sermon preached at Goodwin House, Bailey’s Crossroads, Falls Church, VA
by Josh Hosler, Chaplain Intern
The Feast of St. James, Apostle/ July 25, 2012
Our saint for today is the apostle James—St. James. James was one of the twelve, and we usually hear about him in the same breath as his brother John. Together with Peter, the three of them made up Jesus’ closest circle of friends. Anytime Jesus invited only a few to come with him, Peter, James and John were the ones. They were invited to the mountaintop for Jesus’ transfiguration, although they didn’t really understand what happened there. They were invited to stay awake in the garden of Gethsemane while Jesus prayed, although they kept falling asleep.
Like some of the other apostles, James and John were fishermen. Jesus nicknamed them the “sons of thunder,” presumably because of their hot tempers and impulsive tendencies. At one point when some people really got them angry, they said, “Jesus, let’s call lightning down from the sky to smite them!” These hot, impulsive attributes are also on full display in today’s Gospel reading. Furthermore, the boys seem to have come by it honestly, because it’s their mother who drives the action. She comes to Jesus and kneels before him—a rather ironic stance considering the lack of humility in her request. She wants her two boys to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes to reign.
We don’t know whether this was her idea, or that of the two brothers. And we don’t know for sure what their concept was of the “reign of God,” but I have a hunch they took it pretty literally. When Jesus finally got around to using his charisma and miraculous powers to lead an uprising, throw the Romans out, and restore the glory of Israel, James and John wanted major roles in his administration in Jerusalem.
Clearly, Jesus sees this as a teaching moment. He retorts: “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”
The silly fools answer: “We are able.”
“OK then,” says Jesus, “you will drink that cup.” (At this point, a shiver is in order, because we hear about that cup every Good Friday. As we just heard in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, James was murdered a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion by King Herod Agrippa I, and although nobody knows for sure, some traditions hold that John, too, died a violent death.)
When the other apostles hear about James and John’s request, they are jealous, of course. What if there’s not enough room in the hierarchy for them? But this is another teaching moment for Jesus. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, it is inappropriate to seek to be comfortable and in control. Instead, one should seek to become the servant of all. The position of servant is one of uncertainty and lack of control. We never know what we will be asked to do next; we are only to do it.
If we follow this to its logical conclusion, with everybody trying to be everybody else’s servant, I think the hierarchy would have to be completely dismantled. This is just what Jesus wants: mutual relationships all around, with nobody stepping on anybody else. Clearly, not everybody in the world will follow Jesus and get on board with the servant leadership program. But Jesus asks his followers to be servants anyway. Chances are, that will lead to some measure of suffering—the cup that Jesus is to drink.
What does this mean for us? Does Jesus want us to die martyrs’ deaths? It seems unlikely, especially in America today, that such an opportunity will present itself. But we can learn a lot from the Apostle James.
Like James, we are called to fish for people, or as the older, less gender-sensitive, but more poetic version put it, “fishers of men.” We are to get out of our boats and meet people with whom we’d probably rather not associate. We are to show them what it means to follow Jesus.
Like James, we sometimes seek to set ourselves up in a comfortable position. But Jesus reminds us that life doesn’t work like this for long. We may arrive at a measure of comfort, but we are not entitled to it. Furthermore, we must not get attached to any level of comfort if we are to follow Jesus.
Like James, we will have to drink the cup of suffering. I would venture to say that Jesus is simply describing here what humans must go through simply by virtue of being human. We may not have to die a violent death, as James did. But for every one of us, suffering is inevitable, and death is the gateway to eternal life.
“Do you seek great things for yourself?” asks the Prophet Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading. And Jesus asks the same thing in his own way of James and John and their mother. “Do you seek great things for yourself? Well, don’t. Seek instead to become a servant. Be uncomfortable, and walk humbly with God. Suffering leads to holiness.”
But this sounds so depressing. What can it possibly mean for us? If you live at Goodwin House, you may find yourself in a pretty comfortable place. And yet discomfort invades these walls, too. Friends develop new physical challenges that restrict their movement. Friends get sick. Friends suffer. Friends die. The suffering of our friends can make us suffer, too. Perhaps the biggest hazard is to believe that we don’t have to get out of our boat, or even that there is a boat we could stay in if we tried.
The life of a Christian is a life on the edge, using whatever energy we have in the service of others. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care of our own needs, of course. But it does mean that taking care only of our own needs is not a Christian path.
What do you have to give today to someone in need? A visit? A smile? A hug? A listening ear? We each have a variety of gifts to give, but in my ten weeks at Goodwin House, these simple gifts are the ones I have been able to give most frequently. Sometimes they haven’t seemed like much, but they have forced me to get out of my boat of safety and security. And every time I have gotten out of that boat, God has rewarded me by sending amazing people into my life. I have met people who have suffered much and who have suffered little; people who have accomplished much and people who wish they had accomplished more; people who doubt and fear, and people who love and trust. Most of all, I have met people who love and give. And I am ever grateful to them and to God for these experiences.
What does it mean for you to get out of the boat, like James? And how will you do so this week? Amen.