Are Ye Able?

Job 38:1-7

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

We at Marsh Chapel extend a special welcome to all our guests who are at Boston University this Parents’ Weekend for Homecoming. College years are probably the most vivid memories we have. They are usually the first big break from home, we make new friends in large numbers all at once, we encounter a range of culture unimaginable from the perspective of high school, and we are forced to discover who we are, or rather, to balance discovery with making the choices that constitute who we are. We come to college as the products of our background and we leave with the responsibility to contribute to the background in which we and others will live. In college we learn to take responsibility for what we stand for and for the communities and causes with which we affiliate. So I hope that all of you participating in homecoming remember the good times with vivid clarity and that you have turned the bad times into fables that no one will believe, including yourselves. You parents watching your children, note how awesome their experience here is. Welcome home.

The gospel this morning contains the line made famous by the popular hymn, “Are Ye Able,” written here at Boston University in 1926 by Earl Marlatt who subsequently became dean of the School of Theology. We’ll sing it in a few minutes. Marlatt’s verse begins, “’Are ye able’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me?’ ‘Yea,’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee.’ Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine. Remold them, make us, like thee, divine. Thy guiding radiance above us shall be a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.” Marlatt’s hymn is straightforward Wesleyan theology, which does not always agree with the Reformation emphasis on divine initiative alone. Wesley held that although God’s grace saves us we have to receive it, and in receiving it we have the responsibility for sanctification. For Wesley, if not for Luther and Calvin, salvation has to transform actual character. Marlatt sang “Our spirits are thine. Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.” That’s a clarion plea for holiness that centers our faith through times of trouble.

Mark’s gospel is subtler than Marlatt’s hymn, which indicates the complexity of the passage only by calling Jesus’ interlocutors “sturdy dreamers.” In the gospel story, James and John, who are identified as the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus in private with an adolescent request. In Matthew’s account of the story, it was not James and John themselves, but their mother, who made the request. I would guess from this that they were very young disciples, perhaps college age, perhaps a freshmen and sophomore repesctively, identified by their father’s name and spoken for by their mother. In Mark’s account the boys first asked Jesus to promise to do for them whatever they asked. Jesus sidestepped that and asked what they wanted. They answered that they wanted to sit on his right hand and left when he reigned in glory. How presumptious! Perhaps both were sophomores. They surely were dreamers!

In a sermon on Jesus as friend, Professor Wesley Wildman of our School of Theology has pointed out how gently Jesus responded to them, not ridiculing their dreams nor rebuking them with a lecture about servant ministry as he later did the other, presumably older, disciples when they had a jealous fit about James and John. Rather, Jesus gently told them they did not know what they were asking. He asked whether they were able to drink the cup he would drink and be baptized with his baptism. By the “cup” he meant his destiny to be crucified; later in the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed that this cup would pass from him, but affirmed the courage to drink it if it were his true destiny. By his baptism he meant following his Way, what would later be called the Christian Way, which was subject to much persecution. Mark’s gospel was written about forty years after the crucifixion in the midst of Roman persecution, and his readers would know what those expressions meant, but the boys did not have a clue. As sturdy dreamers, they answered, “We are able!” Jesus must have sighed at the innocence of these young disciples he loved. He told them only that it was not his right to grant who was to sit at his right hand and left.

Mark pictures Jesus as a lonely man, surrounded by enthusiastic followers who do not understand the horror to come or why that has to be borne. Peter had proclaimed him the Messiah and then rebuked Jesus for gloomy talk about persecution, death, and resurrection; Jesus responded, “Get behind me Satan.” Young James and John had no better understanding.

The fate of the disciples, in fact, was to drink Jesus’ cup of suffering and to be baptized with his Way that brought persecution. According to Acts, James was killed by Herod Agrippa in a great persecution of the church. Tradition has it that John, who was identified as the Beloved Disciple, escaped with his life to live to a very old age on the island of Patmos, writing his gospel and the letters bearing his name. However romantic and innocent their sturdy dream that they were able to follow Jesus, in point of fact they were able. And through the vicissitudes and persecutions of the church they, like Jesus, were made perfect through suffering, to use the phrase from the Letter to the Hebrews.

For ourselves, the situation seems to be dangerously similar. Christians don’t have Romans out to persecute them these days, although Christians in many parts of the world do practice their faith in jeopardy of their lives. The specific danger I have in mind, however, is moral conflict that has the power to distort, pervert, and ultimately ruin Christian faith and practice. By moral conflict I mean issues on which good Christians take opposite sides, issues so identified with the heart of their faith that the intense passion of loving God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves—that passion gets transferred to their moral stand. Transferring infinite religious passion to moral stands is dangerous. Consider three examples, out of the dozens that could be called to mind.

Abortion is a moral conflict so old to Americans that it has been reduced to slogans, pro life versus pro choice. How could such a complicated issue be reduced to slogans? It raises questions about the role of law in regulating medicine, about the morals of medical practice, about communal responsibility for the care for families and for people born without families, about the institutions and various conditions of marriage, as well as the obvious questions of freedom and self-determination, the definition of human life, the claims of human life on legal and social protections, and the responsibility of religion to think through such complex issues and to protect the weak.

The important thing to notice is that the issue is one of balancing competing values. Even the slogans, pro life and pro choice, show that the moral conflict is over how to balance values that nearly all people share. Who could be against protecting prenatal children? Who could be against women’s rights to determine how their bodies are to be used? Yet instead of approaching the abortion debate with humility, fear, and trembling at its complexity, often Christians leap to choose crude sides with demonic passion.

The second example is homosexuality, conflict over which has reached the Supreme Court of the United States. Moral conflicts in politics have centered on anti-discrimination protections and legal rights of homosexual partners likened to marriage; this fall the highest state court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will decide on the legality of gay marriage. Reli
gious denominations, especially the Protestant Christian ones, nearly all are in desperate conflict over a number of issues concerning homosexuality. The most recent is the response of Episcopalians to the denomination’s election and confirmation of a gay bishop in neighboring New Hampshire. Again, the moral conflict is a matter of balancing values that are nearly universally held. Who can be against the right of gay and lesbian people to fulfillment and happiness? Who can be against social responsibility for the moral structures of such institutions as marriage and ministry? Passions in the moral conflicts about homosexuality are so high that surely more than sexual ethics is involved. It seems a matter of religious identity.

The third example is the series of moral conflicts that have arisen in connection with the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While seemingly topical issues raised by events such as 9/11, the conflicts have raised to consciousness deep divisions about fundamental political values. What are the conditions that should be met to justify the United States becoming an aggressor nation as it has? Have they been met? Patriots on one side justify the use of overwhelming force by the righteousness of the cause. Patriots on the other side condemn the use of force because the cause is not righteous. These conflicts have not even begun to be articulated with the subtlety and complexity they obviously need. And yet Christians in good faith are divided against each other with holy passion.

Are we able to follow the Christian Way while we are persecuted by our own divisions on these and the many similar issues that divide Christians?

Two tempting strategies exist that I believe will lead to disaster. One is to treat religion as a private matter and refuse to address in church public issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and war and peace. In practice, this is what many Protestant pastors attempt to do, for the obvious reason of maintaining harmony within the community. The ongoing life of religious communities has many more values than just the resolution of these hot-button issues, and the cost of addressing them within the community is very high. Nevertheless, religion is not merely private, and when it deliberately blinkers itself against the issues about which people feel so passionately it makes itself irrelevant to the real religious issues.

The other disastrous but tempting strategy is for the church to address issues like these without a solid theological base, as if they were merely political or moral issues. Without its theology, Christianity has nothing in particular to offer to the resolution of deep moral conflicts. Many preachers, however, get so excited about taking a “prophetic” stand on moral issues that the self-righteous fact of their convictions pretends to excuse them from justifying the convictions. Yet surely, the convictions need to be justified with careful argument, with sensitivity to the ways people with conflicting convictions weigh values, and with humility based on the plain recognition that our judgments are fallible at best. Only careful theology can put the measuredness of moral analysis and judgment in ultimate perspective. The justifications need to be theological to address the reasons for putting infinite religious passions on moral convictions.

However much pastors would like to avoid conflict, the riveting moral conflicts of our time need to be brought into the church so that we can live them through with intelligence and love. A university pulpit such as this one—especially this one with its history of moral leadership—cannot escape the obligation to articulate, analyze, and offer guidance, with all humility, on the issues that shape our watch. I shall be preaching about these issues from time to time, beginning next Sunday with a reflection on how to read scripture when it offers support to more than one side in conflicts, using homosexuality as the test case.

I invite you into the arduous task of sustaining a congregation in the midst of deliberately addressed conflict. If you agree with my analyses and judgments, I hope you shall do so with arguments at least as complex as mine, and that you will share with us your better ones. If you disagree with me, I hope you take that as a special sign that you belong here to correct me and those whom I might mislead; to stay away in anger, or because of the pain of conflict, would be to fail the community. You are invited to the Sunday Theology Class that meets here at 9:30 to discuss the previous week’s sermon; let your voice be heard in addressing issues of importance. You can get a copy of the sermons from our webpage or by calling the Chapel office. I invite you into a theological conversation that will not run from divisive issues but will incorporate the process of dealing with divisions in pursuit of truth into the life of the community. This church should be one you can come home to in order to address the religiously weighted conflicts of our time, not a place that suggests you escape. As Jesus said, the Way leads to crucifixion, and to many in the Church these moral conflicts feel like that. Beyond the crucifixion, however, is the new life of resurrection. Like love in a family, love in the Christian community can bear up through the realities of conflict. Because this is Christ’s family, resurrection love calls us to the joy of being real when faced with conflict, staying in love with those with whom we struggle. A Christian community that embraces and works through conflict with brothers and sisters shines with the redeeming light of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Are we able to sustain the Christian Way when it engages the flesh and blood issues that command conflicting religious passions? I invite you to answer, We are able! Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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