Whatever We Ask

Mark 10:35-45

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

There’s an interesting picture that’s been popping up here and there in social media.  It’s a picture of a middle-aged man washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen.  Now you might think, “What’s so interesting about that?”  Well the thing that makes this picture interesting is that the man washing dishes in the restaurant kitchen is Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jon Bon Jovi, the front man for the very successful rock band, Bon Jovi. 

Back in 2011 Jon and his wife Dorothea wanted to do something to help hungry people, but they didn’t want it to be just another food pantry or soup kitchen.  Food banks and soup kitchens do good work, but they also tend to isolate hungry people from everyone else or spotlight them—and not in a good way.   

Jon and Dorothea decided to open a restaurant where payment is optional so that folks who cannot afford a restaurant meal can dine right alongside those who can.  That’s how JBJ Soul Kitchen came to be.  The menu has no prices.  You select what you like and are encouraged to make a suggested donation. If you are unable to donate, you are invited to participate in what they call “volunteer opportunities,” which usually entails working in the kitchen in one way or another.  When he’s not on tour, Jon Bon Jovi himself often stops in to volunteer as a waiter, cook or dishwasher.  

When the pandemic hit, though, JBJ Soul Kitchen had to change its model.  “Due to the pandemic,” said Jon in a recent interview, “we couldn’t have any volunteers work. But we still had mouths to feed. So Dorothea and I worked five days a week for two months before we went to Long Island and opened a food bank that fed 6,000 people a month there.”

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

If you log in to a particular YouTube channel on any given evening, you’ll find one of the richest, most successful women in the world sitting on her bed in her pajamas reading a children’s book.  The lady in her PJs is none other than Dolly Parton, and her YouTube program, Goodnight with Dolly, is targeted toward preschoolers, because children who have someone read to them on a regular basis develop their own reading skills earlier and more easily.  Dolly understood that not every parent has free time to sit and read with their kids, especially single parents.  And not all parents read well enough, themselves, to provide their kids with that important head start.  That was the case with Dolly’s own father who started working while still very young and as a result never learned to read or write.  So Dolly Parton decided that, in honor of her father, she would help as many kids as possible develop those very necessary pre-reading and early reading abilities.

Goodnight with Dolly is the newest venture in Dolly Parton’s long-time campaign for literacy.  In 1995, Dolly launched the Imagination Library in Sevier County, her home county in East Tennessee, to inspire a love of reading by giving one free children’s book a month to every child in the county from age two until they start school.  With the help of local community partners, the Imagination Library has now spread throughout the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Ireland.  Nearly two million kids are now registered in the Imagination Library, and the organization has given away more than 165 million books.  But there are still others who haven’t been reached.  So Dolly Parton sits on her bed in her pajamas and reads to the kids whose parents aren’t available or able to read to them.

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

The Disciples James and John came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  When he asked them what they wanted, they said, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and one at your left when you come into your glory.”  

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t chastise them even a little for asking something so audacious.  He simply tells them that they don’t know what they’re asking.  He hints at the ordeal he will soon endure when he asks them,  “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  They answer just a little too quickly:  “We are able,”  and it seems pretty clear that they don’t know what they’re in for.

We shouldn’t be too hard on James and John.  To their credit, they really do have faith.  They believe that Jesus can give them what they want.  They believe that he will soon “come into his glory.”  They just don’t understand what that means.  

A lot of us have come to Jesus at one time or another saying, “I want you to give me whatever I ask of you.”  A lot of people have thought that this is really the essence of praying.  Give me what I ask for.  And a lot of us have asked at one time or another to be put in positions of authority and prestige—right seat or left seat, either one is okay as long as we have a seat at the table.  We want that position that gives us the authority to fix all those things that other people are messing up.  We have ambition.

Jesus doesn’t chastise them for their ambition.  But the other disciples do.  So Jesus has to remind them all of what he has been saying all along.  You want to be a leader?  Fine!  Good!  Now, can you be a servant?

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

When Boris Baranov was appointed to the position of Shift Supervisor at the powerplant where he worked, he was given significant authority over some of the plant’s operations.  Along with that authority, of course, came some extra responsibilities.  Boris never dreamed, though, that saving most of Europe from becoming a nuclear wasteland would be one of those responsibilities.  But then, the powerplant where Boris worked was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. 

On April 26, 1986 one of the four reactors at Chernobyl exploded releasing 400 times more radioactive fallout than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.  The toll of that explosion was significant.  Two workers were killed instantly.  Another 29 would die from radiation burns or poisoning over the next few months.  

All the fires were extinguished within six hours, but now there was a risk of an even larger explosion—an explosion that would be many times more devastating.  

Several days after they thought that everything was under control, they discovered that the reactor in unit 4 had continued to melt down. Below the reactor was a thick concrete slab and below the slab was a large pool of water which was normally used to cool the reactor.  The core of the badly damaged reactor was now melting its way through the concrete slab.  If it were to reach the water, it would create an gargantuan steam explosion with a force of 3 to 5 megatons.  The enormous cloud of radioactive steam and ash that would have risen into the wind from that explosion would have made much of Europe uninhabitable for 500,000 years. 

To prevent the explosion, the water under the reactor had to be drained, but the only way to do that was by manually turning the right valves which were in the basement, and the basement was already flooded with radioactive water from putting out the fires.  Boris Baranov, the shift supervisor, Valeri Bespalov, the senior engineer, and mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko volunteered to wade into the flooded basement and turn the valves.  Their brave and selfless act of service saved millions of lives.

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition.  Jesus doesn’t rebuke James and John for their ambition.  He even affirms that they will in the end drink from his “cup” and be immersed in his “baptism.”  But he wants them to understand that ambition for ambition’s sake can lead to responsibilities you’re not prepared for, challenges you haven’t even begun to imagine.  

James and John wanted to be great, to sit in positions of prestige and authority.  And in the end, in a way, they got what they asked for.  According to tradition, after ten or twelve years proclaiming the gospel in Palestine alongside his brother John and the rest of the disciples,  James took the gospel to Spain.  In the end he returned to Jerusalem where he was killed by Herod Agrippa.  Again according to tradition, John took the gospel to Ephesus.  James and John found direction for their ambition.  But along the Way they had to learn a very hard lesson. 

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

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