United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“Close to Jesus”

by Rev. Rebecca Migliore

October 17, 2021


        As I worked with these texts this week, I noticed something interesting.  On the one hand, in our gospel text we were being invited to be close to Jesus—so close that what happened to Jesus might happen to us.  But on the other hand, God, who shows up in a whirlwind to “answer” Job’s questions about why the world is seemingly so unfair, takes the tack that we can’t really understand God’s ways, we are so far away from who God is that we shouldn’t even try. 

        Now maybe this shows a fundamental difference in what we call the Old and New Testaments.  Although God is involved in creation, in the choosing of Abraham and his descendants, in saving the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, in getting “his people” from the wilderness to the Promised Land, God is the burning bush, God is the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, God is the one who shares a name that is held in such reverence it is never spoken.  God interacts through others, through prophets and judges and sometimes kings.  God is Other—portrayed so beautifully in God’s answer to Job,

        “On what were [the earth’s] bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?... “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?... “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”  

        Obviously, the answer is “not Job/not me/not any of us.”  God’s ways are not our ways, Big Period.

        But not quite so in the New Testament.  God has come down to earth to be with us, Emmanuel.  God is in flesh and blood, sitting down to eat with us and live with us and call us to leave the comfort of all that was to follow in his footsteps.  That doesn’t mean that we understand God’s ways exactly, as the disciples prove again and again.  But the Jesus of the New Testament is God up close, inviting us to get closer.

        People who have tried to talk about God hold these two in tension—calling God transcendent (far away) and immanent (close by).  God is both/and not either/or.  And so, we must also recognize that we are called to get as close as we dare to the One who loves us beyond measure, but we will never be close enough to fully understand.

        Just look at today’s reading from Mark.  Can you believe it?  We are here again!  The disciples, and not just any disciples, but two of the three “inner circle”—James and John, are up to their old tricks.  They didn’t get Jesus’ message with the little child in their midst after arguing, Who is the greatest?  They didn’t process the “pick up your cross and follow me” after Jesus tells them once again what it is he is up to.  Now, they want special favors from Jesus—the premium seats at the banquet that they just know is right around the corner.

        And maybe this is exactly what we, the ones who claim we are close to Jesus need to hear.  For I have been disheartened by how many people who wear “Christian” on their sleeve, not to mention their T-shirts, and their placards, and in their vocal shouts, seem to think that being close to Jesus affords them privileges.  Jesus, in this passage says, “Not so fast.”

        Last week, we heard the story of a young man who had many possessions and so when Jesus suggests he give it all up and follow him (in response to the question “What more do I need to do?”),  that was too much, and the young man went away sad.  I’m pretty sure Jesus, who it is said “loved him,” was sad too.  I guess the disciples didn’t think the message was for them.

        Because here are James and John asking to be rewarded, to sit on his right and left.  Jesus says, you need to be willing to follow down the road, to drink from my cup, to stay to the bitter end—and they say they are willing (although considering the inability of the disciples to “get it” so far, we, the hearers have our doubts).  Jesus grants the request to do this—but says, to decide who gets to be on my right and my left is not mine to grant.  Quite a statement for the one we often think of as having it all under control. 

        Being close to Jesus isn’t just a country club card that you whip out when you want to impress.  It is a change in lifestyle.  It is a commitment.  It is a responsibility.  And, from Jesus’ point of view, it is costly.  Now, speaking for myself and the rest of the disciples in the Bible, we don’t really want to hear that.  Haven’t we given enough already? I hear them saying.  We’ve left homes.  We’ve given up careers.  We’ve trudged through the mud, following after you.  We’ve been called crazy, or unclean, or traitors.  What more do you want?  Do we have to give up everything?

        For us Christians, living here in the US, living here in NJ, living here in West Orange, we haven’t even given up that much.  We don’t risk our jobs or our lives coming to church.  We might get a side look because we aren’t available for Sunday brunch or say we need to show up at the food pantry or pencil in every Thursday night to sing together.  People might think we are “quaint” or “old-fashioned” or even, if they don’t know us well, fanatical.  But it’s a cost that doesn’t impinge too much on our lives.  We can be on to the next thing.

        But Jesus isn’t going on to the next thing.  In fact, this year in particular, I see that Jesus is really focused on this one thing—on how following him, on how being close to him, needs to make a difference in how we live our lives.  That Jesus is sure that the world being what it is means that being close to him will impact us, in ways that we can’t always predict or control.  And then we have to make a choice.

        Jesus points out to the disciples that the world works one way “those whom [the world] recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”  But that isn’t to be the way the followers of Jesus work.  “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.”

        In other words, you aren’t of this world, you don’t behave like this world, not if you want to follow me, not if you want to get close to me.  Being close to Jesus eliminates, costs, as well as expands and benefits.  This is where the prosperity gospel (which equates being a certain type of Christian with economic gain)—or even the old-time Protestant work-ethic—seem to be in direct contrast with what I hear Jesus saying to us through his talk to the disciples, especially to James and John.

        So what cost have we paid? I wonder.  Have you ever noticed that God has a cute sense of humor?  So here I am working on this sermon, on what I hear as the “cost” of being close to Jesus—and it’s all going along relatively easily, until I run into the problem of Dave Chappelle on Netflix.  Now if you don’t know anything about what I’m talking about, Dave Chappelle is a comedian who likes to be provocative (he calls it “speaking his truth”).  He has had six very successful shows on Netflix.  I don’t find him funny, in the least, and so I don’t watch him.  But this week I couldn’t just close my eyes, hold my nose, and move on.

        I couldn’t move on from the fact that Dave’s latest special included talking about killing women (though he said he just thought about it), as well as hateful speech about the LGBTQ community, and the trans community in particular.  And to top it off, the Netflix executives (who are making a lot of money off of these specials) responded to those criticizing the airing of these views, including people in their own company, by saying essentially, “we don’t think it rises to the level of hateful speech that we would have to censor it.  And anyway, it’s our right to put it out there.”

        Now I want to say that I do believe that Dave Chappelle, by virtue of our Constitution, does have the “right” to hold what I consider offensive views, and to speak them out loud.  And Netflix has the “right” to put them on the air so that millions of people can hear and think that it is ok to think those things and say those things and act on those things.  For me, being close to Jesus, listening to Jesus talk about how we are to be the advocates for “the least of these,” that we are to open wide our arms to the outsiders and the outcast and those considered marginal, and Jesus remarking again and again and again how costly following him might be—all came to a head, and I cancelled my subscription to Netflix—informing the company that it was Dave’s right to his so-called comedy, and it was Netflix’s right to put it on air, but it was my right to put my money where my mouth (and heart) were.

        I don’t lay this all at Dave Chappelle’s feet.  It was just the last straw for me.  I had had to listen to the popular NFL coach and broadcaster Jon Gruden and his disgusting words shared in emails with others of “like mind.”  There were the details of what R. Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein and Bill Cosby and so many other men have done to women because they were rich and powerful.  There were the heart-breaking angry faces of people who want to decide for others how they negotiate a world of sex and gender.  There are the seemingly endless incidents with law enforcement officers costing people their dignity or worse, their lives.  There is the snuffing out of the flame of education and freedom for women in parts of the world (like Afghanistan).  There is the Supreme Court looking like they are ready to turn back the clock on 50 years of legal rights (and who knows what more recent rights might also go by the wayside).  There are a much too large portion of our country who believes lies about the election, lies about science especially about vaccines, lies about how dangerous Covid is, and are willing to do just about anything to get political power and keep it.  Instead of being paralyzed with all that I can’t do, I followed in the footsteps of the civil rights leaders who led the bus boycott, and the LGBTQ community who called for boycotts of companies who didn’t support LGBTQ rights, I took the small step I could—and severed my connection to Netflix.   

        I know I have a long way to go.  But this following Jesus isn’t supposed to make my life easier.  Being connected to others, especially to others who often fall through the cracks or aren’t on the A list of the world, means that you experience the world at its worst.  You find yourself faced with systemic and institutional problems that dwarf your ability to change them.  You are close to the despair and bone-crushing survival mode required just to get from one day to the next.  It is hard being close to Jesus.  It should be hard, because it opens our eyes to the injustice and inequity and meanness of spirit that is alive and well in our land.

        Jesus thought that being close to him would cost something.  And much of the time, for me, the cost has been slight.  Even giving up Netflix is not that much of a sacrifice.  I have other avenues to see movies and shows.  I have my kindle with so many books.  I have so much entertainment available to me. 

         What is more important is that I have taken a stand, and I have witnessed to it.  Maybe that will embolden me to other actions as I try to stay close to Jesus.  If the Bible tells us anything, it is that this journey is fraught with steps forward and back.  The disciples might have been willing to pull swords in Gethsemane, but at least in the gospel we are reading right now, none of them are at the foot of the cross.

        I also try to remember that even my burst of passionate action, even the mindful thinking of this sermon, do not make my ways God’s ways.  As close as I attempt to draw myself to Jesus, there is so much I will never understand, or will misunderstand, or will need to be reminded about once again.

        It is as Patricia Westerford in “The Overstory: A Novel” says about learning to live in tune with the trees and the crops and the grasses around her. 

        “Watching [her father], hard-of-hearing, hard-of-speech Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze.  As certain as weather coming from the west, the thing people know for sure will change.  There is no knowing for a fact.  The only dependable things are humility and looking” (Richard Powers, Overstory, p. 115).  

        As I continue to inch closer to Jesus (I hope), I like those images—they remind me of God in Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding”).  They remind me of Jesus with the disciples (“whoever wishes to become great must be a servant; whoever wishes to be first must be slave to all”). 

        Yes, Human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze. 

        And the only dependable things are humility and looking.

 May God grant us the eyes to see,

        the courage to act,

                And the unshakeable knowledge that

we are invited to fully engage even in our ignorance,

we are called to follow in the footsteps even haltingly,

we are loved into relationship even with its costs.

        May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.