21 Pentecost Proper 24: Is 53: 4-12; Ps 91:9-16; Hb 5: 1-10; Mk 10: 35-45
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, October 18, 2015
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.
I used to wrestle with my intercessory prayer life. Not because I didn’t think Jesus would answer my prayers or even that he wouldn’t answer my prayers. Nor was it about humility or pride, whether or not I should ask, whether or not I was worthy enough to ask. Nor was it altruistic in the sense that I wasn’t sure what the best outcome would be, so I didn’t want to pray for something that wouldn’t serve God’s purposes. It was none of these things that caused me to wrestle with intercessory prayer. My concerns stemmed from whether or not I should be asking for particular things. God knows best, who am I to challenge him or suggest that my way might be better than his.
Its funny the way I posture with God and the way I act with other people are different ends of the spectrum. At times, I find myself in situations where I do believe I know best”where I offer my opinion in a manner that reflects more than simple input, but as a self-assured expression of the right way to do something, a better way. It is often easy for me to command authority and I often use that ability in order to control a situation. But when it comes to Jesus I struggle with my prayers of request, offering a wishy-washy verbatim that feels false at best and trivial at worst.
When I worked for Hospice, I would often find myself praying for my patients at night, not asking boldly for a cure because I knew none was possible, but also not asking boldly for anything, instead simply saying, Lord, I pray for Mary Jane and her family. You know what they need. Over the years, I realized that those prayers were a bit cowardly. I was not using prayer as a way into deeper relationship with God, but I was using prayer to maintain a wall between myself and Mary Jane and her family. I was even using prayer to maintain a wall between God and myself. By not asking boldly what I wanted or what I perceived Mary Jane and her family wanted, I was removing myself from any vested interest in the outcome of my prayers. By not praying boldly for Mary Jane and her family and instead putting all the responsibility on God, I could appreciate any outcome as God’s will, accept any consequence as their fate, and not be held responsible for any direction the world might take. In essence, I was being complacent.
Yet Matthew tells us ask and it shall be given unto you and James says to not only ask, but ask boldly. I wasn’t asking boldly, I wasn’t asking at all. I was just mentioning some names and dumping their problems on God: that’s neither bold nor is it accepting God’s invitation to partner with him in his work in the world.
What a contrast to James and John. James and John not only ask boldly, they exude arrogance and ambition in the asking, so much so it angers the other disciples. But Jesus reacts neither to the arrogance nor the ambition that we attribute to their request. Jesus’s response is to hear them out, to listen to what they think they desire, to talk through their ambition, and then to offer a gentle affirmation and correction.
Every teacher knows this child, every boss knows this employee, every person knows this colleague”they are the ones who enter into a situation with unrealistic expectations of their work and of those around them. They are James and John Thunder, the Sons of Entitlement. The student and their parents expect an A on every project, test, or paper regardless of whether or not that project, test, or paper deserved an A. The employee thinks that just because they showed up they should be rewarded. It is the friend who expects that everyone else shift schedules around in order to fulfill the one person’s need or desire. And it is so much more. It is asking for the place of honor, taking the biggest piece of meat, walking through the door instead of opening it for others, the expectation that we should be given more because we deserve more. Entitlement, ambition and arrogance”this is what we hear from the sons of thunder today.
But where we seem to get frustrated with such callous ambition and arrogance, Jesus is unruffled by it. His response to James and John borders on pity; he offers a gentle corrective in the face of misinterpretation of the situation. James and John, and I bet the other disciples too, still seem to believe that Jesus’s mission on earth will end in glory on that same earth and maybe, maybe. But if its end is indeed in glory, it is glory on a cross and two thieves take the position of honor one at Jesus’s right hand and one at his left. Jesus seems to know this”he has just finished predicting his passion three times. The disciples don’t seem to get it yet, but they are learning. Jesus’s response to James and John is one of divine patience, not bitter disappointment. His response to the anger of the other ten reflects a divine response as well”to be great is not about having power over another through tyranny, but to serve, to be first is to be a slave to all. It is the divine As you wish response, not that you might have anything you want but that God will always respond in love even when we act like children in our arrogance and ambition, in our entitlement thinking.
It is easy for us to take that entitlement thinking, that arrogance and ambition, and demonize James and John. It is easy for us to look down on them and maybe even separate ourselves”we would never ask Jesus for that. But in so doing, we miss out on what really happens here. James and John are bold, sure they are misguided, but they are willing to partner with Jesus, do what it takes to receive the heavenly reward. To sit, one at Jesus’s right hand and one at his left, in his glory is to bask in the glory of God. Isn’t that what we want? These Sons of Thunder, Sons of entitlement, may not truly understand what they are asking of Jesus, but at least they are asking boldly to be a part of his kingdom, to partner with him in his work. They are willing to take on the responsibility of his call to follow him”they are willing to pray boldly, to act boldly”to drink from the cup Jesus will drink from and be baptized with the baptism he will be baptized with”not just identify some needs and then leave the details to Jesus. They are willing to ask for something, to do something”and this willingness seems to matter more to Jesus than the reasons behind their request.
Jesus engages this willingness through love and respect as a teacher who understands what they cannot understand, as a master who guides his apprentice toward greatness, as a mentor who nourishes through encouragement not belittlement. It is easy to demonize and begrudge ambition, but ambition when responded to appropriately can be refined, can be purified, can be redirected and change the world.
It is the lack of ambition, not misplaced ambition, which can contribute greater harm to the world. As Edmund Burke said, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Lack of ambition, the inability to ask boldly, is a complacency that allows mediocrity to take hold and the status quo to exist unchallenged. But to be ambitious, to embrace our Baptismal Covenant and respond with vigor, to ask boldly in our prayers and intercessions, no matter how misguided we may be, gives Jesus some room to work on us. It gives him something to mold and shape and redirect so that our focus and ambition is drawn toward the cross and not toward ourselves. It gives Jesus some room to help us learn to be servant and slave not tyrant and lord.
It is in the cross that we glory and it is in the cross that Jesus is glorified. It is in our ambition that we say, We are able, and through Jesus’s love that we are affirmed and our ambitions are redeemed. Amen.