This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones, at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on October 21, 2018, is built around the readings for Proper 24B in the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
So, this is a pretty surprising turn of events. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, havebeen with Jesus from the beginning. Jesus called Simon, later called Peter, and his brother Andrew, and then in the very next verses of Mark’s Gospel he calls James and John. They’ve been central to the story, key figures in the narrative. But today James and John sidle up to Jesus when no one else is looking, when Jesus is alone, and they try to talk him into a corner. “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” They’re trying to trap him, get them to agree before they tell them what they want.
It’s surprising that these two are acting this way. It’s so surprising that when Matthew tells the story he has James and John’s mother ask on their behalf, trying not to embarrass them or make them look bad. So, what’s going on here? What are they doing?
James and John are scared. Jesus is telling them that he’s going to die. Three times, three times he told them. He told them that he must,
“…undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” Mark 8:31)
He told them that,
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31).
And in the verses just prior to what we read today from Mark’s gospel Jesus says
‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again’ (Mark 10:33- 34).
James and John were scared. And no wonder. So are we. James and John, and we, live in a world that wants to define itself with a message of scarcity; a message that defines this world by saying that through the oppression of those that might challenge what we have, or want, or aspire to, we might become great. They, we, live in a world where there is no middle ground, where arguments seem to go from 0 to 60 in three point four seconds, and where the need to win those conflicts seems take priority over respecting the dignity of others.
They, we, live in a world where human life is devalued, where people are sacrificed, where cruelty and injustice are ignored, even accepted all for the sake of winning, for the sake of greatness, for the sake of wealth, and of power.
James and John were fishermen. They were home, with their people, with their family, plying their trade with their father when Jesus called them. And when they heard that call they left it all behind. Now Jesus is talking about going to Jerusalem to die. He’s talking about leaving them with no direction, alone, with nothing. So maybe it’s not so surprising that they’re grasping for here, something to hold onto. They’re going to need to take care of themselves in this hostile and dangerous world. So, they need something to shore themselves up, and to make them feel strong. They had been brothers on a mission, ready to take on the world, they need something to make themselves feel great again.
So, they, we, come to Jesus wanting desperately needing, longing, for a little good news…
Is that too much to ask Jesus? But all you seem to want to talk about is going to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, to the cross. And when pushed back, you tell us to pick up our own cross and follow you, to become last of all, servant of all, slave of all. Where’s good news is that Jesus?
Where is the good news? We sure could use some today.
Today, for all its similarities with that moment in the Galilee when James and John try to worm their way into a position of power at Jesus’s right and left hand, today is a different day. James and John didn’t yet know the end of the story. And even when they witness the end of the story, it didn’t make sense to them. It was so counter intuitive, so counter cultural, so subversive, that they couldn’t get it.
But we, we have the benefit of almost 2000 years of reflection, of engagement, of wrestling with the cross. And we’ve done that hard work with the help of the Holy Spirit, the comforter, whom Jesus sent to remind us of all that he’s taught us, and to reveal to us the things we weren’t ready to hear there in the Galilee before Jesus’s resurrection. So, we, if we take the time to think about it carefully, know that this Gospel reading today is full of good news.
The world in which James and John lived was a scary place. And this world can be a scary place. And the real danger is that we will be dragged into, that we will be subverted, into viewing the world in the way that it presents itself.
James and John, when they came to Jesus behind their companions backs and tried to win for themselves a place of power, were buying in to the world view that is crippling and scaring all of us.
Jesus is trying hard to offer us another way to be in the world, another way to see, another way to live, so that we’re always looking out for ourselves first, so were not always looking out for ours and our own first.
Jesus is trying to remind us that we are all one, brothers and sisters in Christ, and that true life is found when we live together, supporting and holding one another up. Servant of all, last of all, slave of all… Jesus is using hyperbole here to point out just how far off base James and John are. And the fear and pain that they are feeling, the fear and the pain that we are feeling, is a symptom that we are being subverted too.
Now deciding to live differently, deciding to see the world differently, to live in the world differently, doesn’t necessarily make the world a less scary place. But it does free us up to behave differently. And it frees us up to care for one another. And that care for the other has the capacity, the ability to change the world.
We are called to proclaim a counter cultural, subversive gospel, that says that we are only alive, we are only living as the people that God creates us to be, when we see the other as our brother or our sister. We are only living in Jesus’s footsteps, walking the path that he trod, when we are willing to elevate an other’s needs, and concerns, and agenda, so that it is at par with our own.
When we work to cut ourselves off from others and to secure a place for ourselves at their expense, we are moving into the wrong narrative and proclaiming by our words, and deeds, and actions, the very narrative that Jesus is trying to end.
So, we come here this morning, looking for comfort and some good news from Jesus, and what sounds pretty scary and difficult, it turns out is, in fact, just what we came looking for. It is a way to be… in relationship with one another, in relationship with God, in relationship with ourselves that can give us peace, and courage, and a way forward, in times that are scary and dark.
This morning in the forum we gathered to talk about The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life or for Jesus Centered Living. I talked about this a little bit last week in my sermon, and there are resources now on our webpage that will allow you to watch a video by presiding Bishop Michael Curry, describing the seven practices in The Way of Love. I would encourage you to go and watch that video and to think about the things that we might do, both as individuals and as a community, to establish and to nurture connection with one another, with ourselves, with that deep part of ourselves that we call our soul, and with the God for whom we so long. I would encourage you to take a look at those steps and to identify those things in your life, in our life, that are squeezing God out, and allowing things in that are causing us fear and pain, perpetuating the sense of darkness that pervades our lives today.
There is real comfort in the good news of today’s Gospel. It takes some work. It takes some practice. We call these ways disciplines, and Bishop Curry says in his video that they are ways to train ourselves up, to live a life that reflects Jesus more fully. The good news is that we can do it, that Jesus has shown us the way. And the good news is that we have a long history of practicing these things together. The good news is that the peace of God which passes all understanding can be ours, and it is available to us. If we just her turn, turn to Jesus, turn to prayer, turn to scripture, to worship, to blessing one another through our lives, to going into the world to discover what God is up to. And to resting so that we might begin again.
James and John come to Jesus this morning and ask on our behalf for a place at Jesus’s left and right hand, and Jesus said that for him to give. I don’t think we want to be at his side. I think the place where we should be is behind him, in his footsteps, acknowledging that he has blazed the trail for us. And all we need to do is follow.