The first thing I ever knew about Maine was that you had a Senator named Edmund Muskie, and he was friends with my dad. In 1968, Senator Muskie ran for Vice-President, and we were excited. When he came to my home state of Virginia to campaign, we met him at the airport, and we flew on his plane, the Down East Yankee. Senator Muskie even gave me a little bracelet, with a Down East Yankee charm.
I, of course, had no idea what Down East meant. When I moved to Portland in my twenties, I wondered, “How far do you have to go to go Down East?”
This week I returned to some scenes from early in my Maine life, when I drove to Boothbay Harbor for a funeral. I drove past Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, where in 1986, a teenaged hot dog salesgirl told me my tiny baby son was “wicked cute.” Across the bridge, I turned south on 27, and in my mind it was 1991 again, and I was visiting Boothbay for the first time with my mom and dad and my two little boys.
I remember my mother patiently sitting on the beach with five-year-old Edward, watching him “set up” his Ninja Turtle figures and listening to his descriptions of the various allegiances of the good guys, the bad guys, and the formerly bad guys who, as he put it, “turned to the good.” I remember my father, trying to focus on some work he couldn’t leave behind, being distracted by baby Peter, who cruised the furniture that summer. As Peter drummed on his Granddaddy’s briefcase, my dad whistled “Big Noise From Winnetka,” his eyes twinkling.
And I remember standing on the deck with my mom and telling her how strongly I felt called to ministry. I wanted to go to seminary, I told her. “I can’t NOT go,” I said. My mom answered in a way that bothered me, saying, “Martha, don’t let anyone force you to go.” At the time I thought, as we sometimes do about our mothers, that she just didn’t understand, but eighteen years later I have a bit more sympathy for her point of view. I think maybe she was wondering, “How far do you have to go to go with Jesus?”
There’s a difference between wanting Jesus to go with us and being willing to go with Jesus ourselves.
Sometimes I find it comforting that the disciples had so much trouble understanding Jesus. Even though you might think they would be way ahead of the rest of us since they spent so much time with him, they alternate between stepping up and running away, between getting it right and really blowing it. And in today’s story, James and John really, really blow it.
Now, it’s been a topic of conversation among the disciples already. In fact, the last time I preached we read the story from Chapter Nine that felt pretty similar to this one. In that case Jesus asked the disciples what they had been wrangling about and they didn’t want to admit they had been debating which of them was the greatest. Now we have two in particular, the brothers James and John, coming to Jesus with what is more than a request. It’s practically a demand.
"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
Let me give you some context that is missing from the lectionary today. Just before James and John come to speak to Jesus, he has told the disciples for the third time that he will be arrested and killed, and that he will rise again. Having heard it for the third time, you might think they would be wondering just what he meant, that they might have come to him and asked for a further explanation. Arrested and killed, well, that could happen to any of them in the political climate of their times. They traveled with a teacher who aggravated the religious authorities, and the religious authorities had an interestingly collaborative relationship with the Roman governor and army ruling in Jerusalem. Being arrested and killed might have seemed perfectly, horribly possible.
But that part about rising again? It probably felt safer to blow right past that bit of information. Because a God who can make that happen, and a person who is close enough to God, enough a part of God to be the one who rises from the dead—that God and that person might seem beyond our grasp.
It’s much simpler to make God small, to put God into human terms and try to draw God into a human-sized relationship.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
I’ll tell you what I wish this story had. I wish it had vocal tone. I wish I could hear the tone of Jesus’ voice when he answers them. My husband sometimes says Jesus never laughed, and it is true that the gospels never describe him as laughing, but honestly, I should think in this case he had all he could do NOT to laugh!
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
I picture him bemused. He’s just told them, for the third time, what’s coming. And yet they ask this, no, really, they demand this.
Eventually, I looked up “Down East” to see what it really meant. I knew it had something to do with sailing, and Down East magazine gives us the definitive answer:
"When ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine (which were to the east of Boston), the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind, hence the term 'Down East.' And it follows that when they returned to Boston they were sailing upwind; many Mainers still speak of going 'up to Boston,' despite the fact that the city lies approximately 50 miles to the south of Maine’s southern border."
But how far do you have to go to go Down East? Farther than I went that day I was talking to my mother—maybe you all knew this.
And how far do you have to go to go with Jesus?
He asked them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
James and John pictured themselves in glory with their teacher. They wanted Jesus to go with them, really, to escort them to the pinnacle of their ambition. Jesus wants them to go with him, which is another matter entirely; it’s so different that he's letting them know they might not be able to do it.
We make God smaller to make faith easier, more explicable, less mysterious. We make God smaller to make faith tame.
Because it’s a lot to ask, to believe that some part of the force of Creation became one of us. It’s a lot to ask, to believe that this human man containing some part of the Divine with a capital D lived a human life and not only that but a human death, too, a terrible, torturous human death. It’s a lot to ask, to believe that even the people who MET him face to face, even the people who listened to him talk, even the people who sat at the table with him did not understan
d who he was, really, and yet to believe this man was God and this God was man.
And that’s not even getting all the way to the Resurrection.
How far do you have to go, then, to go with Jesus?
He tells James and John that the sorts of honors they hope to share with him are not his to give. He defers to a Higher Power. He is not concerned with what will be in some other time and place but with the lives they will live that hour and that day. He wants them to understand, but he makes it hard because he uses language that puzzles them, about the cup he will drink and the baptism with which he is baptized. And they want to go along with him, they want to please him, and so they say “yes, we can do these things.”
My mother, on that deck that was not quite Down East—you have to get as far as Penobscot Bay, I know that now—misunderstood me on the obvious level. I wanted her to understand that I felt impelled toward a life in the church; it was not compulsory but magnetic. Yet despite that misunderstanding, my mother said something very truthful that I could not understand, at least not then. I believe she had a sense of how far you had to go to go with Jesus.
Jesus tried to make it simpler, because by the end of the passage we read today, all the other disciples were cross with James and John, and none of them seemed to get the point about what was to come. The Man who was God, the God who was Man, came to serve, and although
he invites us to go with him on that journey, he wants us to understand
first what is required. Being the greatest is not about having the best seat in the house, or the position of power or the rank or the title. In every age, in every culture, in this town and in this church, we
have some version of what it means to be great, and in every one of
them Jesus is turning the whole idea upside down for us, reminding us
how far we have to go to go with him. He made it plain how far you have to go: all the way to the bottom, out of love for all. May we have the courage to go with Jesus. Amen.