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"Hearts Open to Others" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 21, 2018

posted Oct 24, 2018, 2:24 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

As my kids got older, they stopped playing soccer and baseball on our front yard.  In fact, it’s been years since they did. So this summer, I decided to re-landscape the front of our house.  Two new beds, running down our front sidewalk, boxwood hedges with room for flowers beside them.

And now, with the beds complete and fall arrived, came the time to plant - silia and tulips, my favorite spring bulbs.  We had so many bulbs - 200 per side - that Jay dug a trench for planting. I came out to question the depth. Never question an engineer about measurements.  He got out his tape and showed me he’d consistently dug it 8 inches, ensuring the bulbs would be properly placed 6-8 inches under the soil.

While this was going on, a neighbor came over.  “Andrew,” he said, “you’ve got it made. My wife would never dig the trench so I could just come out to place the bulbs.”  Gay marriage ain’t looking so bad is it?

We humans pay lots of attention to issues of power and roles, fairness and inequality; and all these issues underlie our Gospel lesson today.  Almost from the beginning, people interpreted James and John as acting on a brash impulsivity, requesting in an almost unseemly way positions of power beside Jesus; James and John, sons of Vanity.

And yet, I wonder about this interpretation.  Were they really just seeking out their own glory?  Or does this reading of their relationship miss something crucial about discipleship?

Think with me about this story (and you might open up your Pew Bibles to page 47 in the New Testament).  Jesus and the disciples were heading down to Jerusalem; but the disciples were so dreading what awaited them in Jerusalem that they held back, afraid and worried while Jesus walked on in front of them.  What must that have felt like, to have your friends unable to walk with you as you approached a deadly confrontation? Lonely, bitter; Jesus started talking openly about his death: “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 disciples are behind Jesus, holding back on the road.  So he probably turned around to face them. Did he shout these words?  Did he cry as he spoke them? Mock. Spit. Flog. Kill. There is a staccato hardness to these words.  I almost imagine Jesus spitting them out, no warmth in his voice to the dithering disciples, forcing the recalcitrant to face what they wanted to avoid, dragging them up to the reality of the situation.

At this moment, James and John catch up to Jesus.  And they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  Now normally we treat this as a request for positions of authority and power, as if they’d ignored the part about Jesus dying and jumped ahead to the part of him coming back in three days.

But this conversation between Jesus, James, and John needs to be read in relationship to the other times Jesus predicted his impending death.  For Jesus had death on his mind and kept trying to talk with the disciples about it.

The first time Jesus said he would die, Peter rebuked him.  This made Jesus so mad he yelled, “get behind me Satan.” And then he spoke of the need for all his disciples to suffer like him.  Then he warned everyone, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The disciples still couldn’t handle Jesus’ predictions of his own death.  So when he started to talk about it again, the disciples sat silently, sullenly, afraid to believe him and afraid to challenge him.  This frustrated Jesus; exasperated, he again spoke sternly, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

But this time, when Jesus again spoke of his death, James and John act differently.  First, they move from the crowd of fearful disciples to stand close beside Jesus. Jesus sometimes spoke euphemistically about his death and they adopt some of the same language: Can we be beside you when you enter into glory?  Can we be beside you when you die?

Normally people think of James and John being brash, but as I read the Gospel of Mark, they were the first disciples to actually listen to Jesus’ pain; to hear him; and to make clear that they would beside him in his pain.

Far from vanity, James and John showed empathy.  And Jesus responded to their empathy. Where normally he became despondent at the reaction of the disciples, now he speaks tenderly, concerned for James’ and John’s ability to suffer.  He said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In this very human moment, Jesus knew the suffering he faced; and he didn’t want them to face it too.

James and John press on; “We are able.”  And Jesus accepts their willingness to suffer with him.  “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  But he added that they might not be with him on the cross; and indeed, two others will be there on his right and on his left.

I’m sure that James and John could have found a better way to express their solidarity with Jesus.  But beyond their words, the action of moving from the crowd of fearful disciples to stand beside Jesus seemed to truly matter to him.  In his pain, he was not alone.

The other disciples did not react well to this.  The people too afraid to walk with Jesus now became angry when James and John did.  Often smoldering fears can inflame burning anger, which seems to be the case with the disciples.  Their anxiety came out in anger at James and John. But why? Was it because James and John tried to take some privileged spot in the next life?  Or because James and John went and stood with their pained and lonely friend?

Jesus’ own sense of this moment comes out in his reaction.  He doesn’t remonstrate James and John but instead repeats again what he said before to the disciples.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I know this runs against the typical way the story gets read; but notice how differently Jesus responded to James and John versus the rest of the disciples.  To James and John he acknowledged their willingness to suffer and to serve - “the cup that I drink you will drink too.” But to rest, those who held back in fear, he instead makes a point about discipleship, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

The rest of the disciples had clearly missed something.  The rest of the disciples paid heed to their own envy, their jealousy over James and John, and maybe even their shame over not acting more like James and John.  The rest of the disciples had served their own resentments.

But what had James and John done?  They paid attention to Jesus’ pain.  They heard the friend who kept talking about his death.  They heeded his loneliness. And, in this, they exhibited the best of discipleship: a heart for others.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time drawing this distinction between James and John on the one hand and the rest of the disciples on the other because I think it speaks to how we need to be church today.

First, across the world, Christian faith often seems to believe more in the status quo then it does in the power of Jesus to transform lives.  Recently I heard the story of Boniface Mwangi, a photographer from Kenya who documented political repression in his country. Mwangi described his experience growing up.  “In my childhood, they taught me silence. Don't argue, do as you're told. In Sunday school, they taught me don't confront, don't argue, even if you're right, turn the other cheek.”  How many American Christians get the same message? How many taught silence? Mwangi had to learn another way to be in order to stand up to the oppression in his country.

Another leader from a different part of the world sharpens this critique of Christianity.  Dr. Koson Srisang leads Christians in Thailand. He once described a report by Asian church leaders, which confessed, “the Church is often found on the side of political powers against the people; it… participates in programs and structures which not only cause injustice and oppression but which also reinforce the suffering of the people.”  This attitude reflects, as Dr. Srisang explained, that in churches we deal with people as sinners but not people as the one sinned against. His comments from Thailand hold true here too: most American Christians put their energy into culture wars against so called “sinners” but have little to say about injustice and oppression. And in much of American Christianity, people talk about being saved from sin instead of liberated from oppression.

Both Mwangi and Dr. Srisang describe a Christianity the rest of the disciples would have well appreciated: cautious, apprehensive, fearful Christianity; what I think of as the Church of St. Stability.

But we’re called to be a different kind of church; one with a heart open to others, to be like James and John, seeing human pain and responding, even if we don’t always have the right words.

The experience of human pain we’re called to answer comes out in a poem by Canaan Banana of Zimbabwe, who paraphrased the 23rd Psalm in a work he called “The Voice of Agony.”

Man’s cruel Hand is my destruction

I shall ever want.

It makes me lie down beneath the prison cells of injustice.

It leads me beside the hot fires of gunpowder.

I am fighting a lone battle, apathy and indifference surround me.

The table of starvation is ever before me.

My head is anointed with burdens.

Dejection and despondency haunt me.

Freedom and justice are my heart’s desire.

Help me, O God, to walk the valley in pursuit of [dignity].

And hasten the Day of the Haven of Your Love, Power and Justice.

James and John - hearing that same “Voice of Agony” in Jesus - responded to their friend.  And that’s what we are all meant to do as followers of Jesus: forget who’s in charge, forget who’s a sinner, just work for those sinned against.  My hope for our congregation is that each of us will have a mission project that compels us, a way we answer that “Voice of Agony,” being part of something that helps the sinned against: whether it’s a homeless agency like Guest House or Pathfinders, advocacy for racial equity with MICAH or Voces de la Frontera, help to our elderly neighbors through Eastside Senior Services, or something abroad like Sustain the Future.  I want each of us - either personally or as a household - to be able to name how we answer the Voice of Agony.

When we say the world needs a church like Plymouth, we mean the world needs more people of faith who open their hearts to others, more people of faith who reach out in service, more people of faith who won’t keep silent in the face of injustice.

Alleluia and Amen.