From The Bottom Up
Scripture: Mark 10: 35-45
Sermon: “From the Bottom Up”
Many, at one time or another, have either felt ourselves at the bottom of some ladder (work or social), or at the very beginning of a job, etc, where we couldn’t really get to the top without starting out at the bottom. That’s not always the case, but in most things, we start at the bottom. I mentioned last week about sports teams that you think would or should win, and who don’t. Someone from the bottom ends up taking home the trophy! To be fair, they did win it. That day, they were the best team. Speaking of…did you see the goal from the Canadian National Team against Panama this past week—Alphonso Davies!! Goodness gracious! No time to snooze when that guy’s on the field…he’ll make happen what you thought was impossible. And he’s definitely a top player!
I don’t think Jesus would really make it in the sports world. No scout would recruit him, no manager would buy his team. If you’ve kept up with the Ted Lasso craze, the gist of that TV show is that the owner of the team really wanted the team to fail, so she hired Ted Lasso, who had only coached American football, not English football. Jesus might’ve been a contender for that job. When I think of Jesus, I think of the motto “take one for the team.” Or maybe “move out of the way so they can run on home, or make that lay-up, or lay that puck in the goal,” or whatever it may be… In other words, help the others make it to the top.
I read a story once about a boy who was trying out for the school basketball team. His parents were really worried because they were afraid he’d be so disappointed if he didn’t make it. They knew honestly, that he wasn’t very good. He came home that day ecstatic! “Guess what?” he exclaimed to his parents… “I was chosen to clap and cheer!!” They looked surprised.
James and John are like any of us, wanting to be in the good graces of the master, wanting an edge in the kingdom. Ready to try-out for the right hand seat and the left hand seat and seeing who gets in at the top!
James and John are Jesus’ dear friends. They’ve been with him since the beginning, when they left their father Zebedee to follow Jesus. They are often taken aside, with Peter, for quality time with Jesus, like one time when they saw him transfigured on a mountain top and heard the voice thunder about him from heaven. Jesus likes their verve, their spark, and counts them close to his heart.
These two disciples are eager to please, eager to achieve, keeners if you will. W not only know James and John, we might be James and John ourselves from time to time!
They realize that Jesus does count them as close friends, and decide that maybe they might cash in. James and John practice their speech, wait till not even Peter is around, and approach Jesus with the boldest request anyone ever makes of him anywhere in the bible. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” The hand’s raised high, like the teacher’s pet who’s ready to benefit from all the apples he’s left on the desk. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They don’t mention Peter, the don’t mention the other disciples…just themselves.
Jesus responds by saying “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? The gospel text picks up right after Jesus predicts for the third time his death. The disciples are still pretty clueless, still with the mentality that this king is different than any other king. His reign is greater. He’s different, all right. Just continually not in the way they expected.
The same God who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt to the promised land, is the same one who reminds us that what is promised isn’t exactly what we thought it would be. Even to the very king of kings. His coronation will mean his death. In Philip Yancy’s book The Jesus I Never Knew, he writes “The more I studied Jesus, the more difficult it became to pigeon-hole him…Jesus’ extravagant claims about himself kept him at the center of controversy, but when he did something truly miraculous he tended to hush it up.” Walter Wink famously said, “If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.” True enough. And, that’s the heart of the surprise!
In talking about becoming great, Jesus says we must become a servant. “For even the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. These very words of Jesus interpret his ministry, giving us the very meaning of his life and of his death.
I visited once with a young man who was dying. His life hadn’t been one that he was very proud of, and he certainly didn’t feel like he’d ever made it to the top of anything. He felt pretty much at the bottom, and with that, feeling like there’s no way he was good enough to be with Jesus now. I asked him if he remembered the cross and the man who was supposed to hang on the cross. He flashed back with, “yeah, I know, it was Barabbas!” Jesus basically took Barabbus’s place on the cross, and Barrabus was set free. And up to his very last words, the other thief hanging beside him on the cross said, “Jesus, remember me when you go into your kingdom.” And Jesus did. Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry to the dying end demonstrated that those considered lowly were given privilege. Those who we think shouldn’t be with him, were the most faithful to him. And those who were said to be the most faithful, often denied, fled, and stayed away from the dreadful scene of the cross. James and John were scheming for a position of privilege, and Jesus reminds them that the cross is no easy road. Are you able? There’s an old hymn by that title. The problem with the hymn is that the chorus belts out “Lord, we are able.” Um, I don’t really believe that we are.
We are able. The very idea is preposterous. Jesus’ disciples are even more clueless than the Pharisees. They think his kingdom is about rewards and honors and power, like all other kingdoms. He keeps trying to tell them different, but they never learn until he is crucified. Later when James and John are asked for special help, to pray with Jesus in Gethsemane, they fall asleep.
We stand, like James and John, with enthusiasm and desire---we yearn to be that close to Jesus—and we believe we are able. But none of us are. No matter how much we try, no matter whether we feel on the top of our game, or the bottom, no matter how prepared we think we are, no matter if we complete the Psalm challenge by Christmas Eve, or not…the way of the Messiah, is the way of the cross. The crown isn’t what brings glory. The cross does.
It’s striking that Jesus never once reprimands James and John here. Their bold approach, their breathtakingly brave request, their claim to ability, and no rebuke at all. Maybe then it’s not their approach that’s wrong. Maybe they, we, are right to demand things of Jesus.
Friends as annoying as James and John seem to us, the story suggests we should be like them—approach Jesus, ask for more than you can imagine, just be ready for a surprising answer. St. John Chrysostom said “We are not to ask for privilege in the kingdom without being ready to die for it.”
So, how do we walk with Jesus, unable as we are? Theodore Roosevelt said never to say no when someone asks you whether you can handle a big responsibility. Say yes, then get busy figuring out how on earth to do it. We ought to be at least as foolish as these two, to dive into things for Jesus without knowing in advance how we’ll get out of them. To answer “we are able,” even if we’re not?
And, we should attempt this eagerness, together. In community. As a church of believers, fallen and broken as we are. Through Jesus, we live our lives. In Christ, we have strength to carry on. And when we feel at our worst, that’s where Jesus lives. Jesus is not in this for reward, or to gain status, or to get on top. Jesus is with us for the love of God, which promises him nothing but the opportunity to give himself away. The best seat he will get this side of the grave is a throne full of splinters, and when he hung out on it to dry by the powers that be, it will not be James and John on either side of him…but it will be two unnamed bandits one on his left, and the other on his right.
Jesus is a Savior that is often hard for us to understand, just like it was hard for the disciples to understand. And, if by some grace of God we do understand better than those disciples, it is “only because Jesus is still serving us, still feeding us, still giving himself away for us. That is the only example of power he will give us, so maybe the best we can do is to grab hold of the mystery any way we can and hang on for dear life.”
This kingdom is one that refuses to be like any other kingdom. It is not one where we elbow our way to the top. Our lives cannot be transformed that way.
The way to a transformed life is from the bottom up. The power of God has given us is the strongest stuff in the world: the power to serve.
Whether we can make sense of it or not. We do have reason to celebrate today. For you and I have been chosen…to clap and cheer…and serve! Amen.
 Quoted in Mark, vol. II of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Thomas Oden and Christopher Hall (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998), 148.
 Notes from Barbara Brown Taylor on this passage.