If you believe yourself worthless, a failure, Jesus wants to empower you. You are a child of God. You matter. You have eternal worth. If you have power, power to stay out of jail when you do something stupid, power to vote, power to write a check, to drive a car, to share a spare bedroom, to speak an encouraging word, Jesus invites you to spend that power to empower someone else. To give your advantage to somebody else so they have a chance.
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 26, 2018
Feet on the Ground
Mark 10:32-45 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
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.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But 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?” 39They 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; 40but 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ talks a lot about status and power, but it’s all upside down. Follow Jesus, and give away your status. Enter into suffering voluntarily. Who does that? For those of us with privilege, that is a part of our call. We follow a man who was executed as a criminal. Publicly shamed. He could have gotten out of it, I’m sure. Instead he allowed himself to be crushed by the Powers that Be, to become powerless, and then he rose, to lift up the powerless.
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus says among other things, “I was in prison, and you visited me.” Who’s visited a jail? You don’t need to say which side of the bars you were on. I have only visited a jail once. It was a soul-crushing experience: ugliness filled every room and everything that happened seemed designed to humiliate me, show me I didn’t matter. And I was just the visitor! The man I visited was fortunately a short-term resident of the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange. This man had a strong Christian faith, but only the steady support of his church friends, up to and including sharing their spare bedrooms with him for months, could convince him that he had any worth, and that he could make a life outside of jail. They did it for him because they saw Jesus in him, when he surely didn’t. “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
How many of us were taught to achieve, to be our best, to go for it? That’s a good thing, right? James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were taught to aim for success. They were following the new Messiah Jesus, the soon-to-be King, so they wanted to be top dogs in the new administration. Their power grab is embarrassing: didn’t they know Jesus better than that? Which is Mark’s way of telling us that we know better than to seek status like James and John. When Matthew tells this story, he has the Tiger Mom of James and John do the asking for them. But Mark’s gospel was written first. Mark wants us to know: if you do have power and status, be ready to give it away for the Gospel.
If you believe yourself worthless, a failure, Jesus wants to empower you. You are a child of God. You matter. You have eternal worth. If you have power, power to stay out of jail when you do something stupid, power to vote, power to write a check, to drive a car, to share a spare bedroom, to speak an encouraging word, Jesus invites you to spend that power to empower someone else. To give your advantage to somebody else so they have a chance. And not from a distance, but eye to eye, like we do when we share meals with our shelter guests.
Let me tell you about a ladder. It’s a well-climbed ladder. I’ve spent some time on this ladder. I never got to the top. A couple of times I thought I got pretty high, but that ladder just keeps going up. And it’s a rickety, slippery ladder. Sometimes I slid down that ladder, my back end going bump, bump, bump, and I found myself in a very low place.
Are you familiar with this ladder? It is the ladder of worth, of status. If you are up high on that ladder, ah, you feel good. You are really somebody. Until you look up and notice: the ladder keeps going up. And sometimes the ladder tilts, or we trip, and bump, bump, bump, down the rungs we go. Less than. When we really take a dive and land down in the sub-basement rungs, we’re feeling worthless and ashamed.
What sends you up and down that ladder of worth? We each have our own list. Maybe your ladder is about having money or an important job. Maybe it’s about getting someone’s good opinion. So many reasons to send you climbing up the ladder. So many reasons to bruise your behind slipping down that ladder. It’s the same ladder, whatever your reason for climbing it. You could even climb this ladder because you are so in touch with God, so righteous, so filled with the Spirit. You are an ascended master. Then, you go through a spiritual dry patch and down you go. Bump, bump, bump.
Here’s a secret that some of you already know. We can step off that ladder, stop climbing. You can let go of judging yourself or anybody else. You can take your feet off those rickety slippery rungs and plant them firmly on God’s good earth. With both feet on the ground, humble, we can relax, We’ve got nowhere to climb, and nowhere to fall. We’re on God’s wide earth, with enough room for everybody. Nobody better than, nobody less than.
If you have spent a lot of time and energy climbing the ladder, this sounds ridiculous. Give away your hard-earned status? Yes, for something better. Authentic connection with God and with other people.
The ladder is a trick. We never were less than, not in God’s eyes. And we never needed to be better than. We need to belong, to learn, to contribute, to be accepted, and valued, and loved. And we can’t do that while we’re dangling from a ladder. Picture two people on a ladder trying to hug. It just doesn’t work. When we step off the ladder onto terra firma, then we can stand together. We can see each other, eye to eye. We can hug.
What about all those other people, still on the ladder judging us. Yes, they’re still judging us. That’s their business, not ours. We need to find people with their feet on the ground. People will support us, instead of judging us.
Following Jesus can’t happen on a ladder. So whenever you find yourself climbing that ladder, just step off. Put both feet on the ground, on God’s wide earth, where you can relax. You can be honest about yourself and not be shamed. You can love and be loved. You can learn, and make mistakes, and not be a mistake. You can be accepted and celebrated for being you, flaws and all. And you can befriend people whose faces you never would have seen, if you were busy climbing the ladder. Jesus is not an ascended master at the top of the ladder. Somehow Jesus is in each of us, waiting to be discovered. Amen.