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

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 18, 2015 (Proper 24, Year B)

If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve surely heard a bridesmaid butcher 1 Corinthians 13. Yes, “love is patient, love is kind,” but it’s hard to revel in patience and kindness when the young woman in the peach-colored dress is racing through the reading as if she she can’t wait to get the whole “religious part” over with so she can finally access the open bar at the reception. Or weeping through it as she uses an entire pack of tissues, sniffling before every word, with mascara running everywhere, and making the relatively short reading last longer than the homily.

I knew a wise priest who used to always tell couples to substitute “Jesus” for the word “love” when they heard this ubiquitous passage. Because it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Paul is talking about Jesus’ love for us, not the couple’s love for one another. So, “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind.”

But the upshot is that when we think of Jesus, patience is one of the virtues that comes to mind. We think of him as having the patience of, well, a saint. Sure, there was that little episode when he flipped over the tables in the Temple but we generally think of him as a calm, non-anxious presence, patiently and lovingly putting up with the foibles of human nature.

james&johnAnd then we get a reading like our gospel passage this morning and we know that Jesus must have also experienced total and utter exasperation. Because if there was ever a moment that would cause Jesus’ patience to run out, it would be this encounter with James and John. I mean, come on. They’d been through a lot with Jesus. These brothers, the sons of a fisherman named Zebedee, were two of the first people Jesus called as disciples. They traveled with him all over the countryside, back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, into towns and villages; they heard him teach and preach, they saw him perform miracles and heal all sorts and conditions of people. As two of his most valued disciples, they had quality face time with him up the mountain at the Transfiguration. And yet they Still. Don’t. Get. It.

This whole episode happens just before Jesus heads to Jerusalem to be put on trial and yet James and John, like two spoiled siblings, are still squabbling over issues of status in the kingdom that is to come. Thereby entirely missing the point of Jesus’ message and ministry. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they say. After all this time, they still think they’re going to “get something” for themselves out of this relationship. Jesus, probably first taking a deep cleansing breath, asks them if they are able to “drink the cup that I drink.” In other words, are you able to endure what I will endure? Are you able to go through what I will go through? And without hesitation they answer, in the most clueless response in the history of clueless responses, “Yup. We’re able.’

And Jesus replies with what must have been unbelievable exasperation, ‘Oh, really. You’re able to drink the cup that I will drink? Huh. Well, you will. I’ll tell you that. But you should know something. It’s not all about rainbows and unicorns and smiling emojis. It’s not about your personal glorification. You don’t get a special prize or trophy for walking this journey and drinking this cup. In fact, quite the opposite. People will trash talk you and treat you like dirt. There’s glory in this path, yes, but it’s not like anything you could possibly even imagine. And it’s certainly not to your personal glory.’

All you have to do is look at the passage we just read from the prophet Isaiah if you have any doubts about how this will all go down. If it sounds familiar it’s because we read it every year on Good Friday. And we know how that turns out for Jesus and his disciples.

As Christians, our inheritance is not to become great by human standards. Rather it is to serve others in the name of Christ. And doesn’t that just push against every cultural inclination? We may not be willing to win at all costs since, you know, we’re people of faith, but we still want to win. So when Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” that’s not something that comes naturally to us.

And it certainly didn’t come naturally to James and John. Which is something we share with them. Jesus nicknamed the two “boanerges” which is translated “Sons of Thunder.” Why? Because they were passionate, fiery, go-getters. At one point on their travels, Jesus is opposed by some villagers who refuse to let him and his disciples stay the night. And James and John say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Uh, no. But it gives you a glimpse into their no-holds-barred, do anything for the team approach to discipleship. That’s what Jesus is working with when he flips their entire notion of discipleship upside down with the whole ‘whoever wants to be great must be a servant’ thing.

In the end James and John will indeed drink the cup that Jesus drinks. Tradition holds that James was the first of the disciples to be martyred and John, who became known as the Beloved Disciple, was charged with taking Mary into his home and caring for her after the crucifixion. Eventually they do get it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try the patience of their Lord along the way.

And in this, we have much in common with James and John. Like these Sons of Thunder, there are moments when we just don’t get it. We may not want to think about this but despite Jesus’ limitless capacity to love us and forgive us, we shouldn’t get lulled into believing that he never gets fed up with us. So I do think it’s worth reflecting upon the things we do or fail to do that try the patience of Jesus. I can personally think of all sorts of things I do that might exasperate him. And I doubt I’m alone.

Because for all his talk about loving our neighbors as ourselves, how often do we turn away when we see someone in need? For all his talk about forgiveness, how often do we hold grudges? For all his talk about generosity, how often do hoard our resources? For all his talk about justice, how often do we encounter injustice and just walk away?

And yet…even when we exasperate Jesus, even when we try his patience, even when we make him roll his eyes and shake his head, he still loves us. That’s the good news for us today. That no matter what we do in our ignorance, in our blindness, in our sinfulness, Jesus looks upon us with compassion and forgiveness and mercy. Even if we sometimes drive him nuts.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

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