“Climbing the Ladder”
October 21, 2012
The North Oxnard United Methodist Church
Longing for Light
The Servant Song
Here I am, Lord
Text: Mark 10:35-45
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.”
As many of you know, I am going to be moving at the beginning of November to live with family and then friends in the Bay Area for a few months. Next summer I will enter seminary at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. I'll be pursuing the M.Div, or Masters of Divinity degree with a concentration in community organizing. This degree will prepare me for ministry in a church context, or in non-profit work. I am going to miss each of you, and am grateful for having been a part of this community. I am also grateful for the chance to preach today, since I need all the practice I can get and because it gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experience coordinating the community garden ministry here.
In the scripture reading today, we heard James and John ask Jesus to grant whatever they wish, and when Jesus asks James and John what they would like him to do for them, they want to be elevated to the highest positions of prestige and honor – to sit at his right and left. I'd like to read a little further in the text to the story of Blind Bartimaeus, because I believe it is an interesting juxtaposition to the previous passage:
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Notice how in both passages, Jesus asks “What do you want me to do for you?” The son of God puts himself in a subservient position to both his own followers and to this blind beggar on the streets. What an interesting contrast, though, that the disciples pre-empt Jesus' question with “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (as if Jesus is a magic genie)! But Bartimaeus the beggar shouts out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The requests that follow are also completely different. The disciples want to become the greatest. They want recognition and reward. Justifiably, it's hard work following Jesus and they've probably endured public jest, hunger, no pay or benefits, and days away from their homes and families. Yet compare their response with Bartimaeus' simple request: I want to see.
Right after Jesus tells the disciples that following him means to serve, he goes and shows them what service looks like in action and heals Bartimaeus. Through this action, we see that being a disciple of Jesus means coming into contact with the least and identifying with those at the bottom end of society – that whoever wants to be the greatest must go down.
That's a hard thing to learn for someone at my age. Two of the greatest temptations facing my generation are mobility without concern and ambition without commitment. In other words, there's a lot of pressure to climb the ladder.
I am no stranger to the pressure or the desire to climb the ladder. While here at the Garden, I was offered three different jobs, all of which would have been a “step up,” according to our society's values. I say this because each made me consider what I was doing here. I felt those nagging anxieties: should I, could I be doing something different? I think my family thought I was a little crazy to turn them down. Maybe I am a little crazy. However, I truly felt that God called me here to help this garden ministry grow and also to be shaped and formed by the discipline of staying in a place and learning from it, without seeking after a higher paycheck or status. I believe that when we are in the right place, serving God and neighbor, we are the least anxious about what we “should” or “could” be doing.
And I am feeling that challenge again now that questions of what I'm doing next emerge. My grandparents recently asked me what I'll be doing in Half Moon Bay next year, and I took a moment before answering because suddenly I felt panicked – what will I be doing? How is this contributing to my goals, my future, my career? What will my family think? I answered truthfully – I will be helping with a food distribution to the working poor and volunteering at a farm and community garden there, as well as working on scholarships, but a lot of time will be dedicated to rest. I listened to the pause on the other end of the line... And then my grandma responded that she thought that was a great idea!
It is when we choose to reject the dead-end road of upward mobility and accept the journey of discipleship – of following Jesus – that anxiety falls away and we receive true sight and faith. Like Bartimaeus, we recognize things of real value and worth and suddenly the landscape widens. It is not dominated by us anymore, though service does open us up to discover our own vocation and gifts. For me, my service at the Garden helped me to discern a calling to ministry.
It was here that I saw what churches can be, and how they could not only serve their community but also serve the land in this time of ecological crisis. I gained a vision for how churches can be a part of social movements, like the food security/ food justice movement, and learned through my experience here about a different model of community organizing – one that welcomes people in and nurtures people for long-term change. I saw the potential of creating safe spaces – sanctuaries – for those on the margins – for youth at risk of joining gangs, and alternative places of belonging to those already involved. How often do you hear about a church where homies come to the property every week, and also indigenous farm workers, some of whom will be gathering here this afternoon to make pan de muerto (Day of the Dead bread)? This speaks to your church's willingness to surrender control, the ultimate fruit of servanthood. It's scary and dangerous, but we're in the business of following Jesus and it's the journey that promises life.
I'd like to share a quote from a presentation that Chelsea, a student volunteer at the Garden, gave at CSUCI:
“I was kind of worried when I heard that the Garden was located on a church property because I'm not very religious and I was worried about the type of people who would be around. And so I was very surprised when I found out the people I met were varying in age, background, beliefs, and even their purposes for volunteering in the Garden. It was really empowering to see so many people from different worlds coming together towards a common goal. And at the end of the day, not only did I feel better because I knew I was benefiting my community, but I felt like I was part of something bigger and something so positive... I've heard it a million times before but it really is true that you can't help other people without helping yourself.”
I pray that you will continue this servant practice of opening yourselves up to the "stranger" and encourage other churches to do the same. When you see tattooed or different-looking people outside those walls, I hope you will see an opportunity for friendship. When you find the kitchen out of order, I hope you will find an occasion to think of all the people who are using this space, and see them, too, as part of your community here. When you feel anxiety, as I have recently, about the future of your ministry, I hope God assures you that God has taken care of this place and will continue to do so. This is the assurance offered to God's servants.
In closing, I want to share a story from the Garden when, like Bartimaeus, I felt my eyes opened to see Jesus. Every Saturday in the Garden we gather for lunch after working together – pulling weeds, planting cabbage or lettuce, watering, harvesting carrots, and making compost with the scraps. And last Saturday I took a good look at the circle of volunteers: I see a young man expelled from school for fighting with a lot of anger still in his eyes, but who for the first time went into the kitchen and volunteered to help the chefs finish their meal. I see an older man who is usually pretty quiet and comes for what he calls his “therapy.” I see a new family from the neighborhood whose kids have gotten involved and are now leading field trips for kids at the garden. I see a young woman with a stressful work situation who texted me later to say about how much she loves the place. I see a girl from the Unitarian Universalist church youth group who will later rave about how the homemade food she ate here was the best meal she's ever had. I see a Navy engineer whose famous last words three years ago were that he approved of the garden at this church, but he didn't have the time to get involved. (I think we know who I'm talking about!) I see an older lady who got a traffic ticket and chose community service hours over paying the fee just so she could come work with us.
And when we form a circle to introduce newcomers, this lady grabs the hands of the two kids on probation next to her, and starts singing, “Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord! For giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed, the Lord is good to me!” And soon everyone is shyly holding hands, just like you all do after each church service, from the kids caught tagging to the family who came because they can't afford fruits and vegetables to me, the young woman who served here without fully knowing why I was called to stay. Who found in this place a calling to grow this circle, this beloved community that I've come to see inside and outside the church walls, from the baptismal font to the soil under the apple tree. And so I thank the Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.