The Cost of Fame

(Proper 24B, Mark 10.35-45)

October 22, 2006

 

James and John came forward and said to Jesus, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’  But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”  (Mk 10.37-38)

 

Be careful what you ask for – or pray for – isn’t that one of those truisms that we admonish ourselves with from time to time?

And this morning we find very similar words coming from none other than Jesus’ own mouth.  “You do not know what you are asking,” he says.

Jesus is specifically responding to James and John, sons of Zebedee, that come to him and request that they be given privileged places in Jesus’ coming kingdom.  Let us sit with you in glory, they ask. 

I see two significant implications in their request of Jesus:

1)     that they deserve special recognition for what they have done – for giving up their previous lives to follow as his disciples, and

2)     that somehow they again misunderstood what Jesus just finished telling them about his coming Passion. 

Jesus no sooner tells them that he will be mocked, flogged, spit upon and killed, than John and James pose their question.

Maybe that is why these are the two that Jesus nicknamed as the Sons of Thunder.  Because their mouths get ahead of their brains.

Well of course the other disciples are irate with the brothers.  Who do John and James think they are?  How could they be so brazen as to ask Jesus for special status? 

Now what isn’t said, but what they are undoubtedly also thinking, is What about me?

Indeed.  Isn’t that too often our prayer, also?  Lord, what about me?

So before we too quickly rise with the other ten disciples in self-righteous indignation, maybe we should first ask about our own prayer motives.

How often do we ask God to bless us, in a very material and self-serving way?  Pray for good health, good wealth; maybe even fame and glory, like John and James?  I know that I am guilty.  But Jesus says be careful what you ask for.  Fame and glory have a price.  Fame and glory have a price.

----------

Fame and glory were the last things on John Bradley’s mind when he enlisted in the Navy in 1943.  He was 19 years old, and that is just what all the able bodied young men did, since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  So Bradley went off to train for the war to end all wars with a bunch of other skinny 19-year old Depression era kids just like himself. 

All of them too young and too full of life to really understand what they were getting into.

Now since Bradley had studied to work in his family’s funeral home business, that was sufficient background to train to be a medic in wartime.  So that is what he did.  And after training and working for about a year in stateside hospitals, he was assigned to the 5th Marine Division as a Pharmacist’s Mate.  His regiment joined the war in the Pacific and in early 1945 was part of the invasion of a tiny Japanese island named Iwo Jima.  The island was a worthless piece of volcanic ruin, 5 miles long by 2 miles wide, out in the middle of nowhere – over 600 miles from the populated islands of Japan. 

Iowa Jima was of absolutely no strategic value – except that it was in precisely the right location for the Allied forces to set up an airfield to extend the war to Japan itself.

But as we all have seen and heard in movies and books, that small scrap of an island was probably the most expensive real estate of the war in terms of American lives.  They were under relentless attack from the moment that they landed on the beach, and John “Doc” Bradley found himself working so feverishly to save the thousands of wounded, that he did not have time to be afraid.

On the fourth day of the battle, the marines finally succeed in attaining the highest point on the island, a hill named Mt. Suribachi.  As a symbol of that success and as a beacon of hope for the coming days, a group from Bradley’s regiment are ordered to raise a flag. 

They quickly found some old Japanese water pipe, tied the flag to one end and started to hoist it.  The pipe was a little heavier than expected, so Bradley joined in as the flag was raised.  And an AP photographer named Joe Rosenthal happened to be up there with them, and he snapped a picture at just the right moment.  And his photograph of that flag raising turned out to be a beacon of hope for the whole country. 

It became instantly famous; so much so that President Roosevelt ordered the Allied commanders to send the six men in the photo back to the States, so that they can assist in raising the money necessary to continue the war. 

Except there is a problem or two with that idea.  The fight for Iwo Jima is still raging and three of the six men in the photo have already been killed.  And the other three are not particularly keen to leave their mates in the midst of battle to go on a PR boondoggle.  But orders are orders.  So the three men: Doc Bradley and Marine privates Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon return.  And they are instant celebrities.  They are literally the three most famous faces in America as they travel from city to city, from one fund raising event to the next.  They are wined and dined and given standing ovations by stadiums full of people.  They are bona fide war heroes. 

--------------

Except that all they really did was stand up an old piece of pipe with a flag on the end of it.  They keep trying to explain that the real heroes are still back on Iwo Jima but nobody wants to hear them.

The country needs heroes, and it needs them now.  So the men are forced to become what they are not, in order to meet that need. 

Fame and glory have a price.

----------

Jesus tells James and John to be careful for what they ask.  After all, do they really believe that they can drink from the same cup that he drinks? 

Jesus says I did not come to glorify myself; I came to be the servant of the world.  I am not talking about being rich and famous; I am talking about servant ministry.  Ministry that is focused on reaching out to others – not on reaching the top through others. 

Sure, James and John say that they are willing to suffer like Jesus – to believe in the new life of baptism in the Spirit that Jesus comes to give.  But their focus is all about what that new life – what following Jesus and – if need be – even suffering with Jesus – will eventually bring them. 

I have done all you ask Lord – now please tell me – what’s in it for me? 

Sorry, that’s not the way it works, Jesus says.  There is no such thing as earning one’s way to salvation.  All the good works in the world do not guarantee a place with my Father in heaven. 

My kingdom is different from the way of the world.  In the world, the rulers lord their power over others.  They give orders.  They are tyrants over their own people. 

But in my Father’s kingdom, those who would be first must be slave to all.  And in my kingdom, there can be no glory without the cross.  “For the Son of Man must give his life as a ransom for many.”  In other words, Jesus says, in order to have life, you must first be willing to die for my sake. 

You see, you really do not know what you are asking.

You really do not know what you are asking.

-------------

A new movie, Flags of our Fathers, is just released, and is about the battle of Iwo Jima.  It’s a good movie (a little slow in places, but a good movie.)  It tells the story of those three men who literally get sent from the front lines to the bright lights of the Government’s money raising tour.  And it is a very bittersweet story. 

Naturally, the men are at first giddy and awestruck by the crowd adulation and with the incredible fame and glory that is showered on them.  And when mother after mother, grieving widow after grieving widow, tells them how that single picture of flag raising at Iwo Jima, and how they – three of the faceless soldiers in that picture- have brought some comfort into their lives.  Tell them that somehow they find it easier to live with the loss of their loved ones and are maybe a little more accepting of the cause that killed them.  And as the three men heard that time and again, they can not help but feel proud – feel like they are still serving a good cause – even while they are drinking wine and dancing, while their buddies are still in foxholes.

But in their hearts they know it is all a lie.  They are just accidental heroes that had done nothing other than have their picture taken while performing a menial task.  That’s all that there was to it.  And they could not stop thinking about the ones they left behind and the horrible magnitude of death and destruction they had witnessed.  Ultimately that was a burden they each carried the rest of their lives. 

Hayes drank himself to an early death.  Gagnon struggled to hold a job and died in his early fifties.  Bradley led a normal life, but never once talked about the war.  His son only discovered that he had won the prestigious Navy Cross after he had died.

Bradley ultimately reminisced that while it might be true that they all had enlisted to fight for their country, ultimately it was not their country for which they were willing to die.  It was for their buddies next to them in that ditch in Iwo Jima that they were willing to sacrifice their lives.

----------------

The world has always insisted on making and shaping its heroes to suit its own purposes.  The world wants to tell their stories its way – to promote its values.

James and John wanted Jesus to be the Messiah of the Old Testament – full of earthly power who comes to restore Israel to its chosen status; and in which they would take their rightful place. 

But Jesus says that is not who I am.  In my kingdom, there is no glory without the cross.  No glory without the cross.  And that does not mean that by your service you gain status.  No.  What that means is that you are slave to all.  If you seek eternal life with the father, then you are to be slave to all in this life.

Jesus says, worldly heroes come and go.  Fame and fortune in this world are nothing compared to the eternal life that I bring.

The question is not, What I can do for you in the here and now?

The question is, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”  Are you able?