Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pick Me Lord - On Today's Gospel

Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
The Reading is from Mark 10:32-45
At that time, Jesus taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise." And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant of James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

I remember gym class when I was a child. Most children dreaded any team activity day and I was no exception. Without fail on these days, our gym teacher would assign two team captains to pick teams for the activity that day. We all wanted so much to be picked first we would do almost anything to get his attention, normally shouting out to the captain, “PICK ME, PICK ME!” Most of us were never picked first and we learned to deal with that. If we couldn’t be first, we thought, at least we wouldn’t be last, since this was the ultimate public humiliation. I can still feel the nerves...waiting and waiting....hearing other names called.....hoping I wouldn’t be picked last.

We live in a society where rank matters. Baseball teams are ranked, stock portfolios are ranked, and even our elementary schools are ranked. The nightly news, daily newspapers, and web blogs are filled with pages and pages of rankings. First is always better, which is what makes this week’s Gospel lesson so difficult to wrap our fingers around. Our society is consumed with the idea of being first, but our Lord says to his disciples, and to us, “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.” (Mark 10.43-44)

Today is the last Sunday of Great Lent and we are now looking ahead at next Sunday and beyond that to the Tomb of Christ when we will all sing, Christ is Risen! Our reading begins this morning from this same perspective with Jesus prophesizing about his coming passion, death, and resurrection. The disciples had seen many miracles performed by Christ and by now they should have recognized Jesus at the very least as a great prophet. God was giving them the inside scoop, as they would say in the media today, about what was going to happen.

This action should have been seen by the disciples as an honor as “He took them aside to tell them the things that would happen to Him.” (Mark 10.32) Instead of accepting this honor, what did they do? James and John took HIM aside and practically demanded to be seated on His left hand and on His right hand which were places of supreme honor. It was as if they didn’t even hear the prophecy they were so consumed with being first and just as I waited in gym class while other names were being called, the remaining disciples heard the demand of James and John. Saint Mark tells us, “And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” (Mark 10.41)

I wonder what our response would be if we were the other ten. We will have a chance in the next couple of weeks to find out. Next Sunday, Holy Friday, and Holy Saturday night for the Resurrection, our Church will be completely filled with people, some of whom may have to sit in the other room. What will those of us who have been here every week during Great Lent and throughout the rest of the year respond? This year, since Pascha is so much later than Western Easter, we are bound to have a large number of visitors as well. How will we respond to them?

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ let us take to heart the message of this morning’s Gospel. Our Lord expects us to place other’s needs ahead of our own while at the same time allowing ourselves to become their servants. When we have so many visitors in the next couple of weeks, we will have the perfect opportunity to put this into action. We will have the perfect opportunity to place others needs ahead of our own. When we see visitors or our fellow parishioners who may not have been here for many months, let us welcome them not as someone who is sitting in our seat but as someone who has chosen to come and receive the blessing of Christ.

It is the blessing of Christ that brings us together each and every Sunday as Orthodox Christians. It was the honor of being in the presence of Jesus that drove James and John to demand higher honors than the other ten disciples. We must not allow the honor Christ bestows upon us every week with His presence to blind us as it blinded James and John. But we should also not be like the other ten who were angered with the mere thought of someone else having the honor of the presence of God.

It was this same honor that drew Mary of Egypt to the Church that day when she was stopped from entering and it was her humility and her repentance that eventually brought her closer to God and earned her a rank with the Saints. This is the example the Church places in front of us this final Sunday before Holy Week – repentance and humility.

Mary was waiting outside the Church as others entered freely. I imagine her frustration could have been somewhat like the ten disciples who saw James and John seeking higher honor. Maybe her pride was hurt. Maybe she thought, “Why shouldn’t I be able to enter the Church like these others.” It was by realizing her need for humility that finally allowed her to see past her pride and to enter the Church. She was forced to realize that it was her sinfulness that kept her from entering the Church just as it was pride that caused James and John to dare to demand supreme honor next to Christ.

Just as it is pride that caused me to want to be picked first every day in gym class, it is humility that helps me realize that in fact there are other much better athletes in gym than myself. It is humility that allows me to see that in life we are not always first, either in the team rankings of gym class or in the stock market. Actually most of us are never first and that is just fine. As Mary of Egypt helps us to realize, it isn’t being first that matters, it is all about being humble.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is not too late to realize our need for humility before we celebrate Pascha in two weeks. Let us heed the call of our Lord and place the needs of others ahead of our own needs. Let us live as our Lord Himself lived, “not to be served but to serve,” (Mark 10.45) and when we celebrate His passion, death and glorious resurrection, let us remember that He died that we may live. And let us not be wonder whether we will be called last or first, just so long as Christ calls us to His Kingdom.

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