It’s a boy! George Alexander Louis. On Monday afternoon, the world waited on pins and needles to hear about the birth of the new heir to the throne of England. It was, by all accounts, a momentous occasion. Filled with shouts of joy, the ringing of bells, and many many souvenirs. Sure, there were and continue to be some critics—those who ask, rightly, why we would celebrate the birth of one uber-privileged child when we virtually ignore the hundreds of thousands of poor children being born into this world every day.
And to be fair, they have a point. After all, as a people of faith we know that every child born into this world matters just as much as the royal baby.
But as a people of faith, we also know that new life is new life. And whenever we witness it, wherever we witness it, we have reason to celebrate.
And frankly, couldn’t the world use a reason celebrate? Couldn’t we use a little good news about now? After all, we’ve definitely experienced our fair share of bad news lately, we’ve felt our fair share of pain and strife and death. We’ve felt it here on the sidewalks of Boston, we’ve felt in the courtrooms of Florida, we’ve felt it on the streets of Egypt and Syria.
And as we know from experience, sometimes it’s only those little reminders of new life that keep us going. So when we find it, we have reason to celebrate.
But as we also know from experience, whether we celebrate it or not, new life isn’t easy. No! As William and Kate are no doubt discovering with their new, very tangible form of new life…it isn’t always easy. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, young or old, black or white, gay or straight, having a baby is not easy. It’s not. It’s an entirely new way of life. There’s crying…lots and lots of it. There’s feeding…lots and lots of it. There’s…the end result of feeding…lots and lots of it.
In other words, friends, even new life itself comes with challenges. It’s worth it, but it’s hard.
And we, of all people, should understand. After all, as Christians we, too believe in a way of life that is much more than we could have ever bargained for, full of responsibilities and frustrations, but like a new parent, once we have experienced it, fully experienced it, we couldn’t live any other way.
And so today, after a week in which people around the world paused to celebrate new life in our midst, we pause a moment longer to consider what new life means.
We get assistance in our quest today from the Gospel of Mark.
Now some will know that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel written, as early as 30 years after the death of Jesus. It was written to a community that would have had to face its own fair share of pain and strife and death, and who were no doubt starting to recognize that being a community of faith was not all sunshine and roses. We can hear that tension in our story today.
Our passage begins just after Jesus has shared some hard news with his disciples; news of pain and strife and death. Jesus has told the disciples for the third and final time in Mark’s gospel that the son of man will be given over to the chief priests and that he will be condemned and killed and that after three days he will rise again.
He has shared this same thing with the disciples two other times in Mark’s gospel. And in each of those other times, we are told that the disciples ask questions and express confusion.
And, frankly, we get it. After all, when we’re confronted with hard news in our own lives, our first impulse is often to question it; to want a second opinion; to pretend like it isn’t really about us. It’s a way of protecting ourselves from the pain of the news.
But one of the hard lessons of life, friends, is that simply ignoring something doesn’t make it go away…just ask the people of Syria.
And we get the sense in Mark’s telling of this story that it took until this third time hearing it for the reality of what Jesus had been saying to set in; because in our story today, instead of questions, or confusion, or denial, the disciples are not reported as saying anything.
They were silent.
And, if we’re honest, we get this too. We know that sometimes when we are confronted with hard news, when we are forced to finally hear it and acknowledge it and accept it, we just don’t know what to say.
We don’t know what to say and so we don’t say anything. Sometimes, friends, we just need that sweet grace of silence.
Certainly this is a lesson our world could afford to hear; a reminder that, believe it or not, sometimes it’s ok to be silent. Sometimes we don’t need a 100 cannon blasts, or a million tweets, or a full running commentary. Sometimes we just need silence.
Imagine how different our world would be if each time a child was born we had a moment of silence. It might make some kids harder to ignore.
But just as in our world, in our story, the silence doesn’t last forever. James and John, two of the first disciples called in Mark’s gospel, two of the witnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus a chapter earlier, break the silence by saying to Jesus. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
It’s a pretty bold demand. So bold in fact that Matthew changes this passage to have their mother ask on their behalf, perhaps recognizing that it takes some chutzpah to stand in front of Jesus, their teacher, the messiah, and ask for their wishes to be granted.
And frankly, if we knew it worked that way, we’d no doubt have a few things to ask ourselves.
But Jesus, ever patient, simply responds, “What is it that you want me to do for you?”
And we think, aha! Now’s their chance! Now’s their moment to get answers to all of life’s troubling questions, why do bad things happen to good people, what is the meaning of life, what’s up with the name Louis? And our excitement starts to build as they open their mouths and say to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in your glory.”
What?!? What does that mean? They have just been told that their teacher, their master, their friend is not going to be with them anymore and they are worried about seating arrangements? What gives?
But then we remember the sweet grace of silence and take a moment to listen again. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in your glory.” –and it starts to make sense. Friends, this is not just about seating arrangements in some heavenly throne room. No! It’s the disciples expressing fear about being left alone. It’s the disciples starting to get what Jesus has been saying. Jesus has just told them that he is not going to be with them forever. This man whom they had given up everything in their lives to follow is now going to be leaving them and they are basically saying, “take us with you.”
A chapter earlier these same disciples witnessed Jesus standing in his glory as he was transfigured. They witnessed a taste of the beauty of God and didn’t know how they were going to find that again alone. Do you see? They had been witnesses to what life could be and didn’t want to live with what actually is.
Friends, we know what this is like. We know what it’s like to face a long hard road ahead and want to just be there. Every four years The United Methodist Church meets to make decisions about the doctrine and practice of our beloved denomination. And every four years for the past 40 we have failed to recognize the full humanity of gay and lesbian people. And although some of us have glimpsed the possibility of what could be, we are forced to live with what actually is. And if we’re honest, we dread it, we’re embarrassed by it, we just want to be there.
But that’s not the way it works. No. For better or worse, a big part of the way of life taught by Jesus Christ is life itself, in all its gory details.
Friends, our faith is about life. Not after death, but right now. And Jesus understood this. He understood that our faith is not about earning a place at the table in the sweet by and by, it is about opening a place at our tables right now.
In other words, life is not a means to an end, it is the end itself. And make no mistake, what we have been given as a people of faith is life, new life, precious life; we’ve been given an example of what it means to fully live.
“I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”
But here’s the kicker: new life takes work. It takes work. It takes not just accepting the world as it is, but working to make it what it could be.
Jesus responds to them, “You do not know what you are asking for.”
He says, “Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
In other words, be careful what you wish for because when we skip the hard work and jump straight to the end, we miss out on the most important part…life. Not a life free from pain, but life nonetheless.
It was announced this week that the Rev. Stephen Heiss, a United Methodist Minister from my home conference in Upper New York will be brought up on charges for performing homosexual marriages, one of which was for his own daughter. Rev. Heiss is an example of someone who does not just see the world for how it is, but how it could be, and is doing the hard work of living. It’s not easy, but it’s life.
Friends, there is and will always be pain and strife and death, that is part of life, but there is also always the possibility of new life. And whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we have a part in it. A vital part. And if we don’t live into it, no one else will.
Not wanting to hear what Jesus is saying, the disciples respond that they are able to drink the cup and be baptized with the water, but again Jesus says to them, that you may be able to drink the cup and be baptized in the water, but in the end, it is not his to grant.
This is admittedly strange language, implying that Jesus doesn’t have the power to snap his fingers and make things happen, but we also know this to be true.
Friends, we know that we have been given freedom to live in this world. We know that God doesn’t cause pain and strife and death. No! Those things are part of the freedom God has given us to live in this world, but so is joy and hope and love. In other words, the promise of our faith is not that bad things are not going to happen to us. No. They will. The promise is that we don’t have to face them alone.
Friends, do you hear? We are not alone.
Surely, the language of the cup and the water in this passage is a reminder. After all, Mark’s audience would certainly have recognized these two symbols of the Christian faith. These two sacraments that remind us over and over again that we are now the body of Christ for the world; that we are part of the family of God.
As the epistle lesson for today reminds us, we are God’s children now, what we will be is yet to be revealed. It’s a reminder both that we are not God, but also that we’re not only children.
Or said another way, we might not be able to sit on the throne of God, but as Howard Thurman might say, we have certainly all been given a crown to grow into. In the example of Christ, we have had a crown placed over our head which for the rest of our lives we will keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.
Friends, we might not be heirs to the throne of England, but each of us by virtue of our birth has a crown. Surely that’s worth a celebration.
Do you see? James and John saw what they thought they wanted, to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus, and like so many of us wanted the end without the means and in the process missed the point of our faith entirely.
As Christians we are not called to a destination, we are called to a journey; a way of life. And by not granting them their wish, Jesus offered them a chance to truly live.
When the other ten disciples heard the conversation going on we are told that they became angry. We don’t quite know which part angered the others, but we know that it was enough that Jesus again reminded them that they were called to a different way of life.
He reminds them that there are those in the world who lord power over one another, but that they are called to serve one another; to care for one another; to love one another. In other words, he reminds them again that whatever they do, they do it together. And as many have learned in recent months, we can face a lot if we know we don’t have to face it alone. Friends, the good news of the gospel is that we are not alone.
Our passage today closes with these words from Jesus. “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A ransom is that which frees us from captivity.
Friends, what is it that holds us captive? What is it that keeps us from fully living? Money, family, fear? Christ is our ransom. Not as some sacrifice sent from God, but as one who frees us from our captivity. He breaks us out of our bonds and shows us how to fully live. He takes away the identities that society tries to place on us and reminds us over and over again that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all children of God. All of us, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, royal or common. Which ultimately means that we all have a chance at life.
Will it be easy? No. Like having a baby, living as a person of faith in the world means having some late nights, it means taking some unwanted responsibilities, it means shelling out some hard-earned cash, and it even means having to put our hands in some things that we never want to touch, but the truth is, we couldn’t live any other way.
~The Rev. Stephen M. Cady, II
Pastor, Asbury First UMC, Rochester, NY