One of my best friends in high school was a terrifically funny guy by the name of Cliff. Cliff was a little older than the rest of my friend group and was the first of us to drive. Maybe its not the same anymore, but when I was a freshman in high school having a car instantly made you the coolest kid around. Just about everyone with a car knew this and so most of them liked to play up their cool factor while driving by leaning back in the driver’s seat one hand on the wheel, smoking a cigarette and blasting music at ridiculously loud volumes. Cliff was never very into being a cool kid, at least not as much as he was into mocking them. So whenever Cliff picked me up in his car- he’d hand me a pair of aviator sunglasses and then turn his car radio to NPR and blast the news. We’d drive around St. Louis with the news bumping out of our stereo. Nothing was better than pulling up next to a car at a red light, having them look at our car in bewilderment and then watch Cliff give them a cool head nod, as if to say “You down with the news too?”
Lately, the news has been overwhelming. One natural disaster after another, one mass shooting after another, the blatant lies and manipulation coming from our political leaders, the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II and of course, climate change. There is no need to bump the news anymore, it already feels like its been turned up as loud as possible and set to fast forward. The scandals and crises are so constant that its impossible to pay attention to them all. Its enough to make you crazy, enough to make you despair. I have heard a lot of people say in the past few years that they stopped watching the news. It was too depressing. Too overwhelming. Its easier and safer and more comfortable for some people to just tune out. To stop paying attention to anything outside of themselves and their own lives.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark, James and John approach Jesus with a special request. When they approach him they state rather boldly, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus refuses to aquiesce to their demand before hearing what it is, and so he asks them, “What is it you want me to do for you.” To which the two disciples reply, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The request is self- centered, they are asking Jesus to give them what they want. Their request is also notable because it mirrors what Jesus has said will happen to him after his death and resurrection: He will sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Jesus knows, and has told the disciples’ that his path to glory require his to give up his very life for the good of other human beings. So when the disciple’s flippantly request to be served and honored by Jesus, he responds by asking them if they too are willing to give up their very lives for others, ““Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I baptized with?” Using the metaphor of cup and baptism, Jesus is asking the disciple’s if they are ready to suffer and to die. This is a heavy question, something to be considered and meditated upon, for it means enduring pain, and suffering. At the very least you would want to sleep on such a question, or get back to Jesus, but no, not James and John. They immediately respond, “We are able,” a response that demonstrates that they have a very optimistic view of the costs and trials of discipleship. Indeed at the end of Mark’s gospel, James and John abandon Jesus at the cross. They were not ready, they were not able. They had vastly underestimated the cost of discipleship.
This is the problem with optimism, it is often an ill-informed hope. Optimism underestimates the difficulties that are coming its way, it reports sunshine and blue skies, even when a storm is obviously approaching. Optimism turns off the news when its too depressing. Optimism chooses to isolate itself from the suffering of others, living a life where the less fortunate can be ignored, and its navite can go unchallenged. James and John are concerned with themselves and their reward and so they are optimistic that they are up to any test involved. They have tuned out Jesus repeated warnings that his destiny is to suffer and die. So when the time comes for them to drink the cup, they are not at all prepared, they never imagined it would cost them their lives.
If the disciple’s have trouble fully facing the cost of discipleship, then what hope do we have for so doing? After all they had a living breathing Jesus in front of them warning and teaching them, and they still couldn’t fully face the suffering of the world, they still couldn’t give their lives freely for others. How can we find the strength to face the world’s suffering and yet not run away, not isolate ourselves in despair or indifference? Especially when many of the problems we face are global in scale and seemingly beyond our capacity to do anything to fix? How can we read the UN Report on climate change, acknowledge our leaders unwillingness to tackle the issue, and not simply melt into despair?
My family isn’t terribly athletic, my father is short and somewhat round, with a bad back, so he didn’t play a lot of sports with us. But he did for one year, coach my kindergarten T-ball team. We were, most of us, a rag-tag group of kids who were more scared of the ball hitting them than we were excited about the opportunity to hit it. But we had one boy on our team, who was possibly the world’s largest kindergartener. I can’t remember his name, but I remember him being a full foot taller than anyone else on our team. And I remember where he batted in the order: he was fourth, he was clean up. The first three batters would do their best to make it to base on a slow ground ball, or unintentional bunt. And then our big guy would come up to the plate and hit a home run. Like almost every time. We scored in multiples of four, this giant would usually hit two or three grandslams every game. So despite my teams lack of talent even courage, and despite my father’s inexperience at coaching, we went undefeated that season. We had a secret a weapon, our own giant kindergartner who could carry us home we if we could just get on base.
Perhaps the greatest difference between us and those original 12 disciples, is that we have a secret weapon, we have faith in the risen Christ. Its true that Jesus told the disciples repeatedly he was going to die and rise again, but its one thing to hear it, and quite another to witness it, to experience it. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very same disciple’s who abandoned Jesus at the cross, became the foundation of the church. Their faith in God’s miraculous defeat of sin and death in Jesus’ resurrection completely changed them. The bumbling hard headed disciples become brave and bold in speaking truth to power, they perform miraculous healings, they begin a movement that has not stopped growing for over 2,000 years. And they did all of this while facing oppression, torture, and execution. Indeed we know from the book of Acts, that James did drink the cup of suffering, he too was executed. And hundreds and hundreds more over the first three centuries of Christianity would meet the same fate, torture and execution; yet they would face it with joy.
This is the difference between optimism and faith. While optimism underestimates or outright ignores the risks and costs involved, faith looks soberly and squarely at all the problems of the world, the countless, global, overwhelming problems of the world, and does not flinch. These problems are real, they are urgent, they are causing terrible consequences, and they will be nearly impossible to solve. That is true, and any faith worth the time, must be able to acknowledge that. But faith in the risen Christ is faith in a God for whom anything is possible. It is faith in a God of abundant grace and unparalleled power. It is faith in a God who conquers sin and death. This faith faces the crises of the world in all their horror and urgency, and nevertheless proclaims that God’s resources are greater than any of these problems. That God can and will and is working for justice, peace, and righteousness in the world. We can be realistic and yet still have hope, for our hope is not in ourselves, our hope is in the God who defeats sin and death, the God who can and will redeem anyone and anything. Our task is to be set free from despair, from indifference, from apathy, by our faith in God and to go about doing whatever small thing we can do to be a part of God’s saving work in the world. We can’t win the game by ourselves, we can’t even score a run by ourselves, but we can get on base if we try. We can do our small part and trust that God is always batting clean up. That God will bring us home. May we all find this trust, find this faith that sets us free to hope, and find ways in which we all can partake of the salvation that God is bringing to the world. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast