Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 21, 2018
Proper 24, Year B
Heaven is a Place on Earth
How many of you here try to exercise regularly?
Good for you. Well tell me 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 love it: the endorphins, the rush? Yeah…you people are a little weird.
And how many of 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 this: would you still do it if it turned out that exercise had absolutely no effect on your overall health or well-being?
If it turned out that exercise wasn’t actually any better for you then, say, lying on the couch and eating ice cream out of a carton while binge watching Netflix, would you still do it? I’m not sure I would.
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 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 taxes this year because, I don’t know, you’re just special or something, would you kick in a few hundred bucks 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? Anyone? Bueller? Or do you go because you value good oral hygiene?
Maybe you see where I’m going with this. There are some things we do in life – things like cleaning out the fridge, changing the oil in the car, eating 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?
Well, I want you to keep that in mind 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 seem.
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 hanging 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 his first warning caused Peter to react rather poorly. He was so upset by the idea that Jesus might lose that Peter rebuked Jesus. Anyone remember what Jesus said to Peter? “Get Thee behind me Satan.” Yeah. Bet that was awkward.
Then Jesus called everyone together and said, if any of you want to become my followers, you need to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.
A few verses later, Jesus starts up again with the whole Son of Man being betrayed and killed theme. This time the disciples simply tune him out the better to argue amongst themselves about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus confronts them 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 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. They just 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? I mean keep up.
And yet asking for some assurance, expecting some reward, wanting 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. The gospel as most people hear it is basically pay now so you don’t need to pay later. Live a life of pious self-sacrifice and rigorous self-discipline on earth 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. We don’t need to earn it. All we need to do is live into it – love as we have been loved, forgive as we have been forgiven, give to others as God has given to us – and we will see heaven break forth all around us.
It would seem that James and John still don’t get this, though. They are still operating on some sort of merit system. They are in this for the reward, but notice that Jesus 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.” 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.”
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, any more than ours is. Jesus’ glory was revealed on the cross. Jesus’ glory was revealed 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 while he hung there? 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 incredibly precious.
Recognizing their courage and their desire to do what is right even if their motives are still all 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 following in the way of Jesus, living like Jesus, giving, loving, and dying like Jesus, 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 usher you through the pearly gates of heaven.
I think most of you understand that the point of following Jesus is not to get into heaven when you die, but to bring heaven to earth while you still live.
And if you were paying attention during the Be the Change Moment, you may have even gotten a glimpse of this heaven Jesus promised us. I know I did.
In fact, one of the best parts of being your pastor these past few months has been hearing the stories of the circle of care and watching the faces of circle members as they share the latest news.
I mean sure, when you talk with anyone who has had the privilege of working with the Jumapili family, it’s obvious that time and money and effort have been spent. It is clear that the members of the circle have poured themselves out in extraordinary ways in order to help. But that’s never the point of any of their stories.
It’s not about what they’ve given, it’s about what they’ve received as they’ve watched the family settle into a house they can call home.
It’s about the joy they have felt as they’ve watched the kids learn to ride bikes or the mothers learn to sew. It’s about the pride and solidarity they’ve experienced as members of the family have gained independence by learning to navigate the bus system or the Survival Center or the English language.
Every little triumph, every gift, every resource has felt like a miracle straight from God as people have come together, stretched, and sacrificed to go the extra mile for this family.
Make no mistake, these are stories of heaven breaking through. Marti Catugno wrote to tell me how much she enjoys playing with the children:
“They don’t speak English, but it’s fun to teach them by reading, and talking to them about the toys they choose to play with. Language is not a barrier for us.” That’s heaven.
I wish I could show you some of the pictures the circle has shared with me- because it’s not just the smiles of the family that catch your attention, it’s the smiles of the circle members. The light of joy on Patti’s face as she’s playing mini golf with Samir. The look of concentration on Peter’s face as he’s teaching the family to use the remote on the new TV he has somehow procured.
You can see in those moments that there is no where else in the world they would rather be; nothing else they’d rather be doing.
These are stories of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. These are stories that affirm the truth of Christ’s gospel – the kingdom of God is at hand and we can be a part of it right here, right now.
Exercise, taxes, the dentist – there are some things you need to do in the present for your own good down the road. But loving God and one another, doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do, we don’t need to do those things to get God to love us more or reward us when we die.
We do them because in the doing we find that we love God and one another more, and that love … that love flowing through us and around us, binding us together in hope and community, experiencing that love right here, right now… that love is the greatest reward of all.
I think most of you get that. Maybe not all of you, not yet, but keep following in the way of Jesus, keep loving as you have been loved and giving as you have been given 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. He 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!”