Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray have been friends for longer than they can remember. Born in the same hospital two days apart, buddies in the neighborhood in the small eastern Oregon town of Ontario, high school sports, best man in each other’s weddings. They were in a car wreck in high school that was scary, but both seemed to recover well. But over time Justin’s legs began to show signs of weakness, limiting his mobility. They both finished college, got married, began careers and families in different states yet stayed in close touch.
Over time the weakness persisted, then a parade of doctors’ visits and tests and questions and answers and questions, and a diagnosis of a progressive neuromuscular disease similar to ALS that would soon rob him of the use of his arms and legs. Over time he weakened, by March 2012 he had braces on both legs – spent most of his time in a wheelchair but not yet all – couldn’t button his shirt. But he could press the buttons on the remote control, and was flipping channels and came across one of those Rick Steves shows on PBS, on northern Spain. He saw Pamplona and the running of the bulls, then the program shifted to the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James, a nearly 800 km pilgrimage route beginning around the border with France and ending at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the Apostle James’ bones are said to be buried. This awakened this longing within him, something to do before he became more limited, as he feared life slipping away. But he also knew it was a ridiculous dream.
Two weeks later his buddy Patrick and his family came to visit, and after they unpacked everyone sat down in the den. ustin flipped to a recording of that same Rick Steves special. Justin really wanted to ask but didn’t know what to do or how to do it. hey watched in silence, and Justin finally got up the courage: Do you want to do this with me? e waits, and he waits, and then Patrick utters the words that would change their lives: “I’ll push you.”
Thus began an extraordinary journey, chronicled in a book and documentary by the same title, “I’ll Push You,” as they put together this amazing steel wheelchair, as they train – Patrick getting in the best shape of his life pushing the wheelchair empty, then with Justin in it, up hill after hill, trying to prepare for the exhausting and transformative journey in which they would encounter pilgrim after pilgrim, helped often by strangers, spend six weeks together, Justin offering as much encouragement as he can, Patrick literally doing everything for his friend for those 500 miles. The book is well worth your time, a testament to friendship, faith, and hope, and what happens when people are truly in it together.
I’ll push you. I’ll do that. I’d be glad to help. What do you need? Anything else I can do? Yes, I’d be glad to. Of course I will. Yes. Yes. Yes. This is the vocabulary of service, of commitment, of the kind of discipleship to which Christ calls us. Today’s story begins in the heart of the journey, James and John pulling Jesus aside. This is right after the rich young man Jesus told to sell everything and give it to the poor and follow, right before blind Bartimaeus, which we’ll wrestle with again next week. Right after that is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The position of this story, right up against holy week, signals its importance.
But being a person whose instinct is to say, “YES, I’ll push you, I’ll do that, how can I help?” doesn’t come easily – it takes practice. Too often, even at our best, we’re like James and John. To give them credit, they’ve shown their commitment to Jesus in previous chapters, leaving their life behind to follow this itinerant preacher and healer who fascinates and moves people but most don’t know what to do with. They’ve been in it with Jesus. But they get a little greedy. Or, maybe they react like most of us would – they want to know what’s in it for them. I think they know they are pushing it by the way they begin – Teacher, will you do what we ask? Jesus sees it’s a setup, tells them to ask him before he decides…
Grant us a special place, they say, let us sit at your right and your left in glory. They assume, even after all this, that Jesus will reign as Lord, King, Sovereign from his grand throne room on high. But Jesus shoots back – this is not what you think it is. Can you can drink the cup that I am to drink? They think so. Jesus smiles, you may surely accompany me, but – this is how I read Jesus here, at least – this is all in God’s hands, its bigger than you know.
Mark shifts gears to note the dynamics within the group. James and John were asking for special treatment and the other ten heard and were angry. Who do they think they are? Jesus calls a team meeting. You know how it works with the Gentiles, Jesus says, those who grasp for power, rulers lording it over their followers as tyrants. But, and I love this, But it is not so among you. You are called to be a different kind of people living a different way. Whoever wishes to be great must serve, whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
It’s so easy to do the opposite, without even meaning to. We do all the time. I’m sorry. I’d love to help but…I don’t have time, I have too much on my plate, not now. And the excuses have a ring of truth, they do. The worst stuff is more subtle. It’s not outright rejection, its avoidance by sitting it out. We side-step the person trying to sign us up in the courtyard with a smile, skip right over the email, maybe even intending to get back to it, we turn to speak to someone, just walk on by. Sometimes it’s because we feel like we have too much on our plate, sometimes it’s not our preference, sometimes we may honestly think we can’t help.
But this is NOT the kind of faith to which Jesus calls us. All the excuses have some truth imbedded in them, which makes it complicated. And there are times we are burned out, caring for a loved one or are sick ourselves, the world feels heavy. Those are times we are tempted to step back. BUT, what Jesus calls us to do is the opposite. One of the funny things about faith is that it calls us to – precisely when we want to back up – dive in deeper, trusting that Jesus meets us. Don’t step back, no matter what, Jesus says. Step in, in trust and in faith, I’ll meet you there!
I’m not sure what that means for you. In this season in our church’s life there are tons of ways to jump in. And I need every single one of you, Christ’s church needs every single one of you, to step up, step in in faith. For this church and for the world. To be a people who say YES, or even more who seek out opportunities to be of service and don’t wait for someone to ask you, to take a risk, to jump in, to make a pledge and increase it so that we can invest in the future of this place, so we can begin to search for more excellent staff, so we can continue to keep an eye on this beautiful campus, to increase our mission commitment – what a sign it would be to be able to step UP, even in year one of a capital campaign with all this change, and increase our mission commitment to this community. I bet we can do that. To be the people in Durham, and in all of our neighborhoods, that says, we’re not worried about status like James and John, we’re not worried about petty squabbles, we want to be, in a tough and divided time, a beacon of love and hope, a people who over and over and over again say YES to God’s world. To do things we are confident we don’t have the time or the money or the energy to do. Because they matter. Because Christ calls us to serve.
I loved Anne Sherman’s “Sharing Our Mission” talk last week, reflecting on God’s call – it’s on our website and worth reading, about hiding away when her boyfriend in high school, Curtis, I’ll never forget his name…likening that to the call from Melinda Vaughn on the nominating committee asking her to be a deacon. After Anne listed all of her excuses, Melinda waited, and still encouraged her. You can do this, she said. Her own vocabulary of discipleship, listening yourself and calling others as well. Maybe we could be that kind of people to each other, saying things like: Sure. I’ll push you. I’ll do it. I’d be glad to help. What do you need on that? Is there anything else I can do? Yes, I’d love to. Of course. Yes. Yes. Yes. For each other, and for ALL of God’s world.
“But it is not so among you,” Jesus said. “But whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and who ever 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.”
May we be a people who serve, and serve, and serve. All praise be to God. Amen.