I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 17th at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Mark 10:35-45.
This past week, during a few days of retreat and quiet time, I visited the place where the St. Joseph River merges with Lake Michigan. In case you haven’t been up that way, I’ll describe it to you. The river ends in a broad channel, deep enough for large ships to enter, and the chop and swell on a blustery day, as it was when I visited, makes it hard to distinguish where the river water ends and the great expanse of lake begins. There is a pair of lighthouses marking the spot, though, the St. Joseph North Pier Lights.
Though the weather wasn’t great, I somewhat foolishly decided to walk out along the breakwall to get as close as I could to the lighthouses. The swells were so high that day that they crashed against the wall as I walked along it, the water rushing under my feet on the slick, wet stone, the wind howling. I was the only person out there. And it was clear, the farther I ventured out, that I had crossed a sort of threshold, and this was no gentle river now, but the wild, wide open waves, the swirling, undulating freedom of the great, grey lake.
As I stood out on the breakwall and looked back toward the place where the river gave itself to the expanse beyond, I thought of how far that water had traveled to get there, across hundreds of miles of watershed, accumulating strength and depth as it traveled, along with some broken branches and the fallen petals of summer flowers and autumn leaves, all of it pulled towards this moment, its broad unfolding destiny, no longer a brook or a stream swelling against its own banks, but released, transformed, encountering the greatness of something bigger than itself, shedding its old, narrow boundaries, becoming what it must become, contributing itself into a greater whole: perfect freedom, perfect consummation.
And I wondered, can a river ever quite comprehend the mystery of the open waters that wait for it? When it is eagerly bursting forth from its headwaters, can it grasp how deep, how wide is the measure of its destiny? Probably not. None of us, when we first set out on a journey, can truly predict what it will be like when we finish, or who we will have become in the meantime.
And in all of this I was reminded of James and John in today’s Gospel, a coupe of exuberant upstarts, babbling like a brook to Jesus, asking for a share of his glory when they don’t fully understand yet what God’s glory even is. They say that they want to sit at his right hand and his left in the coming Kingdom, not realizing that the ones to Jesus’ right and left will be the criminals crucified alongside him on Calvary—for it is there, in the place of the skull, the place where ambition dies, that the coronation of their King will take place, not in a throne room or a temple court. Hence Jesus’ reply to them, perhaps with equal measures of love, incredulity, and pity: “you do not know what you are asking.” Young, eager, thundering river, you are not yet ready for the depths of which I speak.
Do any of us really know what we are asking for when we set out to follow Jesus? Can we, confined to the landscape of our present understanding, envision both the cost and the promise of where he leads a willing heart? Probably not. The river knows its own banks quite well, but it cannot picture the sea.
So as easy as it is to laugh a bit at James and John for completely missing the point, for focusing on their own glory rather than God’s, we can’t be too harsh on them lest we condemn ourselves at the same time. For each of us, following Christ, are on a similar course that we don’t fully understand, angling for something better, when what we are actually promised is something deeper—striving for something higher when what we are actually given is something broader, a love as expansive as the open waves, a love that cannot be harnessed to suit our cravings for power or control.
This all might sound a bit vague and overwhelming, but that’s sort of the point. James and John, too, are overwhelmed, because Jesus has been leading them towards Jerusalem, repeatedly predicting his own torture and death and resurrection, and they are probably feeling scared, disappointed, maybe even a little frustrated.
Give us something we can rely upon, they seem to be demanding in this moment—give us something to hope for, something to hold onto, something material and reassuring, something that will make all of this make sense. That’s what we all want when things feel uncertain—we want the obvious solution. A cure, a windfall, a sudden change of heart, a surprise advantage.
We cannot see beyond the next bend, and we are afraid. We cry out, in desperation, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And of course, we ask for the solutions we are capable of imagining—vanquishing our enemies, winning the struggle, securing our position. For James and John, like us, these are the things that seem within the boundaries of possibility. A river dreams of becoming mightier; it doesn’t know how to dream of becoming an entirely new body.
And Jesus knows this. And like the rich young man from last week’s Gospel, he sees us in this condition, and he loves us. And yet…
Jesus is not limited by our fear-induced dreams; he is the incarnation of God’s dream. And so even when we are certain that we know what we want, what we need, he often tends to say, as he does to his disciples here:
No, my dear ones, you are missing the bigger picture. I have other purposes for you, things beyond your frantic visions of human glory, things wilder and unpredictable and yet even more true, things more beautiful, more satisfying, than you ever dreamt of along the grassy banks of younger days. Take courage, and follow, follow where the river flows, past where you can see, and yes, drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: a baptism that began, yes, right here, in the river and yet does not end here, for it is moving, moving, surging inexorably towards true glory, God’s glory, towards the cresting wave of heaven, a chorus of wind and light, thundering on a distant shore.
That’s what James and John are part of. That is what we are part of. Something big. Big and wondrous and all-encompassing.
This is good news, my friends. For James and John and for you and me. Because it means that no matter how many times we get it wrong, no matter how many times we misunderstand Jesus or ourselves, no matter how many times we let our fear and our striving get the best of us, as long as we keeping following our Lord faithfully, we are borne on a current towards that encounter with wonder, a place we cannot yet even imagine in full.
And so even on the days when the water is muddy and brackish, when the branches close in and the horizon is lost, when it feels like we’re stuck, or going backwards, if we follow Jesus’ call, then we aren’t really, because we are living in his wake, and it is guiding us, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes quickly, toward the boundless expanse of that holy dream, towards the place where the river and the waves tumble into one another’s embrace, where, as the Psalmist says, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, where righteousness and peace will kiss”——the place where our sometimes lonely sojourns merge into the currents of the one single story—the one that has been unfolding since the beginning of time, guiding us on, guiding us home, beyond the uttermost parts of the sea.
Needless to say, I didn’t get washed off of the breakwall that afternoon and I made it back to the shore, back up the river, back into the enclosure of my days, with all of their twists and turns and unresolved questions, where the horizon is a bit harder to spot.
But that image of the colliding waters remains as a gift in my minds’ eye—an image to draw upon, perhaps, when life feels stifling or disappointing—a reminder that even when I don’t realize it, I am being carried forward by God through this endless stream of days, and that there will come a moment, brave and wonderful and strange, when each of us will finally encounter the fulness of truth, and we will feel the breath of God making waves across the deep, and we will see the Lord standing astride the place where the waters meet, like a lighthouse, arms sweeping wide across the horizon, welcoming us to himself, welcoming us home.
And on that day, what was once narrowly conceived as the lonely journey, the journey that felt like it was mine and mine alone to bear, will suddenly tumble, with joy and trembling and release, into the breadth and length and height and depth of what was never only mine, never only yours, but ours–always ours, with God, in the limitless love of Christ, forever.