October 17, 2021
"Be Careful What You Ask For"
Rev. Scott Landis
It was my professor of Pastoral Care in seminary who offered some words in class one day – words that I have never forgotten.
As best I can recall – and this goes back a few years now – we were discussing prayer. The use of prayer in hospital and home visits – particularly when we pray for healing, relief, or comfort in challenging moments. We thought about the efficacy of prayer and what exactly it is that we are doing when we are so bold to ask God for such things that WE believe are in the best interests of the one being prayer for.
We then moved to the idea of praying for ourselves – our needs – our deepest longings – our wants and our desires. It was then that he said it, “Be careful what you ask for – it has a strange way of becoming true.”
I know that to be the case in so many aspects of my life. For example, I had always hoped (and prayed) that one day I would have the chance to spend a part of my ministry in Hawai`i. I’m not kidding. Be careful what you ask for. I bet you have similar stories.
This notion, has both encouraged and haunted me throughout life, and came to mind as I thought about this strange conversation between Jesus, James, and John that was read moments ago.
What we did not read were the words that immediately preceded this story, and they are important to what happened next. Jesus had just finished telling his disciples – for the third time – the fate of his life: that he would be arrested, flogged, killed, and then, three days later, rise from the dead.
Whether it was disbelief or blatant denial, James and John completely ignored Jesus’ words and demanded, “Teacher, we want you do FOR US whatever we ask of you.”
I can imagine Jesus shaking his head and thinking to himself, “Were they not listening?” But, playing along with them Jesus responded, “Well, what is it that you want?”
“We want to sit – one at your right hand and one at your left – in your glory.”
Jesus responded in essence with those fateful words of my seminary professor — Be careful what you ask for. His actual words, “You don’t have any idea what you are requesting. Are you able to drink from the same cup that I drink or be baptized with the same baptism that I have been baptized?
“No problem,” they said, but they had no idea. What Jesus was saying to them – rather cryptically – was indeed, “Be careful what you ask for.”
What they didn’t know was there would soon be a time when folks WOULD sit on his right and on his left – we refer to it as the Last Supper. And then the very next day, there would be one on his right and his left when he hung on the cross and there were two criminals next to him – and he said to them, “Today, you will be with me in glory.”
I think Jesus was hoping his disciples would wake up - and begin to appreciate what was just about to take place. Events that they would witness firsthand.
As I think about this story, and as I hear the voice, of my professor, once again – AND of Jesus – “Be careful what you ask for” – I come face-to-face with the reality that Jesus seemed to imply – that, in fact, we MAY need to die in order to receive – what we have asked for. And, I wonder, as a contemporary disciple of Jesus Christ am I willing to do that? Am I willing to accept the COSTS along with the JOYS of discipleship? [Pause]
Russ Dean, pastor of Park Roads Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina offered that same “wondering” in the form of a challenge for the contemporary church. In a compelling article, Rev. Dean echos the sentiments of one of his predecessors the Rev. Charlie Milford who asserted the shocking words, “The church is called to die.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It’s a notion that runs counter to everything I have worked for in my entire career. We were trained to be evangelists, to grow the church, more butts in the pews meant more money in the plate which resulted in more programs, more vitality – in short – SUCCESS. Everybody’s happy! Not to mention a sense of job security for the preacher. But, this past year and a half has changed all of that and really forced me to stop and listen with humble ears to these words of Russ Dean, Charlie Milford, and the challenge of Jesus. “Be careful what you ask for.”
Dean states in his article, for the first 300 years the followers of Jesus Christ lived as a cultural minority, eking out existence as a persecuted cult. They grew in number through martyrdom. They deepened in conviction through the sacrifice of every single convert to the faith. But when Roman Emperor Constantine dubbed Christianity as the official religion and the institutional church was born, growth was no longer a problem – Christianity became a worldwide phenomenon, and Jesus became a household name.
From that moment we continued to grow and grow – numerically AND financially – to the point where we were the envy of all other religions. Ours became the biggest, wealthiest, most powerful religion. Our prayers were welcomed in the courtroom, at the ball field, and our faith was incorporated into school students’ daily pledge to the flag. But we now know this did little more than create an impenetrable veneer to a rapidly decaying commitment to a Savior who expected sacrificial living.
Seventeen hundred years later, with the global pandemic bringing the church to its knees, we MAY have been given a gift – of possible insight – to discern whether the institutional church – that is the “success” we thought we enjoyed, was indeed the will of God OR an extremely long detour to our true mission. Russ Dean concludes by saying, “If Jesus called his followers to ‘take up your cross and follow,’ maybe the church is called to that same kind of life today.”
Perhaps the church IS called to die? Perhaps we, who take our seats within it – are called to do the same?
We’ve been kind of dancing around this topic for the past several months and even more so recently as we seem to be moving beyond the crisis of the pandemic. Our doors are open again. Folks are back in the pews. We are slowly returning to some semblance of what was. But what a shame it would be if we were to try and return to things exactly as they were. I doubt that’s even possible. So, I wonder if we have not been given a tremendous opportunity – a second chance as it were – to consider what lessons we may have learned during this challenging “in-between” time.
I don’t just mean how we have learned to accommodate through Zoom, and Vimeo, masks, sanitizing, and physical distancing. Rather, what have we learned about us (individually and collectively)? What have we learned about what it means to be followers of Jesus in a post-Christian world? [Pause]
Jesus said to his disciples at the conclusion of this story – more than anything – we have to learn to die to ourselves. We must humble ourselves so that we might become servants rather than seek the prized seats in the coming kingdom. It appears that we, just like the church, are called to let our pride, our egos — die. For it is in dying that we receive life, real life, abundant life, eternal life. [Pause]
I put a picture on the cover of our bulletin today for a specific reason. I took this picture a few years ago while I was on a pilgrimage to the beautiful island of Iona, Scotland. Iona is the home of an old Celtic monastery. Though the monastic community no longer exists, the buildings, many in ruins, still do. I took this picture while sitting before the Abby now in ruins. Profoundly aware of this place once teeming with life, I sat staring at the fallen walls revealing a skeleton of its former magnificence. I wondered about those who once lived there, worshiped there, and was saddened by the apparent emptiness – the lack of life. “The church is called to die.”
But then I noticed tiny, little flowers – vines growing out of the cracks in the old stones – new life – hope – resurrection? That vision, and this picture serve as a metaphor for me, reminding me that life will always emerge — even from stone-cold ruins. What was may never be again, but something new may be given. Something new may be born.
I believe the church IS called to die. AND, I believe we have to be very careful what we ask for if we desire to be affiliated with it. Because to be a member of the church – IS to be a follower of Jesus. And if you want to follow Jesus, listen very carefully to the demands he places on discipleship. It may cost you everything.
Jesus words to his disciples are just as relevant to us today, “Whoever wishes to be 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 as a ransom for many.
Be careful what you ask for – it has a strange way of coming true.
1 Russ Dean, Baptist News Global, The Church is Called to Die.