The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 10:35-45

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

During the American Revolution a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, the leader replied with great dignity, “Sir, I am a corporal!” The stranger apologized, dismounted, & proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, “Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.” With that (General) George Washington, the future President of the United States, got back on his horse and rode away.

The kind of leadership George Washington exhibited was a lot closer to the kind of leadership Jesus is talking about than the kind of leadership the corporal practiced. Washington’s leadership was one of service and brotherhood—ministry; the corporal’s one of prestige and superiority—seeking a place of honor.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had traveled with Jesus—learned from him—for three years and still didn’t get it. They still wanted those positions of leadership that would give them great prestige, satisfy their egos, and give them power over and honor above others.

Now, since the transfiguration, Peter and James and John seem to be the inner circle of the inner circle—Jesus’ closet friends from among those 12 disciples that followed him. And it’s important to note that this incident comes just after Peter and Jesus have had a little disagreement about Jesus’ mission. Jesus had rebuked Peter, and James and John probably thought this might be their best opportunity to go for those 1 and 2 positions. (Peter was definitely # 3 at this moment, they thought.)

So they came to Jesus, filled with themselves, and said to him: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” How’s that for confidence? They sure didn’t need any courses in self-esteem, did they? And yet, they are not very different from many of us who desire nothing more than to follow Jesus, if only he will give us what we want & not challenge us to change the way we live.
“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. And then he asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
“We are able,” they said.
Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but 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.”

Little did the sons of Zebedee know, at least at this time, that Jesus was speaking of his own death as well as of their own suffering and eventual martyrdom. But these two men, who were so interested in assuming positions of leadership and personal places of honor, did go on, after Pentecost, to become leaders of the church and assume places of honor in the faith, by giving up themselves for the service and sake of the kingdom. In other words, they eventually drank from the cup that Jesus drank from — and they learned what it means to serve rather than be served.

In a rare moment of self-concern, Jesus also asked for something that was not granted to him, when he asked his heavenly Father to spare him from taking the journey to the cross. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” But God, the Father, had appointed him for this most holy task of sacrifice and service.

As the writer of Hebrews says, in our second reading today: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” He was heard, yes, but he was not spared. The cup was handed to him, and he took it – willingly – but not without struggle. And then, Hebrews continues, “having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Last week we heard about the rich young man who wanted it all: –the worldly wealth and prestige he already possessed as well as the gift of eternal life. “You can have eternal life if you follow me,” Jesus told him, “but first you must sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor.” You see, it wasn’t so much that Jesus demanded poverty from his followers, but in this case, it was a matter of separating the would-be follower from the thing—or things—that held more importance to him than God. A sacrifice was required of him, just as it was required of the sons of Zebedee, –and just as it is required of us.

Jesus states it like this: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If you want to be my disciple, then follow me. Truly, follow me.

To become a servant, you have to serve. It takes sacrifice. Not somebody else’s sacrifice, but our own. You might say, “Well, I’m not interested in being great.” and that’s wonderful. But if you want to follow Jesus you will still have to learn how to become a servant and to make the sacrifices that you are called by God to make. And most of the time, we know exactly what those sacrifices are. (Those things that we love more than God. Those things that we put ahead of God.) The question is, are we willing (to make those sacrifices)?

For though Jesus has taken our sins upon himself—sacrificed for our behalf—he has not relieved us of our responsibilities to God and God’s church and God’s children. Obedience, faithfulness, and sacrificial service are our calling. Or to put it differently, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If you follow this law truly, then you are keeping all the commandments, and in the words of Jesus, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

The story in today’s gospel, with two brothers jockeying for positions of power in the Kingdom, takes place five days before Jesus’ crucifixion. Four days before his betrayal and trial. One day before the clearing of the temple, and a few hours before the Triumphal Entry. If the Disciples were going to start practicing the teachings of Jesus in their lives, it ought to be now.

But it doesn’t happen. It hasn’t clicked. Moments before the most crucial events in their life they are a bickering, petty, bad-tempered quarrelsome lot. We need to learn from this not-so-flattering moment in the life of the disciples.

How is it that these critical “God” moments can be so close at hand—so present in our lives—and we are off wondering “What’s in it for me? How does this benefit me? Why should I make this sacrifice?

Today, Jesus is inviting each of us to let go of all those things—those desires for things we think we just have to have, –those things we think we can’t do without, –those things we think we most definitely deserve—and to come and walk with him in the joy and grace and gain of sacrificial giving and service, for the sake of God, and for the sake of others.

How much did the disciples miss—lose—that was truly going on around them, by going off into dream worlds of their own making and scheming? How much do we miss when we are busy wondering what’s in it for me, rather than asking, “Lord, what are you showing me right now, here, today, in this moment, in this crisis, in this opportunity? How might I serve? How might I help?What can I give? What sacrifice can I make?”

Instead of saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” why not say, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

A number of cups are laid out before us — wealth, greed, power over others, prestige, bitterness, resentment, or the cup that Jesus drank from. The choice is yours and Jesus is simply asking you (and me) today: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized?” Are you willing to follow me, truly?
“I have given you an example,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” Serve one another as I have served you.
Follow me. In sacrifice. In giving. In service. In love.
And in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.