The Illusion of Control

Sermon on Mark 10:35-45 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on October 21, 2012.

The presidential election of 1828 was a watershed moment in American History.  It was the first time a candidate from the “West” was elected (Andrew Jackson was from Tennessee, which was the American frontier at that time), it was the first time that people who didn’t own property were eligible to vote, and it was the first time that the major parties referred to themselves as “Democrat” and “Republican.”  Among all of these firsts, one of the most lasting legacies of this election was the introduction of the “spoils system.”  Andrew Jackson was the first president to appoint his political allies to government positions on a large scale, using the argument that just as the spoils of war belong to the victors, so the spoils of a political campaign should belong to the victorious party. "Old Hickory" In the early days of the Republic, one’s role in government was primarily contingent on one’s willingness to serve.  In fact, presidential candidates originally did not even choose running mates; their opponent would serve as Vice President.  So Thomas Jefferson served as John Adams’ Vice President, even though they were political rivals and frankly hated each other’s guts.  I can only imagine what those cabinet meetings looked like.  In any case, though choosing a running mate quickly became a part of presidential politics, it was Andrew Jackson who was the first president to make broad use of the political appointment, who made political patronage a prime consideration when filling government positions.  Jackson is famous for saying, “if there’s a job that can’t be performed by a Democrat, let’s abolish the job.”  Ever since, that thinking has existed on both sides of the aisle in this country.  It is now a big deal when a president appoints a member of the opposite party and “bipartisanship” is now an elusive goal rather than standard operating procedure.  Thanks to Andrew Jackson and the spoils system, your political leanings now make as much of a difference as your capabilities when it comes to working in government.  But I don’t think Andrew Jackson deserves all of the blame.  After all, the idea of being rewarded for backing the right horse or supporting the right candidate is one of the most natural human impulses there is.  If you support the person who ends up winning, the person who ends up coming out on top, it stands to reason that you would benefit, that you would derive some advantage.  Andrew Jackson just institutionalized this very human way of thinking: that those who support the winners should get something in return.

I think this is what’s going on with the sons of Zebedee in our gospel reading for the day.  James and John approach Jesus and they ask a question that every parent in this history of the world has heard at one point or another: “We’d like you to do exactly what we want you to do, but we want you to say ‘yes’ before we tell you what it is.”  As most parents would reply, Jesus presses his disciples and says, “Whoa, hold on a second: what is it that you want?”  James and John screw up their courage and say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  James and John, in other words, want to take full advantage of the spoils system.  When this kingdom of God that Jesus has been talking about finally rolls around, there will probably be some prize positions in the government of that kingdom that would be reserved for the closest supporters of Jesus.  James and John may be thinking, “We could potentially be Secretary of State of kingdom of God, maybe even Vice President if we play our cards right.  Maybe Jesus hasn’t assigned positions yet because he’s waiting for us to ask!  Let’s show him how much drive and ambition we have and ask him right now.”  I think this is why the other disciples are angry with James and John; they weren’t annoyed that the sons of Zebedee had asked Jesus for a prominent place in the kingdom, they just wish they had thought of it first.  The disciples are thinking, “We have given up everything to follow this guy, we have put all of our eggs in his basket; shouldn’t we get something out of it?  Shouldn’t we have something to show for our support when Jesus finally wins?”

Jesus, however, turns the disciples’ thinking on its head.  Rather than acquiescing to their request or upbraiding them for their insolence, Jesus responds to James and John by telling them that they don’t understand what they are asking.  Jesus asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  James and John reply, “Of course!  Whatever we need to do.  We’ll put in our time, we’ll pay our dues, as long as we get to sit by your side in your glory, one at your right hand and one at your left.”  Now you’ll remember that just a few chapters from where we are right now, Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified.  And Mark tells us that he was crucified with two bandits, “one on his right, and one on his left.”  Mark uses the same phrase to describe the positions of the crucified bandits that the sons of Zebedee used to petition Jesus for power.  James and John, far from asking for a position of power, in other words, have asked to be put in a place where they would give up their very lives, where they would be crucified with Jesus.  The sons of Zebedee truly did not understand the implications of what they were asking.  They thought they were asking for a position of power in God’s kingdom; Jesus tells them that they will bear witness to God’s coming kingdom by giving up their very lives.

Over the past three weeks, we have listened to three very penetrating stories from the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel.  This is the portion of Mark’s gospel that explores the true meaning of discipleship and articulates what it means to be a follower Jesus along the Way.  Though the stories in chapter ten deal with three very distinct topics, they are significantly related.  Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus teach about the significance of marriage and human relationships.  Last week we heard Jesus tell the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor.  And this week, we hear Jesus explain that power and authority have entirely different meanings in the kingdom of God.  In other words, in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus reorients our understanding of marriage, money, and authority, or as Br. Kevin Hackett of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist is fond of putting it: Jesus reorients our understanding of sex, money, and power.  It’s no accident that members of monastic communities take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; they renounce these things that Jesus has been preaching about for the past several weeks.  Members of monastic communities, however, do not give up these things because they are bad in and of themselves.  The reason Jesus tries to reorient our understanding of sex, money, and power is because these things can so easily be misused to give us the illusion of control.  When the Pharisees or the rich young man or James and John come to Jesus they are asking for something that will give them control over their lives and their destinies.  The Pharisees want to veto power over their relationships, the rich young man wants to possess eternal life as if it is a commodity, and James and John want to make sure that they have a choice position in the Jesus administration.  All of the people who approach Jesus in this chapter we have been reading over the last three weeks want to make sure that they have absolute control over this life and the life to come.  Their tools are different: for the Pharisees it’s divorce, for the rich young man it is his wealth, and for James and John it is their political clout in supporting Jesus.  Ultimately all three of these groups are primarily interested in control.  But Jesus makes it abundantly clear that control is an illusion, that no amount of “spousal authority,” no amount of money, no amount of power will give any of us complete control over our lives.  The message that Jesus proclaims in this chapter of Mark’s gospel is that any control we have in our lives is ultimately an illusion.

Believe it or not, this is good news.  It is good news that we are ultimately not in control of our lives, because our lack of control invites us to put our trust in the grace of God.  Jesus puts his teaching about marriage in the context of God’s grace, he puts his teaching about money in the context of God’s grace, and today he puts his teaching about power in the context of God’s grace.  Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God was not heralded by a conquering general riding a stallion and representing the powers of this world; the kingdom of God was heralded by a rabbi riding a humble donkey.  Jesus reminds us that that God’s grace is available even to those who misunderstand and reject it.  Jesus reminds us that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  In a world where we are obsessed with control, where we are obsessed with results, where we are obsessed with winning, we need to be reminded that God came among us to serve us, giving up control, not paying attention to results, and losing his life for our sake.  In the same way, we are called to surrender our illusion of control and trust in God’s grace.  We are called to give up our preoccupation with winning, give up believing that the results of some election will either ruin the country forever or make it a better place; we are called to give up control, knowing that God also gave up control for the sake of this world.  One of the ways we do that is by giving up a portion of our material wealth, one of the primary symbols of our control in this life.  We take some of our money, one of those tools we use to maintain the illusion of control, and we give it away: maybe to the Church, maybe to charity, maybe to someone who happens to need a helping hand.  We do this to proclaim that it is not ultimately us but God who has control in our lives.  We do this to proclaim that we are utterly dependent on the grace of God.  We do this to remind ourselves that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.