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Sermon for the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Mark 10:35-45 by Brigid Dwyer

My friend, Brigid Dwyer, a current Drew STM student, gave me permission to post her fantastic sermon, which she preached today at St. George's Episcopal Church, in Maplewood, NJ. I really love her take on James and John in Mark 10:35-45. I encourage you to give it a read! 


In the name of the One, Holy, and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The ordination process is grueling. Today, it takes years  just to get to seminary, but in earlier days, you could be  already enrolled and taking classes and be told “no thank you,”  or “not yet.” It is certainly not something you start flipping  the script on lightly. And Jonathan Daniels did not do that lightly. In March 1965 he voluntarily took a semester away  from Episcopal Divinity School to return to Alabama, where he  had been helping in the fight to end segregation. He knew this  might cost his ordination, but he was prepared to sacrifice  even that, and so much more, to faithfully carry out the work  of the Kingdom of God. Two weeks earlier, he had first  arrived in Alabama, expecting to spend the weekend. Instead,  he and a few others from EDS wound up staying a week, and  then coming back, having taken a leave of absence from  seminary. He expected to march, to work hard, to humble himself and take orders, and to send time in jail, and he did all this. But five months after he arrived in Alabama, he pushed Ruby Sales out of the way of a bullet that wound up  hitting him instead. He was not expecting to become a martyr,  but that’s precisely what happened. 

Jonathan Daniels’s feast day is August 14th, making him  what we colloquially call a “Saint” of our church. In 2015,  there was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his  martyrdom. Icons have been written and statues have been  sculpted onto cathedrals with his image, and he is among those  remembered in Canterbury Cathedral’s Chapel of Saints and  Martyrs of Our Time. Jonathan Daniels fully drank of Jesus’s cup, shared in his baptism, and there is no doubt in my mind  that he sits today at Jesus’s right or left hand in glory. 

Judith Upham was a classmate of Jonathan Daniels. She  got on the same planes from Boston to Atlanta, missed the same flight home at the end of the same weekend, took the same semester off, went to the same marches, worked side by-side in Alabama helping the movement. When Jesus asked  her, “Judy, are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be  baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” she also  replied, “I am able.” But she was not in Hayneville when  Daniels was arrested, imprisoned, and finally shot.  

Judith Upham did not have to drink that particular cup,  and the Church is better for it. Just as we’ve received  Jonathan Daniels’s witness through his martyrdom and  sainthood, we’ve received Judith Upham’s through her life and  ministry. When the Episcopal Church approved the ordination  of women to the diaconate in 1970, she felt her own call to  ordained life, and in 1977, she became one of the first women  to be regularly ordained as a priest in our church. She  continued to make holy trouble for the cause of justice for all  God’s children as the rector of Grace Church in Syracuse – an  integrated parish at a time and place where such things were even rarer than they are here and now. And while there, she offered up Grace’s sanctuary to the local Metropolitan Community Church, where they were performing, among other  ministries, weddings of people who had matching genders.  Many of us remember that this was a big deal in the mid-‘80s. In some places, it still is. Rev. Upham is now retired in the  Diocese of North Texas, where she’s continuing to build God’s  kingdom. 

No one goes into a mission expecting to be martyred, but  reading interviews and stories, I am convinced that both  Daniels and Upham understood that martyrdom was a  possibility. Given the number of people who’d already been  killed doing civil rights work, how could they not? And they  both willingly – not reluctantly - walked into that. And, like  James and John, they both signed up for more. It cost Daniels  his life. For her part, Upham was given a different, but no less  important ministry.

And here’s where I’m going to give the kindest possible  reading to those sons of Zebedee. Between last week’s Gospel  reading and this week’s, there are three verses that tell us  they’re on their way to Jerusalem, and show Jesus telling the  twelve for the third time, and in the plainest language, that  he’s going to be executed. And it’s right after that that  James and John ask about sitting with him in glory.  

Two things about that: First, the lectionary skips that  preceding section entirely, and many versions of the Bible  break it out between two section headers, so even if you’re  reading Mark 10 as part of your devotional practice, it will  look very removed from the bit we read today. But that is not  necessarily how it was conceived. Ancient manuscripts didn’t  break out sections, or paragraphs, or even words. They look  like a continuous wall of Greek letters, and you even have to  do your best to figure out which letters go together to form words, never mind chapters. So, yes, we have centuries of scholarship telling us that the bit about Jerusalem, arrest, and execution are a separate paragraph, but we don’t  absolutely have to read them that way. 

Second: Remember how I said, “no one goes into a mission  expecting to be martyred?” Well, that’s certainly true today,  and it was true in the 20th century, too. In the 1st Century  among the followers of Jesus, though, things were a little  different. By the time this gospel was being written, there  were already organized persecutions in the name of Emperor  Nero against the followers of Jesus. Early Christ-followers  took martyrdom very seriously. They believed it to be a high  calling, and the firmest display of faith a person could show.  They spoke of it in terms like “coming into glory.” Some  stories told of people actively wishing for martyrdom. So where am I going with all that? Let’s just imagine for a moment that, instead of saying, “we’d like to be the two most important people hanging out with you up in Heaven after  all this is over,” James and John are like, “We’ve heard you,  we know how this is all going to go down, and we want to walk  with you through it. Please let us.” They’re asking Jesus to  help. They’re asking to be part of his ministry, no matter  where it takes them.  

This world is weird, and we are living in a particularly  weird moment in history. We are teetering on the edge of a  multinational fascist takeover, not only here in the United  States, but also in Brazil, the UK, eastern Europe, India, the  Philippines. No one who has the power to do so is coming to our  rescue, at home or abroad, because fascism is good for the  rich and powerful, even if they don’t want to get their hands  dirty with it. In the United States this looks like, among other  things, direct legislative attacks on people marginalized by  their race, national origin, sexuality, gender and gender identity, and against poor folks from all walks of life. And we watch this all happening, feeling frustrated, helpless, and angry. And then we remember Jesus, and, even if for just one  moment, we might think to ourselves, “here I am, Lord. Send  me.” 

What does Jesus tell us when we’re ready to jump in with  both feet? Let’s start with what he doesn’t tell us: He doesn’t tell us  “No.” He doesn’t say, “I’m sorry, child, but I have someone  more competent in mind, someone with less to lose, someone  more worthy.” In fact, he says quite the opposite. Look at the  following paragraph in this light: The other apostles are telling  James and John to stay in their lane, to remember their place.  They’re fishermen, no one special. This work is for special  people (and please note that none of them were up there  volunteering). And Jesus says (and I’m paraphrasing), “Fellas. This is their place precisely because of who they are. Precisely because they’re ‘just fishermen.’ The other side gatekeeps who can join the struggle. We’re not like that.  We’re better than that. You’re better than that. I’m just  some dude from Nazareth and I’m out here doing this work and a whole lot more, and so can they. And so can you.” 

And so can we. 

But what does he tell us?  

First, he asks if we know what we’re doing. This isn’t  gatekeeping, this is love. This is a friend checking in to make  sure we’re safe. This is when the person at the protest with  the bullhorn says, “if you didn’t take the training, stay back  and don’t get arrested.” Or when the organization that offers  services to the unhoused gives its volunteers training on  compassionate detachment. And it’s also the groups that  ensure that minoritized bodies are kept out of harm’s way as  much as possible at direct actions. Or, and this one can get forgotten in the excitement, remembering to pray for God’s help in discerning your role in establishing God’s Kingdom. 

God is love, beloved. God not only needs us efficient and  effective, but God craves our well-being. Taking care of  ourselves while we do God’s work is both an act of resistance  against the State and an act of devotion to our creator who  loves us. 

The other thing that Jesus is doing is managing expectations. I remember one of the first protests I went to  – a group of us from high school drove down from Pennsylvania  to Washington DC, assembled in the Park behind the White  House, and loudly demonstrated against increased nuclear  armament. (I went to Quaker school. These were school sponsored trips). There were loud chants, captivating  speakers, music – the whole Washington protest experience.  It was thrilling. We drove back up I-95 buzzing, woke up the next morning and, materially and politically, nothing had changed. Now, even at 17, my rational brain knew not to expect the president to call  a press conference and resign.  But it made the moment a little anti-climactic.   

This work is long, and frustrating, and we don’t know how  it’s all going to work out, and in the year two thousand twenty one of the common era we are still having to protest the  state’s efforts to keep Black people from exercising their  right to vote. And, as Jesus says, clear as day: glory is not a  given. But we press on because Creation is worth it. God is  worth it. We are worth it. 

So, what about our protagonists, James and John, sons of  Zebedee? They were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee when  Jesus called them to follow him, and they did. We know they  left behind jobs and community, and they may well have been  supporting families. They expected to follow an itinerant rabbi. But by this time in the Gospel, they’d seen, and that rabbi had explicitly told them, that their ministry was going to  be so much more. And they fully bought into that, and asked  to follow Jesus wherever he led them. 

No one was sitting for interviews back then, so everything we have is apocryphal, but we do have legends. For  James, he’s known today (outside the Gospels) as St. James  the Great. He brought Jesus’s message to Spain, and was  brought back to Jerusalem and beheaded by Herod for his  efforts. His body was then returned to Spain, and pilgrims  walk the Camino de Santiago year-round from France to his  tomb in Santiago de Compostela in honor of his ministry. 

John’s legacy is a bit more complex. Modern biblical  scholars tend to dismiss these traditions, but for our  purposes here, they are a lot more important. Most legends  have him as the author of the fourth Gospel, and call him John the Evangelist. Some conflate this position with him being marked as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in that Gospel, and some even stretch his legacy out to make him the author of  Revelation and the Letters of John. In any event, the one  thing that all of the legends agree on is that John, son of  Zebedee, died at a ripe old age of natural causes. He spent  the bulk of his life spreading Jesus’s message around the  Mediterranean, and was instrumental in the formation of the  early church. Both John and his brother, when asked if they  could drink Jesus’s cup and share in his baptism, replied, “we  are able.” And both men made good on that promise, wherever  that took them.  

So today, I hope we can look to these bold apostles, who,  even before they risked their bodies, risked the ridicule of  their companions, but put themselves out there anyway. And  prayerfully, mindfully, in those moments where we feel called  to - as the old prayer goes - offer ourselves, our souls, and  bodies to God, I pray we can answer as they did: 

We are able. Amen.


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