A NEW WAY
The Rev. Helen Havlik
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 14, 2018
The gospels tell us that one of Jesus’ primary goals is to train a core group of disciples to carry on the ministry after he’s gone—and each generation of believers since then has had the task of both learning and teaching others what it means to follow Jesus Christ. This turns out to be harder than it looks. He’s starting from scratch with people who have set ideas about what God expects from them and what they can expect from God. They recognize Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets of Israel who called the people to turn back to God. But Jesus has something else in mind. At first his ministry is about teaching and healing. Then he reveals that God has sent him for greater purposes. I’m reading Mark, Ch. 10, beginning with vs. 35. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
When I was just starting out in ministry, there were things I hadn’t learned in seminary. I didn’t know how to do a funeral. I’d never done a budget. I’d never planned a Christmas Eve service. And I didn’t know there was such a thing as a “clergy discount.” This was totally new to me—the idea that all I had to do was say to the clerk in a store, “Hi, I’m the new pastor in town,” and I’d automatically get 10 percent off. Sometimes even 20 percent! Trash pick-up, lawn mowing, haircuts, car service—my clergy colleagues said that if someone didn’t offer, I should go ahead and ask anyway—they always did and more often than not, they’d get a discount. In that part of the world, clergy were treated with extreme deference. Even I, a green kid out of seminary, could count on my opinion being listened to and my presence noted. Along with my fellow clergy, I was invited to join the local country club and asked to pray at various public and private events, where dinner was always free. Often there were other freebies offered to us that weren’t offered to anyone else—tickets and gift certificates and gift baskets. The older and wiser of my minister friends insisted we were entitled to all of this special treatment because of our ordination, our training and our typically low salaries. We’ve made huge sacrifices to do what we do, they said, and we deserve to be recognized and compensated. That’s when I learned what the phrase “big fish in a small pond” means!
A couple of years into my ministry, I was at a conference where I met other pastors and spouses during mealtime. One evening, I was invited to join some couples who already knew each other pretty well. One of the pastors turned to his neighbor and asked him what kind of car he was driving. “Oh, I just got a new one—went all the way to the next state because I couldn’t afford what I really wanted closer to home.” They all smiled as someone commented on low clergy salaries. “Hey, I know the dealership you mean,” the first pastor said. “They have the best service and the prices are great, too.” A third pastor chimed in about his search for the right vehicle, when someone’s wife turned to me and said, “They just love their BMWs! What kind of car do you drive?” I still remember the looks around that table when I answered, “A Honda Civic. I drive a Honda Civic.”
Jesus is walking on the road to Jerusalem with his disciples—they’re near Jericho, which is almost at the end of their journey. What began with great hope and anticipation is becoming more ominous by the minute as Jesus speaks of the persecution to come. On the one hand, the disciples have heard Jesus talk about how anyone who has given up all to follow him will gain back everything and more. And yet this talk of persecution scares and confuses them. For the third time, Jesus spells out in detail what will happen in Jerusalem: he’ll be arrested, condemned, humiliated and killed—but in three days he will rise from the dead. That last part doesn’t seem to register at all.
Time is short, then, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, grab the chance to talk to Jesus alone. We all know what’s going to happen in Jerusalem—we hear Jesus loud and clear. How can it be that James and John have missed the point? I imagine Jesus talking with his dear—and dense—disciples as they once again show how little they’ve really understood about his ministry. Jesus loves these disciples, so I imagine his sad smile as he asks them what they want from him. Since we have the benefit of knowing the whole story, we know they really don’t know what they’re asking. They expect Jesus to be crowned King of the Jews—and he is, but we know the crown he wears is made of thorns, his throne is the cross they nail him to—and his coronation, unlike the scenes we think of, complete with pomp and circumstance, is the long walk to his death at Calvary. To sit at the right and left hand of such a king is given to two thieves—and the glory James and John are hoping for appears nowhere to be found.
These disciples say they want to drink from the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism. In some churches communion wine is shared by drinking from a common cup as a way of affirming our unity with Jesus Christ and with each other. For most Presbyterians I know, this seems risky—being the body of Christ is one thing, but spreading germs is another! So we’ve done away with the danger of sharing a cold or flu by substituting tiny individual glasses, or by dipping our bread in the cup. But as Jesus says, there are other “hazards” in sharing a common cup. James and John and the others expect the cup Jesus offers to be sweet, the best of the harvest and served to them on a silver platter—and the baptism no more demanding than the dip in the river Jesus received from John the Baptist. John the Baptist asked for repentance and I’m sure the disciples are ready to repent. But are they ready for a bitter cup? Are they ready to humble themselves for the sake of the Gospel, as the Apostle Paul says, doing “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” regarding “others as better than yourselves,” looking “not to your own interests but to the interests of others”?
Time is so short and Jesus tries again to spell out what he expects from his disciples: stick together; give up anything, especially money, if it stands between you and God; and now, humbly serve others. Not complicated, just very, very hard to do! Jesus reminds the disciples there are two kinds of people: those who trust God and those who think they know better; those who give to the poor and have their treasure in heaven and those who prefer their treasure here on earth; those who serve and those who are happy to be waited on. If we’re really honest with ourselves, wouldn’t we all appreciate a “clergy discount”?
My friend, Peggy Greene, died awhile back and I still remember that at her service the theme was “humble service.” We were reminded about how Peg never liked to be out front—a hard worker, she was always the one who drove the van to band camp, who baked the twelve dozen cookies, and prompted the actors who were actually on-stage. She was the one who encouraged my sister to take up quilting and cheered when I went to seminary. She never thought any of this was that special—she was just doing what needed to be done, just being faithful to the task at hand. Churches can be like this, too—of course, there are the congregations who make headlines or fund huge building campaigns. You’ve probably seen the neon signs in front of some churches flashing snippets of scripture and claiming to have “the truth,” inside those well-kept walls. But most of us just quietly work behind the scenes. As one writer put it, “Once again the church finds itself on the sidelines of the culture. Many decry these changes. But when the church is not invited to the banquet, there is another possibility. We can stop looking for the world to give us the places of honor and get back to our rightful place in the kitchen.” (Martin B. Copenhaver, Christian Century, Oct. 5, 1994, p. 893) Whether it’s a free dinner or Vacation Bible School or any other task, Jesus doesn’t call us to be the star of the show or even successful; he calls us just to be faithful.
So, Jesus smiles a sad smile and continues on his way to Jerusalem, with the twelve and the crowds never far behind. They may not be perfect, these disciples and these crowds, and yet he loves them. He knows how hard it will be for them when all of what he’s told them happens. If he’s angry and impatient, he doesn’t show it—in fact, he continues to teach them his new way, to give them yet another chance to understand, another chance to live up to what he’s asked of them. He doesn’t reject them—he just keeps going to Jerusalem, knowing the cup that waits for him and for them. And imperfect as they are, the disciples follow. Later we read that James is beheaded and this may be the John who is imprisoned on Patmos. Supposedly Peter is crucified upside down and who knows what happened to the rest. Be careful what you ask for, we’re often told: you may get it. Drinking from the same cup as Jesus is a risky thing to do, yet to share in his life, to be part of the glory of God, means sharing in his obedience, his compassion and, most of all, his service.