Today’s readings include a fair bit of humor. God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, and it is up to the reader to determine exactly how much snark comes from God’s words, “Were you there when I laid the earth’s foundations? Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it?”
I prefer to hear those words in the voice of the Dowager Countess of Grantham. (I’m sure Ellis will do a fine job reading them at 10:30, don’t get me wrong, but he’s no Dame Maggie Smith.) The Bible can be humorous, especially, especially when it comes to questions humans ask about measuring up. For much of the Bible, pursuit of status is a joke, the kind of joke that carries a deep lesson.
In the Gospel this morning, you feel for James and John. Don’t you? I wonder if we are meant to imagine Jesus barely suppressing an eye roll, a smirk, “We want you to do for us exactly what we ask.” Boys, who is following whom? “We want you to grant us to sit at your right and left hand.”
Remember, these are the brothers Jesus gave the nickname “sons of thunder.” I wonder whether they earn the nickname here, with this foolish request. There’s a potential joke in the text around that nickname. Jesus uses a word that is hard to translate for their name: Boanerges. Mark translates it “sons of thunder,” but some scholars wonder whether it might have been a little more crude. To make a request like James and John make today takes we might call (because we are in the midst of a bilingual liturgy) cojones. Scholars wonder whether the name Jesus gives them, Boanerges, might mean something in that neighborhood. I told you, the Bible can be funny.
Humor to get our attention
Scripture uses humor to get our attention, to draw us in to the story. Know anyone like James and John? Maybe even you can identify with this desire for so-called “greatness?” We subconsciously look for measurements, the size of a paycheck, the square footage of a house. Wealth, in itself, isn’t really the problem. The problem in when we use wealth to measure self-worth, or the worth of our neighbor.
One of our wealthier members once told me that he decided to join Holy Communion for a very odd reason. He said, “it’s because the church doesn’t have a parking lot. I went to a number of Episcopal churches, and afterward everyone went out into the parking lot and compared cars. There would be quiet comments about who drove a Mercedes and who drove a Toyota.” He said, “I always found the time after church to be unChristian, so when I found a church that didn’t have a parking lot, I signed up.” We find all sorts of ways to measure one another don’t we? : money, titles, whether we work in a corner office, an office, a cubicle; behind a counter, under the hood of a car. Even when we don’t do it quite as boldly as James and John, there’s a troubling subtext. We measure our status and that of our neighbor, often quietly, to ourselves or in whispers.
Before I go further, a word about context. In a church like this one, I need to point out there are nuances to this question. There’s a pretty wide conversation going on about “Black Excellence.” I know leaders in the Black Community who will rightly not apologize for striving for wealth, for influence, for everything their ancestors dreamed and worked for and were denied. I know women who demand the same treatment they watched male executives receive. For centuries the structures of power measured certain people by race, gender, orientation, language, national origin, ability the list goes on and on. Many of these structures are still in place, so when a glass ceiling is broken, when a black leader is elected, or a queer person holds a position of influence it is a source of a pride for the community.
I hear that, I do. I feel it at times too. Questions of greatness, questions of measuring up, are complicated by the history and present reality of structural oppression. And still, and still, I think Jesus laughs with a freedom I long to know. Because there are times when even those who represent our best hopes can get caught playing the games of status, of so-called greatness. Almost always this is the time to ask, “how are you giving back?”
If you are the embodiment of excellence for a community that has known oppression, if your very existence as a leader challenges the bigoted status quo, what Jesus says here in the Gospel, “Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant” might ring hollow. Those words “servant” and “slave” might make you take a step back from what Jesus has to say.
Don’t step back from Jesus. Open the nuance. Ask, “how are you giving back? Beyond simply existing, how are you lifting your community? How are you empowering other leaders of color? Queer folks? Women? What are you doing to make sure those glass ceilings don’t get re-built under you? If you are using your status to serve, then I think Jesus WOULD call you great. But I also know it’s easy to get lost in the nuances.
Now this congregation still includes a number of cis, white, straight, educated, able-bodied, men. You’re not off the hook. Don’t act surprised…This congregation includes a number of folks who identify with all but one or two of those intersections of privilege. Jesus’ words today don’t let you off the hook either. Jesus asks you to serve, even when service isn’t something you are used to, especially when service isn’t something you are used to doing. Jesus’ refusal to play James and John’s game around status, around measuring up, it has something to teach us.
Dismantling Structures of Power
If you have privilege, if you have status, how are you specifically it to subvert the structures of power? How are you specifically working to identify the next generation of leadership? How are you making room? How are you serving? If you aren’t sharing power, you are hoarding power. If you aren’t actively dismantling biased structures, you are enabling them.
These are the stakes, and they have been the stakes since the time of Jesus. If we aren’t finding ways to break the rules of the status games, of the power games, if we aren’t breaking the rules then the game keeps going. That’s why these words of Jesus are so important. Jesus’ words “become a slave; Act like a servant,” they break the rules of the power games. They expose the joke in which so many of us are caught.
St. Augustine Weighs In
St. Augustine, commenting on this tendency even in the disciples, even among Jesus’ closest followers, to seek their own glory, Augustine read these verses with compassion. Augustine said deep down these disciples are trying to get to their homeland, what Jesus calls the “kingdom of God,” what Dr King called the Beloved Community. The disciples are longing to get there but they cannot see the way there. “The homeland is on high and the way to it is lowly.” Augustine says, “The homeland is life in Christ; the way is dying with Christ.” Augustine lived in a time of martyrs, and the dying was literal. Today we might say, “the way of Christ is dying to self.”
Dying to self remains counter-intuitive. Taking the lowly way means resisting the self-focused self-fulfilling drum-beat of society. The way of humility isn’t found in our partisan politics. The way of humility can’t be bought. The way of humility is often best identified by becoming a servant of someone you’d likely not want to want to serve, someone you might not feel deserves your service. The way is found by letting go of self.
Take Your Self Lightly
One last word about God and humor. There’s that old joke, “of course God has a sense of humor, look at the platypus.” I think it’s a little bit more than that. We can take these questions of greatness, or self-worth, or measurement very seriously, deadly seriously. There is no doubt. But in both of today’s lessons, in the story of Job and the story of James and John we encounter men who are taking themselves too seriously. God’s response is to take them lightly. There is humor in these texts, I would argue, because God invites us almost always to take ourselves more lightly. The Spiritual life should make us laugh at ourselves at times, or else we’re probably doing it wrong.
God doesn’t need us to waste our time feeling guilty. Feeling guilty is just another way of getting pulled into making it all about myself. Guilt is another obsession with self. Just roll your eyes, at yourself. Laugh. So you didn’t lay the foundations of the world? You don’t know how they were measured? Big surprise. Let it go. Then go serve your neighbor. That is how you get in on the joke.