The Rev. Canon Stephen Huber
The weekend before last, St. Alban’s School for Boys, here on the Cathedral Close, marked its centennial with three days of alumni reunions and celebration. The festivities began on Friday night with a grand worship service in a packed Cathedral. Current students and faculty, parents, graduates from far places and across the years along with former faculty and bishops and representatives from the national office of Episcopal Schools were all here. Trumpets blasted, organ and orchestra, the student choirs and choristers lead the music and the bells of the Cathedral peeled into the night. Occasions such as this allow an institution to step-back from its day to-day activities and re-engage with its big vision, the lofty undertaking that gave it birth in the first place.
Eloquent words were spoken about St. Alban’s primary concern being the spiritual welfare of its students. Fifty years ago, the fourth head of school, the Rev. Charles Martin, wrote, “Despite all its richness and variety, such a curriculum is still not the basis of a sound education. Inevitably in conversations with alumni, I hear, ‘the master who shaped my life,’ what a diverse group of men our master are! Yet they have one thing in common: they care. And caring, I have come to believe, is the ultimate value in life.”
Great teachers and excellent schools want to do more than just impart knowledge. They want their students to see the world in new and fresh ways. They want to form students who will be compassionate and just citizens of the world. The current headmaster, Vance Wilson, charged the students to be about so much more in life than their own gain, but to be voices and advocates for God’s compassion in all that they do.
We’ve been working our way through Mark’s Gospel this year. Rabbi, or teacher, is one of Mark’s favorite depictions of Jesus. And we see repeatedly, particularly in this Gospel, that the disciples—those closest to Jesus—don’t seem to understand he is saying. Hard as Jesus tries, they misunderstand, and misconstrue his teachings. We might find some comfort in all of this: if Jesus inner circle didn’t get it, then surely Jesus will cut us some slack for failing to comprehend the full import of his message.
Immediately preceding the Gospel passage just read, Jesus, for the third time, predicts his suffering and death. But as we’ve just heard, the disciples are still thinking about power and glory. “Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.”
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and with the baptism with which I am baptized? Among the Gentiles their rulers lord it over them and are tyrants. But not so among you, whoever wishes to become great must become a servant. The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve.” Jesus is inviting his followers into of a different kind of world. Yet, in the chapter just before today’s text, Mark says the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.”
Again and again, Jesus is trying to teach that he is not the kind of Messiah the world thinks it needs: some ruler who will set all things right, by the world’s standards of power and control. Rather he is going to be betrayed and rejected by the controlling powers in the world. And his kind of self sacrifice is just what he calls his disciples to take on when he says repeatedly, “Follow Me!” But they don’t get it.
Or are Jesus disciples not really as dense as they are made out to be? Is the reason that they are afraid to ask Jesus for more clarification about what he is saying, that they really do get it and are terrified at the prospect of what they are hearing? I don’t know about you, but I can identify with that. Like the disciples, I suspect most of us are not so sure at all that we want to walk where Jesus the teacher is leading us.
Look at James and John’s brazen exchange with Jesus: ‘Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” In other words, come on Jesus, it’s your turn to pony up. We’ve dropped everything to follow you, we now want some guarantees that this is all worth it. Isn’t it the truth that so often our posturing and bravado are really cover-ups for our deep fears and insecurities? But Jesus isn’t swayed by their attempted manipulation. In essence he says, “Yes, you have dropped everything to follow me, but I want more, because I am trying to open your eyes and invite you into the life that God intends for you. I not only want you to think about the world in a new way, I want you to live in a new way.” No wonder they are fearful. Mark Twain once said, “It’s not what I don’t understand in the Bible that bothers me; it’s what I understand all too well.”
Now to be fair, the world that Jesus is trying to open up to these first disciples is a long way from the world they knew, just as it’s radically different from the world we live in most days. The world values competition, assertiveness, power and prestige and Jesus call us to walk the way of service. But Jesus is also clear in throughout the Gospel that his followers are not to remove themselves from the world. Rather, they are to join him in transforming the world, even if only by one small baby steps, all the while learning over and over again the truth of his teaching.
Bill Tully, the rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City, writes, “People who take the life of faith seriously know how often that life is in tension with, or even opposed to, the values of the culture around us. It’s not comfortable to not quite fit in either place, but it sure is interesting. But to find that interest you really have to be in, and of, both. So I’d say this to churchgoers: Bless you, but the things we love about being together in a faith community will get a lot more lively if you have a life to bring to it. And to the vastly larger group who don’t have time for, or have lost the taste for, or have been hurt or turned off by church, step in. You may be missing that deep place of the Sprit, where there is a vision of something quite unlike the shallow, rapacious noisy place our culture often is.”
It is in the tension between the life of the Spirit and the life of the world as we know it that Jesus invites his disciples into a new vision of the way things really are in God’s kingdom. Theologian Brian McLaren, a regular guest at this Cathedral, says that is exactly why Jesus so often teaches in parables. He writes, “Parables hide the truth so that we need to do more than simply hear with our ears or read with our eyes on a literal level; we have to invest ourselves in an imaginative search for meaning. Parables entice their hearers into new territory. The goal is an interactive relationship. A parable succeeds where easy answers and obvious explanations could not. Jesus is not interested in dogma or simply conveying information, he seeks to precipitate something far more important: the spiritual transformation of his hearers.”
There is usually a struggle between our ways and Jesus’ way. Jesus is the master teacher who loves us and wants us not only to think differently, but to live differently. There is a short little prayer that captures the world view Jesus is trying to instill in us, “To those who have hunger, give bread. To those who have bread, give a hunger for justice.”
It is a struggle. Often when we try to follow Jesus, it’s not that we don’t understand what he is saying. We understand it all too well but we fear going where he leads. The church is the place where we can engage in that struggle and it’s in this sometimes confusing conflicted space that true discipleship takes root.
So let us keep coming to engage with Jesus. The question really isn’t if we fully understand every one of Jesus’ teachings, but rather, if we will allow Jesus into our lives. He loves us and wants us to see the world in a new, fresh, and liberated way. And he prays we’ll begin to act out of that vision. But he also knows we’re resistant and, like James and John, we’ll hide behind our arrogance and fear. But if we come—even in our fear—expecting and hoping to meet Jesus, we will begin change and grow. For most of us it takes a lifetime, but in the end it’s the only journey worth taking because it’s a journey toward real freedom, the big vision and the lofty undertaking we were created for in the first place. Amen.