October 18, 2015 – The Rev. James Richardson

This morning we are back on the road with Jesus and the disciples. Everyone is walking and talking all at the same time.

The story begins with two self-absorbed disciples, almost comically asking Jesus for the best seats in the house in heaven.

They are so wrapped up in their worries about the hereafter they are forgetting the here-and-now.

The story ends with Jesus talking about his own death as a “ransom for many.” He is already in the hereafter.

In between, Jesus tries valiantly to explain a new way of life – a life based not on having the best seat or the fanciest title, but a life based on generosity and self-sacrifice.

There is a lot to take in here. So let’s slow down the walking and talking a little.

Jesus is describing the arc of life: We enter this world with nothing, naked, completely dependent on others. And we leave this world in exactly the same condition.

In between, we can accumulate possessions and status, but we can’t take it with us. We all know that, don’t we?

So it is perhaps easy to laugh at James and John, these sons of Zebedee. Don’t they get this?

Maybe they do. Maybe they get this all too well and that is what is worrying them.

If we live long enough, we will accumulate not just things, but we will accumulate wounds and hurts. Life does not always work out the way we planned or hoped.

And so I would ask for a little sympathy for these two dear sons of Zebedee – they are wrestling with life’s uncertainties.

They are, in fact, wrestling with God.

Indeed, the Bible is it the story of the wrestling match between God and humanity. God is present with us, but God can seem very distant.

God is both present and far, and we get a full dose of this paradox in the biblical lessons not only today, but all month.

Last week, we recited Psalm 22, this great lament about the empty feeling when God seems absent. “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

If you’ve ever felt that way, you are not the first and you are not alone.

We get another dose of God’s inscrutability in the Book of Job today.

Job, who has had his fill of platitudes, wants to know why there is suffering. Don’t tell me there is a plan; if there is, it is a lousy plan.

God answers you cannot know why. It is not a satisfying answer.

The sons of Zebadee are coming at this from a different direction, but their question is the same.

They are saying, in effect, life here is not so easy, so we want to know how heaven is going to be better.

Give us the season tickets with the best seats in the house in eternity, they say.

But Jesus is offering a much more radical notion. Eternity will take care of itself. God loves you no matter what you’ve done or not done. You cannot earn your way to heaven. Eternity is there for as God’s gift of grace, freely given.

And Jesus goes one more step:

If we truly know this about God’s gift of eternity – if we truly absorb this – we will live by showing with our words and actions that eternity is a promise for us to share with others.

And that is what James and John – and maybe all of us – have a hard time getting our minds around.

James and John are paralyzed by their own anxiety. They begin to worry about things that don’t matter – like their rank.

But Jesus is offering a new way of life based not on rank or cast, wealth or privilege.

Jesus is not describing season tickets at the end of life, but a way of life that begins now.

Jesus is offering a way of life that opens us to experiencing God’s kingdom bursting forth around us, and within us. That sometimes takes courage.

Bishop Beisner yesterday talked about how the more some says have courage, the more we are filled with anxiety.

Bishop Beisner talked about the parallel for this parish with the Old Testament story where the people of God have wandered in the wilderness and are now on the edge of the promised land.

But they still don’t know where they are going – and they cannot quite yet know. Like them, we don’t quite yet know the way either.

How can we know?

I would suggest it starts by being open to the compassionate center within ourselves.

The heart of God’s soul is compassion. God invites us to find our soul deep within the heart of God’s compassion for us.

Jesus tells his bickering disciples how to find this, and it is really quite simple:

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”

The greatest among you is not the one who lives a pure unblemished life.

The greatest among you is not the one who has risen to the most exalted rank in the church, or in politics, or business, or is the most fabulous movie star in the world.

The greatest among you is the one who serves.

Being a servant requires taking chances. It takes being vulnerable to the idea that God’s abundance is everywhere, and it is ours to share extravagantly, with compassion.

We do this here with Open Table, feeding people who live on the streets.

And we do this with our Sunday school programs for children.

We are doing this in new ways, too. Recently, a group of people in our church began baking bread for our Holy Communion at 9:15 and 11:15 am.

I was talking to one of our new bread bakers the other evening, and she told me she fills every piece of bread with prayer as she makes the dough.

Hers is gift of compassion to this community, and I hope you will enjoy it in this spirit.

Know this too: Our compassion will transform not only others, but ourselves.

I hope each of us will find ways to serve through our giving compassionately, including giving to this this church with our time, your talent, and our financial resources.

I hope you will give generously, but not because it will make this church bigger or more important.

Rather, I hope you will give because it is how we bring alive God’s kingdom of compassion.

At the start, I mentioned how this lesson ends with Jesus declaring his ultimate act of compassion is to give his life “as a ransom for many.”

He is talking of the cold, hard fact of the Cross.

Jesus goes to the Cross as his supreme act of divine compassion by sharing fully with us in the hardest, cruelest, coldest places of life and death.

For Jesus to be truly divine is to be there with us, not as a God in the clouds, but as a servant on the same rocky ground with us.

Jesus goes to the Cross so that he might even be with us in those places where God feels distant from us.

Ultimately, Jesus goes to the Cross to show us the path beyond the crosses, to show us the places of healing and new life – and to show us how to live fully as God would have us be, with compassion, courage and generosity – now and forever. AMEN