Change Your Question – Change Your Life, Pentecost 22 (B) – October 21, 2018

Proper 24

[RCL]: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45 

Here they come: the Zebedee boys. In fact, you can see them coming. They’ve been shopping at Men’s Wearhouse, and they like how they look. They flash whitened smiles, they’ve got just enough grey around the temples to look experienced but not tired; enough tan to look sporty, not like they have to earn a living out of doors. They sidle up to Jesus. “Hey Jesus, can we speak with you in private, just for a moment?” They want to get him alone, out of earshot of the rest of the disciples, because they want something and they’re smart enough to know the others might not appreciate the deal they want to cut with the Lord.

“We’re close, right? Friends?” we can hear them saying. “We’ve had some special times together, you and us, right?” They don’t beat around the bush as they jockey for favor from the Lord. They come right to the point. They are ambitious for the top spots. The Zebedee Brothers want to be co-CEOs of the new Church. They want the cushy corner office with the great view. Toss in a country club membership or, better still for two former fishermen, a mooring at the Galilee Yacht Club. They want the top cabinet posts in Jesus’ administration. They want to give orders, not take them; ask the questions, not answer them.

If this caricature seems a bit caustic, then it captures the tone of the Gospel reading for today. But before we distance ourselves from the Zebedee boys too quickly, it’s worth considering that the reason the church saved this little story of big embarrassment for the disciples is that Jesus knows we all have a little Zebedee in us.

Maybe we don’t aim as high as they in wanting to be at Christ’s right and left hand in his glory, but maybe we do share something of their approach to life.

There has been a lot written about mission statements as a way to guide us as we go through life, about how as groups or as individuals, we can use mission statements to help us set priorities, to keep focus on what really matters most to us.

I think there is also such a thing as a mission question—a mission question that sums up our approach to life. And just like a mission statement, a mission question can guide, for better or worse, how we live our lives. When looking at James and John, we can surmise the question that guides their lives, that leads them into this embarrassing muscling-in on Jesus to ask for special status. Their mission question is, “What’s in it for me?”

Today’s scene is not just embarrassing, it’s heartbreaking, because we’ve seen how James and John left their fishing business and their father to follow Jesus. We’ve seen that they have sacrificed a lot to continue with Jesus down this road of discipleship. But today we see that ugly question, rearing its self-centered head: what’s in it for me?

Now James and John are on the right track in that they do have faith in Jesus’ victory. Even though Jesus has been saying all these strange things, like “the first shall be last and the last first,” and “become like a child,” and “those who are great must be servants,” they have faith that Jesus is actually a good leader, a man with great potential for power. Even though, like the rest of the disciples, they often don’t get what he’s saying, they think he’s the one to back, he’s the candidate who is going to come out on top. They think, even though some of his teachings are pretty upside-down and idealistic, Jesus will be glorified, and they want to be there when it happens, on his right and on his left. They’re willing to follow Jesus because they want to back a winner. And if Jesus is a winner, then maybe some of his prestige and power will trickle down to them. They’re approaching discipleship from this angle: what’s in it for me?

The sons of Zebedee don’t realize Jesus’ talk about service as a way of life, of the abundance that comes from being emptied out, of the security that comes from loosening your grasp on things and power and allowing yourself instead to be grasped by God, is not merely a means to an end. They don’t realize the irony, that if you can give up that question – what’s in it for me? – and instead serve, you will have an abundant, worthwhile, meaningful life. By giving up the question, what’s in it for me?, you’ll get more than you ever dreamed.

Jesus teaches and serves and lives and dies and is raised again for this truth: serving others is powerful. Giving up yourself for another, being emptied out in love is abundant life. But to find your way to these rewards, you have to stop asking the question, What’s in it for me?

What’s in it for me? It’s the question that turns friendships sour when you realize that someone seems only to take and never to give. It’s the question that reveals itself when in the midst of a project the going gets rough, the rewards seem far away, and the thanks even farther, and people originally onboard drift away. When the answer to the question, what’s in it for me?, seems to be less and less clear, so does their commitment. It’s the question that reveals itself when people come to any church as consumers, not worshippers, not servants, looking only for what we can get out of it, not what we might put in, not what God might get out of it through our efforts to be attentive and present in prayer and praise, for just a little while once a week. What’s in it for me? It’s a human question, one that we all ask at some time or another.

Even in our Gospel lesson, the sons of Zebedee are not alone. When the other disciples hear that James and John have put themselves above their peers, they run up to Jesus too. They’re angry. They’re mad. And not because they see that James and John have misunderstood. They’re mad because they didn’t think of it first. They’re angry because they think of power the way the world thinks of power – as something that’s yours if you take it, if you’re the strongest, swiftest, most politically savvy, most well-connected. They think there’s only so much to go around, and those sneaky little Zebedee brothers have gone ahead and grabbed the power first.

But Jesus doesn’t give up on his disciples. Jesus sees beyond all of this. Maybe he could see them as they would become, filled with the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, transformed into courageous witnesses whose dreams of greatness, whose what’s in it for me? attitude had been replaced by the humble goal of serving the Lord they love. Perhaps he could see that someday they would stop asking, what’s in it for me? and start asking the other question in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ question: What is it you want me to do for you?

At first glance, we may imagine Jesus asking this question in frustration. He asks it, after all, just after the Zebedee boys have come up to him and demanded that he say yes, even before they tell him what their demand is: “What is it you want me to do for you?” But this is the question Jesus always asks. Not to step on the toes of next week’s sermon, but we’ll hear Jesus ask it again in next week’s gospel when he’ll ask a blind beggar, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And the man will ask for healing. This is Jesus’ question for all who come to him. This is Jesus’ open, vulnerable mission question – a question that guides his life of service, of his willingness to meet us where we are, to allow us the freedom to tell him what we really want. This means sometimes that Jesus hears requests like James’ and John’s – requests that sound more like a child’s immature grasping – gimme, gimme, gimme. And sometimes, Jesus hears the honest response of those who know that Jesus is our only hope: requests for healing, forgiveness, a second or third or fourth chance, a chance to try again, a chance to come before Jesus empty-handed and say, “Lord have mercy, Lord, let me know your grace and love.”

A task for those who would follow Jesus is to allow Jesus to transform our questions so that we are people who ask not, “What’s in it for me?” but, “Jesus, what is it you want me to do for you?” And be brave enough to listen for Jesus’ answer and open to receive its rewards.

When your question is, “What can I do for you?”, when you concentrate mainly on what you can put into church in the way of personal work and prayer and participation, you feel that you receive even more than you give. You find that service can be challenging, but it also brings deep joy. Service can be demanding, but it also brings pleasure and contentment and hope.

Jesus comes to us and asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” May Jesus heal and transform us so that we might ask the same of him and be brave enough to listen to the answer.  Amen.

The Rev. Amy Richter, Ph.D., is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. She and Joseph Pagano, her husband, teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. She and Joe have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 22 (B).

Drink the Cup Jesus Drinks, Proper 24(B) – 2015

[RCL] Psalm 104:1-9,25,37b; Job 38:1-7,(34-41); Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

One remarkable thing about a lot of Christians is the way they approach the world and one another. There is a quiet reserve, a sense of hospitality and genuine submission to one another. People who observe this often mistake it for weakness, but it is a genuine behavior marked by love and concern for the other. That is because Christians who practice their faith and heed the teachings of Scripture do amend their ways over time.

In today’s Hebrew scripture and Gospel readings there is a theme of submission that is easily ignored in our culture of strong egos and competition. We begin with Job’s encounter with God. Job’s friends are debating why such suffering has been inflicted upon him. Job has lost his family, his cattle and land and has suffered impoverishment and illness. They finally conclude there is no answer except that God is “great in power and justice.”

Then God himself answers Job out of the whirlwind in some of the most majestic poetry in Scripture. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38 vss. 4-7 NRSV)

This is grandeur on a scale of which we need to be reminded. We often personalize God and reduce God’s image to that of benevolent teddy bear who gives us warm hugs. This God is no teddy; and Job is swept up in the presence of the God of creation resulting in his own humbling submission.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is confronted with a request: James and John want to join him as a power triumvirate in heaven. They presume their friendship and respect for him comes with a reward, and they want to lock it in while things are going well. Jesus’ response is to use their request as a teaching moment for his disciples and each of us: “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.” (Mark 10:38-40 NRSV)

So, Job and James and John are looking at things the way we often do. They tend to see God as someone to be placated either through worship, obedience or honorifics, but they expect something in return. In Job’s case, he gets unmitigated suffering and loss. James and John are also warned that the cup of suffering will be theirs. Okay, so who signs on for that?

Well, many do. There are Christians throughout the world that have embraced the God of the whirlwind and have accepted the cup of suffering. Desmond Tutu comes to mind as one who could have simply held the positions of Bishop of Johannesburg and then Archbishop of Capetown with their status and privilege. Instead he used those offices and his Nobel Prize to challenge the evil of apartheid, risking his own life because he knew, loved and served a God who was above and beyond all earthly powers.

Carl is a man who had a successful career as a consultant. After his retirement he continued to attend his church, but he also devoted his time to finding out who were the poor in his community and bringing people together to help serve them. He helped organize weekly suppers for everybody at his church with meals supplied by local restaurants. He created new community where people from the neighborhood and all walks of life met for food and fellowship. He also organized a successful program that began providing food on the weekends for children in need. Now afflicted with a serious illness, he and his wife continue to remain interested and concerned about others.

These examples of Christians who are willing to drink the cup Jesus drinks are our guides to Christian living. They know what truly matters to God and they are at work in the world without care about their place or prominence in the Kingdom of God.

The readings today help us focus on the question of what God expects of us, and how we are loved by God. The teddy bear hugs are replaced with leadership for true and laudable service to one another, especially the stranger, the poor and the needy. When we behave as people of God on a mission, little else matters.

Download the Sermon for Proper 24B.

Written by The Rev. Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Arkansas.

God will not let us go, 21 Pentecost, Proper 24 (B) – October 21, 2012

Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

In the portion of Mark’s gospel that we heard today, James and John the Sons of Zebedee, who had given up the family fishing business to follow Jesus, come to him asking to be seated on his left and his right when he comes into his glory. It appears that James and John are simply making a power play. It seems like yet another story in which the disciples appear clueless, unable to comprehend the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has for a third time predicted his suffering and death, yet James and John are applying for leadership positions in the new regime. It certainly looks like blind ambition on their part.

However, as Charles Campbell, professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, points out, just a few verses before this story, Mark writes that the disciples were afraid. That sheds new light. What if James and John merely want a secure future? What if they just want some assurance, amidst Jesus’ predictions of suffering and death that everything will be all right? What if they are simply afraid?

We can identify with the disciples’ fear quite easily. We have made some frightening decisions as a nation for the sake of “security” in the last decade. Fear is a powerful emotion that can cause us to forget our compassion and ramp up our judgment. Fear can paralyze us into inaction, and tempt us to quit. As we sit here in a culture increasingly less interested in organized religion, it can be easy to fear for the future of our parish, our neighborhood and our town. Can we really blame James and John for wanting just a little assurance that things will work out?

Jesus’ response to them is that they will drink of the cup he drinks and be baptized with the same baptism. This is to say that they will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with them. Jesus will be with them no matter what. There are some out there who believe that if you just follow the rules (whatever rules that particular person holds dear) you will never experience pain. That thinking is wrong, harmful and dangerous. Jesus was God’s own son and he wound up dying on a cross. Who are we to think that our fate will be better?

In our reading from Hebrews this morning we heard, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The writer of Hebrews is lifting Jesus up as an example for us to follow. We are to follow Christ into submission. Now, submission is not a popular word in our culture. We prefer phrases like, “No retreat, no surrender,” “Never back down,” “Stand on your own two feet” and “Pull yourself up.” Our understanding of toughness is not faith in God, not trusting in God’s presence or providence; rather it is of the quarterback who leads the fourth-quarter comeback with a broken nose, or the cowboy who fights despite being outnumbered, out-gunned and injured. We don’t like “loud cries and tears.” We like “Suck it up.”

But as Christians, as followers of the one who submitted not just to being human, but to the cross, we are called to enter into pain and suffering, grief and loss, to be present with each other just as God is present with us. To do that, to practice that ministry of presence both with our own pain and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, requires that we surrender our self-confidence, our self-reliance, our independence, and submit to confidence in God, reliance upon God and interdependence with each other.

In 1896, Judson W.V. DeVenter, wrote the lyrics of the classic hymn “I surrender all”:

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

DeVenter said that this hymn came about as he struggled to find his path, whether to serve his gifts for the arts or to become an evangelist. When he finally submitted not to his desires but to God’s will, he explained that a whole world opened to him. It is a mystery of the faith that to lose one’s life is to gain it.

This is a hard task. Submission is not popular. But it is in submission that Christ found his glory. Following the path of Christ will have both joy and pain, suffering and exaltation. Jesus, God’s own son, the one whom we came to know as God incarnate, God made flesh, died on a cross. God refused to be separated from humanity, separated from us. So God became one of us and lived among us and even suffered and died because of us. The testimony of the cross is that even in our darkest hour, even when it appears all hope is lost, even when we the fear threatens to cripple us, God is with us.

We should never limit God. Indeed, God is with us in our darkest hours in a multitude of ways. However, the one way we experience God among us the most is through the Body of Christ. That is the people gathered to worship God, to come to this table and receive the Body of Christ so that we can be the Body of Christ.

It is through us that God is with us. It is through us that God acts to hold us together. It is through us that God will not let us go. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God will not let us go. No matter what may come, we will be present for each other, we will be the body of Christ for each other. We will share the love of God each and every day just as we share it here in this house of worship. Come to the feast. Come to God’s table. Come to the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Receive the body and blood of the crucified God. Then go out into the world a fed and renewed people, emboldened and empowered to serve our Lord. Go out into the world as the Body of Christ to seek and serve all people in the name of Jesus. Go out into the world and heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort those who morn, free the captives, and let all the world know that the love of God cannot be defeated.

God will not let us go. Amen!


— Father Jason Emerson is the rector of the Church of the Resurrection and the director of Resurrection House in Omaha, Neb. He and his wife Jodie are the proud parents of 2-year-old, red-headed twins.

God saved us to be servants, Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 24 (B) – October 18, 2009

(RCL) Job 38:1-7, (34-41) and Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37c (Track 2: Isaiah 53:4-12 and Psalm 91:9-16); Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

James Hewett writes, “God did not save us to be a sensation. God saved us to be servants.”

Today’s gospel reading provides a remarkable contrast between sensation and servant. In this reading we hear the story of two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, who make the request to Jesus to receive a position of prominence in the Kingdom: “Let one of us sit at your right, and one at your left in Glory” they ask of Jesus. The disciples’ impudence and lack of understanding is beyond belief. How could two people who are so close to Jesus miss the boat so completely? Did they forget the encounter with the rich man that occurred just before their request? Or the encounter with the little children? And have they not heard Jesus’ own prediction of what was soon to happen to him? In light of all of this, their request is truly astounding.

And it angers their fellow disciples. But what seems to anger the other disciples is not so much that James and John have misunderstood Jesus’ teachings – which could perhaps be justified – but that James and John went to Jesus requesting a place of power ahead of the rest of them. The other disciples do not seem to be acting out of righteous indignation; rather, it appears that they are jealous. And Jesus’ loving response to them all is to take the opportunity to contrast earthly greatness with divine greatness. Earthly greatness is defined as having power over, whereas divine greatness is defined as being servant to.

Today there are examples all around us of the secular quest for greatness and its often accompanying spectacular fall. Bernie Madoff is an obvious example of the quest for monetary power, but our country’s growing credit-card debt hints at how widespread the problem is.

In contrast to worldly greatness, to be great in God’s eyes is to be a servant modeled after Jesus’ own life of service. For many listeners, the story of James and John is disconcerting because if James and John, who knew Jesus personally, couldn’t incorporate his teachings into their lives, how on earth are we to do so?

These stories are a reminder for many of us that, try as we might, all too often our actions are more reflective of motivations of the secular world than the divine.

So how do we become better servants?

One way is by making sure that the motivation for our service is love. Eighteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Secker said, “God has three sorts of servants in the world: some are slaves, and serve Him from fear; others are hirelings, and serve for wages; and the last are sons [and daughters], who serve because they love.”

In the week ahead, as you seek to serve God, check your motivation. Divine servanthood is always motivated by love.

Another way to become better servants is by being mindful of who it is that calls us to serve. We should remember that in all things we serve God, and God alone. By becoming more aware of God’s presence in everyday life, we can strive to understand that all we do is somehow of God. With this approach, even the most mundane tasks that might not usually be associated with our spiritual lives can be viewed as service.

One young mother recalls her difficult transition from paid employment to being a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her first child. A spiritual director assisted her in the process, instructing her to walk with the baby each day, being acutely aware of her surroundings and being alert to where God might be. She recalls seeing nature and the created order, as well as the frenetic pace of those around her, in a new way during these walks. She also began to see her tasks, such as the endless piles of laundry that had to be washed, as a service of love.

A third way to become better servants is by ensuring that our church is a “servant church.” Theologian Karl Barth discusses such churches in his book Dogmatics in Outline. Barth describes the living church as one that:

“proclaims the Gospel to every creature. The Church runs like a herald to deliver the message. It is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it that only now and then it sticks out its feelers and then thinks that the claim of publicity has been satisfied. No, the Church lives by its commission as herald. Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself.”

Is your congregation a living servant church? Does it have a clear understanding that it exists in service to Jesus? Do all actions stem from Jesus’ commission to proclaim the gospel? Do worship services, community outreach, and activities all have the possibility to transform those they touch? If not, then perhaps it might be time to begin a conversation about refocusing on Christ’s divine purpose for your congregation, because, after all, the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ.

The story of James and John is disconcerting because even the most pious listeners can see a bit of themselves in the story. How many of us are able to truly base our lives and actions on the divine definition of greatness – servanthood?

Fortunately, this story closes with a message of hope. Jesus proclaims that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus promises us that although we will all fall short, through his death we are redeemed.

And that is the Good News.


— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small-church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

Jesus tells us that our baptisms have given us power, 20 Pentecost, Proper 24 (B) – 2006

October 22, 2006

(RCL) Job 38:1-7, (34-41) or Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16 or 104:1-9, 25, 37c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45 

Sounds like the office doesn’t it? Two up-and-coming members of the team take the boss aside and ask to be made vice presidents. Maybe they thought Jesus had an easy time talking, healing, and feeding. People often assume that a genius is someone who does things without much effort at all. It just happens. They forget that genius is “ten percent inspiration, and ninety percent perspiration.”

Following a great woman or man can be exhilarating. The roar of the crowd, preferential treatment, and adulation rubs off on those who walk in the shadow of the great. This even happens in the church. We’ve all met people who get their excitement and empowerment by being on the vestry or controlling a committee. They see themselves as special, licensed to get away with behavior that would not be tolerated at home or at work.

Jesus’ answer to these two disciples is ironic, perhaps even a little sarcastic. These brothers, nicknamed the “the sons of thunder,” were into power. They wanted Jesus to call down thunderbolts on a group of seemingly disrespectful people. Now they wanted a share of the power Jesus seemed to exercise.

Jesus assures them that they will share his ministry to the full. They will be baptized as he was baptized and drink of the cup from which he will drink.

When the other disciples hear of all this, they are annoyed. Whether their annoyance is at the brothers’ temerity, or whether they had hoped to make a similar request, we are not quite sure. In any event, Jesus goes on to give power a new meaning.

It is important for us all to remember that there is a Christian vocabulary suited for Christian living. More often than not we get into trouble when we give a word its secular meaning when we are supposed to be talking Kingdom language. “Power” is one of those words. Instinctively we translate the word “power” into “force,” or “dominance,” or “oppression.”

On the other hand, using the vocabulary of the world, we translate “servant” or “slave” as one who is oppressed and down-trodden. I’m sure the first Christians had the same trouble. But if we get the vocabulary wrong, we often find ourselves asking for the same sort of “justice” James and John sought. We seek empowerment.

Jesus tells us that our baptisms have given us power — dynamic power — power enough to lay down our lives, and if it is our lot, die for the Gospel and die for the Church. Jesus tells us that the cup we drink, the bread we consume, gives us the strength and fortitude to be servant-leaders, of which the diaconate is the example-ministry.

Surely that’s not the deal, is it? But Jesus tells us that servanthood, slavery, is exactly the deal.

Elsewhere Jesus tells us that if we want to save our lives, make something of our lives, exist to live, to be recognized, to succeed, we will die. Our only hope is to walk the way of the cross, dying in order that we may live. The strength of the church is in mutual self-offering in Christ for the life of the world.

The death of the church, at least from our point of view, is when we all seek the things we want — even if they are good, and caring, and virtuous, of great help to the boss — and thereby lose the courage to die, to let go, to offer up. Perhaps we need to re-learn that lesson; to offer up and let go of our most cherished passions and causes, trusting that God will see these things through the death of sacrifice, and restore them in his good time, and in his good way, shaped now into his will.


— The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, West Virginia.