Homily for November 1, 2009 — Pentecost 22




Readings: Job 38:1-7, (34-41) Hebrews 5:1-10 Mark 10:35-45 James 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.” 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.” But 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?” They 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; but 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.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So 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. 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 a ransom for many.”



People sometimes have the impression that clergy and other committed Christians somehow walk through life impervious to reality – that they are above it all somehow.   Many are shocked to learn that even stellar Christians like Mother Teresa have periods of struggle and doubt.  Christians are as familiar with failure and futility as most people, and today’s Gospel reveals something important about the spiritual journey: a) that it necessarily involves facing into life’s most difficult questions, and b) that is not an easy process. 


The “spiritual” life is not just filled with blissful certainties but also the most painful and critical questions – questions about life and death for sure, but also questions about personal survival — the life of the soul; questions about the apparent injustices and inconsistencies of life; questions about innocent suffering. Any genuine spiritual journey must expose us to our dark side, not just what we want to see.


“James 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.’” The background to today’s Gospel reading is that Jesus has let the disciples know he is about to proceed to Jerusalem, and he has predicted that he will be accused, arrested, and executed.  This information has been percolating, stewing, among the disciples ever since that moment.  You can imagine their position – giving up several years of their lives in following this teacher, this “way” – and then being informed it doesn’t lead to a positive outcome, but instead leads to rejection, violence, and death.  If Martin Luther King had told his followers that is where his life was inevitably leading, no doubt many would have abandoned him. So in today’s Gospel the lid comes off.  The disciples have held off as long as they can, and in their anxiety two of them finally spew out what has been on their minds, and eating at their gut, for some time:  “What’s in it for me?  Where’s my reward?”   It’s an honest enough question.


“When the other ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” No kidding!  The demand by James and John to be placed either side of the throne of the cosmos is selfish to the point of ridiculous, and betrays everything Jesus has been teaching them.  But I wonder if what was going on with the disciples isn’t part of what is going on today, in our modern psyche.  When people are convinced they need to be in personal survival mode, love of neighbour goes out the window – it becomes “all about me.”


Much spirituality today is about escapism – the search for warm and fuzzy experiences, the desire to be protected from reality.  “Beam me up, Scottie!”  “Serenity Now!”  — these are TV expressions of the same basic desire – to escape, to be exempt — the desire to be connected to a higher power that magically removes us from danger.  Such people don’t want to go on an adventure.  They want God to keep them wrapped up and safe like a baby.  They want security and certainty.  Many people become deeply disillusioned when their spiritual life doesn’t seem to deliver.  They pray fervently but don’t win the lottery; they profess faith in God but their physical setbacks don’t go away; they don’t get the insight and power and acclaim that they hoped being spiritual would bring them.  And questions – sometimes very angry, sarcastic questions  — begin to arise: Where is God?  Why can’t we just escape suffering? Why are such trials not just done away with, if God truly cares?  Why me?   Read the Book of Psalms – it’s full of questions just like that.  These are the kinds of questions the Book of Job raises – 268 questions in total, if my count is correct. 


A poet by the name of Rainer Maria Rilke said this: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”


In a movie called “Click,” the lead character (played by Adam Sandler) finds a way to click a “fast forward” button through parts of his life he wants to avoid.  You can avoid the tough questions of course – “ignorance is bliss,” as George Orwell once said.  But in the Church, right from the beginning, right from the moment of Baptism, we inform people that the genuine spiritual life is not just a magical guarantee of protection and safety – it’s about entering life and death, it’s about embracing the fullness and the paradox of human being, or being human.


“Faith is not ice cream,” as one recent youth conference suggests.  St. Teresa of Avila was apparently big on keeping her novices balanced.  If one of her nuns started to become preoccupied about having spiritual experiences, Teresa put her to work in the kitchen!  It was a way of keeping people balanced, grounded and humble, and avoiding spirituality as a form of self-indulgence or grandiosity, and Teresa, already a famous person, herself took a regular turn in the kitchen.


Every major spiritual tradition warns of the danger of allowing the ego to dictate the terms of our life, and the need to get past the mere compulsion to survive.  So generally there is a summons to die (figuratively, of course) – to die to an aspect or limited definition of yourself – to take the risk of letting go of childish insecurities and demands — so a deeper and truer self (often called the soul) can emerge. It’s never just a question of: “What’s in it for me?”


“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.’” Today’s Gospel seems to offer a warning: If your expectation in following the way of Jesus is that you will end up with a place at the right hand of God, i.e., in a special, exalted place, you might want to re-examine your motivations. I have encountered so many people who have abandoned the Christian path and left parishes, often saying, “It’s just not doing anything for me.”  Christianity won’t do anything for you if your aim is just to suck on life like you’re some kind of parasite.  Life gets ugly and unbalanced when too many people forget that the human equation involves giving as well as taking, serving as well as being served, and loving as well as being loved.  Case in point: in North America we have only 5% of the world’s population, and we consume 75% of the world’s resources, but a helpful book called The Secret will help you tip the scales even more in your own direction, so you can gouge even more out of life!


The Bible suggests that if your belief is that God will shower you with material goods and give you a life totally impervious to reality, take a look at the struggles of Job, who lost everything and yet chose to struggle through to a new vision, a new sense of perspective and direction in life.  Job goes through all this terrible stuff – death and loss of health and status; he goes through the painful stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance — and persists in demanding a face-to-face with God.  He has a lot of questions.  Yet when he finally does encounter God, what he gets is a face-full of questions. 


More questions!  But the answer must be that somehow suffering and challenges are part of our progress, a necessary part of the journey, and the moral of the story is that Job emerges from his dark night of suffering, confusion and questioning refined, renewed, wiser, closer to God, and more human.  His facile spirituality of success has been replaced by something deeper, much more meaningful and rewarding.  Ironically, as the story points out, Job ends up a better human being because of what he has suffered.  New life has emerged that would not have been possible if he had just quit, walked away, and not had the courage to stand up and engage the dark side.


Faith is not about gaining mathematical certainty or a way of contriving your future.  The spiritual journey would be cheating us if it removed a sense of adventure or risk – making our actions meaningless because they have no real consequences. 


The Good News is that suffering can be a redemptive process, but it depends on how we choose to receive it.  The Good News is that we can come up against even death and not be destroyed by it.  The Good News is that we always have before us a choice about how we approach it, and the answer is not always obvious – walking that path requires a mature faith.  Job walked that path, and Jesus walked that path; the disciples did too, eventually.   To live the questions is to accept living with uncertainty and paradox.  It is to let go of the fantasy of control, and of the world being centred upon ourselves, and instead endeavouring to discover the true centre and core of life.


We have to give people permission to struggle – to fall – to come up against the paradoxes and ambiguities and bloody frustrations of life and to ask their questions.  And I believe a significant value of a faith community is to give people a place where belonging means we can live our questions together.  I like to think that when you come to a church you find a group of people who get that – who have made a commitment to journey together — who are committed to working together – working through differences – to find common cause, common ground – to support each other through the realities of life and death – rather than attempting to live some pretend, make-believe life of perfection and comfort.


Living the questions means accepting the fact that living involves uncertainty and paradox.  Helping people find reasons to persist in hope, and stay the course, trusting that some deeper wisdom and insight will emerge, as Job did, is what Jesus urges upon his own followers.  Job’s friends and community proved to be a dead loss at a time of critical need.  I hope when people come to church that will find people who will be present to them and offer encouragement, without avoiding their struggle or their pain by hiding behind religious formulas and simplistic solutions.


(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers