On the Sunday just past, one of the Scripture readings assigned for the day was Mark 10:32-45, and it reads like this in the New International Version:
[Jesus and His disciples] were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him.
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “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.”
Like most pastors, I’m familiar with being in meetings when I thought I was being clear about something, only to have somebody else immediately come up with some question or issue out of left field that I was totally not expecting, and completely unprepared to answer. Like most pastors, I’ve preached a sermon or two that included what I considered a throw-away example or illustration, only to discover afterward that everyone was gushing with enthusiasm about the example and seemed to have totally missed the point I was trying to get across. Like most pastors, and maybe like Jesus in this section from Saint Mark’s Gospel, I have been caught responding to somebody’s seemingly innocent question or request with a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face and a rush of brain cells trying to figure out how to choke out an answer that might make some sense.
I don’t want go down any of those rabbit holes today, though. Instead, I’d like take you in a completely different direction.
Today this section from Mark’s Gospel reminded me of something I read a few years back in William Willimon’s book “Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry” in which he says that his ‘colleague Stanley Hauerwas has accused the contemporary pastor of being little more than “a quivering mass of availability.”’ Willimon goes on to say that ‘Practicing what I have called “promiscuous ministry”—ministry with no internal, critical judgment about what care is worth giving—we become victims of a culture of insatiable need. We live in a capitalist, consumptive culture where there is no purpose to our society other than “meeting our needs.”’
How often have you pastors walked blindly into a conversation that started, “Pastor, can you do me a favor?” Of course, when it happens often enough red flags start to wave madly in your imagination, but you still kindly and courteously answer “I don’t know. Please tell me what’s on your mind.” Then comes the ask, and you have to decide how you’re going to answer.
You might decide that you are certainly capable and willing, and have the time and resources, to do what they ask, and so you gladly agree. But how do you decide whether their request is something that you should turn down? You could be up front and tell them directly that you don’t want to do it, or you could fish around for some kind of excuse. Jesus gives a hint to a much better approach in this Gospel lesson: remember what God has called you to do.
Jesus reminds James and John, and the others, too, that He did not come to be served, but to serve. He reminds them that being His disciples should be about learning how this applies to them, too, if they’re really going to be His disciples. (By the way, it’s possible Peter learned that lesson a little TOO well, since he refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet in the upper room; but that story is in John’s Gospel, not Mark’s). And maybe a pastor also learns the lesson a little TOO well, when they translate the “call to serve” as “granting every request everyone asks” and so ultimately becoming that “quivering mass of availability.”
Some years back our church took delivery of a farm tractor with a mower deck for our 4-acre lawn at the church. As a couple of us were watching the delivery guys rolling the tractor off the trailor one of our members said to me “So, pastor, are you going to learn to drive this tractor?” I said that I didn’t think so. He said, “That’s good! If somebody tries to get you on it you should ask them if they pay you to preach and teach or do they pay you to mow the grass.” I took that message to heart, and in the years since then I’ve never once mowed the grass at church (even during a few lean summers, when we had trouble getting volunteeers to do it).
That’s the point I want to bring out about this Gospel lesson today. As a pastor, I do want to be available in ministry to our members, even when it’s inconvenient to my schedule or sometimes to my family’s expectations of me. But as Jesus hinted to James and John that day, and to us too, the fact that I am here to serve does not mean I am called to grant every favor, and neither are you. As pastors and church workers, you and I don’t have to be “quivering masses of availability” to people expecting us to meet needs they think they have. You and I are called to the ministry of sharing the Gospel of Jesus, whether that’s from the pulpit or in the classroom, in the sick room or in a counseling conversation. The sharing of the Gospel that Jesus did took different forms on different days, too – preaching and teaching one day, healing and casting out demons another day, apologetics against the Pharisees a third day – but Jesus always kept His mission clear in His mind and heart. He came to serve us by dying on the cross, trading His life for ours to give us the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of heaven.
People sometimes ask if there’s anything Jesus couldn’t do, and in this Gospel lesson it’s this: He couldn’t grant James and John’s request, because it was outside the bounds of His call and His mission. That’s something for us to keep in mind: If Jesus the Son of God could say, “I can’t do that,” then with some honest thought and prayer you and I might feel free to say the same.