Do the Right Thing

Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 21, 2012
Isaiah 52:13 -53:6 Mark 10:32-45

Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received - only what you have given. ― St. Francis of Assisi
 
How many of you here try to exercise somewhat regularly?
 
Alright, well then let me ask you this: do you exercise because you love it or because it’s good for you?
 
Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you do it because you love it, just because you love it: the endorphins, the rush? You people are a little weird.
 
How many of you do it, if you do it, because it’s good for you?
 
Now I know some of you are probably thinking this shouldn’t be an either/or but a both/and sort of question, so for those of you who do it for love, ask yourself, would you still do it if it turned out that exercise had absolutely no effect on your overall health or weight?
 
If it turned out that exercise wasn’t actually any better for you then lying on the couch and watching a movie, would you still do it? I probably wouldn’t.
 
OK, what about taxes?
 
Do you pay your taxes faithfully every year because you love your country, value good schools, and get a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart every time you pass a sign that says: “Your Tax Dollars At Work,” or do you do it because it’s the law and you don’t want to get caught breaking the law?
 
Again, possibly both, but tell me this: if you got a letter in the mail saying you didn’t have to pay this year because, I don’t know, you’re just special or something, would you kick in a few hundred anyway? Just for old time’s sake? I have got to tell you, I’m a big believer in taxes, but that being said, I don’t know that I would. I think I’d probably go buy boots.
 
All right. One more. How about the Dentist? Do you go to the dentist because you enjoy the feel of metal scraping against bone or the high pitched whining sound a drill makes as it bores a tiny hole in your tooth, or do you go because you value good oral hygiene?
 
If the metal scraping and high pitched whining didn’t actually help, would any of you still go…to the dentist… for fun? Me neither.
 
She’s a nice lady and all, but no, because look: there are some things we do in life - things like cleaning out the fridge, changing the oil in the car, eating copious amounts of Kale –not because we enjoy them so much as because we know that the long term results of these short term actions will pay off in our favor. Right?
 
Results make a difference. The end game matters. And typically maximizing those results - be it the fat burning ratio in your work out, the kickback in your tax refund, or the number of years you can reasonably enjoy without dentures - would be considered a wise and prudent thing to do.
 
Well I want you to keep all that in mind today as we take another look at the sons of Zebedee- James and John - because I don’t think these guys are quite as obnoxious as they are often made out to be.
 
They were somewhat obnoxious, which I believe is how they got their nickname the Sons of Thunder. That sort of thing is just bound to happen when you have a dozen guys traveling together 24/7 on a three-year road trip. But in this case, in this part of the story, I don’t think they are as out of line as people often perceive them to be.
 
You see, Jesus has just made his third prediction about his impending suffering and death. You will remember that the first caused Peter to react rather poorly. He was so upset by the idea that Jesus might lose that he “rebuked him;” after which things got a bit awkward.
 
Jesus said, “Get thee behind me Satan,” the disciples all developed a sudden interest in their sandals, and then Jesus told them that if they wanted to follow him they were going to need to “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow (him).”
 
A few verses later, Jesus starts up again with the whole Son of Man being betrayed and killed theme, the disciples as a whole kind of freak out and then tune him out the better to start talking amongst themselves about which one of them is the greatest.  Jesus confronts them and once again and says listen, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
 
And now we have Jesus for a third time predicting that things are not going to end well, indeed he is becoming much more graphic and specific in his description as they near Jerusalem, playing up the mocking and the spitting and the flogging that await him.  And in response, James and John make an interesting move.
 
Unlike Peter the first time, they accept what Jesus is saying at face value. They acknowledge that Jesus is probably going to die and they are clear about the fact that, if they carry on with him, they will probably die as well.
 
And to their credit, James and John are still willing to follow him. Only they want to know that it’s going to be worth it. They want some guarantee that their reward will be great in heaven if their sacrifice is great upon the earth, and so they take Jesus aside and say:
 
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.
And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
And they said to him,
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
 
Their brazenness almost takes your breath away, doesn’t it? And I know, at least at first, that their request sounds as crass as it does counterproductive. I mean, how many times does Jesus have to say things like deny yourself, the last shall be first, the kingdom of heaven belongs to the least of these, before it sinks in with these morons that asking Jesus to reward you with the best seat in heaven is probably not a smooth move if what you really want is the best seat in heaven? Right?
 
And yet asking for some assurance, some reward, some recompense, some guarantee that this will all turn out ok, it does sound vaguely familiar doesn’t it, especially to us here in the church? It’s not the gospel Jesus preached, but it’s definitely a popular variation on the theme; basically pay now so you don’t need to pay later.
 
Give up here and you’ll be given to in the hereafter. Repent! Enough with your drinking and your swearing, your hedonism and materialism, and all the other bad things you love to do. Get right with God! Live a life of pious self-sacrifice and rigorous self-discipline and great will be your reward in heaven.
 
Only that’s not the gospel Jesus preached… at all. Jesus came preaching grace, not some creepy quid pro quo. He never asked anyone to do a thing in order to get God to love them or earn their way into the kingdom of heaven. He came preaching that God loves us already. He came preaching that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
 
It would seem that James and John still don’t get this, though. They are still operating on some sort of pro merito system. They are in this for the glory and they want to know how best to ensure they will receive it.
 
They’ve pulled the teacher aside to inquire how they might earn a little extra credit because they still don’t get Jesus, though I think if we’re honest, it’s really not all that hard to get them. Which is why Jesus’ response is so important for us all.
 
Notice that he doesn’t offer them glory anymore than he promises them heaven.
 
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “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?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
 
Friends, Jesus doesn’t offer them a place beside him in glory because what James and John don’t yet understand is that Jesus’ glory was not reserved for heaven, anymore than is ours. Jesus’ glory was revealed on the cross in his greatest act of self-sacrifice, his greatest act of service, that place in time where he showed us how he will suffer us at our very worst and still not give up on us.
 
That is where Christ’s glory is revealed, and who was at his right in that moment, and who at his left? The two thieves….that’s right.  
 
No indeed, James and John did not know what they were asking, but that does not mean Jesus is not still willing to give them something, something incredibly precious.
 
Recognizing their courage and their desire to do what is right even if their motives are still a little screwed up, Jesus lets them know that all glory aside, they will still drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with the baptism he is baptized with, which is a really cryptic way of saying that they will be granted the courage to walk in his way and follow in his footsteps.
 
They will be granted the courage to live and die for Jesus. And although they don’t know this yet, in time they will come to understand that the following, the living, the dying, is it’s own reward.
 
That would be my big mind blowing message for you all this morning, except for the fact that I think most of you get that already.
 
Which is to say that when I look out at all of you, I don’t see a whole bunch of people who have come here this morning out of fear or guilt or the hope that if you rack up enough Sunday’s in church, St. Peter will be duty bound to let you through the pearly gates of heaven.
 
Fear, guilt, the promise of some mansion up yonder on a street paved with gold: that might be what brought you to Jesus in the first place, but in my experience if you follow Jesus for any length of time, truly follow him, something in you changes.
 
If the relationship is real, then something in you shifts and you come to realize that you’re not following Jesus because believing in Jesus will get you into heaven someday, you’re following Jesus simply because you believe in Jesus period -full stop - believe in his words and his way and his vision of who you can be and what this world might be if we would all just start loving as we have been loved and forgiving as we have been forgiven. 
 
And when that shift occurs, something in you is set free. You find yourself doing the right things simply because they are the right things to do, not because doing them will get you something else.
 
You do what is right not because you want God to love you more, for you know deep in your heart that God loves you already, but because something in the doing helps you love God more and that turns out to be the greatest gift of all.
 
I think you get that. Maybe not all of you, not yet, not completely, but stick with Jesus long enough and you will, just as James and John eventually did. It took awhile, but after the resurrection and ascension, if the legends are true, the brothers did come around.
 
James never lost his courage and was, in fact, the first of the disciples to die for his faith.  John, on the other hand, was the last one standing. He survived exile and great persecution wrote 1st John, 2nd John, 3rd John, and the book of Revelation, and lived to be so old that his disciples actually had to carry him to church in his final years.
 
When they did, legend has it that he only ever said one thing:
 
“Little children love one another”
 
Weary of the fact that old man’s message never varied someone asked him one day, “Master, why do you always say this?”
 
“It is the Lord's command,” was his reply. “And if this alone be done, it is enough!” [1]
 
So may it be. Amen and Amen.