My wife and I just got our voting ballots in the mail yesterday. It’s just over two weeks before Election Day and unexpectedly, two simple fishermen have a word for us voters: James and John approach Jesus and say, Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory. Did you catch that? Right. Left. Right wing. Left wing. They’re interested in sharing power! Who’s ever heard of such a thing in our time!
If we get nothing else out of today’s reading, maybe that’s enough to ponder: What would our cities, our state, and our nations be like if Christians were to get serious about praying this prayer? Dear God, show us how to set aside our differences and love one another. Show us how to share power. Show us how to be at peace.
Give them credit! By this time in their relationship James and John believed that Jesus could do anything. Why else would they make such an extravagant request! In our gospel reading a few weeks ago, as they wrapped up a road trip Jesus asked these same men what they’d been talking about on the road. They were embarrassed because they’d been arguing about who among them was the greatest. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all, Jesus had said to them. In the weeks since we heard that reading, over and over Jesus has used children—some of the most powerless among us—as examples of what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom on earth. Unless you receive the kingdom as a child you cannot enter, he said.
And yet, for all that, here his disciples are once again, jockeying for power. Now, to be fair, we have to cut these guys some slack. As fishermen, they were at the very bottom of the social ladder. For the first time in their lives they taste dignity, hope, and power—things that many of us take for granted. These guys actually began to imagine they would have the inside track to real power.
But the disciples’ request of Jesus is really a familiar one; in fact, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” is a request we make every day. If I go into Fred Meyer or Safeway I choose what groceries I want, put them in the cart, go to the check-out, pull out my money and pay. Now, I don’t walk up to the cashier and say, “I want you to do for me whatever I want,” but that is my expectation. I give you, the cashier, money. You give me what I want, at least equal value, in return.
It’s certainly the relationship we have with our politicians. We pay our taxes. You give us what we want. We vote for you; you give us what we want. Which is very different from asking how we can serve those who have the least.
In last week’s gospel reading Peter said to Jesus, Look, we have left everything to follow you. And he was right! But it turns out that leaving everything didn’t mean “no strings attached.” Peter and the other disciples chose to follow Jesus and they expected something in return, but not just a little something! Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory. We give you all we have, Jesus. You reward us in return.
This is what’s called a consumer economy. It’s so much a part of our daily life that we don’t think about it. I don’t know how many of you are offended by the label “consumer” but I am. When politicians and advertisers label me a consumer, they intend it as a positive thing; but I get angry when I hear that because the word “consumer” puts me on the same level as leeches, vampire bats and mosquitoes. They also consume. In fact, all living things consume nutrients in order to survive.
As your pastor, my prayer is that over time you, too, will grow to be offended by how society chooses to shape your identity. We were created, according to the book of Genesis, in the image of God. And according to the book of Hebrews, which we heard just a couple of weeks ago, we were created just a bit lower than the angels. And since one month after I was born I have been baptized “child of God.” Our leaders and advertisers, though, call us “consumers”; how pathetic, how offensive for people who are children of God to be reduced to the same level as the very lowest forms of life.
And yet, we accept these labels. They are powerful because, like James and John, we see some advantage in it for ourselves. I give you something; you give me something in return. We are a nation of consumers, and not just material goods and services. Among Christians this is no less true. We also are consumers…of spiritual and religious goods and services!
If people are interested in a faith community they are very likely to go church shopping. What church will meet my needs? It’s the same request that James and John made: We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. And even those among us who are rooted in a faith community are tempted toward consumerism. The church becomes a provider of religious goods and services: baptisms, confirmation, weddings, and funerals. I put my offering in the plate and I expect something in return. I expect a share of power, as James and John expected of Jesus. But as soon as an offering to God has strings attached it ceases to be an offering and becomes little more than an investment, or membership dues.
An investment, by definition, expects a return. I give you something; you give me something back. Membership dues serve the same function: I pay money and I get the privileges that come with membership.
But a genuine offering to God is something else entirely. An offering is given not in response to the financial needs of an institution; not with the expectation of some personal power or advantage. A true offering is given out of gratitude to God, and out of the deep need of the giver to give. This is what we proclaim here at Lakeridge Lutheran Church. We give not in order to get; we give in response to what is already ours as a free gift, beyond any ability on our part to earn. We already have received God’s unconditional love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Notice the response of the other disciples to James and John’s request. When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. But their anger was not in response to the selfishness of James and John. They were angry, no doubt, because they hadn’t gotten to Jesus first.
But Jesus says to them, as he says to us, It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. The One who came among us as one of us sets an example to follow.
God created us not to be consumers but servants. We who were created in the image of God, we who were created slightly lower than the angels, we who are baptized children of God are called to something greater than simply responding to our animal instincts and an economic survival of the fittest.
What would our communities and nation be like if Christians began to live as though we really believe this stuff? What if we showed up on
Sunday morning not with the expectation of being consumers of religious goods and services? What if we came not with the idea of having our needs met or getting a return on an investment but with the goal of being equipped through God’s saving word and meal not to be served but to serve, and as disciples of Jesus Christ, to give our lives a ransom for many?
Well, many of you do. Many among you each day choose not merely to admire what Jesus has done for you, but to follow his example and his teaching to be, not consumers of religious goods and services, but servants of all!