“Are You Able?”
Rev. Jeff Long-Middletoton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
October 21, 2018
They replied, “We are able.” – Mark 10:39ai
It is obvious that the sons of Zebedee did not know what they were about. Given what we know about Jesus, their question is embarrassing. They have come seeking special recognition. They want to be high and exalted. It offended the other ten. They grew angry with James and John which may serve as an insight into their failure to understand what they were about. Somebody is going to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand. I imagine they all hoped it would be them. But it is an honor to be given not a commodity to be bought with a request. It’s like going up to your boss and saying, “You know, I’m better than anybody here. I deserve special treatment – starting with that corner office that came open.” How’s that going to turn out? And your coworkers? You’ve just elevated yourself and put everyone else down. So we wouldn’t have done what they did because it’s bad politics.
But the issue before us is deeper than inner office tensions. It is as if they are clueless about the shape of Christ’s kingdom. In fairness, they are thinking like all the rest of us. How often have you seen the meek get ahead in life? If someone hits you in the face, are you going to offer to take another blow? And who among us wants to the slave of anybody? They are not all that different than you or me. We live in a world where the Kingdom of God seems distant at best and irrelevant at worst. Like the disciples we need to know what we are about.
We don’t have an excuse. The crucifixion is history. The resurrection, done. The Sermon on the Mount, preached. We and the disciples have been told by Jesus that if anyone would come after Him, they will need to deny themselves and take up their cross. That’s what we are about. In this strange building with its vaulting ceiling, tall steeple and stained glass, we proclaim this strange message that in order to find yourself you have to lose yourself, that faithfulness is measured by our willingness to take up our cross. Suffering has been given purpose because a gospel that champions the cause of the oppressed, that lifts up the least and the lost, that gives voice to the voiceless will find the world lashing out. Suffering comes, in part, because we are called upon to care about all of the children of God. We must know what we are about and never be ashamed of the truth of our calling. We need to be like the old man in India
“sat down in the shade of an ancient banyan tree whose roots disappeared far away in a swamp. Presently he discerned a commotion where the roots entered the water. Concentrating his attention, he saw that a scorpion had become helplessly entangled in the roots. Pulling himself to his feet, he made his way carefully along the tops of the roots to the place where the scorpion was trapped. He reached down to extricate it. But each time he touched the scorpion, it lashed his had with its tail. stinging him painfully. Finally his hand was so swollen he could no longer close his fingers, so he withdrew to the shade of the tree to wait for the swelling to go down. As he arrived at the trunk, he saw a young man standing above him on the road laughing at him. ‘You’re a fool,’ said the young man, ‘wasting your time trying to save a scorpion that can only do you harm.’ The old man replied, ‘Simply because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, should I change my nature, which is to save?'”1
We need to stay true to who we were called to be even when the world lashes back.
Our second point this morning is a difficult one – we need to stay within our limits. In our first point I asked us to know what we are about. Ours is a noble calling and if there ever was a time when the world needed Christians who know what they are about, it is now. Yet we must also know our limits. Simply put, we are not God. While the church can promote, encourage and help define God’s kingdom, it is God’s not ours. It is God who will bring it into being and while we are citizens of a kingdom not yet realized, we are not its king.
The movie, Schindler’s List, conveys what I am trying to say. Oscar Schindler is a greedy and prosperous German businessman who becomes an unlikely savior of countless Jews. He arrives in Krakow, Poland, and becomes owner of a munitions factory that uses enslaved Jews to manufacture artillery shells. While working for and with the Germans he becomes involved in a dangerous game of saving Jews from the death camps. His efforts resulted in saving over 1,100 Jews from the death camps. At the end of the film, Schindler leads his workers to liberated territory. Exhausted with tears running down his face, he holds up his hand which is adorned with an expensive ring and begins rambling that he could have done more, he could have sold the ring and saved one more, his car and saved one more. At that moment, the Jewish foreman of the factory comes to him and with deep compassion places his hand on Schindler’s shoulder and says, “It is enough.”
We can all do more, I suspect. I certainly know I can. But I ask you to realize what you are already doing. There are families being raised, young lives shaped, decisions made at work, forgiveness that mends relationships all offered because you are citizens of a “not yet” kingdom. The truth is we do not know the final outcome of an act of kindness, of a will that will not bend to the perverse pleasures of the crowd. We live within the limits of our time, our place and our responsibilities. We may well find that…it is enough.
In the end, our limits open us to this insight from Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”2
We must know what we are about. We must learn to live with our limits. The third point is God surrenders nothing. I have never known God to back away from what is right because it was inconvenient for the person called by God. I have never known God to dilute a Christian’s calling by removing the call to carry one’s cross. I have never known God to surrender anything to the enemy of goodness. Never.
This is what makes us all hypocrites. We are like the psalmist who is attempting to flee from God’s presence:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to flee from the demands God has placed upon those who have said “I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior and I pledge to seek to serve and to follow Him forever.”
So, my friends, you and I are doomed to be hypocrites, in part because of our limits and in part because, at least in my case, our cowardice. When asked if they were able to drink the cup Jesus must drink and be baptized as He was to be baptized, James and John said, “We are able.” They knew not what awaited Jesus. I do and confess that while the world may need my witness, I give it either partially or not at all. In the end, I throw myself on the mercy of God and trust that Jesus loves me more fully than I fully love Him. Let us pray….
1 Coffin, William Sloan, The Courage To Love, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1982, pp. 85-86.
2 Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Irony of American History, Scribners, quoted in Context, February 15, 1992.
i Mark 10:35-45
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But 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?” 39They 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; 40but 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.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.42So Jesus called them and said to them, “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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”