Monday, October 19, 2015

Expanding our "Abilities"

“We want you to do whatever we ask of you.”  What parent hasn’t heard this?  I think I used to say to my mother, “I am going to ask you to do something and you can’t say ‘no’”.  We know right away James and John are up to something and it isn’t going to end well for them.  “Grant that one of us can sit at your right hand in glory and the other at your left.”  Well, of all the things they might have asked for, I have to admit I didn’t see this coming. 

Perhaps James and John were thinking about the man who ran up to Jesus in last week’s lesson.  Remember him?  He wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  Maybe that got them to thinking about their place in the life to come.  Most commentators see their request as hubris: the desire to be esteemed higher than the others.  While this may be part of what is going on, I see something else. 

Most likely James and John were the youngest of the disciples.  When Jesus calls them we are told they are the “sons of Zebedee” – perhaps an indication they are not adults. Perhaps you picture all the disciples as grown men, but with James and John it might be more accurate to think of them as being in the early teens.  They are young and impressionable and Jesus has made quite an impression on them.  They deeply admire him and want to pattern their lives after his.  They think they know what Jesus is all about, but their question and Jesus’ response suggest there is much they don’t understand.

Maybe I see this in James and John because I relate to them.  From time to time I am asked why I decided to go into the ministry.  Now, I have several stock answers, each varying in length and depth.  The most succinct is the one I offer most often: “I was very involved in my church growing up and admired my youth minister.  I could see myself doing what he did and so I chose this path.”  Short and sweet, right!  Well, the irony is my life as a priest bares little resemblance to what I imagined the work of my youth minister to be.  I saw only a small slice of what he did and that slice was what my young eyes deemed most “glamorous”.  As I look back, the things I saw him doing that I wanted to do – like leading a Junior High youth group – I don’t do now.  But all the other non-“glamorous” parts of the ministry fuel my spirit and make me thankful for my calling.

So here are James and John, young and impressionable and ready to be like Jesus.  They imagine it to be a straight, safe path to glory.  Jesus is about to set them straight.

Listen to the three verses that fall after last week’s lesson and come before today’s reading: 

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.  He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him

“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.”

Three times in Mark’s gospel Jesus engages in what biblical scholars label “disclosure discourses”.  Each follows a consistent pattern:

First, Jesus discloses how he will die.

Then, one or more of the disciples responds inappropriately.

Finally, Jesus corrects the disciples’ response with a paradoxical teaching:  

· “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it” and whoever loses his life shall save it” (8:35).

· “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all” (9:35).

· “Whoever wishes to become great . . . shall be a servant” (10:43-44).

More than a desire to occupy positions of honor and prestige, I think James and John just want to be close to Jesus wherever he is going and wherever he ends up.  Even though Jesus has described it for them three times now, the brothers simply do not understand what Jesus will have to go through and why he will have to go through it to get to a place of “glory”.

“Are you able to drink the cup I will drink or to be baptized with my baptism?” Jesus asks them.  “We are able” they respond.  Oh, they have no idea, do they?

How do we become ‘able’? 

I remember being intimated at the prospect of becoming a father for the first time.  We weren’t ready financially and it was hard to imagine how a newborn was going to fit into our busy, complicated, and unpredictable work schedule.  I remember one wise, older church member saying to me, “No one feels ready for parenthood.  If you put it off until you felt ‘ready’ it will never happen.  But look around, we all had parents who figured it out.  You will too!” 

How do we become able?  I think it involves a willingness to engage life and to see it through.  Ability is developed over time through spurts and sputters and often is something you do not realize you have obtained until one day you recognize you have had it for some time.

That day on the road to Jerusalem James and John did not have the ability to do what Jesus had to do.  At that moment, they could not have stood up and endured persecution or died for him.  But they set themselves on a path and to a way of life that would get them there.  James was the first of Jesus’ disciples to be executed for the faith.  John was the only one to avoid martyrdom, but spent his final years in exile on the Island of Patmos.  They achieved “greatness” as Jesus envisioned it by giving of themselves to others in his name.

“Whoever wants to be great must be a servant.”

A typical spirituality holds Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to pay the price ourselves.  But this thinking is hard to square with Jesus’ teaching to pick up our own cross and follow him.  It becomes difficult to reconcile with his call to serve as he serves.  These teachings don’t hold Jesus went to the cross so we don’t have to, rather they convey he invites us to follow him all the way to the cross – to that place where we die to ourselves so we might live for others.

Are you able to do that? 

If I am honest with myself, I have to admit I am a lot like James and John who say they are “able” but have no idea what it will take.  If I am honest, I will admit that I don’t know exactly what it means to die to self in order to live for others.  But, if I look back over my life, I can see how any number of events and decisions and actions have made me more able than I once was.  They have moved me from self-interest toward servanthood, but it is a process I am in, not a destination I have reached.

Being a part of a church should be many things for us.  It should give us a place to pray and to connect with God.  It ought to support us when we need help.  But more than anything, being a part of a church ought to challenge us to follow Christ by advancing our ability to serve others.   

Today is Commitment Sunday.  It calls each of us to consider what this place means to us and what we are willing to give to it as people who want to follow Jesus on the way.  The money we commit provides funds for payroll, utilities, building upkeep, and resources for various ministries.  The time and the talents we offer give life and vitality to the basic essentials our money supports.  Where would we be without a choir, volunteers in the Sunday School, people helping in the Food Pantry, and the dish or dessert you brought for today’s Pot-Luck Lunch?  There are so many ways we invite you to let go of self-interest in order to serve others.

Today we add a new opportunity.  I invite you after the service to come to the Parish Hall where you can assemble a Blessing Bag or an Agape Bag.  It consists of 15 non-perishable and hygiene items you put into a gallon-sized zip-lock bag that you can keep in your car and give to person you see in need.  It is a tangible sign of God’s love and our love for all people and it does not equate love with a dollar.  It gives you a different way to respond to the person at the traffic light looking for cash.  It challenges you to find a way to express verbally God’s blessing for every person you meet. 

My hope is that it will expand our “ability” to love as Jesus loves.   My hope and prayer is it will, in some small way, help us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.