Who do you think you are?
Mark 10: 35-45
Today we remember the life of Eric Henry Liddell (1902-1945), a famous Scottish athlete and missionary. He was the winner of the Men’s 400 meter race at the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Paris. The story of that race has been portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. Liddell withdrew from the 100 meter race because he refused to run on a Sunday. He trained for the 400 meter race, not only winning it but breaking the existing world record of 47.6 seconds.
You may remember a famous quote from Eric Liddell: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast! And when I run I feel his pleasure.”
Born into a missionary family in China, Liddell also returned there to serve as a missionary from 1925 until 1943 when he was sent to a Japanese concentration camp. He died there of a brain tumor in 1945.
In the Gospel reading today, the disciples are at it again. Once more, they have failed to understand Jesus’ message and mission. One commentator has said that, at least in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples should more likely be called the “duh-ciples.”
James and John, sons of Zebedee, come forward and ask Jesus to do for them “whatever we ask of you.” What they ask is to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand–places of honor– when he comes in his glory. (In Matthew’s version of this story, James and John’s mother is the one who steps forward to ask this. Perhaps at their request?)
Jesus tries to explain to them how difficult these positions truly will be: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Undeterred, they respond: “We are able.”
When they hear this, the rest of the disciples “began to be indignant” at James and John.
After all, these are just the Zebedee boys, former fishermen, who have been traveling alongside the rest of the disciples all this time.
Just who do they think they are, anyway?
It’s easy for us to be pretty hard on the disciples, James, John, and the rest of the indignant ones. After all, we have the advantage of two thousand years of church history. We know Christ crucified and Christ risen.
Reading this story got me thinking about tough questions I have faced in my own discernment journey, ones that I’m sure everyone else here has had wrestled with. When I first felt I was discerning a call to the diaconate, I was asked:
Why do you want to be ordained?
What could you do as an ordained person that you couldn’t do as a lay person?
What could you do as a lay person that you couldn’t do as an ordained person?
And though no one else ever put it in so many words, the question I sometimes heard and the one I was sometimes asking myself was:
Just who do you think you are, anyway?
Early on, one person told me that if I was ordained, I would be “an icon of service.”
An “icon”? What does that mean? How could that be?
And yet, like the rest of you here, I continued to say: “Yes, I am able.”
Perhaps we should not fault James and John in their request. They had, after all, been with Jesus from the beginning. Along with Peter, they were included in experiences when the rest of the disciples were sometimes left behind. It’s true that their understanding of the coming Kingdom probably had more vestiges of a conquering Messiah than a Servant Leader, but perhaps they were doing what we would call “stepping up.” Showing initiative and just a little ambition.
Our society values initiative, drive, ambition, hard work. Those of us in this room are people who work hard, who get things done. We are “icons of service” in one sense because people know they can depend on us. We are “able,” like James and John.
But though we know more of Jesus’ story than they did during this episode, I’m not sure that we fully know what it will mean to drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism of Jesus. But we stand and we ask to serve, doing our best to balance this audacious request to be leaders on the one hand with humility and the commitment to follow Jesus in service on the other hand.
Just who do we think we are, anyway?
There is a great quote which is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela but actually comes from the pen of Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be so brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just some of us; it is everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Perhaps that is what it means to be an icon: manifesting the glory of God, letting our own light shine, our presence and example helping to liberate those around us to also manifest the glory of God. And in doing so, as Eric Liddell said, “to feel God’s pleasure.”