Rev. Jessica Palys
Have you ever been on a group road trip or carpooling and before you even got to the car, someone calls: Shotgun! Such a drag, isn’t it? Now you’re stuck in the back… maybe even in the middle back… today’s scripture is a little like that.
Today’s scripture passage marks the third time Jesus clearly and directly tells his disciples that he is on his way to Jerusalem to be handed over to the human authorities to be tortured, crucified, and to rise again. And today’s passage is the third time that they just absolutely miss it.
Two chapters back, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, and then begins to tell them about his suffering and betrayal - only to be rebuked by Peter. And then in the next chapter, Jesus tells them again and all they can argue about is who is greatest. And now, again, Jesus pulls them aside to inform them that they are already underway to Jerusalem where he will be handed over, tortured, and killed. And not 2 minutes later, two of his disciples approach with a favor.
While it’s difficult to imagine the patience Jesus must endure to bring the message of God’s kingdom to people who can’t seem to fathom it, it’s not hard to imagine what curse words Jesus might have said - at least in his head. I mean, I know he was perfect, but according to Mark’s gospel, he was also frustrated!
The only thing we know about James and John, sons of Zebedee, is that they were fisherman that were called to follow Jesus on the shoreline. After they were called, Zebedee remained in the boat with the ‘hired men’ - perhaps meaning Zebedee was wealthy enough to employ other people. Is that why they have the gall to try to procure their favor from Jesus, to secure their fate? Little do they realize that the one to the right and the left of Jesus in his ‘glory’ are criminals gasping for air on a cross.
Why can’t the disciples hear the news Jesus is telling them?
Is it denial?
Is it how we react to bad news? Stick our head in the sand and act like we don’t hear it?
Is it ego?
Is it being so focused on what we want that it affects our ability to hear what others are saying?
Is it a fear reaction? Is it uncertainty about the future that causes them to separate themselves from the others by asking for a place at Jesus’ right and Jesus’ left?
Fear certainly fosters anxiety and makes us move towards self-protection. It also seems to make us move to secrecy, as the disciples did when they made sure to ask this of Jesus when they were well apart from the other disciples, so as not to be overheard asking for their way or trying to put themselves first. They seem to know it’s a bad idea because before they even ask, they ask Jesus to say yes - to ‘Do anything that we ask of you’. It reminds me of when kids go ask Dad when Mom has already said no.
But the thing I seized on - besides the disciples absolutely missing the point - was way the other disciples must have felt. These people have been recruited to be followers of Jesus, they have been adopted as part of a new type of family, they have been ordained to build a new kind of community - a Kingdom community. And the community of Jesus is radically egalitarian. The community of Jesus shares and cares for all. The community of Jesus requires that the last is first and the first is last. Belonging to this community of Jesus means you value your neighbor, your family member, as much as you value yourself. That is not to say that it is easy, to live in this kingdom-building community. But there are foundational values; the community trusts the assumption that everyone shares the values of radical egalitarian generosity, of putting the other one first - not seeking your own glory.
Is it any wonder how the other disciples respond? The other disciples are angry! They recognize how James and John are succumbing to the temptations towards greed, status and domination rather than Kingdom values. They see that James and John are trying to edge them out. But Jesus reminds 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.
In community organizing training, we like to talk about the different aspects of power. In groups like MORE2, the goal is to build power. But it’s a different kind of power. Jesus says here, the world as it is wants you to accept domination power - power over, like rulers lord it over the gentiles. But in organizing, we talk about building power with - power in solidarity, power in community. The world as it is employs the domination system of power over others, and James and John are being lured by that power. But Jesus is taking about a completely different kind of community where the community gains power with others - where you gain strength because you see your humanity in others, where you build friends and allies - which is difficult to do from the front seat if you’ve called shotgun and already created division and resentment!
However, that doesn’t mean there won't be tension. Following Jesus isn’t some pollyanna situation where everyone does everything in unity. That doesn’t mean conflict doesn’t exist. I just finished reading a book - on Peter Luckey’s recommendation - called High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, but Amanda Ripley. Ripley says conflict itself can be a good thing, that it can be productive by advocating for our dreams. At its best, it allows adversaries to understand each other’s motivations and strike compromise. In her words, “…It’s a force that pushes us to be better people. Good conflict is not the same thing as forgiveness—or unity. It can be stressful and heated, but our dignity remains intact. Good conflict does not collapse into caricature. These days, we need more good conflict, not less.”
Ripley’s book takes aim at extreme conflict, the kind that’s present not just in our political system but in our everyday lives, family conversations, and scrolling through facebook these days. She calls it High Conflict, and its different “from the useful friction of healthy conflict” because it has a tendency to flatten the opposing side. We start to see nothing but the issue, and the other person only as the physical representation of the thing we disagree with. The other person becomes an enemy and every action or development that happens becomes a ‘win’ or a ‘lose’ situation. This is much too often where we find ourselves today - focused on the win, seeing others as our enemies, and jockeying for position, hoping for the front seat.
As an organizer, I recognize the value of working through conflict and see the benefits of tension. As we like to say in organizing, change brings movement, movement brings friction, friction brings heat; these are all factors of progress. Conflict and tension are uncomfortable. Our general human tendency is to avoid conflict, but that risks sticking our head in the sand, or refusing to listen, or giving into fear. Talking through conflict, working through it together, actually makes us stronger. And to do that, we must have trust, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt, and we must approach it with a focus on the servanthood of putting the first last, and the last first.
Ripley gives a few clues as to how to avoid falling into high conflict. One is to ‘investigate the understory’ - as in, learn the story of the person you disagree with, and why they care so much. Try not to see an adversary in a binary lens where there is a flat win and lose, but rather inflate the disagreement to see all aspects of the situation - and your opponent. This, she calls, ‘complicating the narrative’ rather than looking at a black and white issue. And she suggests taking time and making space to calm nerves and consider the dilemma. The goal, she says, is to “get to a place where we can tolerate disagreeing with some grace. We cannot ever change eachothers’ mind even on little things if we can’t understand what’s driving behavior.”
We all know that congregational decisions and church family dynamics are just a microcosm of the world at large, and all the ways we fail to live together as God would have us do. Coming together to make hard decisions about serious things, like our worship, our fellowship, our building, and our future, are challenging things. But consensus building through tension and disagreement actually make us a stronger church family. The promise of our kingdom-building gospel is that in service and sacrifice to others, a higher and better self will emerge in us. When we center ourselves in trust for others’ intentions in the spirit of service to each other, the kingdom of God will continue to unfold in our midst. Belonging means we serve each other, to some extent. Belonging to this kingdom-building community means making an effort not to put some ahead of others. Putting the other first in the spirit of service is transformative, both within ourselves and within community. It strengthens our belonging to each other.
I saw a post of Facebook recently, written by a man named Sharad Yadav, a minister who seemed at least as frustrated as Jesus in our passage today. But after long deliberation and disillusions, he posted 19 reasons on why someone should still join a church. (I’m only sharing a few to avoid sharing too many of his thoughts, but I shared the full list on my facebook page.):
1. To join a church is to commit to a social circle you do not get to choose, which therefore does not try to flatter you
2. Joining a church is a way of practicing - among a small group of people over a significant period of time - what you’d like the world to be like
4. Joining a church is to organize your life around a time to confess your limitations, culpability and imperfections together with other people so that you can get used to receiving divine and human forgiveness in response to your honesty.
10. Joining a church is a life lesson in how to deal with adversaries (he didn’t use the word adversary) without retaliating, dehumanizing or running away (in the desperate hope of not becoming an adversary)
In short, participation in a church family seems to be a strong exercise in humility - and really, in this world that glorifies everything from ostentatious wealth to exploitation of the poor to calculating political leaders to nonsense ‘influencers’ - that may be the most important exercise we have to let our best self emerge. May our exercise in congregational life this morning bring forward our best selves. May the kingdom of God unfold in our midst this day, and in our future congregational life together. Amen.