Have you all seen that meme where a little blonde girl is sitting on the couch reading a copy of the New Testament.3
The meme unfolds in three panels and the first says
“Jesus is so nice.”
And the girl turns the page and the next panel says
“I hope nothing bad happens to him.”
And the little girl has turned the page again, and the third panel of the meme shows her disappointed little face saying
“Oh boy . . “
When we hear James and John asking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in our Gospel reading today, we hear it with a pronounced sense of dramatic irony. Unlike James and John, unlike the little girl in the second panel of the meme, we have read what’s going to happen to Jesus in a few short chapters, and, on it’s surface, OH BOY … it is NOT going to look like what James and John expect glory to look like. I’m sure Jesus getting crucified is not exactly the success story the disciples were hoping for when they joined up.
The bad news for James and John, is that we’re going to read this story two millennia later and think that they’re kind of boneheads for asking Jesus for the best spots in the kingdom.
I mean, no joke, in the verses just before today’s Gospel reading Jesus has literally just finished telling the disciples FOR THE THIRD TIME that he’s going to be mocked and spat upon and flogged and killed in Jerusalem.
And James and John, apparently not reading the room at all, say to him . . .
“Hey Jesus! We’re going to ask you for something, but you have to say ‘yes’ okay?”
I can just imagine Jesus closing his eyes and sighing deeply. Maybe pushing up his glasses, running his hands down his face, saying:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
And James and John, ask “Grant us the highest places of power in your coming kingdom.”
James and John want to be the most successful of the disciples. They want to see the view from the top.
It’s actually good news for James and John that they are NOT going to get what they are asking for here.
God’s vision for Jesus’ work in the world is not nearly so myopic so short sighted as that of James and John in today’s reading.
In the system James and John envision, the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus would have a power structure shaped like a pyramid. Jesus at the top, James and John right there beneath him. Everyone else getting squeezed out.
The good news for James and John is that God’s kingdom is infinitely more generous than some sort of hierarchy wherein they have to try to trick their way into the top positions to be close to Jesus. God’s kingdom isn’t like the world around them - they don’t have to climb and compete and curry favor to be successful disciples. God is far too generous for that kind of plan.
Instead, Jesus reminds the disciples that in God’s kingdom, that pyramid of prosperity is turned upside down: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In this tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Sunday by Sunday we’ve heard the vision that Jesus is offering to his disciples:
To love. IS to keep the law.
To be truly rich is to give it away.
To be successful is to serve.
Jesus is inviting the disciples into creating a world turned rightside up.4
Having “seen what’s on the next page” as it were, we can laugh at the wild misunderstanding that James and John have about the kingdom of God in Mark’s Gospel.
But we still have to grapple with this whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing.
As individual people and as a parish, I think we’d prefer the same thing for which James and John are asking.
Not to “descend to greatness” as it were, but to be on the top of the pile.
Personally, it’d be pretty attractive To have power. To have all the best stuff. To make the rules.
Power, wealth, status - they are seductive because they give us a sense of security.
But I think Mark’s Gospel begs of us this question: What does it look like for Christians to be successful? What does it look like to really flourish in this world? What does participating in God’s kingdom really look like?
Have you ever hear the phrase “it’s lonely at the top”?
What if it’s lonely . . . because it’s NOT the top?
If I gain billions of dollars and become well connected and have models on my arms at parties, and lo end up amassing enough to rocket myself into space for fun and for glory . . .
Who is still beside me?
God is far too generous for human flourishing to be limited to the few at the top of the pyramid. No.
That’s why In God’s kingdom, the pyramid is flipped: instead of a bunch of people climbing past climbing over each other - it’s a bunch of people reaching out and lifting each other up. That’s where we’re going to find security.
Human beings are designed by God, hardwired for connection. Wired for belonging. Wired to experience our utmost happiness not when we live lives of power and prestige and peak consumption
- But when we live lives of purpose.
Thank God that a life of purpose isn’t tied to sitting in the top seats - it’s tied to loving God and loving our neighbors.
We find out deepest purpose - our deepest flourishing - in sacrificial love and radical hospitality.
And that’s available to everybody.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Business author Tim Sanders1 was raised by his grandmother Billye. Billye wan’t exactly in the position to take on a child - she was living alone on a farm near Clovis, NM. Billye’s husband Larry had done a little too much gambling around the area, and had lost Billye all of her money and most of her reputation. Larry was long gone by the time Tim came to live with Billye.
Tim recalls that every morning, Billye would make a cup of coffee, and sit down with her Bible and the newspaper. She would read the Bible, then read the stories in the newspaper. Then she’d pray for the people she’d read about in those stories.
One morning, while Billye was praying, she looked up and saw a man walking through her wheat field and toward the house. Billye got up and met the man in the field.
Billye asked the stranger, “Can I help you, sir?"
“I pray so, ma’am. I pray so,” he said, “My name is Clarence, and I’m looking for a hot meal and days work. I’ve been walking for days. I’m from Dripping Springs, Oklahoma, but I just lost every penny I ever had in a swindle. I’m trying to make it to Arizona, where some of my kin have a fresh start waiting for me. I just need some work ma’am. Just for today.”
And Billye looked at the man and said, “Well. We do have some work around here. I could use some help pruning the tops of the peach trees - I can’t reach them. And the barn could use a good cleaning. If you work from now to sundown and do those things - if you put in a good days work - I’ll pay you $10.”
Now, this conversation made little Tim nervous, because he knew that they were poor. He knew that his grandma Billye only had about $20 for the rest of the month, and here she was offering half of it to a stranger.
But Clarence got to work, and Tim followed him around curiously.
Clarence worked at a decent pace, but wasn’t particularly talkative.
At around noon, Grandma Billye emerged from the house with lunch for everyone. It wasn’t much - hotdogs and canned beans - but there was plenty and Clarence wolfed it down.
When Grandma Billye slipped out of earshot, Clarence dipped his head toward young Tim and said “Son, your grandmother is an angel. It’s people like her that make the world go round. In the last few days, I’ve had guns waved at me and dogs sicc’d on me. I really thought I was going to starve before someone would give me a chance. But your grandmother did. And son - I want you to look at how happy she is. See? See how much joy she’s carrying around?”
After lunch, feeling energized by having some calories in him, Clarence finished absolutely everything Grandma Billye had asked of him and then some. He’d trimmed the orchard. He’d cleaned the barn. He’d hauled off garbage. He’d even repainted the trim on the barn.
At the end of the day, Grandma Billye took a good look around and smiled. “Clarence,” she said, “we agreed to $10 for a good days work. But this? THIS was a GREAT day’s work. You deserve TWICE a good day’s pay.”
And Tim watched his grandma Billye give the stranger her last $20.
After a tearful, grateful goodbye, Clarence walked toward the sunset, and Grandma Billye slipped her arm around Tim.
“Timothy” she said softly, “today is a special day for us. Today we are rich! Today. We. Are. Rich.”
What does success in the kingdom of God look like?
It looks like radical, sacrificial hospitality.
I can’t speak to how each of your personal lives impacts God’s kingdom,
That’s something for you to meditate on
but I can speak to the life of this parish.
My friends, whatever we lack as a parish
we’ve got radical hospitality.
Look what God, in God’s generosity, has used your radical hospitality to build. The hands reaching not up but out. The people welcomed. The connections made. The lives touched.
This is a not a peak Sunday in the church calendar - just an average Sunday in ordinary time - but THIS is a special day for us:
Today we’re getting a glimpse of God’s rightside up kingdom.
Today we are rich.
1: This story paraphrased from Tim Sanders 2011 business book entitled “Today We are Rich.” I don’t know much about Tim Sanders generally or even as an author, but 30 year old me got a lot out of this book when it came out, and this story has always stuck with me. It was also from this book that I picked up the habit of gratitude journaling, which has been a mainstay spiritual practice for me for a decade now.
2: “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Commentary on Mark,” Myers
3: Here’s the meme: (to the right in this copy, who knows what it’ll look like online).
4: I think I got this language from NT Wright, who often comes off as a jerk, and even on his best day is pretty homophobic. That said, his book Surprised by Hope is one of my favorite accessible theology books. I’ve quoted it before and I’ll quote it again.
The above footnotes are out of order because I wrote the sermon in chunks on separate sheets of paper and then put them back together later.
After reading this sermon one of my very favorite people on the planet sent me this quote by Pope Francis: “True glory is the glory of love because that is the only kind that gives life to the world.” Had I seen it before writing this, I would have included it because it is a WORD. Thanks, Rachel.