“This cup?!” Isaiah 53:4-12, Mark 10:35-45 10/18/15
It was my kids who first introduced me to the game of “shotgun” when one or the other would shout out “shotgun!” as we headed to the car. Michael Scott, a character on the TV show, “The Office” explains the rules: “The rules of ‘shotgun’ are very simple. The first person to call shotgun when in sight of the vehicle gets to sit in the front seat.” No shotguns were ever held by the person sitting in the passenger seat in my car, but the term comes from stagecoach days when the person sitting next to the driver did carry a shotgun to ward off bandits or animals.
James and John essentially were calling “shotgun!” as Mark Davis[leftbehindandlovingit, 10/16/12] suggests, in this passage from Mark which Ted just read for us. They wanted to sit at Jesus’ “right hand” when he came into his “glory.” Yeah, right. Jesus has just told his disciples, for the third time, if anybody’s counting, that what lies ahead for him is arrest and suffering and death, before being raised. Each time he says this, the disciples respond with something stupid. The first time, Peter rebukes Jesus, saying this must never happen, and Jesus turns around and rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan.” The second time Jesus tells them he’s headed for suffering, the disciples argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest. And here, after the third time Jesus tells them what’s ahead, James and John essentially shout out, “Shotgun!” It bears a remarkable resemblance to a gang of adolescent boys.
All the disciples can think about is “glory,” assuming it’s like the glory that the Romans or Greeks talked about–the great, powerful leader sitting at the head of the table, or on the throne, and those closest to him, the ones most likely to be next in line to be in charge, sat next to him. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” James and John ask of Jesus, in the time-honored tradition of asking for a “boon.” 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.”
“Be careful what you ask for,” Jesus essentially told them. Just like King Herod offered Herodias, the mother of the beautiful dancer Salome, to ask of him anything she wanted, and was appalled to hear her request for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, so the disciples really have no idea what they are asking for. And Jesus says so–“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?” And, perhaps because we are overhearing this conversation a couple thousand years after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight, we are more than a little startled to hear them say immediately, “We are able.”
“OK,” Jesus says, “you will drink of my cup and be baptized with the same baptism, but your place in glory in not mine to give.” It’s God’s glory, actually, that Jesus will enter, and it’s not the same as Caesar’s glory, or even the high priest’s glory. It’s not that the system in place is essentially good, but just the wrong people are sitting at the head table. Jesus is talking about a radically new vision, where there isn’t even a head table. And the entrance ticket isn’t cheap.
It’s probably too easy to call the disciples dull or “stupid” for not getting what Jesus was telling them. Maybe they weren’t all that power-hungry, maybe they got it, but were just afraid. And you know, and I know, how fear can blind us. It can make us violate all sorts of values we hold dear when we’re not afraid. [Kate Huey, sermonseeds, 10/18/15] It’s not by accident that these three stories of Jesus’ predicting his impending suffering are bracketed by stories of the blind being healed and restored to sight–first the blind man at Bethsaida, cured in stages, and then the healing of blind Bartimaeus.
But given the choice, who of us–what healthy person, for that matter–would choose the way of suffering?, for that is indeed the cup Jesus would drink–the cup of suffering and death. And who would choose to be servant–or slave–of all? Maybe I don’t even want to be on this stagecoach, let alone riding shotgun. The way of martyrdom–of being willing to die for a cause or on behalf of others–is the path taken by people like Jesus, and Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but what about the rest of us, most of us?
The late Marcus Borg is helpful in understanding what this kind of dying might mean. He talks about the “dying of self as the center of its own concern” and “a dying to the world as the center of security and identity.” (In Jesus: A New Vision) “That kind of dying,” he says, “leads to transformation…a dying to the old life and being born into a new life.” “Second Cong. Church–Changing Lives since 1865.” That kind of transformation happens to us. It’s not something we accomplish.
If you’ve ever gotten up in the middle of the night to comfort or feed a crying child, you have experienced this kind of dying. If you’ve ever cared for an aging parent, or lived with a difficult partner, or supported a difficult church member or neighbor, you have experienced this kind of dying, this costly outpouring of your own life on behalf of another. It can mean sacrificially giving of your resources to a cause or concern or church that you believe is doing the work of bringing about Jesus’ radical vision of the reign of God. This is the Way of Jesus. This is the way of dying and rising to new life.
“You know,” Jesus told his disciples, “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.” How this grates against our pride in being independent, autonomous, self-made men and women! Who wants to be a servant, tied, as it were, to another person? But, of course, as the great theologian Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody.” Or something. “You will either willingly even joyfully serve others,” Lutheran pastor David Lose writes, “or you will become a slave to your illusions that you can be free and secure your future through status and power (or, in our day, wealth or youth or fame or possessions, and so on.). [inthemeantime, 10/13/15]
The Way of Jesus is not one of seeking out suffering and death for their own sake [that’s called “masochism”]; but it is the Way of accepting suffering and death as part of life in which God is present as fully, sometimes even more so, than on the smooth paths and times of celebration. The trick is to stay open to God in the midst of suffering.
Poet and author Mark Nepo was diagnosed with cancer almost 30 years ago, and after nearly dying, was able to recover. He believes the process of healing never ends. When asked “How can an open heart alleviate suffering amid the reality of so much pain?” he replied,
As fish must keep their gills open in order to survive moving through the water, humans must keep their heart open in order to move through the difficult and wondrous river of experience. Letting life move through an open heart is how we make medicine out of our suffering.
In what ways does a crisis like illness deepen your relationship to God? he was then asked.
Obstacles in general unravel the way we see the world. For me, having cancer scoured my lens of perceptions, landing me in a deeper sense of living. Being reduced to what matters by suffering and love is how we meet God in the daily world. [Spirituality and Health, Nov.-Dec. 2015, p. 14]
While we do not necessarily seek out suffering or pain or grief, when they come to us, as
they do to everyone, we can at least learn the invaluable lessons they have to teach us.
“The message of loss and grief and betrayal,” writes psychologist James Hollis, “is that we cannot hold on to anything, cannot take anything or anyone for granted, cannot spare ourselves acute pain. But what abides is the invitation to consciousness…[to becoming who you are intended to be]…Loss, grief and betrayal are not just dismal places we must unwillingly visit; they are integral to the maturation of consciousness. They are as much a part of the journey as the places where we feel respite and would tarry. The great rhythm of gain and loss is outside of our control; what remains within our control is the attitude of willingness to find in even the bitterest losses what remains to be lived.” [Swamplands of the Soul–New Life in Dismal Places]
The Way of Jesus is not one of seeking out suffering and death for their own sake, but it may mean seeking out those who are suffering and walking alongside them. It is disruptive to our comfortable, middle-class lives, and costly, yes, definitely counter-cultural, but as one man puts it, we may discover “the surprising and life-giving revelation that as we lose ourselves in service, we find ourselves living more fully than ever before.” [David Lose, op cit.]
That is a journey worth taking, the journey of life in all its joys and sorrows, its ups and downs, its challenges and its easy flow. It’s a journey we can take with one another, knowing that we are accompanied by the One who has walked it before us. So, we can affirm with the church, that “in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!”
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark