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Pentecost 21, Proper 24 B

In the name of God: our Creator, the Word of Life, and the Wisdom of All.  Amen.

Well, I hope y’all were listening closely this morning.  This gospel is one of those passages that you won’t be hearing very often in this church.  And even though an almost exact copy of this lesson appears in Matthew’s gospel and an abbreviated version appears in Luke’s gospel, the church, in its wisdom, has seen it fit to share this story with us only once in our three year cycle of readings.  Sure, you could hear it every year if you attended a celebration of the Feast of St. James the Apostle – but let’s be honest, how many of us go out of our way to celebrate that festal day each year?  [Don’t worry, I won’t ask for a show of hands.]

Whenever we encounter these rare texts, a part of me can’t help but wonder why we seem to be avoiding certain stories.  Are we hiding from something?  Obviously the gospel writers and those early church leaders who assembled our canon of scripture must have felt that the story was important enough that it should be included in some fashion in three of the four gospel accounts that found their way into our final collection.  But why don’t we follow their lead and incorporate this lesson more fully into our spiritual practices of reading and reflecting?

I’ll admit that there is something a bit unsettling about this text for me, and I could see how it might be equally unsettling for the leaders of the church.  It seems very natural for us to seek attention and favor from those whom we love and respect just the way James and John did.  A little nepotism never really hurt anyone, did it?

Honestly, who among us would not be pleased if we learned that a coworker, who just happens to be a good friend, was promoted to a position of authority over us?  The frustrations of the workday would likely be eased if the boss regularly had dinner with you and your family, or joined you for Happy Hour every Friday.

In the political realm, it’s a common practice for our elected officials to thank their most devout supporters by offering some sort of favor associated with the power of their office.  In my home state of Louisiana we’ve developed a system of political kickbacks and favors into a “good ole boy” network that seems almost artful in its design.

And even in the church we can occasionally find ourselves guilty of these kinds of problems.  Whenever the church is in the process of choosing new leadership - whether it be at national or diocesan levels - I have occasionally heard people supporting this candidate or that for no other reason than because they have a “close” relationship with so-and-so.  The subtext seems to be something like, “This bishop will make my job easier because we had sushi together last week.”  You can almost imagine backroom conversations where someone says, “Gee Rev. Joey, I think you’d make a great bishop and I’m gonna tell all my friends about you….  Don’t you think I’d be a good Canon in your diocese??”

So perhaps it’s just a little easier for the church if we turn a blind eye to those stories that make us look a little too much like those powerful religious leaders in the Temple that Jesus is always fussing about.

And it’s not just in the world, and certainly not just in the church that people hope to earn the favor of the powerful.  Even, on a deeper level, in our own lives, we often find ourselves seeking a kind of God who will step in to carry out the plans that we’ve already made.  We often do this with the best of intentions.  When our loved ones are dying and we plead for just a little more time.  When we feel genuinely called to some work or relationship or transition in our lives and we pray that God will make the people who make decisions about our futures recognize those things which seem so obvious to us.  Even when we don’t come to God with a clear path in mind, there can seem to be, in the core of our existence, a proclivity among us to wish for a God who will just automatically fix whatever bothers us.  We’ve all done it.  You see those familiar red and blue flashing lights in your rearview mirror and say, “Oh God, I hope he’s not coming for me.”  You’re being grilled by a boss or a client for some mistake you’ve made and you quickly pray that God will somehow give you an answer to solve the problem.  And even in those deeper moments of woe: when our hearts are unsettled because of instability in our relationships, when we feel lonely or alone, when we share the sufferings of those whom we love; we often pray that God will just push some button in heaven and make everything okay.

I think most of us know, at least intellectually, that God doesn’t tend to work that way.  But it can be very tempting to fall into that kind of wishful thinking.

“[Jesus], we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

But before we judge James and John (or even ourselves) too harshly, let’s think about this.  I mean really, didn’t Jesus bring this on himself?  During his ministry he was always running around doing pretty big favors for people.  If he wasn’t helping blind people to see he was helping disabled people to walk.  Once, when he was at a wedding and they ran out of wine, he just took some water and made some more.  Remember the story of Jesus healing that twelve year old girl whom everyone thought was dead: Jesus only allowed a few people to witness this, and among those few were James and John.  They had seen him do some pretty amazing things for other people who really had no significant qualifications beyond proximity and faith.  They had both proximity and faith; so shouldn’t they get a little kickback like the others?  They weren’t asking for anything too big – just positions as second in command to this Messiah whom they thought would be the ruler of the world.  Is that really so much to ask between friends?  [It puts a whole new spin on that whole “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” theology, doesn’t it?]

But James and John missed a couple of important points.

First of all, they failed to recognize that Jesus had at least ten other friends who might be put out by their desire to move to the top of the ladder.  Mark says, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”

But moreover, in their desire for a higher place than the rest, James and John had subverted the real ministry of God moving among us – the deeper ministry of drawing us - all of humanity - into a closer relationship with God.  If Jesus had merely granted their wish like a genie in a lamp, the presumed hierarchical division between God and humanity would have been made more severe, not less.

If we listen to the ways that God is calling us into deeper unity with Godself, we will recognize that the truest understanding of communion with God is best expressed through the ways that we live into communion with each other, our partners in creation.

This is a hard lesson to hear.  We all want to be the best and most favored.  But Jesus tells us time and time again, that our understandings of greatness are skewed.  We become great when we allow ourselves to be called into service.  We live into our relationship with God most fully when we live into our relationships with each other.

To me, that’s one of the central functions of the church.  Our acts of worship are of central importance; but building this community and living into these relationships make us truly and fully worshipful.  They give us a clearer glimpse of God - clearer than any of us, as individuals, could possibly achieve on our own.

Our best expressions of love for God are in those most genuine, often even painful expressions of love for each other.  The central feature of our relationship with God is less about who is in and who is out, and more a recognition that in God, through Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit all are in – none more and none less than any other.  Even me.  Even you.  Even those troublesome bosses and clients and coworkers.  All are in.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.