Mark 10: What’s in the Center?

This is the a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 11, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter series on Mark’s gospel, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.

It’s based on Mark 10:35-45.

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As we consider Mark 10, let’s first consider the story of the 2006 Disney-Pixar movie, Cars, which tells the story of racecar Lightning McQueen. He was a rookie sensation, and he knew it. His foremost goal was to be the season champion – to win the Piston Cup – so that he could ditch his faithful sponsors: the makers of Rust-eze Medicated Bumper Ointment. He thought he was too good for them, and for all the old, rusty cars who needed such creams for their rear ends. He lived for prestige and prizes. Throughout the film, we see Lightning’s center shift. He began the film without friends – he’d even driven away multiple pit crews – but by the end of the film, he realized that his new friends in the tiny, nearly forgotten town of Radiator Springs were the new center of his life. His relationships with them, forged with humility, patience, and care, were, in the end, more important to him than any empty cup.

With the story of Lightning close in our rearview, let’s turn toward our passage and Mark 10. John and James, two of Jesus’s disciples, continue to prove that being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean always getting it right when it comes to following Jesus. Just last week, in chapter 9, we saw that the disciples had been “debating with each other about who was the greatest” (Mk 9:34). Jesus corrected them then, saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35). Now, a brief time later, James and John are at it again, vying for power and prestige. They go up to Jesus, apparently in private, and slyly ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mk 10:35). Now, it’s not hard to see this for what it is: this is a trap. But Jesus goes along with it. So they ask to sit on his right and left “when you enter your glory” (v. 37). In this, I think we can assume that they are still expecting Jesus to be a ruler like other rulers they know, like Caesar or Herod or Pilate. They want a place at that table of power. They want to be in the room where it happens.

Now, let’s take a quick step back from this scene for a minute to consider what James and John are up to. What would you think if, say, you were elected president and a couple of your friends or kids took you aside and said, “We want you to do whatever we ask of you. When you’re sworn in as president, we want to be appointed to special cabinet positions”? Or, athletes, this would be like if you took your coach aside and said, “Coach, I want you to play me for all of the important plays. I’m your best shot.” If this happened, what would the rest of your friends, family, and teammates think and say?

That’s right. They’d be ticked off, which is exactly how the other disciples respond when they hear what James and John have done. But, sensing their anger, Jesus calls the Twelve over to him and teaches them a repeat of last week’s lesson: Rulers of this age lord their authority over people. They’re bossy. They show off. But that’s not how it will be with you. To be great, you must be a servant of all. “Whoever wants to be first among you will the slave of all, for the Human One [that’s Jesus] didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people” (Mk 10:42-45).

With this, hopefully the connection between these disciples and Lightning McQueen is fairly clear. Lightning, at the beginning, was entirely centered on himself. He was selfish. Nobody even wanted to work with him. He was singularly focused on his own vision of success – money and fame. Similarly, all of the disciples were centered on their visions of success. Sure, James and John had the audacity to actually ask Jesus for seats of power and prestige next to them. But if the other disciples hadn’t cared, they wouldn’t have made any fuss about it. But fuss they did. They were angry because they wanted those seats too. They’d all been arguing about who was greatest, after all. Even though Jesus had called them and they’d followed, and even though they’d heard Jesus say that his followers would be known as those who carried crosses of Christ-shaped actions, their hearts were stuck on themselves. They, and their concerns for themselves, were at the center of their hearts and minds.

So, when Jesus tells them, again, that his followers are called to be servants of all, he’s not just challenging their actions; he’s challenging what or who they’ve placed at the center of their lives. Is it Jesus and his mission of liberating all people from sin and death, or is it themselves, their own desires for prestige and power – and even salvation? Jesus re-centers the disciples so that they can participate in his liberation mission.

Still, the question remains in this chapter, will they get it this time? And will we? This passage, and really, all of Mark 10, challenge Mark’s readers and hearers of every age about what’s at the center of our hearts and lives. To read this passage is to be confronted with a mirror before our hearts. And faced with ourselves, we must ask, “What is at the center of my life, my heart, my mind, and my decision-making?”

Likely, we’re not as self-centered as Lightning McQueen, nor do we take Jesus aside to slyly vie for power like James and John; however, honestly, don’t we sometimes struggle with what’s at the center of our hearts and lives? I remember this struggle when I was a teen about to enter high school – and I’ve heard a few here share similar stories. That summer, a dream came true: I was chosen to play on a traveling baseball team; I was finally in the in crowd I’d longed to be with. But when my coach told us we’d be practicing on Sunday mornings, I was a bit embarrassed when my mom told him, “If you practice Sunday mornings, Matt won’t be there.” My center was on finally being invited to play for the travel team, of popularity and teenage glory, and there my mom was re-centering me. Ugh. It stunk.

Then, I remember when my grandpa was driving me around to my summer lawn jobs, before I could drive for myself. He told me to drive to the church. He was always doing that sort of thing: telling me to go somewhere or do something without any explanation. Along the way, he told me I was going to go inside and tell the church secretary that, since the church had lost its custodian who had been mowing, I was volunteering to mow the lawn “free gratis.” I wasn’t sure what this gratis was, but I understood the word free, and that was not what I was doing. I was mowing for money. I was saving for my wants, my desires, my dreamed-for things. That was my center, but my grandpa re-centered me. 

In these two stories, Jesus spoke through my mom and grandpa, re-centering me on him and his mission. I don’t think anyone got saved on my baseball team because we didn’t practice on Sunday mornings, or because I mowed the church lawn…at least not anyone else. But in those events, perhaps I got a little bit saved, a little bit liberated from the things of life that bound me up: popularity and travel-team glory, and money. Maybe I’d be the same person I am today without those events. But, in retrospect, those were points in time in which Jesus re-centered me, liberating me from the things that bound me, which in turn enabled me to live with him a little closer to the center of my life.

For that’s what being Christians truly means: it’s about living lives shaped, inspired, and directed by Jesus the Christ, the Savior and Liberator. To follow and learn from him is to give him the center place in our hearts and lives. The Christian life isn’t about rules – about when to play baseball or when to donate one’s labor or money. The Christian life is about letting Jesus re-center our lives on him each and every day, so that he can take his proper place on the throne of our hearts. The Christian life is about following Jesus in lives centered on him, out of which we see and serve others, bearing his liberating presence for others. Sometimes, maybe often, we’ll get it wrong. The disciples surely did. And still, Jesus calls us, continually re-teaching, re-shaping, and re-centering us, so that we can grow closer to him, and so that we can reveal him to others. It’s a process of daily practices, for sure, but undeniably, Jesus re-centers us so that we can share in his liberation mission for all.  May it be so.

Reflection Questions:

  1. This sermon focuses almost exclusively on a single pericope (or passage) of Mark 10. However, I think this lens, clarified through the question, “What’s at our center?” can be useful for reading each scene in Mark 10. Read all of Mark 10 and see how this center-question can help you understand each scene. Here a few questions about each section.
  2. Do you read Mark 10:1-12 as Jesus increasing the rigidity of the Law, to say divorce is always wrong? If you can think of any exception to this rule (like abuse, for example), then what do we do with the tension between our exception and what Jesus actually says? I lean toward interpreting Jesus differently, and that this pericope’s main point isn’t divorce at all; rather, it is about people’s “unyielding hearts” or self-centered hearts. How is the Pharisee’s question about divorce really about what their hearts are centered on?
  3. In Mark 10:13-16, the disciples are turning away people and their children. How does the lens of where our hearts are centered enlighten this passage? Why were the disciples acting the way they are? What does Jesus’s response show us about God?
  4. Mark 10:17-31 covers two scenes: an apparently wealthy man, and the disciples’ questions about Jesus’s response to the man. Is Jesus saying that wealth, or its accumulation is bad or sinful? What’s your view of money or wealth? Could it be that the man’s problem wasn’t how much he owned, but how much those things owned him? Are there things that own you, that take priority in your heart? What might Jesus say to us if we were to run up to him like the man did with his question and response?
  5. Finally, this passage, like many of Jesus’ teaching scenes in Mark, ends with a healing story; and, again, it’s about sightedness or blindness. Do you think it’s important that many times after Jesus teaches a challenging lesson, he gives sight to someone else? Could this be a metaphor for what Jesus is doing in his teaching all the time?
  6. In the sermon, I gave two examples of what was at the center of my heart, or vying for centrality in my heart, when I was a teen. I chose those because I think they’re still things that vie for centrality in my heart, and our hearts. What similar stories from your life shine a light on what’s at the center of your heart, in the past, and more importantly, in the present? How do we see what’s at the center of our own hearts? How do others see what is at the center of our hearts?
  7. What is one thing you could do today, and this week, to give Jesus more of a central position in your heart, mind, and decision-making?

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