The Sons of Zebedee and Sons of Liberty Transcend Differences to Serve the Common Good
Year B: Mark 10:35-40
Sermon from October 21, 2018 at Pohick Church
By The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi, Priest in Charge
Pohick Episcopal Church
Preparing for a sermon on the Gospel story of the two fiery sons of Zebedee sparring about who would sit on Jesus' right hand (Mark 10:35-40), the Sons of the Revolution who actually worshipped for years at colonial Pohick Church, came to mind.
I pictured Washington in his pew up front, on the left side of the altar; Fairfax on the right; and just across the aisle, Mason. We recognize in them (and share with them) the human motivations of vanity, ambition, and competition.
Washington and Fairfax were on opposing sides of the coming Revolution: one a staunch patriot, the other a loyal Tory. Yet, in spite of their differences of opinion, they sat next to one another. They were civil to each other, and listened with respect.
Neither did Washington and Mason always see eye to eye. They disagreed about details as insignificant as the relocation of Pohick Church to its current site, as well as the more serious debate about the Bill of Rights' inclusion in the Constitution. Despite personal and political differences, however, they received communion shoulder to shoulder; honored one another; and together served the poor, orphans, and widows in the community.
The Spirit of the Lord convicted and transformed these colonial leaders to transcend personal aspirations and ideological disagreements. Unified by divine motivation: they sacrificially served the common good.
But in Mark's Gospel, the Sons of Zebedee, James and John, haven't quite arrived there. Jesus has just predicted His suffering, death and resurrection for a third time. They immediately demand places of honor beside Him in heaven.
"What is it you want me to do for you?" Jesus asks. In other words, what is your real motivation?
Dreaming of power and position, they say: "Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left in your Glory."
Soon the other 10 disciples join the fray. Not one of them grasp the irony: that the "place of Glory" is the Cross. And criminals will flank Jesus there on his right and on his left.
Fearing for their own place in eternity, the disciples seek only their own best interests. They want to be assured of their status in heaven.
So Jesus explains the implications: "You do not know what you are asking," he says, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?
The cup of sorrow and suffering is the chalice of Jesus' blood poured out for the life of the world. And the baptism they will share is death and resurrection. They will die to self-centered notions, and be raised up to a new, self-sacrificial way.
Again squabbling over who is first, the disciples earn yet another lesson from Jesus. He presents a stark contrast between leadership in the ancient world (the model of a tyrant lording power over others) with Gospel leadership (the model of a servant sacrificing himself for others.)
In other words, the goal is not to be served, but to serve.
In a powerful, moving act of self-sacrifice, Jesus' death on the cross becomes the paradigm of servant leadership and self-sacrificial love. We are called to emulate him. However, self-sacrifice must not become self-denial as an end in itself. As disciples of Jesus, our self-sacrifice must be in service of something higher than self: The common good.
In our culture we see relentless ambition, extreme polarization, yelling over one another, and lack of dignity and respect for those with whom we disagree. Does the prospect of humility and self-sacrificial love seem daunting? Are you afraid ambition and power have so overtaken us that we can no longer return to civility?
We could easily become discouraged. Instead, let's ask ourselves how we might drink the Eucharistic cup of suffering, and how might we live more intentionally into our baptisms?
Perhaps the appropriate response to our incurable tendency to put ourselves first is to become prayerfully self-reflective.
We can ask ourselves a few questions daily to examine our motives. They are based on St. Benedict's 12 steps of Humility:
- Do I tend to form a comeback while someone is still talking? Do I have to have the last word, or the last text? Or do I value that person, and pay attention to what I might learn?
- Am I willing to submit to others respectfully, even when we disagree?
- Do I find myself judging others for what I perceive are their moral failures? Or am I willing to notice and learn from my own mistakes?
- Do I just plain like the sound of my own voice, or can I be still and listen?
The newly released book The Statesman, written by the late Virginian and Ambassador David Abshire, states that the trust George Washington inspired in others is credited simply to his civility.
"By civility I do not mean simply following rules of etiquette," Abshire wrote, "Nor does civility require that you agree with someone else, or sacrifice strongly held beliefs or opinions. Rather, true civility starts with the practice of respectful listening. From that underappreciated talent, understanding can be gained, which in turn serves as the basis for honest dialogue that builds trust."
As a young boy, George transcribed and memorized 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Because he continued to live by those guidelines as a grown man, Washington engendered loyalty and trust. With integrity, he later declined to be made king, choosing servant leadership over tyranny.
Formed in the Gospel notions of self-sacrifice and humility, these Sons of Liberty, like the Sons of Zebedee, learned to put aside ambition, listen to one another, and serve the common good. Our Founding Fathers, like countless other veterans and others after them, were willing to lay down their lives to ensure the freedom and future of an entire nation.
Today at Pohick Church, their spirit lives on. We come to the communion table shoulder to shoulder, even when we disagree on moral or political issues. Like them, we have been formed in the Anglican/Episcopal via media, or middle way. United in Christ's love, we come together in the midst of differences to focus on serving. The Founding Fathers will continue to inspire our nation with their humility, civility, and servant leadership -- all for a cause higher than themselves.
The Good News is: in learning to recognize our own flawed motives, die to selfish ambition, and serve others with humility and civility -- not only will our higher, better, transformed selves emerge. By the Grace of our Lord, we will also be advancing the reign of God on earth.