October, 21, 2012

“Where the Road Leads”
Mark 10:35-45

Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost, “Mountain Interval” 1916

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 20

What is clear to all of us reading this story — but is not clear to the disciples, who are characters in Mark’s story — is that the disciples think they know who Jesus is and why he has come. But they really don’t get it. Not fully.

And because of that, they do not know what it means to follow Jesus. They don’t yet understand where this road called discipleship leads.

Jesus is, as he tells James and John after their request, a servant Messiah. And to follow a servant Messiah means, well, to be a servant: “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” (Mark 10:44-45).

It could be the second part that throws them. Death is never a particularly inviting perk offered to the members of an organization. Even death that does not insist on being defined by the succession of bodily functions. It isn’t popular, obsessed as we are about ‘getting the most out of life.’

I know plenty of people who are as good as dead. They walk around, go to work, breathe, eat, sleep, all that stuff. Still, life is dead for them; life is without meaning, feeling, value, they are as good as dead. For most of the folks I am thinking about, this condition came on when something difficult, chronic, has come upon them. Then, even though life continues to offer the same opportunity and beauty, they are unable to receive it. This situation is exemplifies the truth that life is not about what you get out of it, but rather, what you put into it. To anticipate what we receive in life as the source of our joy leads to disappointment.

Marcus Borg speaks about death in a positive way, as a way out of this trap of disappointment. Borg speaks of this kind of dying as a metaphor with two meanings, both at the core of Christian faith: “a dying of the self as the center of its own concern” and “a dying to the world as the center of security and identity.” That kind of dying, Borg says, leads to transformation, when we lose our self-absorbed insecurities and are reborn: “the radical recentering brings about a change so sharp that it can be described as dying to an old life and being born into a new life.” It happens to different people in different ways (and we don’t accomplish it – it happens to us), whether sudden or by a long journey, but it surely involves “a letting go.” And here Borg, as always, points to the heart of the matter when Jesus caused so much trouble by challenging the religious leaders who had found their own security in the “conventional wisdom” of the world around them. In Jesus’ own day and in our own as well, we run the same risk, even (and perhaps especially) in the life of faith, when we seek legitimation “of a way of life rather than invitation to a new way of life.” (Marcus Borg, “Jesus: A New Vision – Spirit, Culture and the Life of Discipleship,” SPCK, 1994)

It is easy to see that Jesus is telling the disciples that the faithful life has little or nothing to do with what you get out of it.

The reign of God is so very different from our conventional way of doing things, and our conventional beliefs about what is best. Jesus calls us (and teaches us by example) to “transform the world, not from the top down but from the bottom up. The ultimate trickle-up effect.” That’s the power the God gives us in abundance, “the strongest stuff in the world: the power to serve” (Barbara Brown Taylor, ‘The Trickle-Up Effect’, Bread of Angels’, Cowley, 1997.)

This is why the churches task of making and supporting disciples is so important. It is also why this task is so difficult. See, Jesus is not a technique for getting what we want out of God; Jesus is God’s way of getting what God wants out of us. God wants a world, a world redeemed, restored to God. And the way God gets that is with ordinary people like us who are willing to walk like Jesus, talk like Jesus, yes, and even to focus on serving others to the point of sacrifice.

As with so many things about the life of the Spirit, this, too, is full of paradox: it is only when we are free of the desperate need to “be number one,” free of our fear, that we find our real selves, our real self-worth and sense of accomplishment, our real vocation, our real gifts, and our real reward.