What are you asking?

TEXTS:  Psalm 104; Hebrews 5:1-10 ; Mark 10:32-45

Journey with Jesus – beauty and thorny

“Come, let us worship God….Here God’s children find comfort and hope.”
We want to walk as children of light finding justice and peace in God’s reign.
We want to be known by our love….the love of God.
We blessed baby Sam and “Our souls are filled with joy.”
We bless and praise you, O God.
Already this morning we have sung and said all that and more. Thanks be to God. Here we are a worshiping body. There is beauty in this body and the God we worship. Yet we know so well that we are not immune to or ignorant of a thorny world. I want to pick up on our garden theme from last Sunday. This summer I was playing with Olivia in our back yard. Olivia loves flowers – to smell and pick any kind of flower however small or large. This time we were admiring roses on our rose bushes. Olivia recognizes the beauty of roses so she wants to pick them.  I helped Olivia understand that for all their beauty roses also have thorns.  Their beauty is accompanied by thorny stickers that can hurt us if we are not careful. Among other thorny matters of life, we are in a thorny election season. I suppose the beauty of it is that we have elections.

Today’s gospel poses the beauty and thorny challenge of our journey with Jesus. Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem; it is a road lined with beautiful thorny roses. Hear the gospel: Mark 10: 32-45….This is the gospel!

The journey with Jesus is always challenging (ch 10 proclaimed Sundays of Oct 7, 14, 21, 28).  Jesus upset social and family norms by blessing children as models of God’s reign. Jesus upset economic and religious norms by pointing out that rich rule-keepers have a very hard time getting into God’s reign. Those who hear and are on the journey with Jesus are continually amazed and afraid.  There is so much beauty with Jesus. And every time they are awed by beauty Jesus presents them with a thorny matter.  For the third time “on the road, going up to Jerusalem” Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. In Mark’s gospels the disciples never get it; more mindful of presumed beauty than thorns.  James and John work up a scheme and secretly tell Jesus to grant whatever they ask. Jesus shrewdly asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  They quickly reply, “Appoint us secretary of state and secretary of defense.”  Jerusalem is a place of power and Jesus will rule, we want the right and left hand of power.  Oh the beauty of power! If only it wasn’t so thorny.  Jesus tells them bluntly, “You don’t know what you’re asking” and “it’s not mine to give.”

Yes, it is the way of rulers to lord it over others.  Yes, they are going to Jerusalem where ruling and lording are beautifully abundant.  Jesus’ way is the cup and baptism, death and resurrection. Can you drink this cup and be baptized into this upside down reign of God?

Ched Myers summarizes Jesus rightly in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark: “The supreme irony is that the phrase ‘on the right and on the left’ will appear again to describe [the two] crucified with Jesus….Jesus does not repudiate the vocation of leadership, but rather insists that…Leadership belongs only to those who learn and follow the way of nonviolence – who are ‘prepared’ not to dominate but to serve and suffer at Jesus’ side”  (Binding the Strong Man, 278).

Jesus calls us to be God’s children in God’s reign – a reign that turns the world upside down. The beauty of this upside down reign is to be lived out in our thorny world. Jesus’ question to James & John is ours: “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus’ challenge to James & John is ours: “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus challenges us to ask very different questions than James and John did. What are we asking in this thorny election season?

In an earlier life I did political organizing, working on campaigns in Iowa in 1966-68-70-72. Those were exciting energizing times. We lost and we won; we knew the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.   And yes, they were maddening times, although I must say not as maddening as today.  James and John’s temptation was ever present – vying for left, right, and center of power.  I loved it and thrived in it; and it was dangerous deceptive work. In a story too long to tell here I was called away from political life into ministry in 1973.  Now in this my 12th presidential election I find myself struggling more than ever with voting. The differences are clearer than ever; and key similarities are stronger than ever. What does it mean to follow Jesus and to participate in the imperial apparatus of our nation? Is it possible to vote with a conscience?

I have never quit allowed myself to accept “voting for the lesser of two evils.” This fall I have wanted to write on “The illusion of democracy and the delusion of voting.”  How easy it is to be deluded with James and John vying for the left and right hand of power? By-the-way, in practical political terms in this country there is no left left.  In the past 40 years the political landscape has shifted far to the right. “Christian” claims have driven that shift to the right and to more polarized politics. This tells us something about the thorny dangers of seeking the right hand of power.  Or are we the ten angry disciples who find ourselves outmaneuvered by James and John?  Are we blinded by “the illusion of democracy and the delusion of voting?”  By now all of you are annoyed and want to respond. Please do in Adult Study!

The election compels us to keep James and John’s temptation in view.  Even more we are to keep in view Jesus’ rebuff of attempts to seek left or right seats of power. With both in view I want to pose some principles as questions for voting with a conscience.  These are not the only principles to consider. In our adult study we can identify others.  It would be better to grapple with these along the way rather than in the thorny throes of election. But now we find ourselves on the Jerusalem road with Jesus two weeks before the election.

First principle question: How does our vote reveal we are God’s children in God’s reign?
Our worship theme from this part of Jesus’ journey is being God’s children in God’s reign.  We are the body of Christ manifested in the Church made visible in the world. Jesus is clear that we cannot give allegiance to both God and emperor, Christ and flag.  Jesus is on The Way to Jerusalem not to vie or vote for power but as servant of all.    How does our vote give witness to Jesus?  How does it let others “know we are Christian by our love?” We didn’t sing that song but Maxine played it earlier in worship as we offered our gifts to God. Here is what we know is happening across the Mennonite Church USA in these times. As more Mennonites vote we are voting increasingly for conservative Christian candidates.  A recent study confirms that 51% of Mennonites identify as Republican, 22% as Democrat.  Mennonites are rapidly succumbing to a false christianization and polarization of politics. Now some Mennonites call for electing not to vote or celebrating communion on election day. However worth considering, how is this shift addressed or denied by not voting or communion? I will be on retreat November 5-6 and have not planned to celebrate communion here at SMC.

Second principle question: How do we live faithfully and responsibly in the real world?
This is a question not about faithfulness or effectiveness but of faithfulness and effectiveness. We have to struggle with what it looks like today to faithfully follow Jesus in a responsible way.
The most effective witness we give is being faithful; being an alternative body politic. Becoming more Americanized and polarized is not The Way of being faithful followers of Jesus.
Becoming more sectarian or shutting out electoral noise is not faithfulness to Jesus. After all Jesus is taking disciples to Jerusalem, a seat of power.  How does our vote help us be faithful and responsible? Do we imagine our vote to be our primary act of responsibility? Are we so unimaginative?  Imagine ten thousand Mennonites in Washington DC in prolonged nonviolent witness?  Imagine ten million Christians in Washington DC in ongoing nonviolent witness? What effect might it have on how our country wages war on people who are poor or of color
or of other faiths or from other nations or are in any way ‘not us’?   What witness are we called to that may be more faithful and effective than casting a vote?   Are we asking deep enough questions? I think not! I know I’m not.

The late John Howard Yoder challenged us to live the “politics of Jesus” over national politics. He encouraged to bear witness in ways more faithful and effective than electoral politics.
In an article “On Not Being in Charge” (War and It’s Discontents, edited by J. Patout Burns, pp. 74-90) Yoder challenges our presumptions: We assume that we both can and should “take responsibility” for the macro course of events, and then from that objective we derive the justification for practical measures it takes to get there, such as getting elected to office, organizing and deploying military might, and whatever else it takes. That set of assumptions is so omnipresent that for many it is inconceivable that it might be doubted.
Yoder gives reason for doubting those assumptions by documenting from the underside of history, both in Judaism and Christian history, the witness of those who, while “not being in charge,” are more faithful and effective in their social and political witness.

Martin Luther King certainly understood that truth. Nonviolent witness drove the Civil Rights Act to fruition in 1964. After its passage King met with President Johnson and called for a Voting Rights Act. The President told him he had used up all his political capital and it would take years to pass a Voting Rights Act. King said they didn’t have years, it was needed now. With more nonviolent witness on the streets a Voting Rights Act was passed within a year. Who believes that had King relied on elected office and lobbying and political action money that either Civil or Voting Rights would have passed in the ferment of the mid-60s?

Religiously motivated efforts to “take control” and “make history come out right” very often result in greater oppression and domination, more violence and injustice, increased militarization and surveillance, and diminished freedom. Two mighty powers the United States and Israel manifest those religious impulses. We know that more and more Mennonites are voting “American” and calling it “christian.” Is our vote just another way to vote “American” and call it “christian” or ignore being Christian?

Third principle question: Who is helped and who is harmed with our vote?
Another way we could pose this challenge is one we should have learned from Nixon and Watergate in 1972. It is the one FBI leader Mark Felt, then known as Deep Throat, kept telling Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein: “Follow the money!”  They did and it undid Richard Nixon as president. [Cf. George McGovern who died today] Today more blatantly than ever money matters most – maybe it’s all that matters anymore.  A billion dollars is being spent in each of the two major presidential campaigns.  Most of it buys demeaning ads placed with corporate powers masquerading as news media.

Jesus confronts James and John about not lording it over others from left, right, or center. How does our vote give witness to the reversal of first and last in God’s reign?  How does our vote seek to serve rather than be served? Whom do we serve with our vote?  Jesus did not say, “What you do for the greatest of these you do to me.” Jesus did not even say, “What you have done for the middle class you do to me.” Jesus said bluntly and definitively, “What you do to the least of these you do to me.”  Tavis Smiley and Cornell West, Sojourners and others have tried to focus these concerns. But there is no money or political capital in “the least of these.”  Jesus confronted James and John, with another way and reason for going to Jerusalem. “It is not mine to grant” and “It is not so with you.” How does our vote not fall into the trap of those who lord it over and support those who serve?

The word from the Hebrew text (5:7) that cries to be heard today is another word from Jesus. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.”
Today we offer up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears with Jesus.

Other principle questions call for our attention in this election season.  What do we fear and how does fear subvert our faithfulness to Jesus?  Is there a difference between voting in local elections and national elections? One wise Mennonite elder on principle has never voted for president but votes locally.

“What are we asking?” when it comes to electoral politics? Jesus is speaking to us as much as to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking?”  Today Jesus speaks a thorny word to us: “You know that among you are rulers who lord it over others…But it is not so among you.” What are we asking and not asking with our vote? But do we hear Jesus?