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Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
A sermon preached by Sandi Albom on October 18, 2015

If you'd like to listen to the sermon, please click on the blue arrow at the bottom of this article.

“What is it you want me to do for you?”

I can remember when I was a teenager and I wanted to do something that I knew would be a hard sell to my parents.  There was definitely a strategy to how to go about getting what I wanted.  I knew which parent was the one to go to first depending on the nature of the request. “Hey, Daddy, I’m your girl right?”  “Mom, if you just say yes I promise I won’t ever ask you for anything again.  Paleeeeeese? “  You parents and former teenagers out there know what I’m talking about.

So, I wonder what Jesus was thinking when James and John work their their way up to him on the road, making sure they are out of earshot from the others.  Perhaps he’s hopeful.  Maybe he’s thinking that they want to talk about the teaching he’d been doing with them as they have traveled over the past few weeks.  Maybe they have finally understood what he has been telling them about the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. 

Instead what he hears is ….Hey Jesus!  Nice day, huh?  Man, your hair is lookin’ good.  Is that a new robe?  Oh and, by the way, “Teacher, we want for you to do whatever we ask of you”.   Uh oh!  Just like with my mom and dad, the gyrations my teenage self went through rarely got the result I was wrangling for, and……Jesus doesn't fall for their ploy one darn bit.

He asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

And they answer, “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory.” 

Honestly, I found myself feeling embarrassment for James and John as they make their request.  In fact, it looks like Matthew in his telling of the incident is so embarrassed for James and John, the Sons of Thunder, that he has their mother make the request for them!  Not exactly the Wonder Twins, these Thunder Twins! 

But wait….That’s really not fair of me.  Hey, it’s easy to make fun of James and John and all of the disciples the way that Mark tells their story.  If I’ve learned one thing, it’s really that the qualities in people that I find the most annoying or silly, are most often some of my own.  It takes one to know one, right?

What if Jesus asked you, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  What would your answer be?  Would your request be absent of desires for power or prestige?  What about security, knowing what the future will hold…wouldn't that be nice to know?  I’ll tell you right now, I would love to know what my bishop will say when I make certain requests of him in the near future.  And I’d sure love to know what the questions are going to be on the General Ordination Exam I will be taking this coming January.  I’d rest a whole lot easier if I just could know those two things. 

James and John are not unlike us.  They are having a hard time letting go of what they have known all their lives; that any ruler that is meant to have power and glory, (and they believe that is to be Jesus), needs good people around them to help, to advise them, to make sure that the right people are in the right places.  That’s the way it works in the world they have known.  That’s how it goes with the Romans that rule in their time.  And they want the security of knowing that they will be there right next to Jesus when it happens.  They want to be in with the in crowd.

Jesus must have been so frustrated at this point!  Are these people ever going to understand?  But truly, I am amazed at the patience he shows to them.  His answer is not necessarily one of impatience or anger, but of honest challenge and concern.  “You do not know what you are asking” he says.  “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 

But, unlike us, who are observers and insiders to the story that Mark is telling,  James and John still miss the point.   While Jesus is alluding to his upcoming pain and death, they are eager to let their teacher know they are two rough and ready guys, there for whatever high-ranking responsibility he needs them to fulfill.  Jesus’ response to them is that they will indeed be baptized in his own baptism and a drink from the cup of his passion.  It is certainly not the privilege or status they are expecting, nor do they understand that yet.  (And indeed, James will be the second of Christ’s followers to be martyred)

Once the other disciples catch on that the two brothers have gone behind their backs to request special treatment and privilege from their Master, they too reveal just how much they remain tied to their old ways of seeing the world.  It’s more “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the greatest of them all?” all over again.

Jesus tries yet another tactic to help his friends truly understand what the real pattern of hierarchy in God’s world is about.  If they are to be authentic leaders, they have got to stop looking to the examples of the powerful to draw their conclusions about how to do it.  You know that definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over in the same way and expecting different results.  Jesus lets them know that it is pure insanity to continue on a path of leading from a place of power, prestige and privilege in order to oppress and control.  

How many times have we heard it said that Jesus turns the world upside down?  I’ve been thinking that perhaps what is the real truth of our situation is that we have been we have been living our lives upside down all along and Jesus is here to put us right side up. It’s not an easier, softer way of living, but He presents a better way for us of being in God’s world.

Jesus recognizes that we, like the disciples are bombarded and thoroughly contaminated by the messages that are placed before us every day; False messages of control, power, money, prestige and security.  Messages that tell us that:

  • more is better,
  • that new is better than used,
  • that caring for the environment somehow equates to being financially irresponsible,
  • that aging is something to be ashamed of,
  • that embracing the common humanity of all people threatens our own personhood,
  • and….. that being poor or without a country or shelter somehow makes people bad or dangerous. 

This systematic messaging we see and hear all around us amounts to a pervasive kind of spiritual bondage.  Unaided, can we even hope to recognize how skewed and distorted our thinking becomes as a result?

Franciscan priest and spiritual writer Richard Rohr, in his wonderful book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, writes this about addiction, “We are all addicted in some way.  When we learn to identify our addiction, embrace our brokenness, and surrender it to God, we begin to bring healing to ourselves and our world.”[1] 

I have a dear friend who is a long-time member of Alcoholics Anonymous.  She often says when she first encountered the 12 steps of recovery from addiction she thought “those people in AA” were trying to brainwash her.  She then follows that up with, “Well, perhaps God knew my brain needed a little washing”. 

Over the past few weeks in the lectionary readings from Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been giving our brains a little washing and has been spoon-feeding us the antidote to our own addictions to the messages swirling endlessly around us.  We have been graciously given the gift of sitting at the Master’s feet with James, John, Peter and the others that journey with him toward Jerusalem.  And He has told us what we must do:

  • Care for the poor
  • Heal the sick
  • Embrace and protect children
  • Be humble
  • Break down the barriers in your heart
  • Let go of your conceptions of who is in and who is out
  • Know that real power is found in surrender to God’s will, and
  • Authentic love is not found in what we receive from the world, but in how we serve God in the world

There is a transformation, a right-side up-ness that comes through servant hood.  That is the real hope that God has for us……… that we can let go of those things that keep us prisoners and be true servants.  The Twelve Step programs of recovery from addiction have Three Legacies that serve as guiding principles for their organizations and members – Unity, Recovery and Service.  That sounds remarkably close to what Jesus is offering us as remedies to the upside down messaging the world presents to us.  Unity is found in the community of the Body of Christ, and the Recovery of spirit is the gift we receive by living our lives in Service to each other. 

I wonder if we were able to surrender and freely give our wills over to God’s antidote, a life truly lived in the Way of Christ, what we might find? 

And so, when Jesus asks us, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  What will your answer be?


[1] Rohr, Richard. Breathing under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011.


Last Published: October 23, 2015 5:43 PM