The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Please pray with me. Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus, forever and ever. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks James and John. It’s the same question that he will ask Blind Bartimaeus in next Sunday’s gospel lesson. What do you want me to do for you? Suffice it to say, they have vastly different responses to the same question. Blind Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, that I may see again.” His sight is restored and the gospel lesson tells us that from that point on, he follows Jesus on the way. In today’s gospel lesson, which you just heard, James and John, sons of Zebedee, start wrangling for prime real estate when Jesus comes into his glory. This morning, I invite you to hold those responses in tension as you consider what your own response might be to that question. What do you want me to do for you? asks Jesus.
What’s always important with scripture, is to put things in context. I invite you to go back a little bit in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus tells his disciples in the eighth chapter, for the first time, that he must suffer. He’ll be killed and he will rise. In response to the first telling, Peter famously pushes back, rebukes him, and Jesus’ response is, “Get behind me, Satan, for you have set your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.” He then uses that as one of those wonderful teachable moments to try and explain to Peter and the disciples that it’s not what they think. It’s about service, not about being served.
The second time Jesus tells his disciples about his impending death and resurrection, they’re not quite sure what to make of it then either. They continue on the way and the disciples hold back a little bit and they start arguing about who’s the greatest. Jesus, catching wind of this, asks them, what were you arguing about? They sheepishly have to fess up that they’d been arguing about who’s the greatest. Jesus, once again, uses it as a teachable moment and says, “Those who wish to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Today’s gospel lesson is preceded by the third and final time that Jesus says that he will be betrayed. He will suffer. He’ll be killed and he will rise. Then James and John, sons of Zebedee, or, as one theologian calls them, “the Sons of Entitlement,” respond immediately, starting to wrangle for position and power and prestige for eternity.
Before we take a sanctimonious stance, thinking, “well, I may not be perfect, but I’m not that bad,” I’m going to push all of us a little bit this morning to see ourselves in this all too human story. Going on in that gospel lesson, we read that the ten other disciples are angry. It doesn’t say why they’re angry, but a lot of theologians posit the view that they’re angry because John and James just got ahead of them in making the ask. It’s a human tendency, isn’t it? It’s such a great gospel lesson for those of us who live in Washington, DC, who seem just obsessed with power: who’s up; who’s down; who’s in; who’s out; who’s closest to the center of power?
I’m always reminded in this gospel lesson of the time when I worked in the White House. There are many things that happen after a candidate is elected president— some are in very public view, many are not. One of them that is not, is the world-class wrangling that ensues with people using everything in their power to try and get a West Wing office and the closer to the Oval Office, the better. It doesn’t matter if it’s an office the size of a cracker box with no windows. If you get one of those coveted spots, it says something about you and your proximity to power.
It’s a human instinct. I think that if we spend time focusing on that, we probably can see a bit of ourselves in the story. Jesus is trying to point the disciples to another way, a different way. The good news for John and James, and for you and me, is that Jesus doesn’t chastise them for their response. He tries to teach them. He says you don’t understand what you’re asking and frankly, what you’re asking isn’t mine to give. Then he encapsulates, in the most succinct form, who he was and what he was about: that he came not to be served, but to serve and to offer his life as a ransom for you and for me. That’s the great, good news in this passage. He points us to a life of service: service for others, sacrifice for others—a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is supposed to be about.
I was thinking so much in the last few weeks about service and sacrifice as I’ve had the sheer privilege to officiate at the funerals and burials of three of the Greatest Generation, my parents’ generation, whose lives were core value rooted in service and sacrifice for all. It wasn’t, what’s in this for me? It was, how can I serve—we, we the people. The lives that we helped celebrate ranged in age from 89 to a ripe old 104. One of the women was a member of the WAVEs. She taught secret codes to WAVEs recruits, founded a WAVEs choir, and, after her service in the Navy, spent the rest of her life on faith, family, friends, and service—it was clear that that was a guiding principle in her life.
The second woman I was honored to celebrate was a code breaker in the Cold War. She spent her life’s work not being able to talk about her life’s work, but she faithfully served our country focused on how to best serve we, our country. When she retired, she too gave back.
The third service was for my best friend’s father, who lied about his age at 17 in order to join the Marines. He saw combat in Iwo Jima and Okinawa and went on to serve in the Korean war, where he was wounded and received the Purple Heart. His life was about faith, family, friends, giving back.
They didn’t have to be taught that, that’s who they were and it shaped the course of their lives. It reminded me that we seem to have lost some of that grounding of service and sacrifice. How do we get back to remembering that that’s who Jesus called us to be?
I read a book last year that gave me a different angle on this, and I commend it to you. It was written by one of the great moral thinkers of our time, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The title of the book is Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. The book looks at the arc of history and essentially looks at different points in time and how we got to where we are. He articulates and makes a case for us to reclaim that moral core and that commitment to community. He says—and here’s the good news—that, in fact, it’s really hardwired in our DNA to look for the good, to act for the good. He says, “Bad behavior can easily become contagious but so can good behavior, and it usually wins out in the long run.” He goes on to say that “To begin to make a difference, all we need to do is to change ourselves. To act morally. To be concerned with the welfare of others. To be someone people trust. To give. To volunteer. To listen. To smile. To be sensitive, generous, caring.”
If we look, we will see that still happening all around us. Remember the early days of the pandemic and the sacrifice and the care, realizing that we were all in it together? That’s hard wired in our DNA. Jesus is pointing us to shift our focus from what’s in it for me to how can I better serve we.
There’s a wonderful and true story about this cathedral that I offer this morning. There was a man who had a very lucrative occupation. He was driving by the cathedral one day and, all of a sudden, he just had this overwhelming urge to come inside. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. So, he parked the car and he came in. Now this man wasn’t a Christian. He was actually from a different faith tradition. When he made his way inside, there was a worship service going on, maybe much like the one we’re in right now. One of our ushers, God bless her, spotted him way back in the entrance of the church, looking a little bit lost and out of place. She went to him and smiled. She welcomed him and invited him in to come worship, to be with us, among us—we, the Kingdom of God. He did, and something happened to him. He had one of those life changing experiences in this very place. He became a Christian, gave up his lucrative occupation, went back to school so he could better serve the church and the people of God.
Now, seemingly that was a small thing, a little thing, that this usher did, but she was paying attention. We never know how the little things, the small things that we do each and every day, can make a difference we may never know anything about. Mother Teresa once said that “God has created us so we do small things with great love.”
My friends, Jesus invited and taught the disciples what it meant to follow him. So, too, he continues to teach us—it may not be simple, but it’s clear—to orient ourselves, not in what’s in it for me, but how can I best serve others. So, this morning I leave you where I started. If Jesus were standing right in front of you this morning and asked you, “What can I do for you?” What would your response be? Amen.