Have you noticed the guitar theme this morning? It has everything to do with my own personal frame of reference when I hear this reading from Mark’s gospel. There was a time in my life when I loved country and western music—and I really loved close harmony groups, especially the Oak Ridge Boys. They started out as a gospel group. One of their songs unpacks today’s gospel reading with a modern metaphor. This is the refrain:
Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus.
It seems like everybody wants to be the lead singer in the band.
I know it's hard to get a bead on what’s divine
when everybody’s pushing for the head of the line.
Things aren’t working out the way he planned.
The disciples can’t seem to stop pushing for the head of the line. The scriptures don’t tell us what motivated the brothers James and John to ask Jesus if they could sit on Jesus’ right and left hand. They, along with Peter, had been with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, so they may have believed that they were special friends to Jesus. After all, they were two of the first disciples that he called to follow him. From the other disciples’ angry response, the assumption of privilege and favoritism may really have been their intention. These were people with almost no social status—fishermen, a tax collector, men who followed an itinerant preacher—who were imagining Jesus being anointed as king of the land. Jesus knew that was not remotely a possibility. He knew he was on a path that did not lead to glory, but more likely death. So Jesus asks them if they can drink of the same cup that he will. Can they face the same hatred for daring to speak for God and against empire? Can they take the same kind of abuse and scorn? Are they willing to be accused of blasphemy, or worse, treason? Are they willing to die for their words and actions? We have a hymn penned by seminary professor Earl Marlatt that asks the same questions:
"Are ye able," said the Master,
"to be crucified with me?"
"Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered,
"to the death we follow thee."
And like the disciples James and John, we sing:
Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.
Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.
I’ve sung that hymn with romantic, idealized zeal, believing that I, like James and John, would be able. But in reality, I do what I think the sons of Zebedee may really have had in mind.
Maybe I’m projecting my intentions onto James and John, but I wonder if they were trying to manage Jesus, much like a campaign manager attempts to control a candidate. They could protect Jesus if they could advise and guide him away from his more outrageous and dangerous moves. They might help Jesus to be less controversial and less threatening to those in power. They could improve his likeability quotient and protect him from offending with his revolutionary ideas about human dignity and economic justice.
I think we do that all the time. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in America, the church has become a business that needs to be attractive in order to stay in business. We are not at all comfortable with being the kind of radical agents for change that Jesus calls his disciples to be. We don’t want to offend anyone. We don’t want to go door to door sharing our faith, much less speak truth to power. We have privatized and domesticated Jesus. He is our personal Savior. We want him to behave as we do, and of course bless our actions. We are very comfortable with our American lives, with our success, and our faith needs to fit neatly, and quietly, into our customs. When we read Jesus’ words and parables, we work hard to find the wiggle room. We substitute what we think for what he said.
Maybe that’s not true for you, but if I am honest, it’s true for me. I love Jesus and I have dozens of artistic crosses to prove it. It’s the real cross that I’m afraid of. A few weeks ago, after our reconciling exploration workshop, one of our members said, “Wouldn’t it be (now here I’m not sure of the word) wonderful (or fun) to be the radical church?!” That’s our heritage, you know. John Wesley’s preaching was so unpopular that he was disinvited from speaking in churches. He had to speak in fields and on hilltops. He unveiled the devious actions of the British mine owners who sold very cheap gin to miners on credit to keep them indebted to their employers and bound to the mines. Along with that indebtedness came drunken domestic violence. Wesley spoke truth to power and urged miners to resist the evil scheme. He encouraged miners to meet weekly to share their struggles and pray for one another, to practice personal and social holiness. Wesley was not popular with mine owners or the wealthy establishment. But Methodism spread like wildfire among the poor.
Personal holiness cannot be separated from social holiness. Jesus told his disciples plainly that they must be the servants, or slaves, of all. As disciples, we are to cast our lot with the disempowered, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. We should always stand with the immigrant. We should always be on the side of the poor and the homeless. Our doors should always be open with no exclusions—open to everyone—period. That’s scary. It means that everyone won’t like us. It means that everyone won’t agree with us. We sang another hymn last week asking if we are able:
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?
Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
Here’s the deal. Being afraid of what others will think should not shape our ministry. Public opinion doesn’t matter as much as being faithful to follow Jesus. The only One who needs to approve already showed us that dying is only the beginning. Everything we do should back up the One who turned tables in the temple and announced Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor. Everything we do should be like playing rhythm guitar behind Jesus. Wouldn’t it be exciting to be the radical church?