James and John waste no words. “Teacher, give us what we want!”
Those words take me to breakfasts at Cracker Barrel. We finish eating. We are funneled back into the retail store. Every time it’s the same conversation. “Grandpa, give me what I want!” And another grand-child learns that life is filled with disappointment.
Wanting isn’t the problem. “What is it,” Jesus asks them, “that you want me to do for you?” The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.
We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things. James and John want power and prestige, status and security, dignity and dominance. They want to rule with Jesus. Naturally, they don’t have a clue what that means.
We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. Our economy exploits our wanting. We have often enjoyed the food and the atmosphere at Cracker Barrel with the grandkids. To get what we really want, we are required to run the retail gauntlet. We are surrounded by plaques and party dresses, rocking chairs and recipe books, toys and trinkets. Our desires are carefully channeled to stimulate sales. The store shapes our desires and then tries to satisfy them.
There’s the problem. We are created wanting. But that’s not the whole story. We are designed to desire God. Nothing else will do. No matter how the retail gods tease and tempt us, we always want more. We can never buy enough, eat enough, love enough or rule enough to be satisfied. This is the curse of consumerism. Retail therapy is a symptom of the disease, not a treatment.
We are designed to desire God. Christian thinkers have known this from the beginning. “Our hearts are restless, O God,” writes St. Augustine, “until we rest in you.” Blaise Pascal describes the “infinite abyss” in each of us that can be filled only by God.
The hallmark of sin is that we settle for restlessness. The hallmark of sin is that we fill the abyss with anything and everything except for God. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.
This is about much more than temporary trinkets at Cracker Barrel. Now we come back to James and John. They don’t want plaques and party dresses. They want power. Subtlety is not their strong suit.
The problem isn’t wanting. The problem isn’t even wanting power. But power in God’s kingdom is nothing like power in the world. Power in God’s kingdom comes in the shape of a cross. The gospel writer knows who will be at Jesus’ right and left hands. It won’t be James and John. It will be two bandits. Above Jesus’ head will be a sign that reads, “The King of the Jews.”
The world thinks this is backwards. Only the lead dog has a clear view. Everyone else has a…tail…in their face. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. You’re either climbing or you’re falling. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Truth is a poor substitute for victory.
Jesus says power comes in the shape of a cross. “The Son of Man came not to be served,” Jesus tells all of us disciples, “but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The purpose of this power is freedom. A ransom is paid to free a hostage. The first purpose of power in God’s kingdom is to set captives free. If you are a captive, this is good news for you. Jesus died and lives so you can be really free.
If you are a captive…but then, who isn’t! We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Jesus draws the powers of sin, death and the devil on to the cross with him. As we read in Ephesians, he takes captivity captive and kills those powers. When we trust him and follow him, we share in that freedom.
Still, we are captive to consumerism. Consumerism is a system that promises identity, meaning, and purpose through shopping. That’s not the definition an economist would give. But it is precisely the spiritual promise consumerism makes. Consumerism turns wanting into the goal of life. In this worldview, what we want is irrelevant. Our desire becomes our god.
It is “stewardship season” in many American Christian congregations. Someone once asked me if the goal is to increase giving to a congregation. That would be a salutary side effect of such an appeal. The goal, however, is freedom. The goal is freedom from captivity to stuff, security and certainty. Grateful giving is the best path to freedom from wanting. The goal is freedom to be the self-giving servants that God has made us to be. In part, that will be the freedom to buy less stuff.
Giving for the life and work of the Church is a tool for reaching that goal. An offertory prayer describes it well. “Merciful God,” we pray, “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you. We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.
The world thinks serving is for suckers. Jesus is no naïve dreamer. He knows how the world works. He reminds his disciples of that. The weak are meat for the strong to eat. The world asks, “Do you want to eat or be eaten?” Jesus is hardly a utopian romantic. He simply says, “It is not so among you.”
We are also still captive to self-serving power. We live in a time when power has ceased to be a tool. We live in a time when power has become the goal. “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,” Jesus says, “But it is not so among you…” Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings.
When I vote, for example, I apply this litmus test to every candidate. Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings. Self-servers do not get my vote. Self-givers do. I must confess that the slate of people for whom I can vote appears to be shrinking by the day. But I keep looking.
Jesus comes to release all of Creation from bondage to sin, death, and the devil – ALL of creation! If I will not participate in that work of release, then I cannot receive it. We live in a time when White Male Supremacy struggles to remain the dominant system in our society. Christian denominations and churches have been central to sustaining that system for the past four centuries. We can be part of shedding that system or sheltering it. The Jesus option should be clear.
“You know that the so-called leaders of the White Christian Nationalists lord it over people of color, women, migrants, and anyone else who threatens their power,” Jesus says, “but it is not so among you.” If it is so among us – even in subtle ways – then we are not following Jesus.
Jesus delivers his clearest and most detailed teaching on the cross and resurrection. Then James and John ask for a promotion. That’s crazy talk! But that’s precisely what we White American Christians do when Jesus sets us free and we use that freedom to keep others in bondage. That is, as James Baldwin once noted, a kind of insanity.
Our release comes by means of Jesus, dying and rising. The cross changes Creation – no, restores Creation to the way God makes it, and us. That change costs those of us who are invested in the status quo of power over others. It will feel like dying. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. So, if we’re losing power, position, privilege, and property, then things are probably working as they should.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who are privileged White Christians is developing and sustaining the moral, emotional, and institutional stamina to live through the losing. “To serve,” for us first means dealing that fragility as dominant and dominating people. We are being forced to look at our history and practice of tyranny and to sit with that for a while.
In the meantime, as church institutions, we need to practice some losing. Of course, some of that is being forced on us by a changing culture. But when will we start giving land back to Indigenous people? When will be start including reparations to Black institutions as part of our annual denominational and congregational and personal budgets? That’s the question I put to myself, and it’s painful.
Must be the right question.
The test for this is always the Jesus test. Our Lord comes to serve, to give, to die and to live. But that living is God’s gift, not the result of selfishness or fear. William Willimon reminds us that “our faith is full of people…for whom survival was low on the list of priorities.” If survival is the goal, we have failed the Jesus test. If serving in love is the goal, we have passed.
Wanting is not the problem. Wanting stuff in order to help others is not the problem. Wanting power in order to serve others is not the problem. Wanting freedom in order to worship God and love our neighbor is not the problem. Pray this week for right desire. Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.