I had the opportunity to go to Texas for a week of Continuing Ed at Camp Allen. Although we had many class opportunities, I like this camp because they have activities, too. This year, I got to go skeet shooting, and I have to tell you, I was very good at it, to my surprise. It was the very first time I had done that and I shot 18 out of 25 skeets. You have to know that I grew up with three brothers who would generally say something like, “Pretty good, for a girl.” In fact, the cowboys who were helping me said, “That little lady can shoot!” Then I went to the archery range and hit the bullseye 15 times. When I first went to camp, I felt alone in the lunchroom and now when I went in for dinner I was greeted with, “Hey Marilu! The skeet shooter!” I felt like Merida from the Disney movie Brave or Artemis, the Greek Goddess. I was on a roll, so I decided to go for equine therapy.
Now I mistook equine therapy for having horses be kind to you, maybe like dog or cat therapy. I was wrong about that. Equine Therapy, in this case, was having a horse whisperer tell you what the horses think of you, how they read what you’re doing with them. We were to go into the ring with two horses and the horse whisperer would tell us how authentic and connected we were with the horses. After my big win at skeet shooting, I was up to the challenge. I was going to be the most authentic and spiritually open person in the camp. I entered the ring and stood there, knowing the horses would be immediately drawn to me, but they stood there, chewing grass, not even looking at me. After a few minutes, JP, the horse guy, told me that I was done. What? But the horses hadn’t stop eating grass even. “Yep,” he said, “They ignored you. They weren’t having what you were doing.” Apparently, the horses sensed that I had too many rules, I live by too much law and the horses can’t see past that. I was thinking about myself and not about the horses. It was all about me. Really? Horses know about law and grace? I have too much law? I’m self-centered? It took me a minute to take in what JP was telling me—horses can diagnose the human condition? What?? I entered the ring with all my rules about winning and achievement and those feedbags just weren’t having it. They knew I wasn’t even thinking about them but caught up in myself and how what they did would reflect on me.
I think this is what we are seeing in this text today in Mark. Jesus and the disciples are on the way up to Jerusalem and Jesus has just finished telling them for the third time that he will be handed over and killed, but will rise on the third day. The disciples have already had an argument about which one of them is the greatest in Mark 9. Now, the Sons of Thunder, James and John, tell Jesus that they want to sit to his right and left when he becomes King in Jerusalem. I love this. You can just hear how these two brothers worked this out, “Ok, before we get to Jerusalem, let’s get Jesus alone and ask him for the top jobs before the other disciples do. It’s better to be ahead of the game so Jesus knows we can do the job.” They are applying for the positions of co-rulers. I think there is a name for that in Yiddish, Chutzpah or ‘shameless audacity.’ Jesus tells them they don’t know what they are asking because his kingdom is about serving, not being served. It’s easy to see this egoism in James and John, but as I learned with the horses, it is much harder to admit about ourselves.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a great sermon about this passage called The Drum Major. He said that the instinct to to be out ahead of our neighbors is an impulse of human survival. King wrote, “There is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the gamut of life.” King wrote that children are a bundle of ego, asking life to grant them first place in their bids for attention. In adult life, we like to be praised for doing something good—it gives us a warm glow in the ego. The only time we are unhappy about praise is when it is going to someone else. This Drum Major instinct makes us prey to consuming products that promise happiness and distinction, like cars, homes, clothes or anything we can use to appear to be ahead of other people. Even fundraisers appeal to the ego, having one believe that you have been specially selected to receive the opportunity to give. But Dr. King reminded us that this instinct can distort our personalities by leading us to pushing others down in order to push ourselves up, to gossip, to be snobbish and exclusive, even and especially in churches where we can come to hide behind our dressed-up selves.
Jesus does not chastise James and John for their chutzpah, but leads them into understanding the baptism he came to undergo will be one of suffering. In the first chapter in Mark, John the Baptist baptizes Jesus with water and the Holy Spirit comes down as a dove. Now in Mark 10, Jesus is talking about his second baptism at the cross. Rev. David Lose eloquently describes Jesus’ baptism for us. “The first time Jesus was baptized he was immersed in water and then driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. In the second baptism, he will be immersed fully into our human condition, even to death, and so be driven to the extreme of what it means to be human. Again, James and John have no idea what he is saying or they are requesting. Drowned in death, really guys, are you sure you want this?”
But drowned in death is what happens as we experience the grace that Jesus came to give. Death to our plans of aggrandizement, of putting ourselves above others, of nailing down a certain future, of making ourselves the rulers of our own lives. Life in knowing that we are fully accepted and loved in the midst of the human condition of ego, or Edging God Out.
Jesus was communicating that the Drum Major instinct, like all human power, will eventually fail us. While in Austin, I read Bob Dylan’s 2005 memoir, Chronicles. It challenged my idea of him as a self-actualized, Nobel prize laureate who gave voice to our collective American soul. In 1989 he wrote, “I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. …I couldn’t overcome the odds. Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore. There was a hollow singing in my heart and I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent.” Dylan leaves the theater where he was touring with Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead, intending never to come back, and passes a very small bar where a jazz combo is playing. “It looked like the last stop on the train to nowhere and the air was filled with cigarette smoke,” he wrote. “Something was calling to me to come in and I entered… Suddenly, and without any warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul. It was like he was saying, “You should do it this way.” All of a sudden, I understood something faster than I ever did before. I knew where he was getting his power, and it wasn’t his voice, though the voice brought me sharply back to myself…I could get off this marathon stunt ride…Returning to The Dead’s rehearsal hall as if nothing had happened, I picked it up where we had left off, couldn’t wait to get started…All I did was taste the dust, but then miraculously something internal came unhinged. In the beginning all I could get out was a blood-choked coughing grunt and it blasted up from the bottom of my lower self, but it bypassed my brain. That had never happened before. It burned, but I was awake. …I now knew I could perform any of these songs without them having to be restricted to the world of words. This was revelatory.”
I find this story comforting because it squares with my experience, not as a world-renowned musician, but as a human living within the ego-riddled machinations of everyday life. Whatever I have identified as my particular way of justifying myself, whether it is a job, parenting, my marriage, my friends, how I dress, what I drive or where I live, my way of self has no power to fill me with life. When I deny my limitations, I deny grace an entry through my cracks. I feel hollowed out, inspirationless, and ready to let the spinning plates of my life crash. It is the death of my way of self-powering. Instead of righteousness, my self-made toolkit is wrongteousness, out of step with God. This is the baptism that Jesus Christ enters into within me—diving into the pool of my human condition of self and bringing me back up with him. The bar at the end of the line may not say Jesus Christ in flashing neon, but the Spirit knows where we live. Christ uses ordinary people and mundane elements, like bread and wine, to reach us from the beyond to save us from ourselves.
Given all that, I have a confession to make. As I considered this text in Mark, I thought about what a surreal moment we have here each Sunday, talking about how the God of the universe came as a human to show us that we are not alone in the universe, that life is not random and that we are loved beyond measure, past our own death. This God immerses us in baptismal water to remind us that as Jesus Christ, God immersed God’s self in the human condition in order to rescue us from the self-centered, self-sufficiency that is powerless to overcome the world. We are unable to drink the cup that Jesus drank, yet each week we are given that cup as a reminder that He drank it for us, to give us a life where we can admit that our Drum Major days are over, and willing hand over the baton in surrender to love. Hand it over. New life awaits you.