Sermons

Whatever we ask?!?! Rev Dee Ledger, October 17, 2021

Oh, my dear Lord, I have gone and done it.  You know that thing that you say you will never do, or that person you say you will never be?  Do you know what I mean?  You are in your early 20’s and you scoff at certain people or certain ways of being in the world, even when you definitely know better than to do so.  And then, 10, 20 or even 30 years pass, and by golly, there you are doing the very thing you said you’d never do or being the person that you would have never imagined you’d be.  You look in the mirror and ask yourself, “How exactly did this happen?  How did I come to be what I once openly mocked?”

That’s right, friends…I am now the proverbial “soccer mom.” Or to be more precise, the Reverend Soccer Mom.  Yikes.

As a young person, I remember scoffing at those soccer moms schlepping their kids to the fields in their SUV’s, color-coordinated sneakers and water bottles, and gossiping by the sidelines about how schlepping their kids to multiple activities was taking its toll on their downtime.  Well, little did I know, really, what it was all about then.

Way back in 1996, in an article for the New York Times, it was debated about how much actual political power soccer moms held.  Writer Neal MacFarquhar wrote, “pollsters and demographers find the term useful as a catch-all for suburban women, most married and working at least part-time outside the home, with children under 18 — even if it distorts the role mothers perform in their children’s athletic lives. They find it enough for mothers to drive their kids to the field.”[1]

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines soccer mom as a “typically suburban mother who accompanies her children to their soccer games and is considered as part of a significant voting bloc or demographic group.”[2]

The online definition from Huffington Post made me feel slightly better because I was definitely not living up to its defined terms which were these: “the stereotypical soccer mom lives up to her name as a woman who always has her [bleep] together. She is hot with a body to match, she can juggle multiple children and equipment with ease. Her make up and accessories look effortless and are always on point. This particular stereotype described… is part human, part mythical majestic beast.”

My boys soccer involvement notwithstanding, I should get a pass as I am most definitely not “together.”

Definitely without the “hot” body, unless you count hot-flashes.

Nix the makeup, accessories, and special sports equipment, unless that includes shin guards, black socks, black shorts, two pairs of expensive cleats, and a couple of City of Gaithersburg t-shirts.

Maybe there is hope yet.

But why do I mention this?  Because I pulled a Mamma Zebedee (as in the biblical mother Zebedee) about two weeks ago on the soccer field with the twins and realized it just as soon as I said it.  But let me lay it out for you.

Mamma Zebedee approaches with her two sons, James and John, sons of Thunder, probably due to their tempers, insensitivity, and impetuous nature.  They are on the mission playing field and Mamma Zebedee sees Coach Jesus by himself and figures, “This is the moment.”

Do you know, “the moment”?  The time when you see opportunity and can almost taste its sweet victory.  The moment when your boss or your CEO or your teacher is standing there and, for once, doesn’t look preoccupied or aggravated.  Your chance at promoting your project, or stating your case, or capturing some of that elusive attention to your cause.  It was a chance to put her boys ahead, a chance to put them on Jesus’ radar, and maybe do for them what they were inept at doing for themselves.

I am actually surprised she is there, are you?  These are grown men.  It’s like the parent that emails the Professor to say why her 19-year old’s paper is late.

But they left Pappa Zebedee’s fishing business, remember?  I suspect the dad was a bit hot about that, left in the lurch with the boats swaying in the water, the nets not yet retrieved, and the fish yet to be hoisted and sorted.  You could guess that he probably had “no good thing” to say about this makeshift rabbi pied- piping his boys away from the family business.  So maybe Mrs. Zebedee saw an opportunity to start the discussion about benefits and rewards.  Maybe she was, right at that moment, planning for her boys to take the stage by storm, thunder and all.  I don’t know.

What we do know is that Mamma Zebedee grabs her moment with Coach Jesus and kneeling before him (interesting addition) asks her special favor: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left.”(Matthew 20:20-24).  MMM… She wants them elevated.  She wants them to be ranked to the right and to the left, in close proximity to the One that started all of this.

Which is why I saw—this past week—just how easily it is to blithely ask for favors, even when one truly means well in one’s heart.  Which is why scripture has a way of convicting our hearts when our minds are otherwise engaged (or not).  And what it means to ask for such favors, even in smaller matters.

“Hey, Coach,” I said, “Got a minute?” as I walked across the field to meet him on his turf.  “Can my son play goalie at some point?” I asked, “he was wondering about it.”  Though I doubt it.  Right then, I was thinking that this might engage my distracted son more than those other positions where he stood looking, frankly, a little lost on the field.  I figured that he’d have to watch the ball then, and this soccer thing wouldn’t be for naught.

So, I admit it; I pulled a Mamma Zebedee and didn’t even plan to do so.  Except that today, in Mark’s gospel, Mamma Zebedee is nowhere on the field.  Did you notice? Now that is interesting because Mark’s gospel is the earliest.  How did Matthew involve Mamma Zebedee in the later gospels?  And why?  What is it about a parent’s wishes to have their children elevated that became so much so that Matthew included it?  To be seated at the right hand and the left hand were the second and third positions of honor and power.  When did that become so important to the early disciples or to the men that this woman got written into the text, this request through a woman, and not the grown sons?

What parent doesn’t want to give her or his child the world?  What parent doesn’t secretly hope that his or her children will succeed in whatever they attempt and even surpass the competition, whether in a board room, in a classroom, or on the elementary school soccer field?

Here was a bit of my Zebedee moment; I figured my son would blossom out there on the field, buoyed by the accolades of the others who clapped as he saved the team from suffering the humiliation of a sneaky ball past the goal posts.  Sigh.  It did not work out that way…The opposing team scored not once, but twice.

Coach Jesus saw this.  We are a people who want to rank each other—we will take privilege at every turn.  Rare is the person who says I will clean up the balls and pick up the goal posts after practice; I will pass the ball instead of dribbling up the field to kick a goal.  Rare is the individual who doesn’t maneuver for personal advantage or familial advantage or a higher rank or special favor in the public and professional eyes of the world.

Yet, maybe Mamma Zebedee just wanted her boys to engage as she had, to put herself and her loved ones full-in for their own good.  Maybe as a follower of Jesus, she heard the Coach and knew that this little movement was going to falter if her boys stayed sullen on the sidelines.  Maybe she wasn’t so much interested in rank, as in putting their eyes on the ball.  I leave that for you to decide.

Yet, in Mark’s version, it is clear that the “Sons of Thunder” themselves wanted some of the power in the movement to shine on them (no mom in the background).  Those boys had given up a sure thing for a not-so-sure thing and what exactly were the rewards going to be?  They had endured their Pappa’s disappointment and anger and their mother’s helicopter parenting style, and Coach Jesus was, after all, doing all that talk about kingdom here and nowWhy not be a prince instead of a pauper, a leader instead of a servant, one who gives the orders instead of one of the masses who receive them?  And of course, in Luke’s gospel, Coach Jesus says himself, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife of brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age and in the age to come eternal life.” With that kind of assurance, why not put oneself or one’s kids ahead of the line?

Robert Fuller, former President of Oberlin College and holder of a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton, wrote a book called, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Power, published in 2003.   Fuller is concerned about “rankism”—the tendency of human beings to rank themselves and each other and then to use rank to disrespect, discriminate, exploit, and refuse to recognize the dignity of others.  He writes, “Rankism, like racism, is a source of social injustice as well as personal indignity…[A] great deal of what’s labeled social pathology has its origins in rankism.  But unlike racists and sexists, who are now on notice, rankists still go largely unchallenged.  The indignity suffered by those who’ve been ‘nobodied’ festers.  It builds to indignation and sometimes erupts in violence.  When a person or a people is nobodied, it not only does them an injustice, but also plants a time bomb in our midst.”[3]

Furthermore, he says, “The problem isn’t that rank counts.  When it signifies excellence, rank should count and it does.  The trouble is that rank counts twice.  No sooner is rank assigned then holders of higher rank can use their newfound power to aggrandize themselves at the expense of those in lower ranks.  Although some exercise their rank properly– within their area of competence and in a way that respects the dignity of those under their authority – others do not.” (my stress).[4]

Now, I don’t know if Mama Zebedee was truly interested in rank or simply blamed by the male writers years later, but certainly the brothers Zebedee were interested in rank in Mark’s gospel.  And Jesus, seeing them jockeying for power became concerned.

Which is why his response is so fitting both then and now.  Coach Jesus wants them to admit to themselves and to him precisely what they are asking.  “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  It reminds me of how certain people talk to waitresses because they really like to be waited upon and the power it confers.  Jesus wants those two grown children to see clearly, like I did on that soccer field, that they have asked for a certain kind of power that privileges them over the others, perhaps at the expense of others.

A team is a team and Jesus’ movement is no different.  Some people will be better at some things than others, but if you are asking to be promoted, you must be sure that you can handle the position and the responsibility that comes with the position, like a goalie fielding a penalty kick or an unexpected wild ball that wants to take your team down.

So, after those brothers tell Jesus as just as plain as day that they want position and privilege in his little movement, Jesus says to those brothers, those sons of Mama Zebedee, those thunder making, tempestuous and insensitive men,  as well as all of us, soccer moms included: “You do not know what you are asking.”  Which is another way to say that you are really quite naïve about the requirements and responsibilities that come with the position, the titles, and the accolades.

“Can you drink the cup that I drink?”  Jesus asks.  Can you take the bitter with the good?

“Can you be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Can you passionately fulfill this calling that will be more a baptism of fire than a walk in the park?

Will you willingly serve when you are tired, weary, and progress comes slowly, if at all?

Can you put your life on the line? Can you suffer for our shared cause?  Will you willingly serve if it means sacrificing your comfort level, the stability of your job, the accolades you seek, or your relationships?

Mark says that when the other ten disciples heard what James and John asked of Coach Jesus, they were angry.  Well, of course, they were.  Until then, they all had equal chance of serving; they had equal rank and equal dignity.  But the Zebedee brothers wanted to be ranked higher than their spiritual brothers and sisters.  The movement could have been divided at that point, but Jesus reminds the siblings how they are not to be like the Gentiles whose rulers “lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

This is what Fuller means when he argues that, “Although most new organizations start out with the intention of doing good and providing a service, once rankism gains a foothold, like a parasitical disease, it subverts that purpose to the narrower goal of advancing the well-being of high-ranking members.  The discriminatory, morale-sapping effects of rankism can be seen in hierarchies of all kinds; schools and universities; firm, corporations, and businesses; labor unions; medical, religious and non-profit organizations; the guardian professions and the military; bureaucracies and governments.” (10)

The bible often gets short-changed as being out of date or not relevant, and yet, stories like these show us that the abuse of power within movements, nations, governments, and institutions is nothing new under the sun.  Fuller argues that “to achieve a just society, we have to decide what it means to be a nation of equals.”[5] What does it mean to affirm the dignity of every human being in the church, in our society, in our local community, and between nations?  As Vartan Gerogorian, president of the Carnegie foundation in New York, puts it, “Dignity is not negotiable.” One of the things that Jesus honors, from the sex workers to the tax collectors, from the rich, young ruler to the crowds that would mock him, from the soccer parents to the people who clean up the field, is the inherent dignity and worth of each one.

Our challenge, siblings in Christ, is to figure out—when we are dissatisfied with our hierarchies of rank—if rank is based on excellence and merit, or if authority has lapsed by intent or status quo into abuse of authority.  Are the “somebodies” of the world trying to maintain an environment that is hostile or demeaning to perceived “nobodies” whether on a soccer field or boardroom, on the world map, or on dais, whether in the hospital or here, at Bethesda United Church of Christ.

As Fuller says, “Good leaders eschew rankism; bad ones indulge in it.”

And as Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must by servant of all.”

What is our Mother-God’s wish for humanity?  What should be our wish?

Do you know the song, “We are One in the Spirit”?

We sing:

We will work with each other,
We will work side by side.
We will work with each other,
We will work side by side.
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity
And save each one’s pride.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our Love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Amen.

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1996/10/20/weekinreview/what-s-a-soccer-mom-anyway.html

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/soccer%20mom

[3] Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank,” (Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003)6.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Fuller, ibid, 157.