act three, and the ancient near-eastern heist. How will the story end? I will tell you. And with all good caper films, it may delight you and have you leave the theatre shaking your head and wondering how they managed to pull it off. Here we go:

In the final act of the story, Jesus makes a triumphant entry, clears the temple, shares a final meal and faces trial. He is crucified, dies and is buried in a borrowed tomb. On the third day the angel says to the women, “He has risen! He is not here.”

In the end, Jesus and his followers are successful in stealing two of the assumptions that made the Roman world work. Imagine the world altering scope of defeating these two ideas. Caesar sat secure on his throne, and didn’t even know that the caper worked and the thieves had carried off the two things that were more valuable than all his gold: The assumption that things will never change and that this is all there is.

Sure Caesar had legions and roads and fortification, but his most powerful weapon was the belief that his position was secure and that the power of Rome would never face defeat. If things will never change, there is no point in trying, no point in working for change. But on the cross everything changed, Jesus gained power by giving up his life and became greatest of all by being least of all: dying as a criminal on the cross. When the people learned that in weakness there is strength, everything changed.

Same for the second assumption, that this is all there is. If this is all there is, there is no point seeking more, or trying to remake yourself, because there would be no point. Rome offered a pantheon of gods, including Caesar himself, and collectively they were supposed to provide for every eventuality. Bad crop, we have a god for that. Bad fertility, we have a god for that. Bad party, we have a god for that. But a God willing to lay down his life for you, to suffer and die that the whole of human experience might be known in heaven as it is on earth? No, only we have a God for that.

Jesus and his band of hapless rogues stole and destroyed the two things that Rome needed most to rule: hopelessness and resignation. Without them, we became free to see a new world and a new future, thanks be to God. Amen.



Post a Comment

<< Home