October 21, 2018 The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

Job 38:1–7, (34–41), Psalm 104:1–9, 25, 37c, Hebrews 5:1–10; 2:5–12, Mark 10:35–45

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

At the beginning of the movie The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Captain Jack Sparrow, who had done battle with the kraken, a feared sea monster, and lost, is in Davey Jones’ Locker, the pirate version of Sheol, that is, the land of the dead. Unfortunately for some of the pirate lords who had been responsible for his death, Captain Jack held one of the “pieces of eight,” which gave him a seat and vote in the international pirate council; and his vote was now necessary to help sway the council to go to war against the British Navy, which was decimating piracy throughout its empire. Since Captain Jack had not ceded his piece of eight to anyone before his death, he still held ownership. The only way, then, that the pirates could get Captain Jack’s vote was to bring him back from Davey Jones’ Locker—to bring him back from the dead.

The pirate place of the dead was at world’s end and beyond (hence the name of the movie). Several of the pirate lords and their crews set out for Davey Jones’ Locker with the Map to the Land of the Dead to guide them. To get there, they must sail beyond the place where their navigational chart ended—a place where the waters reflected the stars so perfectly that it became nearly impossible to find the horizon. The map gave them the final clue to entry into the place of the dead. “Over the edge. Over again,” it said. The crew realized that the only way into Davey Jones’ Locker was over a massive waterfall. Upon reaching it, the ship they were sailing was cast down and destroyed, but the pirate crew was intact, though now stranded in Davey Jones’ Locker without the means to get out.

Once there, the pirate crew found Captain Jack and his ship, the Black Pearl. They convinced him to come back to the land of the living, but none knew how. All they had was two cryptic messages on their navigational chart as clues: “Sunrise sets. Flash of green,” and, “Up is down.” During one poignant scene, as ship and crew languished in the doldrums of the sea of the land of the dead, Captain Jack had an inspiration. At almost sunset, he began running from starboard to port and back again. Soon, the whole crew, catching on, was running with him and the ship began rocking side-to-side. The more they ran, the further the ship rocked until it capsized, and the crew was hanging onto the upside-down ship for dear life. At sunset, a flash of green light shot to the sky and the Black Pearl and its crew were transported to the land of the living, where it was sunrise. Sunrise sets. Flash of green. Up is down.

One of the main themes of my preaching through the years, which is particularly relevant to the Gospel reading for this morning and the overall theme I have been developing over several weeks, is that the way of the kingdom of God is not the way of the kingdom of the world. The way of the kingdom of God as compared to the way of the kingdom of the world is a place in which “up is down,” “sunrise sets,” “the sky is green and the grass is blue”; or, to quote a Dolly Pardon song, “Rivers flow backwards, valleys are high, mountains are level, truth is a lie”—well, that last one seems to be common place these days! (Dolly Pardon, “The Grass is Blue”). In the Gospel reading, the sons of Zebedee appear to get it all wrong—well, almost. As one of the commentators on the text said, “I think [James and John] are finally beginning to understand something essential.” (Bruce K. Modahl, “October 21, 2018: Lectionary 29: From a Preacher,” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 267.) Last week, after Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor, and follow him as the way to abundant life, and after the young man goes away despondent for the enormity of the request, Peter speaks up and brags that he and the rest of the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus. At first, Jesus acknowledges their sacrifice, “Truly I tell you,” he says, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…and in the age to come.” “James and John were listening. They heard, ‘There is going to be a reward for us.’” And “[t]hey continued to listen when Jesus took the Twelve aside and said, ‘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 mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ They heard ‘rise again.’”

What the commentator is proposing is that James and John “had begun to understand what the others were still missing. They understood that Jesus was going to rearrange the world order and he was going to be enthroned on the top of the heap. They heard that the last will be first and the first last. They were among the last in line. They looked forward to being at the head of the line. They wanted to be second and third in line as Jesus’ prime minister and secretary of state. Their mistake was to think the rearrangement was going to operate in the same way the old arrangement did. The heap on which Jesus was enthroned was in the city garbage dump. Jesus’ throne was his cross; his crown was made of thorns. The ones appointed to sit on his left and right were bandits. At the cross we live at the impact point between the old and new arrangements. In the collision someone is bound to get bruised and crushed.” (Ibid. pp. 267-68.) James and John affirm that they are indeed able to drink the cup that Jesus would drink, and be baptized with the baptism with which Jesus would be baptized, but were they thinking in terms of the kingdom of God, or of the kingdom of this world? I think it was the latter, for if they were thinking in terms of the kingdom of God, they never would have approached Jesus so brazenly asking for positions of power and authority in his kingdom, nor would they have so willingly committed themselves to drink the cup of Jesus and be baptized in the font of Jesus. They would have realized that in the kingdom of God the sunrise sets, up is down, “there’s snow in the tropics, there’s ice on the sun, it’s hot in the Arctic, and crying is fun.” (Dolly Pardon, “The Grass is Blue.”)

What about us? The hierarchy of the kingdom of heaven begins with the cross, that is, with self-sacrificial love, particularly, if we are to believe Jesus, such love for the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed of the world; and it means, being willing, as James and John claimed to be willing, to give up our very lives, if necessary (like Jesus our Lord), for the sake of the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. It means being willing to acknowledge that for all our piety or for all that we give up for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel, in the end we will still be least in the kingdom of heaven behind the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed—behind the bandits hanged at Jesus’ right and left hand at Golgotha. Leadership in the kingdom of God means learning to be comfortable standing in the back and giving up our places of honor. And yet it also means that despite the call to self-sacrifice and despite our lowly place in the kingdom of God, we are asked to give ourselves completely in trust to the care and protection of the God who turns our world and our worldview upside down. We are asked to do this even if we suffer loss for the sake of following in this way (which, if Jesus is to be believed, we most definitely will), but we do it knowing that we will be held in the loving care of God, in whom is our hope and salvation, for the God who asks us to follow is faithful and true.

James and John were asked if they were willing to be baptized with the baptism with which Jesus was baptized, and if they were able to drink the cup from which Jesus drank. They claimed they were so willing and able, and Jesus acknowledged that it would be so. Well, we also have been baptized in the font of Jesus and so baptized into a fellowship of faith where we learn about this upside down way of the cross and how to live it in our lives, and to be strengthened and encouraged by the example of others; and weekly, we drink from the cup of Christ where we take the very life of Christ inside us to strengthen and nourish us for the work of navigating this upside down world. We have not been left alone on this journey. We have been placed in the company of others who know the challenged of proclaiming that the sunrise sets, up is down, “and the rivers flow backwards, and my tears are dry, swans hate the water, and eagles can’t fly.” (Dolly Pardon, “The Grass is Blue.”) Amen.

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