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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before October 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45

35James 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.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then 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; 40but 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.”

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What I Am Learning:

In this passage, Jesus was working to help his disciples understand the nature of the new community he is creating. In this community, in contrast to the Roman culture around and in them, they will seek to remain in a mutual relationship with each other.

The Roman culture is what I consistently call a domination culture: The more powerful we are the more fully human we are. Therefore we seek to dominate other people. When we can't dominate others, we seek to submit ourselves to powerful others with whom we can dominate others. The domination culture of Rome taught people to despise their limits and vulnerabilities. It taught them to hate themselves and to medicate this hatred with power over others.

The disciples thought Jesus was going to go to Jerusalem to replace those in power. But Jesus was not going to replace those in power. He was going to re-envision the whole thing. He is not going to win the game but rather sought change the game.

When Jesus announced God's reign in the beginning of Mark, he was saying that God was creating a new humanity, a new way for human beings to understand themselves and to relate to one another.

A key part of this is that in Jesus we see a powerful re-imagination of God.

The thing about God-language is that it is always asperational:

  • we desire to become like the God we imagine
  • we create communities based on the God we imagine.

When we see Jesus going to the cross in the Gospel of Mark, we see a God who is not only "all powerful" but a God who is vulnerable, a God who bleeds, suffers, dies. We see this because in Jesus, the Son of God, we see what God is like, we see what God would do, we see how God acts in the world.

The kind of human being re-imagined by this God is a human who embraces both our potentiality and our vulnerability, our power and our weakness, our life and our eventual death. This vision of the human, in stark contrast to the Roman ideal, knows that we are capable of doing many things, but does not despise our limits as something that makes us sub-human, but is an embraced part of our full humanity.

When we relate to others, then, we seek partnership with others, respecting both the limits and the capacities of each. We seek power with others, not over them.

Jesus ransomed us from the Roman vision of god and from our aspiration to power over others. Jesus was creating a community of partnership

At this point in the story, the disciples don't understand this yet. Of course, we often do not understand it either.

We typically presume that if we could just get rid of the structure of hierarchy all would be well. Without structure we could be free to relate to one another as God intends.

The key problem, in this understanding, is that structures themselves are the primary cause of sin: dominating and submitting in relationship. The idea is that if we could just get rid of hierarchy then humans could return to some primordial state of awesomeness.

I do believe that dominating structures play a very significant role in creating the conditions for sin.

But it is not quite that simple. This view is really too mechanical to fit reality.

Here we get into a sort of a chicken or the egg problem.

If human beings were not capable of or perhaps vulnerable to dominating or submitting relational patters, then how would these structures exist in the first place?

And if we are capable of or vulnerable to these dominating/submitting patterns then these can happen even when there is no hierarchy.

Luther taught that the church needs only the amount of oversight necessary to retain what he called "good order." In his day bishops and priests used their power to enforce a domination culture over others. He and other reformers of the day often struggled with how much oversight was necessary to protect people from those who, while seeming to want partnership, were unwilling or unable to maintain a mutual relationship with others.

I have served in three congregations in which there has been clergy sexual misconduct. This happened despite seminary training, mental health screening, and the oversight of a bishop. Of course, these events also took place in a time when sexual misconduct was understood to be about sex - today we understand that it is really about power over another.

These denominational bodies, however, began to see that while they were asking for some paperwork from clergy they actually spent very little time in actual oversight of clergy. They thought that if congregational leadership was strong, that they would be able to inform the bishop who could then take decisive action. Pastors who engage in such behaviors often work hard to maintain powerless or incompetent congregational leadership. Such pastors often seek to isolate the congregation, as several pastors I know have done, from the larger denomination by posing to be righteous about other issues.

The reality is, however, that no amount of oversight can stop every problem from happening.

And we know that oversight itself can become about power over others, too.

And we know that structures themselves can pose their own problems.

And we know that without oversight and protections for those who are vulnerable to dominating behaviors of what Luther called "wolves in the flock" can destroy the lives of those who are vulnerable.

So what do we do?

How do we best work to set up a church of house churches so that people have the best environment to experience mutual relationships and to work toward their authentic ministry and life in the world?

First, we have to admit that there is no perfect solution. At its best, the church is not only a community of saints and sinners, the community of the church is both saintly and sinner like.

We need to accept this. And actually, now that I think about it more, to accept this is to accept the powerful/vulnerable humanity that God is creating in us.

Second, we need to work more on creating awarenesses within our communities of of both the potential of being in mutual community with each other and the signs of when things begin to go wrong - and what to do when it does go wrong.

Third, we need a system of checks and balances and of oversight, as minimal as possible, that create these awarenesses and work to right the ship when things go wrong.

Fourth, and most important, the people who engage in this oversight must understand that while they play the role of one in oversight, that the real goal is mutuality. They must understand that oversight is a sacred trust, not of power over others, but to help the community move toward power with each other.

Lastly, let's remember that this work is not some extra duty that is imposed on us. When we took our children home from the hospital, we used car seats. We carefully, lovingly placed the car seats and made sure they were secure. It was not a pain. It was an act of love for our children.

Working on how we work for our common freedom in Christ and also protect one another from dominating behaviors is likewise and act of love. It is essential not only to being church, but to being human.

I feel that both Bishop Rickel and Bishop Unti have this understanding in spades. I hope to continue to learn from them in my own oversight, and to accept theirs when I make my inevitable mistakes.