Mother Katie preached the following sermon at St James Merton on Saint James Day 2020. If you wish you can also view the video of the service which some parishioners of St James Malden also attended along with the Bishop of Southwark (presiding).
In the history of inappropriate responses this has to be up there.
Immediately before our reading starts today Jesus has just told them all that he is going to die a violent death very soon – in a place that they are on their way to.
I’m not sure how you would react if a friend told you they were about to be killed.
But the mother of James and John gets on her knees and says – “Can I ask a favour Jesus?”
“You know my boys – will you give them the top jobs?”
Either she totally lacks empathy or the ability to listen or both – she is so caught up in the world from her own view she neither sees the bigger picture or understands what she asks.
We are not told whether the sons are behind her asking but they certainly support it.
For James doesn’t apologise for his mother’s behaviour – and he doesn’t express concern for Jesus and what he has just told them.
Instead boldly – recklessly – he declares he can drink the same cup as Christ.
As James awaited execution I wonder if he remembered this Gospel incident? I wonder with the insight of hindsight how he felt?
Whether he – a little older and wiser – smiled at the confident foolishness of his youth? Or felt embarrassed by it? Or even deeply ashamed? I hope he wasn’t too hard on himself – we can all think we need the wrong thing when we focus on the wrong thing.
And he isn’t the only one to have ever expected wildly inappropriate things of their life and future. When I was 8 years old I wanted to be the first female non-Catholic Pope. I wrote this in a essay for school entitled ‘When I grow up’– I was a non catholic child in a very Catholic school at the time and was immediately sent to the Headteacher to be disciplined for such outrageous ideas.
So I have some sympathy with James and John – we can all have stupid ideas that are born of very good intentions but still get us in trouble. I think, their timing could have been better but behind the request of James and John is a desire to see God’s reign – and they wanted to be part of it – right at the centre of the action – they were not content just to watch from the sides – they wanted to be on the right and left because they believed so passionately in the cause. It could have been faith that drove them as much as ambition. In a similar way as a little girl it wasn’t ambition that made me want an impossible role – it was being separated from my friends at mass – catholics and non-catholics were put in different places – and so to my 8 year old self it seemed obvious – I needed to become Pope and then we could all sit together.
40 years later I have absolutely no desire to be the Pope – but I still hold that dream of being someone who helps others sit together. I’ve just realised I don’t need to be Pope to do that.
James as he awaited execution, I expect still held the dream of sitting with Christ in his reign. And he is granted this – just not in the way he or his mother thought.
Big dreams are not the problem here – the world needs people who are prepared to dream big dreams – who are ambitious for positive change – who are prepared to lead on the frontline and to help that dream become a new reality. We see that in the movements of our own day from Black Lives Matter to Climate Campaigners.
The problem is how narrow our vision of success is – how we instinctively feel the first will be first – and even deserve to be first – and the last will be last – and that is just how it is.
We’ve even written hymns about it – the famous All Things Bright and Beautiful has the verse I often refuse to sing:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
Not according to Jesus he didn’t.
That’s how the gentiles live he says in this passage.
The way of the cross is about taking the gates down – and is going to demand something very different entirely.
The disciples are having their world entirely turned upside down here – though they don’t quite grasp it yet nothing will be the same going forward – all their expectations and desires captured in this simple request are going to have to be let go – put down – and replaced with something so radical they might kill you for it.
Kind of puts lockdown into perspective doesn’t it? But it is also something we can relate to from lockdown – since March of this year we have all had our lives disrupted – some of us have seen dreams fade – and the plans we had for our churches and our personal lives have all been disturbed. And collectively and perhaps individually we have had to face death too.
Not so different from those early disciples – who also struggled without a building – who must have felt afraid and confused at times – who often locked themselves away – and through circumstances found they had to preach as much by letter as they did in person.
And so I wonder what St James would say to us in these times carrying the wisdom of his own time – if we could give him the pulpit today? And I think the answer might come from his shell.
The shell of St James is the symbol of pilgrimage – and walking with God.
Before Christian fish signs on cars there were scallop shells on walking sticks, or hung around the neck and waist of pilgrims.
Followers of the Way recognised each other by this sign.
The groves in the shell symbolising all the paths of pilgrimage we take – all the different journeys – with the same destination.
James might share the story of how he healed a man with the shell once – it was a miracle – and ever since it became a symbol of both healing and protection – people have put shells in their homes and carried them to protect against harm.
But it was also a very useful and practical tool of the road for the pilgrim.
With few possession and little money – it could be used for begging for coins when you were down to the last pennies.
On the journey you might get thirsty – the shell is great for drinking water from – whether gathered from rain or stream.
You can create a bowl to eat out of too.
And at night with a little oil it can become a lantern to find your way in the dark.
Most importantly of all – if your journey influences another – you can baptise with it too.
The shell – like God – contains all you need for the journey.
And I think St James would say whenever we get too caught up in what we think we want – we should look at the shell and remember him – and how wrong his family got it by doing precisely that. The shell should remind us of our true focus – which is Christ: and in Christ we find we have: light for the darkness; refreshment for the journey; food to nourish your soul; gifts to give and gifts to receive; healing and protection.
But the shell tells us to look at Christ first – but then to look out. To find others on the road to share this pilgrimage of life with. Always being willing to welcome the stranger and the newcomer with the surprising good news that is found in baptism – that it is only in dying to the old that we can rise to the new – and find ourselves seated with Christ in the heavenly realms.
So as lockdown lifts – here is our challenge – on this next leg of the journey – what of the old needs to die – and what is the new we are being called to rise to?
And are we prepared to walk the talk? Can we drink the cup?
I think James would encourage us to be as outrageously bold as he was – because with Christ we have perfect guide on this pilgrimage of life – who – if we are willing to be surprised – will show us all we need and bring us safely home.