Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 18, 2015
Mark 10:35-45 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
At some point during these last couple of years, some of you may have received an early morning e-mail from me and now know I’m an early riser. For some unfathomable reason, my brain seems to like those pre-dawn hours best. Recently, on a second cup of coffee and well into my thoughts for the day, my husband Rob came walking into the kitchen searching for his first cup of coffee. I was watching the sunrise as he casually asked, “What’s on your mind, honey?” I answered, “I’m pondering the merits of hierarchical leadership versus the ‘liberal’ communal ideal.” Ever the funny man, he turned on his heel to exit and said dryly, “I’m out.” Hilarity, laughter until tears, ensued. Fun, and funny, times.
The point of this story about coffee time in the kitchen is that there is a lot on my mind about leadership and systems – countries, families, and congregations. Augustana especially. No surprise there. Pastor Pederson retired almost a year and a half ago. Pastor Hytjan is our second interim pastor. We’re a large church in a call process for a Senior Pastor.
Reading the Bible verses today fits right into my current mode of thinking which is tricky territory for a preacher. You’ll have to help double check my thinking on the way through. Jesus is with the twelve apostles. They are a group of people, they have a leader. They are a system. And they are in an uncertain time.
In the verses just before the ones read today. Jesus had pulled the twelve aside and told them for the second time that they were headed to Jerusalem where the Son of Man, Jesus, would be handed over to be condemned to death, killed, and would rise again on the third day. The apostles are understandably concerned about what this means moving forward. The future sounds terrible, making the current moment uncertain.
I’m curious about James and John. They have some things right. Their instinct is to move toward Jesus. He’s a good place to start. We learn this in Sunday School. We sing it in our songs. When it doubt, head towards Jesus. If you pick up a pew Bible, and turn to the 10th chapter in Mark, you’ll find out that James and John come forward to Jesus immediately following his second speech about his death. The two of them move lightning fast. It’s like they fly right by the other ten apostles who seem to be frozen in place. It makes me curious. Were there conversations between James and John before that point? Maybe after the first time Jesus talked about his death. Had they already strategized between themselves to leave the ten out? Or was it more of a flight or fight response? Was it reactive rather than thoughtful?
It’s entirely possible that their adrenal glands were kicking into fight or flight and that they didn’t think. Oh, James and John sounded thoughtful alright. There were words involved after all. Interesting aside, just because words are involved, doesn’t mean gray-matter thinking is involved. James and John said to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
James and John want to be at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory. This request of theirs compresses Jesus into a two-sided, two-dimensional paper cut-out figure. More importantly, James and John are also looking to the future to feel secure. Looking to some future glory, that they do not understand, for security in the moment. But Jesus was onto them. He replied, “You do not know what you are asking.” Silly apostles.
In Jesus’ words that follow, the other apostles unfreeze. They become angry. Fight-or-flight hangover perhaps. Cortisol hormone still flowing from the fear of Jesus speech about Jerusalem and death. Nobody knows what to do with the ‘rising again’ comment. But now the other ten apostles are unfrozen, angry, and they circle up with James and John around Jesus. Jesus is their leader too after all.
And thank God for Jesus. Because the apostles are all looking to an indefinable future to feel secure in the now. Again, thank God for Jesus. Because Jesus responds to James, John, and the other apostles three-dimensionally. In effect, Jesus answers James and John’s need for a back to the future safety net by reorienting the apostles back towards each other in the now. Jesus says, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
I read an article recently about couples who tend to stay partnered well over time. There was some research done by The Gottman Institute along with the University of Washington on hundreds of couples to figure out why some couples do well and why some don’t. They identified behaviors that could predict marital outcomes from staying married happily to staying married unhappily to being divorced. I’ll save you some time. And tell you that after years of observation that netted reams of data, these researchers identified kindness as the number one indicator for staying happily married.
There’s one behavior worth mentioning in light of the Bible reading today. It has to do with “turning toward” and “turning away.” The research suggests that, in part, good outcomes in a relationship are consistently about turning toward the other person when we’re under stress ourselves. The all too easy route is to turn away when we are under stress. To turn away to our phone, to our gardening, to our newspaper, to Facebook, to whatever it is, and to ignore the other person when we’re under stress. This is true in marriage, in our place of work, in our school, in our churches. It’s true anywhere people are in groups and try to figure things out together.
When James and John are in an uncertain situation. Their first instinct is to turn away from the other apostles. We can call it fight or flight. We can even cast a good intention to it and suggest that they were focused on Jesus. But the bottom line is that they turned away from their people. Under pressure, they were not in connection, they were not in a posture of kindness to the other apostles.
The Bible verses in Mark show James and John doing an end-run around the other apostles on their way to Jesus as they seek security in an unknown future. They are right that Jesus is the person to turn to in an uncertain time. But it’s the end-run around their people that was problematic. Jesus reminds James and John and the other ten apostles to look around. Reorienting them, turning them towards each other and serving like Jesus who came to serve.
To be clear, leadership is good. A good leader makes a difference in every good system. As our next Senior Pastor will most certainly be identified, called and make a difference in the future of our congregation for the sake of the gospel. In the meantime, good people of Augustana, we continue as co-workers in the gospel, in the here and now. As Jesus reorients James, John, and the ten into the task at hand, Jesus reorients us, too – to continue turning towards each other and to continue serving as Jesus who came to serve.
Jesus does not just hand out a to-do list. Jesus just handed out a done-for-you list. This reorientation toward each other is done for us by Jesus. A done-for-you list, done by Jesus, at Jesus’ own expense, on a cross. This is a freedom toward each other for our own sake and for the sake of the world.
Christian freedom means that what Jesus has done for you on the cross, Jesus has done for you today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and for all the days ever. You are made free in Jesus. James and John were looking to secure their future in an uncertain time. The promise of God in Jesus is that your future is secure. You live free today in the love of God, forgiven by the very one who created you, and sent back to the now. Thank God for Jesus. Amen.
 Masters of Love. Emily Esfahani Smith. The Atlantic. June 12, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/