The audio from yesterday’s sermon is available here. Or, if you prefer, you can read it below.
It is hard to believe, but it has been more than five years since I first joined the staff here at Saint Paul’s. The flurry of activity between graduation on May 17th, ordination on June 9th, moving day on June 15th and my first Sunday at Saint Paul’s on June 24th has left most of those six weeks a blur, but one thing I do remember is my first trip to the office to drop off the first of several loads of books. You wouldn’t know it now, but there was a time when my office was nice and tidy. Karla and Shelly were so kind as to give it a fresh coat of paint, my desk was newly constructed, a comfy office chair was waiting, and the bookshelves were empty. On the bulletin board behind my desk were tacked two sheets of white copy paper. The first read, “You are entering the office of a perspectivst, postmodern, postconservative, evangelical catholic episcopalian, The Rev. Steve Pankey.” The other sign, one much more pertinent to today was a simple question, “What would you do if you know it would not fail?”
Over the past five years, Keith and I have asked that question over and over again. We’ve asked it of each other. We’ve asked it of the vestry. We’ve asked it of most of you at least once. It has been the guiding factor in many of the key decisions we’ve made, so that even those things that have failed to live up to expectations, are seen as a success because we’ve grown and adapted and learned to listen for the Spirit to lead us forward.
That sign, which still hangs on a now very cluttered bulletin board, has been in my thoughts a lot over the past few weeks. Last week, it was rather obvious, as Jesus shared with his disciples the truth that for humans, entrance into the Kingdom is impossible, but “with God, all things are possible.” I’ve been pondering the height, depth, and breadth of “all things” and Keith’s challenge to us, to learn to fly by faith. This week, the brothers Zebedee offer us a different perspective of what it means to trust that in God, nothing we do will fail.
Their request to Jesus on the road is a peculiar one, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” It becomes even stranger when we place this passage back into its context in Mark. For the third time in as many chapters, Jesus has shared with his disciples what will happen at the end of their journey to Jerusalem. This time, he gets gruesomely specific, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” What immediately follows those words from Jesus is the opening line in our lesson today, “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’
The tendency here among preachers is to set up what James and John have done as a straw man: the antithesis of how true disciples should approach the Son of God; but more and more this week, I couldn’t help but think that what James and John are doing here is asking Jesus precisely for those things that are impossible for human beings, but with God all things are possible. Their request is rather selfish – to be seated at his right and left hands when he comes into his glory – but should belittle their request or rather admire their willingness to seek after a BHAG – big hairy audacious goal?
For James and John, the answer to “what would you do if you knew it wouldn’t fail,” is “we’d sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the glory of his kingdom.” Of course, in the Kingdom, those things toward which we strive look very different than the things we seek after in the world. We might want to ask God for a prime spot in his courtyard, or for that key promotion at the office, or for our team to win that National Championship, but Jesus is quick to turn those selfish desires on their heads. In the Kingdom of God, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last, failure is success and success is failure. In the Kingdom of God, the question, what would you do if you knew it would not fail, becomes something more akin to, “is there anything you can’t accomplish, with God’s help?”
Jesus takes the Zebedee Brothers’ Big Hairy Audacious Albeit Selfish Goal and turns it into a teaching moment. In the Kingdom of God, it isn’t about being first, or having the best seat, or finding all sorts of success. In the Kingdom, it is about service. In Mark, chapter 10, verse 45, Jesus declares his personal mission statement. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” What should we do, certain that it can not fail? Model our lives after the Son of God, and live in service of others.
We can do this, confident of success, because of the ransom paid in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Here, some would spend lots of time worrying about how Jesus saved us, but I’m not interested in discussing the nuances of atonement theory from the pulpit. What I am interested in, however, is what it means for us that the Son of Man gave his life as “a ransom for many.”
However it happens, the end result of Christ’s salvific event is that we are set free. The first question that comes to mind is, “do we know we are set free?” Quickly then, I wonder, “what should we do with this new found freedom?” I get the sense that for many, even those who are lifelong, faithful members of the Church, the answer to the first question is “no.” Many of us have been brought up to understand Christianity as a rule set in which one ought to live, rather than a freedom in which one can flourish. I find this powerfully sad. However it happened, our debt is paid. We are no longer slaves to sin and death. We are no longer prisoners of our past. We are no longer beholden to some outside force. Instead, we have been set free to live the rich and full life that God intended for us in creation. We have been set free to serve others in Jesus name. We have been set free to dream those audacious dreams. We have been set free to REACH for more.
This morning marks the opening day of our REACH Campaign here at Saint Paul’s. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we have been set free to live into our own mission statement as a community of faith: reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love to the glory of Jesus Christ. Opportunities to REACH are plentiful here, and continue to grow. Over the next several weeks, we’ll hear stories from folks who used their newfound freedom in Christ to REACH toward something bigger, knowing that they could not fail. As you prayerfully consider your place in the life, ministry, and worship of Saint Paul’s, I hope you’ll find yourself set free to REACH beyond the confines of complacancy to the glory of Jesus Christ. What would you do if you knew it would not fail? Following Jesus, let’s dream big. Amen.