How Would You React?

Enjoy this morning’s sermon!  I preached the lectionary Gospel text …

Mark 10:35-45

How Would You React?

In 2004, Paramount Pictures released a movie called Mean Girls. The movie was written by Rosalind Wisemen and Tina Fey, directed by Mark Waters and starred Lindsay Lohan (back, of course, before her Hollywood-caliber meltdown). Here is the basic plotline of the movie:

Raised in African bush country by her zoologist parents, Cady Heron thinks she knows about survival of the fittest. But the law of the jungle takes on a whole new meaning when the home-schooled 16-year-old enters public high school for the first time and encounters psychological warfare and unwritten social rules that teenage girls face today.

Trying to find her place between jocks, mathletes, and other subcultures, Cady crosses paths with the meanest species of all – the Queen Bee, aka the cool and calculating Regina George, leader of the school’s most fashionable clique, the Plastics. When Cady falls for Regina’s ex-boyfriend Aaron Samuels, though, the Queen Bee is stung – and she schemes to destroy Cady’s social future. Cady’s own claws soon come out as she leaps into a hilarious “Girl World” war that has the whole school running for cover.}

The movie did very well. It grossed nearly $90,000,000, was nominated for 16 awards, won seven of those nominations and has an average five-star movie rating out 4,800 reviews on I have yet to meet someone who did not have some positive reaction to the film. The writing was witty, the directing was superb and the acting was well executed.

That being said – I think one of the reasons that the movie did so well was because it was a lighthearted and comical way of poking fun at an extremely serious issue that we all face in our every day lives. Bullying, jealousy, popularity, cliques, backstabbing, gossiping and negativity are all monsters that we battle every single day. Yes, it was highlighted in this movie in a high school setting, but we, as adults, also face these obstacles. It is one of the consequences of the imperfection of the human condition.

Throughout the movie Lindsay Lohan’s character has metaphorical flashbacks to her time in the African bush. She would, for example, be sitting in the cafeteria or in class or in the locker room listening to the “mean girls” talk about one another or manipulate situations to their favor and the scene would instantly flash to an image of wild animals tearing one another apart, fighting for their “place” in the safari. The implication was that these girls were no better than animals just trying to survive in the wild. I think, however, that the greater implication with this analogy is that oftentimes human beings as a whole are no better than animals just trying to survive in the wild. We see and understand the world through the lenses of our own eyes and minds, we want to accomplish things in a certain way, we try to protect ourselves and our friends and our families and – yes – sometimes we are mean to one another.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Mark tells the story of two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who came forward to Jesus and said to him “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Kind of sneaky of them, wasn’t it? They would not tell Jesus what they wanted – they wanted him to agree to giving it to them first.

Then Jesus said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And James and John said to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” {Mark 10:35-37} In other words, two high school aged teenage girls went up to the popular girl in school and said, “We want to sit next to you in the cafeteria, where everyone can see how popular and important we are.”

The first few times I read this passage, I was actually a little bit annoyed. Here you have James and John, two men called by Jesus himself into ministry, seeing humble servanthood in flesh and blood and having the opportunity to learn and grow with ten other disciples and they wanted more. They wanted to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus “in [his] glory”. They wanted to be important; they wanted to be seen as better and more powerful than the other ten disciples. They wanted that prime real estate next to Jesus. Jesus called James and John to be disciples and they were – ultimately, it seemed – concerned with power.

When you think about it that way, you kind of want to build a time machine, go back about 2,000 years and smack the two of them upside the head. Salvation is not about power; it is about so much more than that.

All that being said – let’s back up a little bit in the story. We came into the Gospel this morning in the tenth chapter, verses 35 through 45. In the three verses prior to this interaction with James and John, Jesus had gathered the twelve disciples and foretold his coming death and resurrection for the third time. Mark 10:32-35 tells of the following narrative:

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ {Mark 10:32-35, NRSV}

This is where our story starts today. James and John’s request was not random; it was a reaction. Jesus told the disciples once again that he was going to die and – like wild animals fighting for food, teenagers fighting for a place at the popular table – James and John immediately asked to sit at his right and left hand.

Why did they react that way?

Let us, for a moment, put ourselves in the shoes of James and John. These are two men who left their lives to follow Jesus. They were disciples; they were servants; they were witnesses to the new life and hope that Jesus was bringing to the people he met along his journey. But Jesus said that it was all going to change quickly; Jesus said that he was going to die; James, John, the other ten disciples and those who met Jesus and followed him were going to have to face a new reality very quickly. Perhaps they were afraid.

I read a commentary this week that explored this notion of fear.

Understood within this context, James and John become somewhat more sympathetic characters. Maybe Jesus’ ominous predictions of his passion have become clear to them. Maybe they do understand what lies ahead. And being afraid, they seek the promise of a secure future. James and John may not just be power hungry; they may rather be acting quite naturally on their fears.{Charles L. Campbell, Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 4, page 191}

Put yourself in the shoes of James and John. How would you react? How would you react if you were a first generation disciple and Jesus told you that things were about to change in real and radical ways?

Maybe James and John did not simply want to be important. Maybe they were just living out a fear of what the future might hold for them. Maybe teenagers are not as mean as they appear to be. Maybe they are just scared of not fitting in, of what people will say to them or about them. Maybe there is more to the conflicts and dramatic decisions that we, as human beings, often find ourselves in the midst of. Maybe we are just scared; scared of the world that we live in, scared of what might happen in our lifetimes, scared of the people around us who are different and scared of the fact that we, ourselves, might have to change. Maybe we are just reacting to the innate apprehension that exists within each and every one of us; that we can never do enough, that we can never be enough and that the world will just be too much for us to handle our own.

How do we react to that fear? Sometimes I think we do act like wild animals, fighting desperately for our place, for the safety of our families, for power and security. But why wouldn’t we? I think it may just be human nature to react out of fear with hostility.

But we can push back against it. We can feel ourselves acting with hostility and react instead with kindness. We can choose to be positive, even when it may be easier to be negative. We can forgive, even when it is difficult. We can feel empathy instead of just sympathy. We can pick our words carefully. We can want to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus, but we can acknowledge humbly that there is greater work to be done here on earth.

We do not have to do this alone. We have an entire toolbox full of things like reason, love, inner strength, community, prayer and grace that will help us along this journey.

So, if you were James and John, how would you react?

Perhaps the more thought provoking question now is, if you were James and John, how would you want to react?

May God bless you along your journeys – even when they are difficult.

Thanks be to God!


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