So, I’m a huge fan of Big Bang Theory; it is an excellent and intelligently-written show. They name each episode very precisely, such as “The Wedding Gift Wormhole” and “The Comic-Con Conundrum.” If I were a preacher that titled sermons regularly, I would, in a similar vain, title this one “The Transparency Problem.”
I’m not referring to the adjective “transparent,” as in describing a business practice or a person’s emotions as being “transparent,” being able to see through a process or a person’s thoughts. I’m referring to the noun “transparency,” as in those old overhead projectors that every teacher has nightmares about because the Vis-a-Vis markers leave the side of your hand a permanent blend of red, green, and blue.
I very often think of those transparency sheets that lay over top the projector. You can add a fresh sheet on top of a projected image and see very little change, unless you look for it. (or unless there is something explicitly written)
It’s how I often think of this spiritual world, a transparency sheet that is laid over top the earth as our eyes see it. Of course, any metaphor will begin to break down, so maybe don’t try to go too far with it. Though, we physically see the workings of this world - humans, animals, plants; and when speaking of our faith and the Divine interactions of this world, we add another layer the physical eye doesn’t see but the body and soul experience.
It’s like a transparency sheet laid over top.
As Christians, we do well to continue studying and seeking after understanding of this transparency sheet, this spiritual world. We do well to ask questions about how our faith interacts with our world, such as when the Sunday adult class covers news topics. We do well to reflect on our lives and ask if what we practice on Sunday at church is what we practice Monday-Saturday. We do well to ask these questions, because we may find at times that our “earthly” constructs don’t fit well with our “spiritual” constructs, and I hope that we each place a higher priority on our spiritual ideologies than our earthly.
It’s what happens in today’s Scripture. James and John are working with assumptions and ideologies of prestige and power that they were taught in the earthly world. Their father, Zebedee, was a fisherman and many theologians and historians assess that their family would have been wealthy - probably benefiting from having a place of power and honor in the community.
And so, these brothers are asking Jesus to share in glory with him - not really knowing all of what they’re asking - they, rather presumptuously it seems to me - ask that when Jesus reaches his seat of reign, that they are seated right next to him.
Interestingly, right before this snippet of Scripture, Jesus tells the disciples FOR THE THIRD TIME IN MARK’S GOSPEL, that he will be taken, beaten, and killed. And then immediately afterward, the brothers ask to “sit at his right and his left.” That conversation feels like whiplash to me!
There are many speculations on why the brothers would ask this - on what their motivation may be. However, the fact remains that they are asking to share in Jesus’ glory, to be seated next to him. “The Zebedee brothers think the systems are good, but the wrong people are in the places of power; once they come into their own, alongside Jesus, everything will be fixed from the top down...." (Kathryn Matthews, ucc.org, Sermon Seeds)
Jesus acknowledges that that is how most of the world works - he refers to the leaders of the Gentiles - but then he corrects the brothers and says “that is not the way it will be among you.”
The root problem comes when the sons try applying those expectations to their faith and their discipleship with Jesus. Similar to the children’s toy of putting shapes in holes, a square peg doesn’t go in a round hole and Jesus’ teachings for this world don’t always fit earthly systems.
Regarding the brothers, Kathryn Matthews (Sermon Seeds, ucc.org) writes, “They’re going with the same old categories and assumptions that they’ve always had, and simply inserting themselves into the places of prestige and power. ...Instead of growing closer to Jesus’ radical vision of the reign of God,...they struggle with walking away from their old and long-cherished expectations.”
This Scripture is an example of Jesus’ disciples learning how to merge what they are taught from the world and what they are taught from Christ. They are learning how to place another layer on top of their world.
Hence, the transparency problem.
The lesson for us today is two-fold:
more broadly, there is a lesson in recognizing that we live with a transparency sheet, a spirituality, laid on top of our lives, and we need to stop trying to fit our world constructs into divine constructs.
More specifically, there is a lesson in recognizing that Jesus teaches us a different approach to power in this world, and we need to work to live into that teaching.
So, first: How do we operate within the systems of what this world teaches (which we humans created those constructs) and at the same time operate within what Christ teaches us?
We start by recognizing that sometimes there’s a disconnect between the two. We have to recognize that Jesus doesn’t teach us to be wasteful or hateful, as sometimes the world pushes us to be. We have to recognize that Jesus doesn’t teach us that more possessions will make us happy, as commercials would like us to believe.
Then, we study. We pray. We discuss. We listen. We apply what we learn.
Instead of assuming the earth will always provide for us, we give thanks for the produce and we work to keep it healthy.
Instead of bullying others for living differently than we do, we create safe spaces.
Instead of piling on credit card debt in order to have the latest and greatest items, we financially give to organizations working to help people who need it.
Thinking more specifically of James and John’s question, how do we operate within a world, especially in the United States, which places value on job promotions and financial gain and the trickle-down effect...and at the same time operate within the constructs that Jesus teaches us, that the first will be last and the last will be first?
We need to remember that, even when another person is hired for the job you want or a friend’s marriage makes it through hard times when yours didn’t, that you have just as much value as a person as they do. You are not “less” of a human being; you do not have less value in this world.
We need to remember that, even if we have a more respected career or life position, we hold no greater value, as a human being, as a soul on this earth, than the person who is holding a sign on the street corner or a mom crying for her child taken from her at the southern border. They are not less of a human being; they do not have less value in this world.
“The reign of God is so very different from our conventional way of doing things, and our conventional beliefs about what is best. [Barbara Brown] Taylor reminds us that Jesus calls us and teaches us by example to "transform the world, not from the top down but from the bottom up. The ultimate trickle-up effect." That's the power God gives us in abundance, "the strongest stuff in the world: the power to serve" (The Trickle-Up Effect," Bread of Angels).” (Matthews, Sermon Seeds)
Here me say: there is not a problem in itself with being in a job with power or having financial wealth, but it is how we approach it and what we do with it that matters.
Though, today’s scripture was written with the audience in mind of those people who are in or are seeking power - reminding them to do it humbly and to still find ways of serving others. This Scripture was not written to people enslaved, telling them to stick it out because they will be elevated eventually. This Scripture should never be used to justify any form of slavery or oppression.
This idea of “the first will be last and the last will be first” is one example of Jesus’ radical inversion of injustice and oppression and outright poor treatment of other humans. He had quite the religious imagination - imagining a different way of living life.
And this is how we are ransomed - this is how we are set free from the world’s oppression - by following Christ’s teachings.
We do well to seek out Jesus’ religious imagination - to seek out understanding of the transparencies which are laid down on top of this world - to discern how to live within this world and also stay true to the Christ’s teachings. Hopefully, it will trickle-up.
Scripture: Mark 10:35-45