What is it you’d like?

Mark 10:32-52  February 21, 2016  What is it you want me to do for you?

In the opinion column of the New York Times, Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, writes about her diagnosis of stage 4 cancer through the lens of the prosperity gospel, a movement she has written a book about. If you are unaware, there is a group of Christians who believe that if your faith is strong enough, you will be healed, you will drive that new car, get that new house. They believe God wants them to prosper and that the physical signs of God’s love are good health and the accumulation of nice things that they, simply put, humbly deserve.

Through her research and interviews and experiencing worship in buildings with grand stages and fog machines, Bowler traces the beginnings of this way of being Christian to a turn of the century theologian,  “…E. W. Kenyon, whose evangelical spin on New Thought taught Christians to believe that their minds were powerful incubators of good or ill. Christians, Kenyon advised, must avoid words and ideas that create sickness and poverty; instead, they should repeat: “God is in me. God’s ability is mine. God’s strength is mine. God’s health is mine. His success is mine. I am a winner. I am a conqueror.” Or, …in short… “I am blessed.”[1]

The next few paragraphs of the column then talk about the critical difference between blessing as a gift and blessing as a reward. She observes that the word “blessed” is used to describe God – who God is and what God does – whereas the prosperity gospel uses the word to describe people’s worthiness, their reward for being good and right.

Which brings me to James and John. They’d been following along in the crowd with Jesus and approach him with these words: Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. Which is pretty bold, isn’t it?  But Jesus, being Jesus, says What is it you want me to do for you?

And they say, Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Now, lets back up a bit in our story today. Because a few key things have happened in just today’s reading before they gallop up in giddy confidence to ask their Lord and Savior for privileged princess parking or box seats to the big game.

Our story begins this way: They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. 


Did you get that? Amazed and afraid following Jesus. Sounds about right, don’t you think?

And then these are the very next few verses:  He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

Did they think Jesus was talking about someone else? Somewhere else? In a distant and far off place? Now this is the 3rd time Jesus has pulled the 12 aside to tell them what this whole Savior of the World business was about: condemnation and death, mocking and spitting and flogging.

And, it’s right on the heels of Jesus telling them that to be first is to be last and to be a servant of all.

So the words “I’m gonna be flogged and killed and resurrected” are still ringing in the air, James and John step forward with their request. I imagine they’ve had previous conversations about this, or perhaps they were whispering as Jesus was teaching them and maybe they missed the whole thing. Or maybe they think they’re being brave… It’s like they can’t see or hear how ridiculously daft their question looks and sounds: We’d like box seats for this, on your right and on your left, in your glory, ok? We’d like to be your main guys in the entourage.

It would seem that turn of the century theologian E. W. Kenyon wasn’t the first prosperity Gospel proponent. James and John seem to be 1st century prosperity gospel preachers.

Jesus then tries to make it plain to them, even telling them that they have no idea what they are asking, that the spots prepared to his left and his right are not for them. And as the other disciples are beginning to mutter out of anger at these 2 guys daring to set up a hierarchy, Jesus goes on to explain to them that if they want to make a name for themselves in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ glory, then they better get ready not to be served, not to enjoy or demand privilege but to serve.

As the professor with cancer reflects on her own situation of her broken and dying body, she says this about the prosperity gospel, she says this about James and John’s question:

The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.

What do you say to Jesus as he turns to you and asks, what do you want me to do for you? James and John ask for privilege, for glory. Bartiemaus, the blind man, asks for sight and mercy. Perhaps these 2 stories are connected so that we can see that it is the blind man who sees even while he is still blind. He hollers out for Jesus, the Son of David. He knows he’s from a king, on his way to be a king. He knows he needs this king. He asks for mercy.

We too follow behind Jesus, trying to see where he is leading, amazed and afraid. And when our fear over takes us, we try and strip away the stuff that makes Jesus who Jesus is.

The professor who wrote the column I’ve quoted from at length today is 35 and has a toddler and a husband. And what we want to do for her is to fix her situation. We want to make it so that her daughter doesn’t grow up without a mom. We want to make it so that her husband is not a young widower. And she tells the story of a well-intentioned neighbor showing up to bring food and saying to the author’s husband, “everything happens for a reason.”  To which her husband responded,  “I’d love to hear it… I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying.”

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

We are like James and John and blind Bartemaus all in the same breath. We want certainty of our place. We want special treatment for following Jesus. We want to live long lives and die in our sleep at an old age. It’s only fair.

But what we need is mercy. Because a life of unanswered questions, of blurry shades of grey, of mercy and grace and blessing from God in the midst of our suffering and death – well, that is life. That is faith. It just is.

God blesses us even when we are sick and hurting, because God is faithful to us. It’s what God does. God promises a future for us – that’s what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples then and now – follow me to the cross, love and serve the neighbor and stranger. You are always blessed.

What do you say to Jesus as he turns to you and asks, what do you want me to do for you?  What is your question for him? What do you say to him? And how will Jesus respond?

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0