A Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24)

by Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector

Mark 10:35-45

 I promise not to tell you anything that you can’t easily read or hear for yourselves…but I have to tell you something about “Bridge of Spies,” the terrific new Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks movie that Buck and I saw the other night. It’s a true story about an exchange of spies between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a successful insurance defense lawyer who is asked to defend an accused Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel. The idea is that by providing Abel with what the United States Constitution promises–a speedy and public trial with the assistance of counsel–the U.S. will highlight the contrast between us and the repressive and secretive Soviets, our foremost enemy at the time.

Donovan is reluctant to accept the government’s request. His only remotely relevant experience with criminal law is that he helped prosecute German war crimes at Nuremberg after World War II. This time around he’s asked to defend an enemy of the United States. Eventually, however, he does so, faithfully and vigorously, and–as time goes on–in the face of increasingly harsh criticism that he’s just a bit too conscientious in insisting on compliance with the Constitution. The criticism escalates further into threats that become increasingly menacing. It is, after all, the height of the Cold War. The fear of a nuclear war is front and center for every man, woman, and child in the United States and beyond. The temptation to skirt the Constitution and tweak the rule of law, to pick and choose to whom it applies, seem reasonable to many in the face of very real danger.

But not to James Donovan. Even when everything and everyone near and dear to him is jeopardized, even when his involvement takes him deeper into the shadows, even when it seems entirely justified, Donovan remains faithful to his country and the ideals for which it stands. His steadfast refusal to succumb to fear transforms history.

There’s a lot more to the movie and much to ponder about how faithful we are when we’re really under pressure. Afterward, I couldn’t help but think of James and John in today’s gospel. They are not as steadfast in the face of fear as James Donovan, despite their long association with and devotion to Jesus. Think of it–after Andrew, they were the second and third disciples to answer Jesus’ call, and they did so so quickly that their father Zebedee didn’t even have time to get out of the family fishing boat to say good-bye. Along with Peter, they were the only disciples whom Jesus took with him when he restored Jairus’ daughter to life, not to mention to the mountain top where the three of them saw Elijah and Moses and witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. Although scripture tells us that that terrified them, they were soon calmed when the voice from the cloud (also known as God) declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

So by the time of today’s gospel, James and John have spent a lot of time with Jesus: absorbing his teachings, participating in his ministries, and observing firsthand his interactions with and challenges to Roman rulers and Jewish authorities. But still… whatever it was about Jesus and his message that compelled James and John to follow him has also brought them face to face with real danger and reawakened their biggest fears.

Now they’re all on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus has just told them–for the third time–that there he will be handed over to the authorities who will condemn him to a terrible death, and that he will rise again. The number of times that the disciples have heard what Jesus is telling them has increased neither their acceptance nor their understanding. They’re scared.

So James and John do what many of us do when we’re scared. They make a power play. They try to get Jesus to grant them special status, to signal that they are closer to Jesus than anyone else. Despite all that they have seen of and learned from and done with–and believed in–Jesus’ way in the world, they revert to a way of being in a world that isn’t much different than it was before Jesus came on the scene. Even though what James and John have seen and learned and done along the way with Jesus has compelled them to follow him, they return to thinking in terms of a world in which Jesus‘presence hasn’t really made a difference. In terms of a world that really is defined by who has the most influence and power.

Jesus remains patient and kind. Although James and John can’t begin to grasp the true import of what it will mean to drink the cup that he drinks or be baptized with the baptism that he is baptized with, Jesus assures them that they will indeed do so. As ominous as that sounds–and as real as their suffering will be–it is also the promise and paradox of faithfulness. The steadier that they are in following the way of Jesus, the more apparent the kingdom of God will be. On the other hand, the more they and the other disciples return to the ways of the Gentiles–who measure their success by influence and power–the murkier the promise of God’s kingdom appears. Only by living into the way of Jesus is its true meaning made manifest.

This is tricky business for many of us. Despite the dangerous places and ways of the world, unless our hearts have been broken, we live securely and safely day to day. We’ve achieved some measure of power and status by a combination of good fortune, hard work, and intelligence and woe be unto anyone who suggests that we didn’t have a mighty hand in doing so. We’re responsible about what we have, and we do our best to use it for good purposes for ourselves and others. If Jesus were to ask us, as he asked James and John, “What is it you want me to do for you?” a good number of us would answer quite sincerely, “Not a thing, thank you. What can we do for you?” Because we’re pretty satisfied with the balance of power the way it stands…or at least the way it seems to stand.

I daresay that’s not the point of today’s gospel. It’s unlikely, thanks be to God, that most of us will face a crucible of our beliefs and ideals the likes that James Donovan and James, John, and the other disciples did. However, living more into the gospel when such choices are not so stark is still what prepares us to drink from the cup. The steadier we are in following the way of Jesus, the more apparent the kingdom will be.

And therein lies our challenge.

Teach me thy patience; still with thee
in closer, dearer company,
in work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
in trust that triumphs over wrong

-Washington Gladdem, O Master, let me walk with thee