Imagine this. You’re out for a walk with a group of your closest family members and friends, when you overhear the person you love most in the world sharing some news you’ve only recently learned, “I’ve just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctors tell me that there is no way it can be cured, but I should go through a few months of chemotherapy. I will likely be sicker than I’ve ever been – I’ll have terrible bouts of nausea, lose my hair, and feel miserable. It’s going to be hellish. But, chemo will give me more time to do some things I need to accomplish before I die.”
How do you think you would feel as this news began to sink in? Upset? Worried for your loved one? Worried for yourself?
Now imagine, you immediately overhear two of this person’s closest loved ones reply, “There’s something we’d like you to do for us. Could you give us your house and car after you’re gone?”
You’d be outraged. Right? Witnessing others respond in such a callous way would be difficult to bear.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells his closest companions on their way together to Jerusalem for the THIRD TIME that once they arrive he is going to be condemned to death, mocked, spat upon, flogged and killed. Three days after that he will rise again.
Yet, because of their own agendas, James and John are unable to hear his full message. They are unable to respond with sensitivity or love. You would think that by now they would get it… Jesus has not only told them and the other disciples three times what is ahead and tried to teach them about what it means, he had even recently given them concrete examples about the importance of serving the least, last, and the lost. Remember the story from two weeks ago, when he had taken the vulnerable child into his arms offering a lesson on inclusion and service and then last week the story of the rich young man he encouraged to give from his heart, saying “many who are last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And, STILL, somehow, the disciples do not get it. Do we?
How many times in our lives has someone tried to tell us something we didn’t want to hear? I think of the countless persons I have known who were dying and wanted nothing more than to share their thoughts and feelings about the end of their lives with those who were closest, who more than anything wanted their loved ones just to sit with them, only to hear dismissive things like, “Oh no… Let’s not talk about this. You’re going to be fine. Isn’t there another treatment you can try? Don’t give up. Have I told you the latest?” What’s worse – those people who find out a loved one is dying and begin scheming about what they want to inherit. How often does our resistance or inability to face harrowing truths or our own agendas, create distance between us and those we love? Or distance between us and those we don’t even know?
Jesus was inviting James and John to keep walking WITH him. He was inviting them to be full companions; to see that true greatness comes not only through epiphanies, miracles and wonders, but through being together through life’s trials. Yes, Jesus was leading them, walking ahead of them, because he could see what was coming and what he and they needed to do to prepare. It seems like James and John only wanted to hear the end of the story – that Jesus would rise. They wanted, like most of us do, to skip over the hard parts of the journey. For some reason, they were not able or willing to even contemplate what it would be like or mean to walk alongside Jesus, to be with him, as he faced suffering.
Perhaps because they, along with Peter, had gone to the mountain top and saw Jesus dazzlingly transfigured (which was the most extraordinary spiritual experience anyone was privileged to have with Jesus) – they thought that someone so good, so bright, so amazing would somehow be immune from pain and suffering and would allow them to be immune from pain and suffering, too. (And if we are honest, don’t most of us hope that our faith will somehow protect us from the worst trials of life?) Not to mention all the healings and miracles they witnessed, too. Perhaps the spiritual highs James and John enjoyed with Jesus created in them an idealized view of him. Perhaps seeing all that Jesus was capable of, they expected that only good things would happen for him and them.
Yet, it’s no wonder the other disciples were irate with James and John. Not only were James and John insensitive to what Jesus was trying to tell them, they were also asking for special favors. Perhaps the other disciples were already jealous of these two because they had such a close relationship with Jesus. We can’t know. But, what we do know is that Jesus does not dismiss their request. He does not say, as I might be tempted to say, “Are you kidding me? Didn’t you hear what I just said? Could I get a little sympathy here? I need you to understand what’s ahead. I need your support. I need your presence. I need you to be profoundly WITH me in the days ahead.”
Jesus, however, again meets James and John where they are. And then he tries – again – to help them see that their notion of greatness, of glory is not the same as his, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but 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 as a ransom for many.”
Matthew Myer Boulton points out, “to give his life as a ransom for many” amounts to a poetic way of saying, to pour out his life in servanthood to humanity, even in the face of fierce opposition — and so at once to show us the way and to liberate us into living it. The incarnate Son of God gives something of value — his life — for the sake of our freedom, our learning to follow him along the Way of being a “servant of all” with humility, generosity, love, and grace.”
What is Jesus trying to teach his disciples? As Martin Luther King Jr. so succinctly and eloquently put it, “Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve.”
I’d like to think that if James and John had any insight, any ability to be sensitive, that after Jesus shared what was ahead for him, they might have responded instead: “This is very hard for us to hear Jesus. We feel afraid. How is it for you? What can we do for you? How can we be with you?”
Imagine what might happen at those moments when our loved ones share news that feels overwhelming to us – whether it be about a terminal illnesses or, perhaps, an intense mission – like going to fight forest fires or being an ICU nurse tending to people with COVID What might happen if we could respond, “This is very hard for me to hear, dear loved one. I feel afraid. How is it for you? What can I do for you? How can I be with you?” Can you imagine how bonds of love would strengthen if we would simply listen to and support our loved ones in the midst of their trials?
Or what might happen if we as a church or a society, as we learn the harrowing truth about racism in our country, could respond. “This is very hard to hear. It makes me feel uncomfortable and afraid. What is it like for you, beloved Black sisters and brothers? What can we do for you? How can we be with you?”
The heart of Christian life is a willingness to be there for others at the worst moments of their lives. How willing are we to continue to companion others when they’ve lost a job, or had a mental health breakdown, or can’t seem to find their way out of addiction? How willing are we to be of service by simply being with others in the midst of life’s suffering?
Yesterday, I had the great joy of officiating the wedding of Casey Gover and Michael Lenane, two young people who met in 11th grade English class at Boston Latin High School ten years ago. Having faced the death of a beloved grandparent and parent together, they have become uniquely mature for their age. For their ceremony, they chose a reading that seems to me to express the kind of love that Jesus calls us to:
We said we’d walk together, and come what may That come the twilight should we lose our way If as we’re walking a hand should slip free I’ll wait for you, should I fall behind wait for me
We swore we’d travel, side by side And we’d help each other stay in stride But each lover’s steps fall so differently I’ll wait for you, and if I should fall behind wait for me
Now everyone dreams of love lasting and true But you and I know what this world can do So let’s make our steps clear so that the other may see I’ll wait for you, and if I should fall behind wait for me
May each of us be the kind of people, the kind of servants who are there for our loved ones in their time of greatest need. May we become the kind of church and society that pays loving attention to people caught in the cross hairs of racism, gun violence, income inequality and more. May we remember that true greatness in God’s kingdom isn’t about the positions of power we achieve, but about how we lovingly give, especially to those in greatest need. May we recognize that as we companion others through their lowest moments, we companion Jesus. And, that gift, the presence and companionship of Jesus, my dear friends, is the point of the Christian life. Amen.