In the comedy Talladega Nights with Will Ferrel, the race car driver Ricky Bobby has a famous line, “if you’re not first- you’re last”. Highlighting the absurdity of competition and self-promotion and the way one can be compelled to do just about anything to win there are many funny one-liners in that movie. All those desires to be the best are turned upside down.
Reading this weekend’s gospel Mark 10:35-45 where James and John ask Jesus to be seated one at his right hand and one at his left I was reminded of that movie. They really don't know what they are asking for. It makes it seem like after all this time with Jesus they really don't understand who he is or what he came to do in the world. All the talk of coming to Jesus as a child has been lost on them.
How often does the desire to be number one, to win, to “be the best”, to be the favorite, to be “first chair”, and in the spotlight lead us on a path of believing if we aren’t first we are last? Do we really know what we are asking for?
We live in a culture that fuels the illusion that God loves some people better than others. Recently I watched the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
The story follows some of the backup singers to musical artists of the last 50 year. It tells the stories of singers who weren’t the stars, the headliners, the “number ones”. It had a lot to say about how those who sing back up at times made the song what it was yet they didn’t get the acclaim or praise or recognition of the star. It made me think of how often we incorrectly judge things or people or life. Some of the back up singers never wanted to be the star. They believed their calling was to be in the background not the forefront.
At our weekly bible study a story was shared about how a musical student who is seated in the first chair in band was resentful when the director decided to give everyone a chance to play or sit in the first chair position. Jesus’s disciples were angry with James and John for their request. Perhaps it was that they hadn’t thought to ask themselves. We will never know.
What we do hear throughout Jesus’ journey is that we are called to be followers. For several weeks in worship we have been hearing Jesus story in Mark chapters 8-10. Bookended by the healing of two blind men one in Mark 8:22-26 and one in Mark 10:46-52 we read how some are blind to who Jesus is and what he came into the world to share about who God is. There are three predictions of Jesus impending death and yet his disciples don’t seem to quite get it.
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" Mark 8:34-36
At the end of Mark 10 when the blind man named Bartimaeus calls out for mercy Jesus calls for him. Similar to what Jesus said to his disciples James and John, he asked Bartimaeus, “what do you want me to do for you?”. He responded, “My teacher, let me see again”. Jesus told him, “Go, your faith has made you well.”. Bartimaeus had his sight restored. He didn’t follow Jesus’ instructions. He didn’t go. Instead he followed Jesus on the way. When James and John asked what they wanted from Jesus he said it wasn’t his to grant. Some requests are granted, others are not. God’s work in the world isn’t an easy math formula and often doesn’t follow human reason or logic. There is a lot of mystery in the ways and workings of God.
Gathered together as followers of Jesus by the Spirit who opens eyes that are blind, ears that are deaf, minds that are closed and hearts and that are hardened we get to walk alongside one another. We can ask, seek, knock. We can be see ourselves in James and John and Bartimaeus. And we get to learn and serve and grow together as followers.
We hold one another in prayer and walk alongside one another in our despair and doubt. We encourage one another when it is really tough and celebrate with one another in times of joy. We are not competing with one another for God’s love. The abundance of the love of God for us is beyond our comprehension. We get to remind one another of this. So together we can be bold and ask for what we want know that there is some truth in that Rolling Stones song
Trusting Jesus as the love of God come in the flesh we can both boldly ask for what we want and trust God to do as God knows best. So often we don’t really know what we are asking for from God and if will it be the best for us, for others, for the world. We trust that Jesus has compassion for us and all people.
So in our following and in our failing to follow, in our clarity and in our confusion God is with us. The love of God is about who God is. To let that in we often need to let go of a lot of other things, and sometimes those very things are our own desires, plans, needs to be first, the best, the winner.