Proper 24(B): There’s No “I” in Team!
By: The Rev. Laura Brekke
There are so many ways to read scripture. We continually find deeper, richer meanings in the text. Stories that seem so familiar can still surprise us; they can still offer new insights to our human condition. This reading from the Gospel of Mark is no different.
There are rich sermons to be mined from the presumptions of James and John. Asking to be at Jesus’ right and left hands means asking for seats of power and honor in the ancient world. Their misunderstanding of the kind of ministry—of the kind of glory—that Jesus offers is a wonderful topic to bring forth. It’s a wonderful illustration of royally missing the point.
So too is the topic of servant leadership. True Christians leaders are not the ones out front saying, “Look at me! Look at my piety!” Indeed, in our selfie-stick world, Jesus’ emphasis that personal honor and glory are not to be pursued are counter-cultural. The ideals of servant leadership—of humility and putting others before yourself—were radical in the first century and are certainly radical today.
Both of these are excellent beginnings for prayer, reflection, and proclamation.
However, I will offer a third place to draw out the scripture. This is about teamwork.
When James and John ask to be seated at Jesus right and left hand, they are asking to be elevated above their peers. By asking for the places of glory and honor, not only do they miss the point that the Kingdom of God is about selfless service to others, but they also undermine the equity between the disciples. This is a community, a traveling team of believers spreading the Good News. Suddenly, two of the community are asking to be raised up; to be honored above the others, since only one person can stand on either side of Jesus.
This is a disruption to the new Kingdom that Jesus ushers in. Jesus scolds them, telling them they don’t know what they’re asking for. When the rest of the community hears about the request—the request to disrupt the peer to peer equality that has grown among them—they are disgruntled.
Of course they are! This is like the guy on your team who takes all the credit for a work project and asks for a promotion, not pausing to acknowledge any of the work the rest of you have done. This is like the kid who boasts that they are the star of the play, forgetting all the work of the tech crew and fellow actors. This is the star quarterback who only talks about himself and doesn’t acknowledge his teammates.
This is the human desire to be raised to glory—to seek human honor and validation. And Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking.”
Because in this new Kingdom things will be turned upside down. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, and lions will lay down with lambs, and little children will lead them. To sit in the place of honor is to suffer more, not less. It is to give of yourself more, not less. It is to see yourself as a member of a whole—of a body—with a unique and valuable part to play, but not a more or less important part to play. It is about equity and equality and making all things new.
The ten have good reason to grumble at James and John. They are acting like men of the world—men in pursuit of earthly glory and acknowledgement—and not men of the Beloved Community.
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v 42b-45)
This new Kingdom will require equity. It will require a new modus operandi. It will require a new paradigm. James and John are still thinking within the old paradigm—a paradigm of earthly praise and honor. But in the Beloved Community there isn’t room for some to be “great” and others to be, well, not great.
The ten probably felt betrayed. They probably felt that the sacred bond of equality and equity between them was violated. Because it was.
As we consider the Church today, how does glory-seeking prevent true Beloved Community? Where is the cohesion of a team disrupted by those who are more attached to worldly validation instead of selfless commitment to others? Where have you struggled with seeking glory, instead of selfless service?
A sermon on the interdependence of the disciples—their teamwork and internal community—and how the request of James and John disrupted it would be welcome in many churches and congregations. It may be a space to call out the need for confession of sin—both personal and structural (like, how does implicit white supremacy and/or patriarchy create an entitlement that mirrors the request of James and John?). It may be a space to air out grievances, or to open the conversation for congregations needing to work through power struggles.
It may offer a point of reorientation and redirection. If you’re focused on being the greatest you can’t be on a team. The Beloved Community is an interdependent team of believers working together for God’s kingdom.
An African proverb says: “If you wish to go fast, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.”
Jesus desires us to go far. He sends us out to go two by two. Let us create healthy teams—Beloved Communities—that go far with and for the Gospel.
The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.