The Rev. Dr. Peter James Flamming
Thank you for your gracious hospitality in inviting us Virginians to share this Sunday with you. It allows us to feel a vital part of the National Cathedral, it’s many ministries, as well as its prayers in our behalf.
I want to thank you for your prayers in our behalf, especially in the aftermath of Sister Isabelle. For those of you who are not Virginians, Isabelle did not deal kindly with us. I read in the Richmond paper that 10,000 trees were felled on city property alone. I really think what happened was that Sister Isabelle was upset when she was demoted from a hurricane Five to a Level Three, and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!
The Gospel text read so beautifully by Dr. Milliken just a moment ago is a telling conversation between Jesus and two of his first team Apostles. It reminds me of an incident that took place a couple years ago. Mr. David Gergan spoke at our church. Gergan has served in the White House under three different Administrations, and is now at Harvard University. He was speaking as part of the Wilkinson Lectures of the Virginia Historical Society. We have a wonderful agreement with Charles Bryan and his organization. On Sunday, since we’re only a block apart, on Sunday we use their parking, and when it comes time for their lectureships, they use our facilities. David Gergan and I were sitting on the front pew when Charles was introducing him. And Gergan leaned over to me and whispered, “Is that the pulpit you use on Sunday morning?” And I nodded, “Yes.” He grimaced. I knew something was up. As he ascended the steps, having been introduced, he said, “Several months ago when they asked me to speak, I did not know I would be speaking behind a pulpit. My saintly mother must be turning over in her grave right now. On the other hand, she was a life-long Methodist, so she is probably saying to herself, “Oh well, it is a Baptist Church, and they get what they deserve.”
In the Gospel text from Mark 10, Jesus deserves more than he gets. Two of his top recruits are on a self-serving track. James and John sidle up to Jesus, and they say, “Jesus, will you give us whatever we ask?” Jesus answered very much like we would have: “What is it you want?” “Well, when you come into your Kingdom, put one of us on your right and the other on your left. We want to be your two top assistants. We want the offices right next to yours.”
Jesus deserves better. They have followed him for almost three years. They have misunderstood the Kingdom completely. Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Not only that, they leave the other Apostles out. They see themselves as a cut above, or several cuts above. Their chief value is to become&0151;can I put it this way?&0151;top gun.
Matthew’s account says that it is the mother of Zebedee who made this proposal to Jesus, which reminds us, those of us who are parents, sometimes have the critical weakness to be top gun through our children. Do you think that the Apostles have a lapse of memory? That they just forgot what Jesus was about? That’s possible. And the older I get, the more I am sympathetic with lapses of memory.
It reminds me of the two couples that were having lunch together, as they had for many years, and the one husband said to the other, “I have been going to the best school you can imagine. It is a Memory School. It teaches you how to remember things, and I tell you, it has made all the difference in my life.” The other husband, interested immediately said, “Well, what’s the name of that school?” And the first husband paused, and then paused longer, and then he said, “What’s the name of that flower that has thorns on the stem?” And his friend said, “You mean a rose?” He said, “Yeah! That’s it.” And turning to his wife he said, “Rose, what’s the name of that school I’ve been going to?”
Did they forget? Or did they just not grasp what our Lord was about?
As the Scripture from Isaiah has reminded us this day, it might take a cross and a resurrection for it finally to seep in what our Lord was journeying to do for all of us.
Friends, we must accept the fact that the way of our Christ, and the way of our society, are seldom in step. For instance, earlier in the chapter Jesus takes little children in his arms and blesses them. He says to the adults around him, “See these little children? If you would enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you must enter like they do.” Hmmmmmm, what a difference.
We try to make our children into little adults, and Jesus tried to make adults child-like.
It was as if Jesus said to them, “You adults, you’ve been at it long enough to become callused, cynical; you know so much about the world, but you know too little about God. Become like a little child again who can learn and hope and laugh and trust and follow.”
Or again, the very next paragraph in Mark, a young man who is rich has everything in the world that anyone would want. He’s a leader. He’s hyper-religious, and yet he comes to see Jesus, and he asks him about eternal life. He reminds me of a bank president who came to see me. I would guess he was mid-forties. Perhaps the same age that the rich young ruler was. And the bank president said, “May I talk with you a little while?” And I said, “Tell me about your adventure in life.” He said, “You know, I have been so successful that I am exactly where I always wanted to be. I set my goals and I reached every one of them ahead of time. But now that I am where I always wanted to be, I say to myself, ‘Is this all there is? Because if this is all there is, it just wasn’t worth it.’” You know what his trouble was? He had no connection with that something Jesus calls ‘life’, ‘eternal life’, ‘quality life,’ life with purpose, life with meaning, life which says, ‘this is why you were born and why you’re here.’ He had none of that. Hmmm.
You realize, I hope, that there is a difference between the way our society, what the Scripture will sometimes call ‘the world,’ looks at things and the way our Lord looked at things.
I think we can get some real help, if we can ask some questions. One of those questions I think would be: What kind of shape is your heart in? Now the Bible means, by ‘heart’, the willing, spiritual, relational, compassionate part of you.
We get some help here from an unexpected source. Do you remember the episode in the life of Thomas Jefferson when he broke his right wrist? The story is that he broke it leaping over a wall to retrieve the scarf of his lady love. But I don’t think I’ll go there today. Typically, Jefferson was not put down by a broken right wrist, although he was right-handed. So he took about learning to write left-handed. Some intriguing letters and conversations come out of this time. It seems that in order to practice, he would write letters left-handed. Finally got fairly good at it. And one of his conversations is entitled, “Dialogue Between my Head and my Heart.” Let me define his terms, as I understand them. His head meant the calculating, analyzing, fear-adverse part of his mind. His heart, he had interestingly enough, a Biblical understanding of heart, which was spiritual, relational and caring.
In that document called “Dialogue Between Head and Heart,” he remembers with embarrassment an experience during the days of the Revolutionary War. And I’m going to quote: “When the poor wearied soldier whom we overtook at Chicahominy with his pack on his back, begged us to let him get up behind our carriage, you (meaning his head) began to calculate that the road was full of soldiers, and that if should pick them all up, our horses would fail in their journey. We drove on. But soon becoming sensible that you had made me do wrong, that we cannot relieve all of the distressed, but we should relieve as many as we can, I turned about to take up the soldier. But he had entered a by-path, and was no more to be found. And from that moment to this, I could never find him out to find his forgiveness. In short, my friend, and he’s speaking to his head, as far as my recollections serve me, I do not know that I ever did a good thing on your suggestion or a dirty one without it. I do forever then disclaim your interference with my province.”
Jefferson goes on to say that if the American patriots had made a rational calculation, they would never have taken on the superior wealth or military strength of the British Empire.
Friends, the heart that is within you, the part of you that cares, that loves, that prays, the part of you that relates, is the accessing part of Almighty God. And if you are locked up in that part of your mind that is analytical, as important as it may be, it is likely you have squeezed out the one thing that your intellectual, analytical mind cannot give you. And that’s meaning and purpose in life.
You see, the head says ‘work harder’; the heart says ‘worship more.’ The head ridicules; the heart relates. The head calculates; the heart confesses. The head says, ‘don’t get angry; get even’; the heart says, ‘forgive; for bitterness is a cup of poison you drink yourself in order to get even with someone else.’ The head says ‘control’; the heart says ‘listen’. The head says ‘seize’; the heart says ‘serve’.
Jesus, in this passage, says he that would be greatest, she who would be greatest, has to be a servant, not a controller, not top gun, servant.
Servanthood is not a big vocation. It is a style of life that can enter and penetrate any vocation. Nor is it like learning to type, that once you’ve learned it, with a little practice you can pick it up again. One way to get at the issue is to answer the question Martin Marty of the University of Chicago asks, says, “What are you doing with your final ‘so that’? See, put it like the world goes: I go to work in the morning so that I can keep my job, so that I can get ahead in my career, so that I can be a success, so that I can make a good salary, so that I can retire early, so that……And there it is. Where’s the final ‘so that’?
Or, the ‘so that’s right along,’…..just suppose you were to walk the Jesus path and bring God and servanthood and an eye for others and their needs into your daily pattern? Here’s the way it might go: I go to work so that God and I can make a difference in our work place. I encourage my career so that I can be an encouragement to others as God seeks to work in their lives. I make a good salary so that God and I can use our resources to help others who are not so fortunate. I get elected so that God and I can make a difference in the lives of the people I serve.
I think there’s a little shadow of this in the aftermath of Isabelle. We had no power, no water, no phone. Couldn’t even plug in to get your cell phone charged up. And you know what happened? People got together. Met in the middle of the street inquired about the welfare and well being of each other. The men got out their outside grills, put them in the middle of the street. The women brought out the food that hadn’t spoiled yet. And they fed the whole neighborhood. And they prayed and they laughed.
See, you need to understand that the modern world that we live in and have developed doesn’t contribute to that, and that’s the Jesus-way. But it’s an eye for seeing the possibilities.
Our of our Divorce Recovery Program came a wonderful little incident. A single mom came home struggling one night, her teen-age son looked over, saw her with her head in her hands, a tear trickling down her cheek, and he said, “Mom, you know what I think Jesus would say to you tonight if he were here?” And the mother, her head still down, shook her head, “No.” He said, “I think Jesus would say, ‘As a single mom I think you are doing a terrific job with that son of yours!’” Don’t look for the perfect time. Just do it! Service and encouragement are almost the same word. Hmmmm.
There is a final question, and it is here: “Can you drink this cup,” he asks the two Disciples. Because somehow Jesus knew that if ever they drank the cup….. Curtis Melridge (?) defined what Jesus meant by ‘cup’, with the word ‘arrow’. From Psalm 90, 91…. the arrow that flyeth by noonday. But they mean it metaphorically to mean that something that has happened to you that pierces you at your deepest level, ‘the arrow.’ And when that which has pierced you at your deepest level is brought to the Lord Christ, and you and the Lord Christ are together with that arrow, something happens. That’s the beginning of transformation, and God begins to remake us in the process. “Can you drink this cup?”
In the 1980s, a priest by the name of Henry Nowan, read this same text from Mark 10 before he served the Eucharist. As a matter of fact it was probably the same Sunday. If you do not know the name Henry Nowan, he was a Roman Catholic priest who taught at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame, author of more than thirty books. He spent the last decade of his life ministering to the mentally disabled at a Toronto community called Day Break. And on that Sunday when he was going to serve the Eucharist, about twenty members of the community were there. Among them, Adam, twenty-two years old, a man who could not speak nor walk. His brother Michael who could speak a little and walk a little but needed constant care to get through the day, and there was Tracy, completely paralyzed, but with an incredibly bright mind. There was Suzanne who was not only mentally disabled, but battered by inner voices she could not control. And there were David and Frances and Loretta and Patrick and all the rest of them.
And as he was reading the Mark text, and he came to the phrase of Jesus, “Can you drink this cup?” He wrote later, “It pierced my heart like the sharp spear of a hunter. I knew at that moment, as with a flash of insight, that taking this question seriously would seriously change our lives. It is the question which has the power to crack open a hardened heart and lay bare the tendons of the spiritual life.
Can you drink this cup? Are you willing to bring Christ and the Eucharist into where the arrows have penetrated your soul? Pray with me, will you?
In the quiet moment, identify where the arrows have pierced. And resolve to let the Risen Lord enter. And respond by saying, “Yes, this very day I will drink this cup.”
In the name of the Risen Lord, Amen.