“What do I call you?” I can tell you this is a question my male colleagues never face. “What do I call you?” After 36 years of ordaining women and we still don’t know what to call them? Really??!! It is one of those strange but true things. There are still very few female clergy in the Episcopal Church and many denominations don’t ordain women at all. Arthur LaRue and I had lunch a few months ago at Beans in the Belfry and sat outside since the weather was so nice. Several young mothers emerged from the restaurant with their children in tow and one turned and said, “Are you a minister?!” I said, “Yes. I’m the priest at Grace Episcopal Church.” (I was wearing my clerics, so it was a little obvious). She apologized for interrupting but said, “I’ve never seen a woman in a collar before. What do we call you?”
“What do we call you?” I confess in my more mischievous moments, I reply, “Why isn’t it obvious? ‘Your majesty!’ It does have a lovely ring to it doesn’t it?” But more often than not, I just tell people they can call me by my baptismal name and if they insist on an honorific, Mother or Pastor is just fine. What you call me doesn’t change who I am in God’s eyes and it doesn’t change my call to be a priest. And honorifics really don’t seem to have much place in the kingdom if we take today’s Gospel reading seriously.
Today we hear of the upward mobility plans of the sons of Zebedee. They seem to have been sleeping through the events leading up to this encounter. We are just on the heels of several teachings about letting go: Jesus telling the young man to sell all he has and give all the money away to the poor, becoming like children (who have nothing), predictions of his own death, invitations to take up our cross and follow him. And now, after all of this, James and John demand that Jesus “do for us whatever we ask of you.” Really?! Whose agenda is at the forefront here? And what’s on James and John’s agenda are seats of power when Jesus is in his glory. They want the titles, the corner office with the view, the high-backed leather chair and mahogany desk!!
Jesus tells them they don’t have a clue what they are asking … and knowing the rest of the story as we do, we know they don’t have a clue! Jesus asks if they can go the distance: to drink from the cup he will drink from and to be baptized with the baptism he will receive. Of course, they answer “Yes, we are able” and if we’re honest, we don’t believe them. I’m not sure Jesus believed them either. How could they know what they were getting themselves into? How can any of us know what we’re getting ourselves into?
After this, the other disciples get word of James and John’s attempt at a power grab and start squabbling among themselves. We can almost hear it, can’t we? “Who do they think they are? They’re no better than us!” Jesus then calls them together and reminds them how things are different in the kingdom. He tells them the Gentile rulers lord their power over others and act as tyrants – but it is not to be so with you. When we hear the word “Gentile” in the Scriptures, we often think this refers to someone who is not Jewish. That’s only part of the meaning. Gentiles were those who did not know God – people who had no grounding and understanding of the God of Israel. He’s saying essentially Gentiles, people who don’t know God, use power and prestige to establish themselves as gods (small “g” gods). And those of us who know God, the real God, are not to be this way. Jesus is giving his disciples an alternate vision of what it means to be human. He’s giving them an exit ramp from the systems of oppression humans tend to set up in the world. And it’s an exit ramp for the rat race of our day too!
We live in a post- 9/11 world where the American dream has turned into a nightmare for many of us. We wax nostalgic about how wonderful things were before the attacks of 9/11, before the collapse of our economy in the great recession, and we wonder how we will go back and recapture that way of life. If only our taxes were lower, our economy would turn around and everything would be fine, right? We’ll just pass gambling and pay for our schools … that will work, right? And in the midst of this, we’ll magically create lots of new high paying jobs, right? “Gee Wally, if we just work harder, we’ll make it!” … right? Well, I don’t know about you, but we’ve tried some of these so called “fixes” already and they aren’t really working all that well. It really doesn’t matter what your political leanings are, the old paradigms are not working because we have experienced a seismic shift in our culture and our way of life has been radically altered. This paradigm shift has forced us to live on less and reprioritize where we spend our time, talent and treasure. Our culture has been living in an unsustainable way for generations – over-consuming and passing along the bill to the next generation. But the chickens have come home to roost and the rules about how to live have been obliterated. And if it feels like you are working harder and can’t seem to get ahead it is because the system is stacked against you.
Over and over, Jesus tells us this striving after the ways of the world is the way of those who do not know God – the Gentiles. But it is to be different for the disciples, for us, who know God. We are to forget, to eschew, the titles, the perks, the corner office, the crazy pace, the unsustainability of worldly power and privilege. We are to be servant of all and master of none. We are to pour ourselves out in self-forgetfulness for only in forgetting the ego of self can we truly engage with others in love. And this love is costly – it demands much from us but conversely gives much to us. It is the costliness of laying down our lives for each other and for the sake of the world. This past week, I was blessed to hear Dr. Walter Brueggemann speak at our clergy conference. He’s one of my favorite curmudgeons of theology. He said that too many Christians think, “I don’t mind dying for Jesus, but I’d rather not be inconvenienced.” Jesus is telling us that our lives are to be one big, fat inconvenience if they are to have any meaning whatsoever! We will be inconvenienced. We will be called to lay down our lives – our priorities and their perks and prestige – all of it has to go for the sake of finding a real and meaningful life. But in losing this life for the sake of the Gospel, Christ tells us we will find a life beyond our wildest imagination – a life that matters and one which lasts.