Genesis 2:4b-9, 15; Mark 10:35-45
There are two purposes to Christian life, beyond the worship of God: serving God by honoring all people and serving God by caring for creation. If we want to follow Jesus, the way is clear: Honor all people. Steward the creation. The new members we will welcome today have signed up for this; so have the rest of us.
It sounds simple enough, but from the start we’ve been missing the mark on both counts for the same reason.
The gospel text today reveals what we get wrong. James and John, who’ve been with Jesus since they dropped their nets and followed him, reveal an ugly side of humanity in a candid conversation with Jesus. They’ve been with him his entire ministry and have gotten a taste of what Jesus can do. They want some of that for themselves.
“Teacher,” they say,
“We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…Appoint us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mark 10:35, 37)
They’re so human, aren’t they? Put us at the center. Give us the power. Make our privilege permanent.
It’s the perfect example of the alarming arrogance of which we humans are capable and which has been on vivid display for some time now in our nation and in others, in how we treat the earth and how we treat one another.
We want you, these two entitled men say to the Lord of Life and Author of Salvation, to do for us whatever we ask of you.
Apparently, they have no sense of the irony of their demand from the one who has told them to take up their cross and follow him, to love their enemies and lose their life to gain it.
Draw the circle around us. Look at the world only from our point of view. That’s our politics today, our culture, our life in this fractured time.
Forget those on the other side; it’s ok to demean them or push them out or, even, do violence to them.
In response Jesus delivers a line that leaps out of the gospel to describe the purpose of the incarnation and, by extension, the meaning of Christian life. “Whoever wishes to become great among you,” he says, “Must be servant of all…for I came not to be served but to serve.”
Jesus is teaching James and John and anyone else who will listen, including us, about humility. We cannot simultaneously honor all people and put ourselves above them, by virtue of their immigrant status, or ethnicity, or political party, or gender identity, or nationality, or religion.
We know this in our heads. James and John did, as well. But their hearts weren’t convinced, and neither are ours. They could not resist the temptation to move toward the center of power, and it’s hard for us, as well. To follow Jesus means giving up any hope of gaining control for the sake of “lording it over others,” as he says. Jesus challenges us to live much more generously than that, as he does with his own life, in order that others might live.
It’s difficult to go to the margins, to those places we try to avoid, especially if we’re already at the center. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating because it had such impact on me. Some years ago, at a national Presbyterian Church General Assembly I gave a speech to a group working to change the church’s rules to allow LGBTQ church members to serve as pastors, elders, and deacons.
For years the church had refused to become more inclusive. We tried again and again, but there was no movement. In my remarks I said how strange it was for me, a straight, white male accustomed to being on top, to be shunted aside to the margins by my own church, as it kept refusing to change year after year. Being on the losing end was not a familiar place for me. I was not used to being marginalized by the church or anyone else.
After I finished, Janie Spahr, who describes herself as a “lesbian evangelist,” came up to me and said, “Welcome to the margins, Tim, only we think of it as the horizon.”
It was a pivotal moment that helped me reframe what it means to follow Jesus.
We are the church, and we can best be the church when we don’t know all the answers, when we set aside our own agenda, when we resist the impulse to put ourselves at the center. That’s what Westminster youth discover on a summer service-learning trip. It’s what we learn from visits to our global partners, in those mutual exchanges. It’s what became clear when Westminster leaders spent a year listening to Black and indigenous communities, speaking with them of opportunities for partnership in our Enduring Hope capital campaign.
When we de-center ourselves and attend to the experience and wisdom of those outside our circles, a new way of seeing things opens to us.
Honor all people. When we sit down with and listen to the story of someone seeking asylum, or someone living on the streets, someone grieving their child’s death, or someone with different politics from us, it can change us.
That’s the church being the church, sensing the need for transformation in ourselves and in our systems. That is the church, seeking solidarity with those on the receiving end of cruelty and oppression. That is the church: wanting to see Christ in every person.
We are the church, and we can only be the church from a posture of humility. That is as true for our interaction with the human community as it is for our relationship with the planet.
Steward the creation.
There are two versions of the creation story in Genesis. In the first, which seems to describe the path we have taken, humankind is given dominion over all creation. The story told that way can be seen as placing humankind as somehow superior over creation and not participant within it suggesting a biblical rationale for abuse of the land and its creatures.
Somewhere along the way dominion morphed into domination. As a result, over time we developed an economy of extraction and destruction, and today we have a world either on fire or under water. Putting ourselves at the center is dangerous and violates the teaching of Jesus against hubris.
But Genesis offers an alternative. In the second version of the creation story, which we heard this morning, such a conclusion about the role of humankind is more difficult to reach. It begins like this: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east.”
Creation begins with God planting a garden – like a teenager eagerly turning over the soil after school in the community plot; like an older gentleman in the fading light of day picking ripe squash and tomatoes for the evening meal; like the farmer walking through the mist down the rows of beans, checking for weeds; like the young mother on a spring morning cutting daffodils to brighten house and office all day.
God, the Cosmic Gardener, whose field includes all that is and ever will be, stooping to spread the seed and push it into the earth, so that it will grow and give life to sustain bugs and birds, bears, squirrels, and deer, and the human family.
In this account of Creation, the Gardener makes us from the “dust of the ground.” Scripture calls us Adam, often mistranslated as “man.” Adam comes from the Hebrew word adamah, meaning ground, or earth. God creates us out of the very soil. We are earthlings, put into the garden of creation to care for it, not exploit it.
“The Lord God took the earthling and put them in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)
Concern for a healthy ecosystem has been there from the start. It is not ancillary to our faith. On the contrary, it’s at the heart of it. Humanity is given the responsibility to take up where the Creator leaves off, as the gardener of the planet.
Every gardener knows they’re not at the center of life. It would be conceit to think otherwise.
Last week we planted 600 bulbs in our yard. We have very little to do with what happens now, as we wait for them to emerge from the ground in six months. If we’re lucky, next spring, daffodils will emerge. The gardener collaborates with the earth and water, the seed and light, and they all work together to bring forth new life. That’s what the planet will do, if given a chance.
There are two purposes to Christian life: serving God by honoring all people and serving God by caring for creation. It sounds simple enough, but we’ve been missing the mark on both counts by putting ourselves on top. That needs to change.
We are the church, and this is how we are called to live:
Honor all people. Try to understand those with whom we disagree. Tone down self-righteous hostility. Listen to those excluded from places of power and learn from them.
Steward the creation. Treat the planet as a sacred garden, and the only one we have. Sustain its water, air, and land for future generations. Rejoice in the goodness of the earth and partner with it.
If we want to follow Jesus, the way is clear, and it starts by setting aside our very human need to be at the center.
Earlier in our worship Cantus sang Song of Peace, to the tune of Finlandia. Its lyrics offer a vision of life together that reflects God’s hope for humankind:
My country’s skies are bluer that the ocean
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine
But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations
A song of peace for their land and for mine
Thanks be to God.