Monday, July 26, 2010

St. James the Elder, Apostle - July 25, 2010 (Mark 10:35-45)

By all accounts, James, the apostle, was a go-getter. To be honest, we know blessed little about most of the apostles’ personalities and motivations. The gospels were not written to tell their audiences the details of anyone other than Jesus—and, more specifically, the details of a certain sliver of Jesus’ life. Most of the people other than Jesus, play relatively minor roles in the story before fading into obscurity, and it is important that we do not attribute too many characteristics to them that just aren’t there. Yet, in spite of this fact, we are told enough about James and his brother, John, that he manages to come across throughout the New Testament as something of a zealot, an eager beaver.

He is one of the first disciples to respond to the call to follow Jesus. He is fishing in the boat with John and his dad, Zebedee, when along comes an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth seeking new disciples. No matter that an occupation of fishing was steady work—and apparently a family profession for the Zebedees—immediately, the gospel-writer Mark tells us, they leap from the security of the nets to follow this Jesus. James, along with his brother and Peter, are the only disciples to trek to the top of the mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus is revealed as God’s own Son. There is one point in Luke’s gospel, when the disciples and Jesus are making their way to Jerusalem, when the eager James suggests that Jesus command fire to come down and consume the Samaritan villages en route who have refused to accept Jesus. And no one else in the Bible, to my knowledge, is given a nickname by Jesus. Events like that one in Samaria and the one in this morning’s gospel text likely lead Jesus to dub James and John “Boanerges,” which is Aramaic for the “Sons of Thunder”.

The lesson from Acts illustrates that, even after Jesus’ resurrection, James’ instinct for zeal, his thundering passion for following Jesus, has not abated. In fact, in what seems like a fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction in the gospel lesson after James declares that he will, by golly, be able to drink the cup that Jesus’ drinks, James’ zeal leads to his death. At one point during the Acts of the Apostles, when the church was just getting going, members of the church hear that a great famine is expected throughout the earth. Rather than, perhaps, going into hiding and hoarding what they have to escape this potential tragedy, rather than circling the wagons, they organize a relief mission—an outreach pantry, if you will—to fellow believers in another region. In this case, a mission-driven church sticks its neck out, and Herod Agrippa’s sword comes slashing down, right on the head of James the elder. According the Bible, that makes James the first disciple to die for the sake of the gospel. According to legend, the executioner who was appointed to put James to death was so moved by James’ testimony that he converted to Christianity at the last minute and was beheaded simultaneously with James. Even if it is only legend, it certainly fits James’ “go-getter” persona that comes through in the gospels.

It is the episode from Mark’s gospel this morning which illustrates for James, however, that Jesus’ kingdom involves a certain kind of go-getting. James and his brother are so keen on following Jesus and so excited about the coming reign of God that they want Jesus to rank them as number one and number two. I’m sure they feel they’ve deserved it. After all, they’ve followed and listened like any good disciple should—and once they get to Jerusalem, it will soon be time to start handing out judgments and decrees. “We are able,” they confidently respond when Jesus asks them if they can drink from the same cup that he will. It is clear that they are eager to assume the roles of glory and honor. What is not clear is whether James and John and the other disciples understand the type of glory and honor Jesus will embody.

In order to explain it, Jesus compares the honor and glory that Jesus’ disciples are to seek to two professions—serving tables and being a slave—that not only required a lot of work, but were also traditionally looked down upon. In Jesus’ day and age, fewer kinds of work were seen as more demeaning than bringing people things while they ate and serving as a house slave. In a society where everyone was trying to accumulate honor for themselves by getting other people to do as many tasks for them as possible, willingly making the choice to be focused on others’ needs seemed backwards, counterintuitive. But that, as it turns out, is the way God’s kingdom works. In the world’s eyes, it is backwards, counterintuitive, upside down. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. This is what happens when your leader goes to Jerusalem not to rule with power and might, but to overthrow the powers that be by suffering, being mocked, and eventually dying. This is what a kingdom looks like whose own leader comes in humility to put himself in a position to serve even the least among us, whose own leader is such a go-getter that he goes to the cross to get us saved.

The witness of the apostle James reminds us of our call to be a “go-getter” church—but not with a zeal that seeks worldly glory, or with a thoughtless passion that runs roughshod over everyone else. We are called to be a “go-getter” church in the manner that Jesus shows to James: where greatness is measured not by how strong or powerful we are, but by how we use our strength and power to serve others. We strive to be “go-getters” for God’s kingdom, where true honor is determined not by how many people listen to us, but by how attentively we listen to the needs of others. The witness of James the elder, apostle, reminds us that a church is not great which seeks to establish its authority through force or cunning or wealth. The church is great which embodies Christ’s authority through service, kindness and generosity. And a disciple is not one who seeks praise, or accolade, or status, but one who seeks to serve, often tirelessly, and often without recognition.

Vacation Bible School is happening this week, as evidenced by the African motif running throughout the church building. It will be a Baobab Blast!  One-hundred twenty four children will make their way through our doors each day this week, most of those not members of our congregation. I have always thought that Vacation Bible School volunteers are some of the best foot-soldiers that the gospel has, and we’ll have fifty of them this week. They will lead songs, teach crafts, make snacks. They will console homesick kids, resolve minor disputes, and apply band-aids. They will collect donations from little hands that will go to purchase mosquito nets to save the lives of children half a world away. They will get silly tunes stuck in their heads for about two weeks they will create and then tear down construction paper and hand-painted set designs within five days, and by Friday they will wonder how all of this made them so tired. All because they are a part of a “go-getter” church.

I remember distinctly the night in my former congregation when my first week of leading Vacation Bible School came to a close. We had held our VBS for two-and-a-half hours in the evening. As my volunteers and I reckoned it, each hour of VBS took an average of four hours in planning and preparation. I didn’t know about them, but I was exhausted, mentally and physically. That night I called my folks to let them know how it went. In all honesty, I called to let them know how ridiculously hard I had worked and how as a child I never realized Vacation Bible School was that draining and, to be totally honest, I expected my parents to praise me up one side and down the other. I was sure they’d think no one had ever worked as hard as I did in that Vacation Bible School.

But when I got done with all my complaints and embellishments about how grueling it was, how I clearly deserved better, my mom’s response was, “So? Well, yeah. Sounds like every Vacation Bible School I’ve ever done. It was exhausting in the eighties when you were a child. It’s tiring for the adults, but the kids love it. What did you expect, Phillip?”

What did I expect? Perhaps, deep down, I was expecting some other sense of glory other than the one that comes when serving Jesus. Deep down, I suppose I was expecting the church’s mission to happen without any real hard work and humility from me. What my mother’s response taught me was not too far off the lesson learned by James: that zeal properly placed and channeled for the kingdom of God leads to acts of service and tending to the needs of others. And it can seem slave-like at times. What I had expected was a place at the right hand of VBS-volunteerdom. What I got was a little death. A little death to myself. A death, but a life-giving one.

Those who are baptized with Jesus’ baptism all eventually learn the same thing: the path of glory and honor in the kingdom of God never leads to a retreat from the world. In fact, it makes us daughters and sons that thunder straight into it. The call to be a disciple is an invitation to share the message that has so wholly claimed us: into Judea where a devastating famine is about to hit…into the mud-huts of malaria-ridden African villages…into the needs of the nearby low-income neighborhood, into the hospital room whose air is heavy with mourning…into the friendship with the non-believer.

Yes, this can be tiring cup to drink, but it is a cup that never runs dry. Filled to the brim with Jesus’ own love and sacrifice, it always flows with the promise eternal life. Filled with the drink of gracious forgiveness, it refuels us to be a church that, by all accounts, is a go-getter.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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