Sermon Given at St. Francis, Norris, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost 2018
I cannot recall a time in my life when I did not know about the Bible. It has always been there, like air and water and sleep and food.
One of the first songs I remember learning as a child was a song about the Bible. “The B-i-b-l-e, that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-i-b-l-e.” You then repeat that thirty times. Kids love it.
The first Bible of my own that I remember was the Children’s Picture Bible. As an adult, I now know that Jesus did not have blonde hair and blue eyes and wear a white toga with a blue sash, but as a child, I was not so concerned with historical accuracies. I just liked looking at the pictures. And having the stories read to me by my parents and whoever else I could get to read to me about Jesus.
Some of the pictures were confusing to me. I had been taught that you do not throw rocks at people. But in the case of David and Goliath, it was okay for David to throw a rock at Goliath. So, if you are going to throw a rock at someone, make sure they are a giant Philistine.
The overall message that I took from the Children’s Picture Bible was this—everything is going to be fine. God loves you and Jesus loves you and while the Crucifixion part was scary, Jesus was all better now and very happy that I and all the other children were in the world.
I soon discovered there were other Bibles out there, mostly without pictures. Some had the words of Jesus in red. And sometimes even the words were different, according to which translation of the Bible you had.
And unlike the Children’s Picture Bible, these other Bibles often used by preachers and teachers tended to have a different message. Everything is not going to be fine was what I began to hear.
God still loved you but could easily be put out with you. And while Jesus’ words were in red, they weren’t always acknowledged. Mostly, I heard a lot about St. Paul and all his letters. It seemed his letters always favored whoever was holding the Bible and telling you what it said.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” At first, we might be surprised to hear anyone address Jesus like that. I mean this is Jesus, the Son of God that James and John appear to be speaking to in a very bossy tone. If you spent any time with the Children’s Picture Bible, you know that you only throw rocks at giant Philistines and you never talk to Jesus with a demanding voice.
At this point, however, maybe James and John have gotten accustomed to being on the inside—to being favored disciples along with Peter. You give someone special perks, at some point they get used to the special perks and just expect them. Would Thaddeus and Bartholomew have spoken to Jesus like this? I do not think so.
But James and John were favored ones. They, along with Peter, had been present at the most outstanding moment so far in the Gospel of St. Mark when Jesus is transfigured in glory and light and Moses and Elijah show up to witness the scene.
Upon seeing Jesus in great glory, Peter quickly suggests a building project then and there on the mountain to mark the glorious event. But James and John hold their tongues, until now.
I mean what is there to be said after seeing your holy Teacher all illumined in glory? It could cause you to respond in fear and with a request to leave his side.
Or you could do what James and John did. You could convince yourself that the Transfiguration was intended just for you. Moses and Elijah are simply there to hold your spot, to let you know where Jesus wants you to stand when it comes your turn to run things. Why else would Jesus let you see the Glory if he didn’t want you to join in?
It is easy for us to read this Gospel lesson and roll our eyes when James and John ask for corner offices in the Great Gospel Tower. Come on, James and John, it’s about serving, you know that. Jesus is the Teacher but he teaches by serving, he leads by serving, he shows you how God loves by serving. The Good News isn’t about you, it’s about Jesus and Jesus is about us, all of us.
Yet, since the days of James and John, the followers of Jesus have never ceased in the demands we make upon Jesus. We do not typically ask for anything as bold as luxury seats in glory.
No, our requests are more subtle but reflect the same sort of grasp for power and personal control.
Jesus, let us make you in our image. And let the Word of God endorse what we would endorse and reject what we would reject without actually having to do anything so costly as to engage it or hear it or deeply experience it in our lives.
My first semester in seminary, when I was fresh out of college, I took a Church History class. On the first day of class, as the professor went over the expectations for the semester, he mentioned, with some detail, the research paper due as our final project.
He gave examples about previous projects and mentioned a few that were exceptional. He mentioned a paper on St. Francis that a young woman had written. Upon submitting the paper and receiving a high mark for it, she then withdrew from seminary, sold all her possessions, and moved to New Orleans to live in a Catholic Worker House and to share in ministry with the poor and homeless.
Upon hearing that, I made a note to myself. Do NOT do a project on St. Francis. I did not want the project to change me. I simply wanted three hours of academic credit.
James and John ask for power and influence and recognition in the story of Jesus, in its final act of glory and light. They did not want to be changed. They simply wanted really good seats as insider disciples of Jesus.
Jesus, who loved James and John, who obviously felt a true affection for them, asked if they can drink from his cup and follow him in the baptism that he will undertake. They say they can. In many ways, they have no idea what they are talking about.
In will turn out, that both of them will be able to drink from that cup and follow in that baptism. James will be an early martyr in the early Church. John will live in exile and suffer for his witness to the Resurrection. But in the moment we overhear this morning, they believe that glory and light can come without suffering and pain and servanthood.
We believe Jesus to be worthy of glory and power and light and worship. But we also know Jesus chose to exercise that authority by taking on suffering and rejection and betrayal and abuse. We confess that he descended to the dead, that he entered hell in order to break its power over our lives. He took on a posture of a suffering servant in order that you and I might be shown what true power and the abundant life really means.
James and John are corrected by Jesus when they ask for power and influence that looks simply like greed and favor. Over time, they learn what it means to follow Jesus.
You and I live in an age when preachers still peddle a prosperity gospel and call it the way of Jesus. Such is not the case. It is simply our selfish desires with a distorted Christ hung on a golden cross.
Jesus still calls us, as he called James and John, as he called the twelve, as he called St. Francis, to follow in the footsteps of the suffering servant, to outdo each other in serving each other.
In humility, we find our true human identity. In humility, we come to understand that weakness is where true power is found. In humility, we come to believe that the bread and the cup are ours to share, not because of what we have done, but because of the grace and mercy and forgiveness and invitation offered to us by the Resurrected Christ, who because he was touched with suffering, now reigns in glory.