To the Right and to the Left – October 21, 2018

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Carlos de la Torre
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost
October 21, 2018

Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16

Blessed be the name of God from this time forth and forevermore. Amen.

There can sometimes be a fine line between someone being bold and empowered, and simply being rude and utterly unaware. Maybe you’ve been asked a question about your personal life, your background, and identity, and depending on how you were asked, or who was asking, you’ve curtailed your answer.

And I’m sure you too have at least once or twice have been asked something so out of the blue that you simply didn’t know what to say in return. If you have not experienced said demand from another person, let’s simply look at our Gospel passage from this morning.

Somewhere between being emboldened and unaware, James and John ask Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” A daring statement to say the least.

Imagine if someone, a friend or loved one, approached you and outright asked you, “I want you to do whatever I tell you to do [no explanation, no clarifying statement, no please or thank you, end of sentence].

What would be your reaction?

I’m sure you, like me, might feel a little suspect to the reason and intent behind their request. And Jesus seems to feel the same way about James and John’s request. They do not get what they asked for. And not only is their request ignored, but Jesus redirects them.  

After being asked to sit at Jesus’ right hand and left, Jesus’ response, “you do not know what you are asking.” After all, the disciples have already been debating among themselves who is greatest among them, they have been worried about their own status among the other disciples.

And Jesus refutes James and John’s question by asking them his own question, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

James and John, re you able to handle the cup of life that will lead me to the garden of Gethsemane, the cup that will lead me to pray in my greatest hour of need, the cup that will lead me to the cross?

After all, there will be two places to the right and to the left of Jesus, but they will not be next to the throne, but next to the cross. Where Jesus will hang next to two criminals, who will inherit the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim. This is Jesus’ true glory, and the kingdom Jesus came to show us, the kingdom we shall inherit.

When Jesus tells James and John, “you do not know what you are asking,” he really means it. Their concern for status, their concern to stand in a place of privilege among their teacher and friend, has clouded their view from the purpose of Jesus. Remember, that Jesus and the disciples are on the way — they’re on the way to Jerusalem, they’re on the way to Jesus’ death.

And the disciples seem to be blind to what’s taking place around them. This might have been from a place of complete unawareness, or could be fear masking as disconnection and awareness from the present moment.

I’m reminded of how parents or caretakers of children, in the midst of bad news or a present evil, find a way, without ignoring the truth, to explain what’s going on. Maybe you’ve had to approach a child and gently let them know of the disease or death of a loved one. You try to explain how grandma or grandpa will not always be with us when suddenly the child looks you in the eye and says to you “oh, you mean they’re going to die.” Without any subtlety or gentleness, they simply get to the point.

James and John have come to Jesus with their own request, seeking status and greatness, but Jesus without skipping a beat gets to the point and tells them “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If you’ve come to Jesus seeking to have status, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you’ve come to Jesus seeking love, hospitality, and abundant life, you’ve come to the right place. And the love and life that Jesus promises us, the love and life he exposes on the cross, can be found not in royal platitudes but here on earth. It can be found in our care for one another, in our service and stewardship of our community, and in loving and taking care of ourselves for we are made in the image of God.

God’s greatness is made manifest Jesus, and Jesus is made manifest in love and care of the poor, the needy, and those who have lost all sense of hope. The only status Jesus is concerned with is how much we’ve loved and care for ourselves and others, not how great or mighty we are, or how much we’ve been able to accomplish in our finite life.

James and John ask to seat next to Jesus in his glory, as they had seen Moses and Elijah to the right and left of Jesus at the Transfiguration. Remember, the great image of a transfigured, dazzling, radiant Jesus. Maybe that’s what James and John had in mind when they approached Jesus. Maybe their request was not too idiotic after all.

However, Jesus’s glory is not found somewhere up in the sky, but here on earth. Not in the desire for status and power we often see, but in our daily lives and in our journey with Christ — here in this church, in your prayers of need and thanksgiving, in your service and love for Norwalk and its people, for your constant presence to one another. James and John already had a place in the kingdom of God, as you and I, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Thanks be to God who gives us the Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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