The Provocation of All Believers

And then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You know that those whom the world 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. For the kin-dom of God is like a termite colony.’

And at this, again the disciples were perplexed.

If you’ve been journeying with us over the past six weeks, you know we have tried to facilitate more difficult dialogue together. We’ve called these “Brave Conversations for a Bold Congregation,” using the sermon moment as a starting point for us to then continue the conversation in our discussion groups on Wednesday evenings called Rewind. These gatherings aren’t intended to be times to prop up the sermon as much as they’ve been forums for you to interact with the message from the Scriptures each week. A time to listen to one another and not solely me, and a time for me to listen too.

Over the course of these two months, our topics have focused on being curious, on listening, on speaking our truth and changing our minds, on standing for justice on behalf and alongside others, on being specific in our generosity, and last week on how the Way of Christ is one of sharing and mutuality. Rather than falling into the rhythm of vertical hierarchies that are so prevalent in the world around us, we should strive to live as Jesus taught us, a horizontal way of living together.

In this week’s episode, the disciples are with Jesus when two of them try to get ahead. It feels much like the jockeying we see from politicians when someone agrees to endorse a candidate and campaign for them, so long as they get a top cabinet position in their new administration. Here, James and John are trying to make a deal with Jesus to be the ones to sit on the right and left side of his new throne.

This annoys the other disciples, probably a mix of betrayal and envy that they hadn’t thought of the idea first.

But Jesus’ reply is not what any of them expected, even though the author of Mark’s Gospel might want us to start wondering how they didn’t see it coming by now.

Jesus says, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Being great in my kin-dom isn’t about strength and glory, it’s about sacrifice and service. Whoever wants to be first must serve all.”

Jesus is doing several things here. First, he’s backing off James and John a bit; they misunderstand power, but also the point of Jesus’ ministry. He wasn’t coming to overthrow any government or to assume any national throne, be it the former glory of Israel’s kings or the deified mantle of the Roman emperor.

So, second, Jesus is setting the record straight on what his politics are and the convergence of his politics with his ministry: he has come that all people might have abundant, flourishing lives. For the oppressed, that means justice, equity and liberation; to those in power, it means they will find abundant life only when they cede and share that power with those who are most vulnerable to exploitation.

This is the hope of a new way — his Way.

My Dad used to tell me that he didn’t like how the Bible always seemed to villainize wealthy people. As a wealthy, white, straight, cis, male physician, I can see his point. He was about the most privileged a person can be in our day and age. He resented when people got breaks because he worked his tail off to go through medical school, and because he worked two and three jobs at a time. He had his own practice, his own business, where he loathed paying taxes because it was his hard-earned money and not the government’s. So then, to hear that Jesus was also siding with the poor, well, that wasn’t the gospel to him.

Don’t get me wrong; he loved God and worshipped in his own way. He believed in Jesus. But when it came to the notion of wealth, the love of money, the priority of the poor, well, that was too provocative for him to handle. After all, what needed to be fixed? We live in the greatest nation the world has ever known, the wealthiest, the freest; what could be better than this?

I think my Dad’s view is pretty common. And I’m not judging him for feeling and believing that way. But for Christians, to believe this way misses the mark as much as James and John missed the mark. Because Jesus is saying that it’s not enough. That this desire to be at the top will never be quenched as long as that’s what you’re chasing. Unless you’re (un)lucky enough to become the President of the United States, you’ll never be at the height of power and wealth. And even if you did make it there, you still won’t have 100% approval ratings. Probably not even 50%. You’ll spend your entire life and being trying to be the greatest.

That’s not abundant life. That’s not the flourishing life God wants for any of us. Not that, and not the putrid poverty that a billion or more people are consigned to because everyone else is still trying to attain this misunderstanding of greatness. Greatness isn’t external; it’s internal. It’s not competitive; it’s character.

Liberation — that’s what Jesus wants for everyone.

Jesus doesn’t hate wealthy people. In fact, in last week’s reading, the text says Jesus loved the rich young ruler. It’s just that the good news for the wealthy too often feels like bad news to them, because experiencing abundant life and truly finding themselves, means giving up the very things they’ve misunderstood as giving them meaning and a flourishing life to begin with.

But instead of framing it in negative terms, we might suggest that Jesus is offering them the good news of joining in the work of leveling the playing field, of embarking in God’s efforts of equity and justice.

Which brings us to the third thing Jesus is doing here. He’s laying out for us the strategy of the inbreaking kin-dom of God. By redefining power as something to be shared, and greatness as sacrifice and service, Jesus is showing us the template for a lasting Way of life. It won’t be immediate, but instead of overthrowing governments with its accompanying violence, oppression and wars, Jesus is highlighting the subversive nature of God’s Way.

I mean, the incarnation itself is an example of this subversive approach. God didn’t come in glory and military strength, casting down the emperor and realigning the 12 tribes of Israel. Instead, Jesus came as one of those impoverished, oppressed people, born in the feeding trough of a barn full of animals. All of this while the emperor himself was claiming incarnation and deification. Instead, Jesus undermined the status quo with provocation: love your neighbors, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, do right by others, be kind, be meek, give away what you treasure and share it with someone else who needs it.

It’s antithetical to what our culture values and prioritizes. That’s what makes the Way of Christ subversive. The kin-dom of God is like a termite colony.

Where each insect has a role, some doing more than others to make sure the colony thrives. By feeding one another, by sharing, together they chip away at the structures in front of them, undermining these structures, be they homes or fences or tree stumps, from within and beneath.

So it is in the kin-dom of God. We work together, we share, and in the process, we subvert the very systems that oppress and dehumanize. We become stronger together.

In a representative democracy like ours, we don’t have tyrants and rulers like Jesus mentions of the people in his day. Instead we are vulnerable to systemic tyrannies. These are structures and systems that become codified and ensconced as a way of life, beneficial to a majority, but detrimental to a minority. Not everything happens this way, but so is human nature that we want to thrive; we just have the wrong vision of what it means.

So, for instance, a systemic tyranny would be our problem with mass incarceration, particularly as it affects people of color. People of color make up approximately 32% of the US population, yet they make up more than 56% of our prison population.[1]

As a Fellow with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, I became even more educated about the 31 states in which it is still legal to discriminate against LGBTQ folks in regards to housing, employment and public accommodations.[2]If ballot initiative #3 is voted down, we’ll become the 32ndstate.

Student loan debt is another systemic tyranny. Over the past 30 years, the cost of higher education has risen 213%[3]while wages have increased only 10% since 1973 after adjusting for inflation. Students need loans to afford an education, but they are no longer guaranteed a higher wage to pay them off in the future.

Income disparity is a growing systemic tyranny. For lower income workers, they’ve seen their wages decrease in this same period of time, while the top wage earners have seen a sharper increase. As studies have shown, from 1946–1980, it was reversed, where lower income earners saw increases in wages and top income earners did not.[4]

We could delve into the causes of chronic homelessness, our treatment and care for veterans, teachers and emergency service workers pay, but I think the point is clear. While we have a lot of great things to be proud of as a nation, we have much work to do for those suffering under systemic injustice.

Addressing these systemic tyrannies requires a new framework, a new worldview. Horizontal living, sharing, valuing people over possessions and businesses — this is the way of Christ, and it is subversive to any culture because it provokes and threatens the status quo.

Like my Dad, I’ve misunderstood the life to be what I could accomplish or accumulate rather than the richness of community together.

But there are steps we can take to fight against this tendency, to lean into horizontal living like Jesus lifting up here. Jesus didn’t overthrow the Roman Empire in one fell swoop. He chipped away at it, subverted it, with his provocative way of living. So, here are a few ways we can chip away.

2. Listen. Realize you don’t have all the answers, ask questions, and listen to their answers.

3. Be inclusive. Who is left out of any particular discussion, any leadership, any perspectives? Bring them into conversation.

4. Continue to educate yourself. Do research. Facts are stubborn things.

a. Read the new Jim Crow

b. Look at debt collective

c. Live on SNAP budget for a month. Then two. Then twelve.

5. Have meals with your neighbors. Host conversations. Broaden the voices you listen to.

6. Be friends with people who aren’t like you

7. Listen some more.

8. Learn some more.

9. Listen some more…

Sensing a theme?

No, dinner parties aren’t going to end racism or xenophobia, but they do broaden our perspectives. They do force us to engage in more horizontal living and sharing, of possessions and perspectives. And it chips away slowly, at the prevailing notions of tribalism, division, and destruction.

Next week, we’ll look at constructive steps we can take as individuals and a church — ways we can make a difference in building bridges and a better way of life for everyone in our community.

But today, Jesus is offering liberation to each of us. As provocative as that may be.

So, who wants to be great?

Amen.

Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA on October 21, 2018

Mark 10:35–45

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Brent Newberry

I'm a writer, and I enjoy dabbling in photography. I'm also a progressive minister, enneagram 4w3, ramen enthusiast, and human to my best dog Zooey Deschanel