Sons of Thunder

I took a train to New Haven on Thursday afternoon. I was headed up to Yale Divinity School. My dear friend and colleague from my days at First Church Somerville, Rev. Molly Baskette, invited me to go to the Convocation dinner with her. She would be there to receive an alumni award for Distinction in Congregational Ministry, and I was more than happy to make the trip to celebrate her.

If you’re going to be honored in public, when all eyes are on you, when people say nice things about you, and give you a standing ovation, when you are recognized and thanked, it’s nice to have someone there in the room who really knows you. The victory is sweetest when a few of the eyeballs looking at you are in the heads of people who love you, people who get you, people who won’t forget what was said and done, people who will remember how awesome you are long after the etched glass trophy has gathered its dust and gotten lost at the back of the shelf, people who will be able to remind you how awesome you are, and why, when the day comes – and it will come – when you begin to doubt yourself.

And so – colleagues, friends, and family – we gathered ‘round Molly Baskette’s table to witness the excellence of her vision and leadership, her preaching and writing, her pastor heart and her CEO head, and to participate in raising her up. And it wasn’t just Molly who being honored. Steven Ray, Jr., recently named 13th President of Chicago Divinity School, was awarded for Distinction in Theological Education. Cara Cunnigham took home the William Sloan Coffin award for her work as an advocate for homeless people. And the Lux Et Veritas award went to Jimmy Canton, CEO of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which serves 20,000 seriously ill children and their families every year.

There is nothing wrong with honoring good work in the world. Great joy and love can come from uplifting people who embody, through their experience and commitment, our deepest values and our greatest hopes for the world. Hearing about the accomplishments of these four Yale alumni – their struggles and their joys, participating in honoring them for who they are and what they accomplished was rewarding for every person in the room. We laughed, we cried, we left uplifted in our faith.

But there is this idea among Christians that the highest ideal of service is to give, and give, and give, and never to get; to do the highest good, to make the biggest difference, and to somehow pull it all off without ever having the world notice you – let alone learn from you; to sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice until you burn out like a cinder, forgotten and extinguished.

If you do this, the story goes, you’ll receive some great reward in heaven – not for feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked, or running a camp for sick kids, or growing the church, or releasing the imprisoned. No, you’ll be rewarded for doing whatever you did without being noticed – without sacrificing the virtue of your absolute humility. God, this story tells us, doesn’t like powerful people or great leaders, God prefers people who do good without ever risking being noticed.

Have you ever heard that story? I wonder, has it ever held you back from something God gave you to do? Because you didn’t want to make a big deal out of yourself? “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Or maybe you’ve just felt guilty, instead of joyful, for some good thing you brought to the world and were congratulated for.

Jesus liked to give nicknames to people. There was Simon “the Rock,” Thomas, “the Twin,” Simon “the Zealot,” James “the Less,” Mary “the Magdalene.” To James and John, the sons of Zebedee (the ones from our reading this evening looking for their places at the right hand and left hand of Jesus in his glory), Jesus gave them the nickname, “Sons of Thunder.”

You don’t get a name like “Sons of Thunder,” “the Thunder Brothers,” for nothing. In Luke’s gospel, shortly after Jesus gives the disciples the power to heal the sick and cast out demons, Jesus and the disciples are turned away from a Samaritan village by the people who live there. James and John mention to Jesus that if he’d like to grant them the small additional power of calling down fireballs from heaven, they’d be more than happy to smite the entire village for him. Jesus declines their offer, but we get a bit of insight into the dynamics that led to these fellas being called “the Thunder Brothers.” In Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) the word for “thunder” was connected to other words like “rage” and “riot,” which rounds out their personalities a little more – James and John were hot heads.

But there’s something else about thunder. There’s one big BOOM, a few seconds of rolling echoes, quieter and quieter, and then, just a few breaths after splitting the sky open, it’s gone. Thunder comes down from on high. It is big, it is loud, it is terrifying. Thunder makes you jump to your feet. It makes you fall to your knees. It crashes, and we go running for shelter. Thunder lords it over all the Earth. But thunder never lasts. And it does no good.

Jesus has just precited his death (and resurrection) for the third and final time on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus probably has some pretty strong feelings about all this, but James and John are like two kids on Christmas Eve with visions of fireballs dancing in their heads. They think they’re being invited to a superhero special effects spectacular. Armageddon, baby. And they want to make sure that they have a place on that great stage.

James and John don’t understand that in the climactic scene that is coming the one on Jesus’ right hand and the one of Jesus’ left hand will be two crucified thieves. They are expecting thunder, glory, victory. They aren’t ready – yet – for something far more subtle. “Can you drink from the cup I will drink from?” asks Jesus. They imagine a cup of sweet wine, overflowing. They aren’t thinking of the bitter cup. They aren’t ready for a vinegar-soaked sponge held up to their dying lips on a stick. “Can you be baptized with my baptism?” asks Jesus. They think of the dove from Heaven and the voice thundering from the sky, “This is my child, with him I am well pleased!” They like that! They don’t understand – yet – that one moment of glory does not make a baptism. They don’t understand that Jesus’ glorious baptism is leading him to a difficult sacrifice. And they don’t understand that faith is not always about getting whatever you ask for. Sometimes, it’s about being asked to give what you have to give.

All of the awardees at Thursday night’s alumni dinner gave short acceptance speeches. They were all powerful testimonies. They all reflected on how their time at Yale Divinity School had prepared them to serve others. Steven Ray, Jr. told the story of when he first knew he wanted to be a theologian. He was sitting in the back of class after a lecture on ecclesiology (the theology of how we do church together) and he began to weep because he finally understood how his life could serve the Church he loved.

And they reflected about how Yale had opened their hearts to the idea of their greatness – not their thundering greatness, but a quieter greatness, a slower greatness, a greatness that hurts sometimes, but which is ultimately more than just a bunch of a noise. Molly Baskette told us just how hard it is to be a pastor in a changing culture, in a declining church, in a time when ministers are expected to somehow be all things to all people, as salaries are falling, and as the social rewards and recognition of the profession have all but faded away to be replaced with stereotypes and scandals. It is hard to a minister, just like it’s hard for any of us to be Christians.

But, she said, what a reward, what a front-row seat on transformation – as lives are changed, as people get sober, come out of the closet, fall in love, repent, transition, grow, hear Jesus’ call to the Kingdom of God – and answer it with their lives. There is no thundering greatness on the minister’s path, on the Christian path, on the path of anyone dedicated to serving others. It is a path of sacrifice. But on the other side of that sacrifice there isn’t silence, emptiness, invisibility, extinction – No, instead there is the other half of Jesus’ prediction: the remarkable possibility of resurrection sneaking around the corner to surprise you when you least expect it.

It’s not that you shouldn’t be great, Jesus tells the disciples, it’s about finding the right path to greatness. If you find yourself with power over others, thundering, with a fireball in your right hand and fireball in your left, you are on the wrong path. And, if you find yourself sacrificing, and sacrificing, and sacrificing, and never finding a reason to celebrate yourself or what God is doing in your life, if you are lonely in the good that do, you are also on the wrong path. Because neither of these are the paths that lead to greater life. Neither of these are what we would hope for in the Kingdom of God; neither of these are what we would want to build in our own church.

If you’re going to do good in the world, it’s nice to have someone there in the room who really knows you. The victory is sweetest when you share the good you do with people who love you, people who get you, people who won’t forget what was said and done, people who will remember how awesome you are long after the work is over, people who will be able to remind you how awesome you are, and why, when the day comes – and it will come – when it is time to celebrate what we have breathed new life into together.

We honored Molly and the other award winners not because they were great tyrants, but because they are great at giving to all of us in a way that makes us all feel like resurrection a little closer. The trouble with thunder is that it’s mean and – thank God – it burns itself out, eventually, and is lost forever over the horizon. True greatness is the sacrifice that gives itself to others so that we can all get a little closer to the life that never ends.  That is the path we should all be pursuing – by honoring, uplifting, showcasing, supporting the very best that others and each one of us has to give. Amen.