His younger brother went to the local church to see if the minister would give Jay a Christian funeral. Now the minister knows Jay has never been his church. He also knows the family runs all sorts of unscrupulous businesses. And so the minister tells the man, “Knowing what I know about your brother and your family, I am not sure I can give you what you ask.”
The brother, being a shrewd businessman, offers the minister $25,000 to reconsider. This gets the minister’s attention. But there’s a caveat. The brother wants the minister to say that Jay was a saint. Since the church desperately needed the money, the minister tells the brother, “Give me the check right now and I’ll do it.” The brother writes the check, the minister quickly takes it to the bank and cashes it.
The following Saturday the sanctuary is filled with all sorts of unsavory people. The minister begins the service saying, “Many of you know that Jay was far from being called a Christian man. You know that he and his family are not God-fearing people. And quite frankly they have a reputation of being very unscrupulous in all that they do.”
The minister could see the brother, sitting in the front pew, red with rage. So he continues, “I don’t know if Jay even owned a bible, or was ever baptized, or had any clue what it meant to love one another. But what I do know is this...Jay was a saint in comparison to his brother.”
‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’
This morning’s gospel focuses on two other brothers, James and John. Like children asking for something they know their parents won't give them, the two try to trick Jesus into granting their request. And Jesus plays into their game to teach them a lesson.
There is something a bit comical in this scene, don’t you think? However it’s not joke. No matter how hard they try, the disciples never seem to get it right. Like the Keystone Kops Or the characters from Dumb and Dumber we can't help but to laugh at them and yet we do so out of our own insecurity.
This is the third time Jesus tells them that the Son of Man will be rejected and delivered to his death. And it's the third time the disciples seem to be clueless. It’s been said that James and John are trying to take advantage of bad news. Or that they want the best seats in the house, without understanding the real cost of such a vain request.
Mark gives us another story of our human foolishness. Far too often we overlook the risks of an investment because our eyes are focused on the big payoff. We want the prize now the bigger, the better. And we don't want to have to wait for it. When we don't get what we want, as quickly as we like, we jump ship and move on. All we have to do is look at how the church has reacted to how this idea of human entitlement to get a sense of who we've become.
In order to keep people’s attention, some ministers would rather feed people tweets instead of meat. Many churches will entertain the gospel instead of pushing people to think about what it's really calling us to do. Across the country, parishioners are afraid of what is happening to their church. "Where are the people going?"
But what happens when a church reacts out of fear? What does that say about their reliance on God? How can a church tell you to have faith if the church itself lacks faith?
Our consumer mentality is at odds with our Christian responsibly. We want the best seat in the house but have come to expect that it to be given to us free of charge. Dietrich Bonheoffer so aptly calls this “cheap grace.” That is to say... redemption without repentance; communion without confession; grace without the cross.
In his response to the brother’s Zebedee, Jesus turns around and asks them a question. "Are you able?" As he moves closer to his passion, Jesus needs to know if they are faithfully committed servants, willing to give all they have for God’s Kingdom.
If you have been here the last few weeks you might have noticed the word commitment has been a common theme: I have asked for parents to be committed to your children’s Christian education; commitment to fulfill the needs of the church...both now and in the future.
Last week, we looked at the story of the rich, young ruler who literally committed everything he owned to follow Christ. And in the coming weeks ahead we’ll have members from our church speak to you about your Stewardship commitment. Today, after worship, I will be meeting with people looking to join the church. They will have to decide if they will commit and make a covenant promise with us.
It's our faithful commitment that God is calling for. In giving ourselves over completely to God we learn how to rely on God instead of ourselves. What Jesus is asking of his disciples still applies to us today. Listen to his question. “Do you really think you are able to drink from this cup? Are you prepared to be baptized with the baptism I received?”
Henri Nouwen reminds us that baptism and the Eucharist are “the two main spiritual pillars of the Church. They are not just means by which we become and remain members of the Church, but they belong to the essence of the Church. Without these sacraments there is no Church. ”
When we are baptized with the living water of Christ, and when we gather around the table of Christ we become the people of God. We become the Church...the body of Christ.
When James and John hear Jesus’ question, what is their response? They boldly reply, “We are able.” How confident are they when they make this declaration? We read the words. They spoke them. We interpret them. But they lived by them.
“We are able.” Three simple words. One very bold statement.
Try to remove everything you know about this story and hear these three words again..."We are able." Does it make you wonder if in fact the brothers hear what Jesus is really saying? Does it make you wonder if they understand the risk Jesus is asking them to make? I think so.
I think they want to be closer to Jesus, not because it’s the best seat in the house but because being next to him is the safest place to sit when the world around you falls apart. They hear what’s in store for them, and they’re afraid. I can sympathize. They’re human, with fears, doubts, concerns, anxieties, and phobias. What Jesus is asking them to do is dangerous. Even when their heads are filled with crazy emotions they reply, “We are able.”
Fear and the need for security are a part of our deep human condition. Look at what our fear of terrorism has led us to do, government surveillance of its citizens and preemptive war. Fear over what will happen to the mainline church has led many to water down the gospel...why? To make it easier for us to commit. What Jesus is asking us isn't that simple.
Are we able?
Are we able to go the way of the cross? Are we able to leave our fears and insecurities, and commit? Are we able to be the Body of Christ? I believe we are able. Jesus isn't just warning the disciples as much as he is giving them, and us, words of hope.
We are able to shed our fears and find security in God’s love. We are able, because we know God's grace is real. We are able to take up our cross and endure all the tribulations along the way because we are empowered by the Spirit of God who sent his servant to give his life as a ransom for many. We are able to walk faithfully with Jesus, and we are able to receive our reward. Because we faithfully believe Jesus' death and resurrection changed the game. Yes, we are able. But are we willing?
Are we willing to be committed to live countercultural to the ways of the world? To give up our power and become weak in order to find our true strength? “The Son of Man came to serve and not be served.” Jesus came and transformed the world. Through him we are made new, different, and able.
But are we willing to be the antidote to a world that uses its power to dominate the weak? Are we willing to stand up against a system that creates division and injustice counter to God’s righteousness and peace? Are we wiling to give our time and resources right here for the sake of living in community, and loving our neighbors, forgiving all debts and one another? If so, then God is willing to reward us.
If we are able to give so freely and selflessly to strangers for the sake of God's Kingdom then we are able to receive the love and grace of God. This is the Good News. This is the way of the cross. This is an extraordinary promise that Jesus makes to such a fumbling, bumbling group of disciples both then and now.
So,...are you able?
 Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey. New York: Harper-Collins, 2007. ebook.
Bartlett, David. L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B. Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 189-91.
Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Mark 10:32-45.