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Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: “Are We There Yet?”
Here we are again this morning—back on the road with Jesus and the disciples. Over the past six weeks, through three chapters of Mark, we’ve walked through the district of Dalmanutha, Bethsaida, the villages of Caesarea Philippi, up the mountain, into the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and now—on the way to Jerusalem. And I must admit, on some mornings, like this one, I feel like we’re in the back seat on a very bad car trip. You know the one: when the kids are yelling and poking each other and crying and kicking the seat. And the parent in front keeps turning around and saying, “Stop it. Now. Or I’m going to pull this car over.”
In fact, Jesus has come very close to that state of frustration. Can’t you hear it in these words to his disciples: “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?”
No wonder his crew is not focused. They’re described over the course of this walk as terrified, argumentative, perplexed, astounded, amazed, angry. It’s a rough trip.
And in our Gospel today, two brothers—James and John—start a new uproar. The other ten in the back seat are furious once again. They remind me of my daughters when they were little (maybe because their names, Jane and Julia, ring a bell here). Whenever they would come to me indignant, red-faced, self-righteous, pointing a finger at the other one, I learned to ask: “What happened just before this?” Because, always, there was a bigger story: one was teased just before the awful name was called; something was grabbed just before the other hit back.
So I looked at the passage describing what happened right before James and John started this latest uproar. The trigger: Jesus had just told the disciples for the third time what would happen to Him in Jerusalem: “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.”
The anxiety among the disciples on the road suddenly shifts from the familiar “Are we there yet?” to the just-as-familiar “I don’t want to go.”
It’s hard news for James and John to take in. Peter has already tried his own form of rebellion: yelling at Jesus, refusing to believe that this could be their awful destination. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to bring them to power, not put them in jeopardy? These two brothers—whom Jesus nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” for their fiery nature—try another way out. Let’s not think about this pain and suffering. Let’s skip ahead. If we can’t be rewarded with power in this life, let’s line that up in Heaven.
James and John may have felt they had a lock on the honor they ask of Jesus: sitting at his right and left hands in glory. The brothers were in a prominent position among the twelve: they were among the first to follow Jesus. They had, with Peter, been the only ones to witness Jesus’s healing of Jairus’s daughter and his Transfiguration on the mountain. They had given up everything, just as their Teacher asked. And, some accounts say, they may have had an edge as Jesus’s first cousins—their mother being Mary’s youngest sister and also a follower.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that in this shaky moment, threatened about their futures, they want some security in a reward of power. Their approach to Jesus does make me smile. It’s so like little kids: “Promise me something, and then I’ll tell you what it is.” Maybe this kind of manipulation worked with their father, Zebedee, but not with Jesus. Maybe this kind of power grab worked in the old order, but not in the Kingdom of God. Jesus pulls over once again to stop, calm down his angry bunch, and explain.
You see, he reminds us all, it’s not about where we’re going to end up: suffering in Jerusalem or exalted in Heaven. It’s about how we live this life together. Right here. Right now. On this road.
The split Jesus saw developing among his followers was a dangerous one. It’s not unusual for a threatened group to start turning on itself—each person seeking an edge of status or superiority to keep from slipping too far down. Each person, in fear, looking to get just a little more, rise up a little higher, be a little safer. In this reach for rewards, we can lose sight of what we’re doing to earn them. Pushing others aside to get a better seat in Heaven?
That’s not how it works, Jesus says: “God has a whole different system of rewards in Heaven, already prepared. They are not for me to grant, or for you to bargain for. Our focus is to be right here. Right now. On this road. Together.”
So what does this road with Jesus look like when we slow down, calm our anxiety, stop denying our death or skipping ahead to the next life?
Jesus asks us, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” It’s not a cup just of suffering; it’s not a cup just of glory. It’s a cup of both in this life. Can you be fully present with me, he asks, and live with both suffering and glory?
Jesus asks us, “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” It’s not a baptism just of pain; it’s not a baptism just of joy. It’s a baptism of both in this life. Can you be fully present with me, he asks, and accept both pain and joy?
And finally Jesus asks us, “Are you able to serve God and each other as I do?” Service not of obligation; service not of humiliation; but service freely given, with love? Can you be fully present with me, he asks, and serve?
This is the third time he’s brought this up on our walk, just as he’s told us three times of his coming death: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
So we’ve got to stop on the road and really listen. No more trying to manipulate our brothers; no more trying to grab security with anger or power plays. In this new Kingdom of God we’re entering, there’s a different system of power. No more fixed rulers or tyrants.
Jesus teaches us that we’re not meant to be locked in a status of up or down; first or last; glorified or suffering; honored or humiliated throughout our lives. We’re meant to face all the turmoil and reversals life brings—supported by reciprocal, respectful service to each other and God.
By definition, it’s obvious: there’s no way to be a servant without being in connection to something, someone else. There’s no way to serve effectively without really paying attention: to another’s needs, wishes, hungers, lacks, preferences. And there’s no way to meaningfully serve—and receive service—without love.
This is the message Jesus needs to impart again before the disciples take another step toward the dangerous gates of Jerusalem. Be fully present to each other, to me, to God. Pay attention. Serve each other. Be at peace with each other. Be connected when it’s time to share the cup of suffering and glory.
I speak from experience about the power of that connection, which saved me from fear on my road with breast cancer. We all know we are headed toward death; this was the first time that I saw the end of my life as a real and immediate destination. What kept me from escaping from that understanding into anger, denial, isolation?
I lift up my sister, who had already healed from this disease and then came to nurse me. And I lift up the women in my peer support group—some who were far past their cancer treatments who stayed to counsel others still in recovery; others just entering this hard passage. We acted as servants to each other; we received comfort and strength and a lot of laughter along the way. None of us in control; all of us in conscious service.
I thank you all for being part of that support system today for other women who are struggling with this disease—and others who may avoid it with your help. We need to fight back against all forms of cancer.
And I ask you, whatever your fears or hardships on your journey, reach out. We are connected with you. Right here. Right now. On this road. Together. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Interfaith Minister, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
October 21, 2012