On the left and on the right

Message preached October 22, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon
Mark 10:35-45

In a little more than two weeks, many of us will be entering the voting booth to choose the next President of the United States. Of the two major candidates, one is somewhat on the left of the political spectrum, and the other is somewhat on the right. I say "somewhat," because both have been trying to get as close to the political center as possible. Now, there are those who say that this election provides a clear choice. Many other voices, however, are raised saying that what we have in the two major political parties are "tweedle-dee" and "tweedle-dum," There are, of course, other options.

Now, let me assure you, I donít plan to make this sermon a discussion of politics, endorsing one candidate over another. I recall 20 years ago, when I was new to this pastor "stuff," being advised by an elder minister to "always keep the people guessing as to your politics, never stating whether you are a Republican or a Democrat" (or whatever). For better or worse, Iíve followed this counsel, though Iím sure some can listen through what I say to discover how I lean. Of course, such might be misleading.

I also remember a discussion with my wifeís Uncle, a person I highly respect who is not so vague on his leanings. Something I said led him to reply, "so, you must be a Liberal." The way he pronounced it indicated he considered it close to profanity - the big "L" word. My comeback was this, "in some things Iím a liberal, in other things Iím a conservative." Itís not being wishy-washy. Itís the truth. "Conservative" and "liberal" are just swings of a pendulum. Furthermore, few people are across-the-board one or the other - including Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Instead of talking about Al and George this morning, however, Iíd rather turn our attention to James and John. These sons of their father, Zebedee, were two of the original disciples of Jesus, called away from their fishing nets on the sea of Galilee along with their colleagues Simon and Andrew. Now, gospel storyteller Mark indicates that Jesus gave James and John another" St James the Apostle," Peter Paul Rubens, 1612 name, "Boanerges," which Mark translated as "sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17). We really havenít a clue why this name was given by our Lord, or why Mark tagged on his own translation. It is never mentioned again, in the Bible or anywhere else.

"Boanerges" could also be connected to such words as "commotion," "excitement," "agitation," "tumult," "wrath," or even "shout." That name might indicate something of the character of these two brothers who, if they had lived today in the current state of Israel, might have been in the thick of the present conflict between Jew and Palestinian. The recent issue of Newsweek had a photo of a young man very angrily throwing a stone, focused upon some enemy not seen by the reader. A son of thunder?

We are uncomfortable with people who care so deeply about some cause that they are willing to die for it. We call them agitators, zealots or, even worse, terrorists. We are rightly shocked and outraged when a little boat pulls alongside a mighty warship and detonates a massive explosion, tearing a huge hole in its side, thus killing not only the two terrorists, but also 17 of the crew of that state-of-the-art military vessel. Bringing the guilty to justice will prove more difficult than consoling the grieving families, and retaliation could lead to war - a frightening prospect in a world where thermonuclear devices and deadly germs can possibly be smuggled anywhere by those who are willing to die for a cause.

I have a feeling we may be touching territory familiar to our two sons of Zebedee. If we consider that band of disciples Jesus called together a nice small group of boys weíd like to invite over for a cup of tea, we may have missed something. I have a sneaking suspicion that these two brothers would have made some of us very uncomfortable. They wouldnít be the folks that come up with those political campaign attack ads none of us like, but are still influenced by. No, James and John might be the attack ads themselves.

Please note that Iíve purposely pulled the sons of Zebedee further to the left or the right than what we have evidence for. After all, we donít really know what this "boanerges," "sons of thunder" bit is all about. I also have a feeling that Jesus had a profound effect on these two men - his teaching, his very presence with them, his death, and his resurrection from the grave. Can someone be transformed by Christ? We wouldnít be here today if that were not the case, would we?

In this morningís portion of the gospel as told by Mark, we find James and John coming to Jesus with what appears to be a somewhat selfish request. "Rabbi, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." (Mark 10:35) Actually that request doesnít sound so bad when heard in light of something Jesus promised, "ask and it will be given you..." (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9) Of course, as Mark tells the story, this assurance, worded a bit differently, is spoken after this encounter with James and John. In the next chapter, Jesus says, "whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." (Mark 11:24) Even so, weíre still a bit uncomfortable with that request of James and John.

"Do for us whatever we ask of you...." Funny, but isnít that sort of what an election boils down to for so many people. We vote for the person who will do the most for us. We say weíre sick and tired of all the promises politicians make to get us on their side, but when it comes down to it isnít that what tends to drive the whole machine? "Do for us whatever we ask of you." Am I wrong? And, you know what, itís always been that way, whether we call it selfishness, or enlightened self-interest. It seems that when it comes to elections, at least in this country, on one side we have enlightened self-interest and on the other we have zealous crusading for a particular cause. And Iím not talking Liberal verses Conservative, Democrat verses Republican (or whatever).

Back to Jesus and the sons of Zebedee. Our Lord, in response to their request simply asks, Okay, "what is it you want me to do for you?" To which they replied, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." A humorous sidenote: gospel storyteller Matthew also relates this episode, but there itís not the "sons of thunder" who bodly ask, itís their mother. James and John hide behind her skirts, so to speak. A very different picture, wouldnít you say? Sometimes we perceive a person as forthright or aggressive. Other times we may see them as insecure or hesitant. Itís the same person, though, isnít it? I presume Matthew and Mark are telling about the same James and John. There are as many angles on the same person as there are people to observe him.

Anyway, here is the request - when push comes to shove, when things turn out the way they should, James and John want to be next to Jesus, one on the left and the other on the right. If indeed their desire is to stick close to our Lord, through thick and thin, is that so bad? Of course, what they meant by "glory" is the question of the hour. Were these sons of thunder envisioning a tumultuous battle in which they wanted to be right there with Jesus, fighting at his side in the middle of the glorious conflict? "Glory, glory, hallelujah, his truth is marching on..." A zealotís dream, which from the other side may be perceived as a terrorist nightmare. Weíll die for you!

Maybe thatís not what they meant, however. Perhaps the sons of Zebedee were thinking about after the war was over, with the glory being the throne in which the victor would sit. The left hand or the right would then be a position of power and influence. Were James and John lobbying Jesus for the spoils after the contest? Iíll campaign for you, Iíll vote for you, if you give me what I want.... What motivated James and John, the zeal of the crusader or en lighted self-interest? Could be a combination of both.

"You donít know what youíre asking," Jesus responded. "Are you able to drink from the same cup as I will?" Their last words in this episode are simply, "we are able," which doesnít really answer our questions about their motivations. Thatís probably a good thing. This way, we can stop looking at them and start looking at us, asking of ourselves the same questions. What motivates us? Are we really able to drink from the cup of Christ? Those should never be easy to answer, brothers and sisters!

Forty years ago, another Presidential election brought into office a candidate who challenged us with a sentence which has been remembered ever since. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." What we think of that man and his politics, as well as what may have motivated him to utter those words, does not matter. Itís what such a simple sentence motivates in us thatís important.

Thereís another sentence which, as I see it, is a better motivator than anything said in any inaugural address uttered in front of the capital of the most powerful nation in the world. The words are from Jesus, son of a carpenter, son of God. He spoke them to all his disciples, after they started to get upset at that request from James and John to sit at his side in glory, one on the right and one on the left. "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must become slave of all." (Mark 10:43-44)

This is definitely not a picture of someone who acts only upon his or her own self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. Likewise, it is not a portrait of a politician (on the left or on the right) saying whatever needs to be said in order to get elected. Furthermore, few crusading zealots would find this image all that appealing, for greatness (as Jesus here defines it) is not found in the heat of glorious battle. It is not discovered in getting your own way. It is not seen in reaching the supposed pinnacle of power. Instead, true greatness is discerned in the rather inglorious act of giving yourself for others.

Now, Iím not sure how that might help you in the decision process that awaits on November 7th. Some of us already have our minds made up as to who weíll vote for. And some of us may not vote, though Iíd encourage you to reconsider and participate in this privilege and responsibility of living in a democracy. My words, however, are intended for beyond this election. What matters is not so much which public servant we choose to rule over us but, rather, what sort of "public" servants we choose to become. Are we in life for the glory of it all? Are we out only for what benefits us the most? Is our interest, primarily, in whatever is most popular? Or are we motivated by the call of Christ and the need of others, whom we find on the left and on the right? Even if thatís not good "politics," itís the way of the cross.

©2000 Peter L. Haynes

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