James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
I’d like to begin by saying a specific word to those who are to be confirmed and received into the Episcopal Church, or who will reaffirm the promises made at your baptism. As you come forward to receive the prayers from me or one my colleague bishops, we want you to know that the blessing you will receive is real, and it will remain with you. This moment is a sacrament–an outward expression of deep internal, invisible truths. That truth for you is rooted in God’s unconditional love, Jesus’ presence in your lives, and the Holy Spirit’s power guiding, sustaining, and gifting you. You are endowed with particular gifts, each one of you, and we will be praying for you, that those gifts might find their fullest expression, for your own joy’s sake and for all the good you will accomplish as you live your lives.
I encourage you, in particular those who are in your teen age years, to consider this moment not as the end of a process of learning and growing in faith, but as one point on a life-long journey. Your experiences of God and understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus simply must deepen and grow over your life or it will become less meaningful for you. I’d be lying if I told you that a relationship with God and a commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus doesn’t require effort and intentionality on all of our parts. Because it does. What I promise you is that it’s worth it.
We just heard a story from the Bible in which two of Jesus’ closest disciples run to the front of the line as they are all walking down a road, to ask Jesus a question, presumably one they didn’t want the others to hear. Their lead-in statement is one that should give us all pause: “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Have you ever begun a conversation like that? “Mom…Dad…Son…Darling, I want you to do whatever I ask you?”
Coming from my lips it sounds a bit arrogant or simply naive. But, honestly when I think about the people with whom I have the kind the relationships that could even entertain a conversation that starts with such an explicit statement, or more the case, the unspoken assumption of it, what they all have in common is love. The people that I would dare to ask them to something I want, I assume that they love me. And one thing is certain about James and John: they know that Jesus loves them enough to care about what that they want.
Now if you’ve spent any time at all in church, or if you’ve read the bible, you know that there are a lot of stories and teachings that say that what we want, our desires, particularly our sinful desires, have no place in our relationship with God. There is a strong bias in faith that suggests that everything we would want is somehow bad, or counter to the will of God.
I’m not suggesting that those passages are unimportant and that we need not listen to them. All I’m pointing out is that whenever we conclude that renouncing or giving up all that we want is what the Christian faith requires, we come across stories like this one. They are all over the Bible and particularly in the writings about Jesus. These stories seem to say something else, that what we want is important. In fact, if you show up in church tomorrow–two services on a weekend!–you’ll hear, at the very end of the gospel text, Jesus say something quite similar, that this notion of what we want factors into our life of faith.
I’m reminded of a story that Jesus told (this one didn’t turn out so well) of a son who goes to his father and demands in advance his portion of his inheritance. He was, in essence, saying to his dad, “What I will inherit when you die is what I want most from you.” And the father, incredibly enough, grants his request. If you know the story, you know that the son didn’t use the inheritance wisely, but squandered it all, and came begging back to his father, asking to be treated like a hired hand.
There’s another story about Jesus and his disciples walking along a road, and a blind man, sitting on the side of the road, when he realizes that Jesus is nearby starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” People try to shut him up, but he yells all the louder. So Jesus approaches and asked him the same question he asked James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” The man replies, “Teacher, I want to see again.” And the story goes from there.
What I’d like to say to those of you who are to be confirmed today or received; those who are re-affirming your faith, either individually or when we all stand to renew our baptismal promises together, and to those of you who are here to support someone else but aren’t all that sure about the Christian faith, is this: what you want matters. What you want obviously matters to you. It matters to the people who love you. It matters to God. That’s why Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” He wants to know what you want.
Your desires have a lot to teach you about yourself, about what’s important to you and what’s not; what makes you happy and what doesn’t; where you hurt and what you long for. All of that is really important data not only for you as you live your life, but also for those who love and want to support you. And God created you with those desires. God calls you through them, speaks to you, in and through your heart’s desire.
Which doesn’t mean–stating the obvious here–that you or I will always get what we want. It doesn’t mean that Jesus is some kind of Santa Claus, going around fulfilling the wish lists of those who are good or say the right prayers. It doesn’t mean that what we want today is what we’re going to want a year from now. It doesn’t mean that all our desires are healthy, or aren’t of balance or out of order. But there is a connection between what we want–especially the wants that lie beneath the stuff we want on the surface–and what God wants for us.
So here’s an exercise I invite you try someday, later today even: sit down with a blank piece of paper and pen, or a blank screen in front of you, and write as quickly as you can, without stopping for about two minutes, all the answers you can come with to the question, “What do you want?”
After you’ve done that, clear the screen or get a fresh piece of paper and answer in the same way, with all you can come up with in two minutes, this question:“What do you want Jesus to do for you?”
What do you want? What do you want Jesus to do for you? You might just sit for a moment now to imagine yourself doing that exercise.
You may come up with lots of answers: some personal, some relational, some trivial; some profound; some for the good of the world, some for yourself.
You may find yourself acknowledging a ride range of wants, but not seeing how those wants have anything to do with your faith. Or you might want Jesus to open a door for you, make something happen, move you beyond where you feel stuck, to help bring resolution to a difficult situation, resolve a conflict, heal a wound, give you guidance.
You might want God to buy you a Mercedes Benz. Do any of you know that song? “Oh, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (Janis Joplin/the 1960s? I’m dating myself here.)
Who knows until you ask the question?
Looking at your lists, however you write them, you can start to order your wants in some kind of priority. I’ll give you an example. I want to have a few days of retreat this week, something that I have planned for with a few of my colleagues and have looked forward to for several months. I also want to be a good daughter to my mother, who is 85 years old. Of the two, my desire to be a good daughter is of higher priority, which became clear to me when my mother fell last week and broke her wrist. So I cancelled the retreat and I’m going to see my mother. While I was disappointed to cancel the retreat, it wasn’t a hard decision. Part of the life of faith involves putting our wants in the correct order. None of them is necessarily bad, but their order in terms of priority and importance is what we must continually discern.
So when Jesus asks, “what do you want me to do for you?” if you let it, his question drops you down a level, and then another, to the desires beneath the surface, and then deeper still. Sometimes you get to desires that are so important that you’re willing to give your life for them even if they never fulfilled.
What do you want me to do for you?
When Jesus asked James and John what they wanted, they said they wanted Jesus to share with them his greatness, so that they could sit at his side in his glory. Maybe they thought they had earned their place next to him–after all, they had been with him from the beginning. Or maybe they simply wanted to be the first in line. Jesus knew they had no idea what they were asking, and he said as much to them. You see they are on their way to Jerusalem and he knows what’s waiting for him there. James and John are thinking it’s going to all triumphant glory, and he knows it will be a path of suffering.
And then Jesus does something for them, for all of them, that he does for us whenever we bring our wants to him: he doesn’t chastise them but instead takes them to a deeper place. He says, “You may well be great one day, but first let me teach you what greatness means. You think it has to do with sitting in places of honor. But I’m here to tell you that greatness has to do with how deeply you love and how selflessly you serve.”
That’s what Jesus does for us as well: He takes our surface desires and deepens them. He takes our ambitions, our self-focus, our need for affirmation and reveals what lies beneath them. If we allow him to, he’ll take all that we bring, and rather than chastise us, he’ll show us what we really want, at the deepest level instead of remaining distracted on the surface.
One way to get to that level of desire in your on-going relationship with Jesus is to bring to your prayer all that you want, and what you want him to do. And then save a bit of time in prayer for a final question: “Jesus, what do you want me to do?” If you ask that question alongside the other two, you will be astonished at the answer.
I asked that question once on a retreat, and I confess I was afraid of the answer. I was expecting Jesus to come up with a whole bunch of things that I didn’t want to do. I was convinced he was going to ask me to sell all my possessions, move to a far off place, give up everything. I was convinced that Jesus was going to test and see how serious I was about following him—I’m a bishop after all. If I were serious, that’s what he’d ask of me.
And what came instead, first of all, was an overwhelming experience of love. I felt deeply loved and seen for who I was, that Jesus saw all the way through and loved me still. And what I heard was something like, “Mariann, I’m not going to ask you to do things you can’t do. I love you.” Then came an invitation to trust him, that if I put my life in his hands, not only would he show me the way to go, he would help me live into my deepest desires, which were also his desire for me.
So my friends, someday–maybe later today, maybe tomorrow, please, take a moment, sit down or take a walk, and open your heart. Tell Jesus what you want and what you want him to do for you. Then turn the question around and asks what he wants from you.
Rest assured that he wants from you pales in comparison to what he wants for you. And what he wants for you is, in fact, your deepest desire.