Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 19, 2003. 
Based on Mark 10:35-45 (Proper 24, Year B).

I’m fascinated by gossip columns. Liz Smith, Page 6 of the New York Post, the inside cover of USA Weekend. It’s not that I read them very often. Though I occasionally sneak a peek at People Magazine when I’m at the doctor’s office. And I admit I check out the headlines of the tabloids when I’m at the grocery store. For some reason it’s just so hard not to look. Of course I can justify this by telling myself I need to “stay current.” No one wants a preacher who’s out of touch with pop culture. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

I guess there’s just something seductive about knowing what famous people do and with whom they do it. Why we as a culture care about Jennifer Aniston’s latest hairdo or Russell Crowe’s love life is a mystery. But it’s somehow compelling in a voyeuristic way. We’re offered a glimpse into the lives of people we know of but don’t actually know. And it’s all at a safe distance.

The local version of the celebrity gossip column is the society page. These have even more allure for some of us because we may see someone we actually know. And there’s the possibility that one day we ourselves may be looking out at the world from newsprint while attending a fabulous event. We just need to find ourselves in precisely the right place at precisely the right time. And then in a small way we too become celebrities.

James and John would have liked nothing more than to see their faces in the society page. Preferably at a fancy dinner party with one sitting at Jesus’ right and one at his left. Now that would make a statement. They’d be famous; they’d be the envy of all the other disciples. It would prove to the world, once and for all, that they belonged in the presence of greatness. That they had arrived. It is precisely this celebrity status that they appear to crave when they approach Jesus. They seek him out privately and probably whisper their request in hushed tones. “Hey Jesus, how about pulling a few strings for us with the big guy. Can you swing a couple of those prime seats next to you?”

I’ve always loved this interaction between Jesus and the sons of Zebedee. James and John are so off the mark it’s comical. Jesus has a world to redeem and they’re worried about where they’ll sit in the age to come. Jesus is out saving souls and they’re worried about keeping up appearances. Jesus asks James and John if they are willing to drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with the baptism with which he will be baptized. They eagerly rush to answer in unison, “we are able.” But they have no idea what they’re getting into, they have no idea what they’re being asked to do. They’re blinded by their willingness to say or do anything it takes to be afforded the status of a seat near their master. But we’re not talking about the seat of honor at a dinner party. We’re not talking about the great social event of the season. We’re not talking about a place where it’s important to see and be seen.

What we’re talking about is the heavenly banquet. The image of God’s glory fully revealed in the age to come. Our participation in this feast is the hope and promise of the Christian life. But it’s not a party to which invitation equals elevated status. Because in order to attend, we must first die. We must first pass through physical death and death to sin through faith in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. These alone are the prerequisites for entrance. And as Jesus tells his two faithful disciples, such special status is not his to grant. It’s God’s realm. And God’s realm has nothing to do with human desires or human wishes.

Jesus doesn’t get angry with James and John for seeking special status. He answers their request with truth. Jesus tells them that they will indeed drink the cup from which he drinks and that they will indeed be baptized with his baptism. The problem is that it’s the cup of martyrdom and a baptism in blood. Hardly the coming out party that James and John envision.

This whole exchange is a classic case of being careful what you wish for. James and John will indeed walk with Jesus and enter the heavenly banquet. But not on their own terms and not in the way they might have foreseen. But then, the Christian life is often one in which we get more than we bargain for. We’re quick to sign up for the resurrection part, we just aren’t always prepared for the death part. And there is death and resurrection in nearly all that life offers. Broken relationships and reconciled ones. Sickness and health. Pain and relief. They’re all part of a life lived in relationship with God. But under-girding it all, is Christ’s love for us. And that gives us hope through whatever trials we may endure along the journey.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

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