TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples on earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Mark 10:39-40.
It is hard to fault James and John. They are only doing what every guidance counselor, employment agency and self-help career guide tells us to do, namely, to “sell ourselves.” You don’t get ahead simply by showing up every day, doing your job and keeping your nose to the grind stone. You have to be noticed, you need to stand out, you must “put yourself out there” if you want to succeed. And, of course, there is more to it than a bigger payday. Everyone wants to be recognized, to count for something and to have something to show for a lifetime of work. Those of us who serve as ministers in Christ’s church are supposed to be beyond all such vanity. But you don’t have to spend much time in a group of clergy to detect the “one upsmanship” that goes on. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about being elected to a high ecclesiastical office, or called to a large and prestigious church or getting a coveted tenured teaching position at a seminary or the religion department of an Ivy League school? Of course, there is nothing wrong with pursuing any of these positions for the right reasons. But therein lies the rub. We are typically the least qualified to evaluate our own motives. The hardest lies to see through are the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. I have no doubt that James and John were, at least in part, motivated by a desire to draw nearer to Jesus and share more deeply in his mission. But it seems obvious that there was also a strong element of selfish ambition. The disciples were, like us, at the same time saints and sinners.
My first pastoral call was to a small church in Teaneck, New Jersey. Like most northern New Jersey Lutheran Churches, it was top heavy age wise and struggling to meet its annual budget. Like many other churches, it leased out space to other non-prophets, including an Alcoholic’s Anonymous group, to make ends meet. I arrived at Our Saviour’s Lutheran filled with all the zeal, idealism and lack of real world experience twenty-six year old seminary grads typically possess. I knew the odds were long for this church to survive the decade, but I was determined to be the pastor it needed to thrive and do significant ministry to the community. I was ready to pour my all into Our Saviour’s. If we went down, I was determined we would go down swinging for Jesus with our last breath.
It could not have been more than a couple of weeks into my ministry at Our Saviour’s that I met Jack. He was a tough old Irishman who had come into Lutheranism by marriage to a Norwegian girl from Brooklyn. Jack was a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. He started and ran a jewelry business in New York City until crippling arthritis forced him to sell out and retire. He had a wonderful sense of humor, a quick wit and profound faith. Jack had just come home from the hospital and was convalescing after a heart attack. I drove out to his house in order to bring him communion. We got to talking and he asked my how and when I received my call to ministry. After relating my experience and my eagerness to do ministry in Teaneck, Jack, never one to mince words, asked me, “How do you know God isn’t through with this church and that God called you here just to keep it alive for a few more years so the AA group has a place to meet?”
Though I tried not to show it, I was angered, insulted and hurt by that question. How dare Jack suggest that my call amounted to nothing more than playing hospice nurse for dying church? How dare he suggest that God would call me to pastor a church that God had already given up on? How dare Jack suggest that my work was so hopeless and devoid of meaning? Did he really believe God thought so little of me, my faith and my abilities?
Over the course of many years, I have thought about that conversation many times. Lately, I have begun to entertain a different set of questions. What if God needed to keep an otherwise dying church alive for another decade so that Alcoholics Anonymous could continue its redemptive work of rebuilding lives shattered by addiction? What if God were deeply interested in the individuals fighting for their sobriety and needed them for the work of establishing God’s gentle reign? Is it for me to pitch a fit because I don’t get to be at the forefront of the Kingdom’s advance? Is it for me complain because God needs me for a pawn rather than a bishop, knight or rook? Having been enlisted in God’s army, do I have a right to choose where, how and in what capacity I serve? Whose church, mission and ministry is it anyway? Since when do my needs, hopes, dreams and aspirations trump the needs of God’s coming reign?
Consider the following parable. At the end of time, when the messianic banquet had been set, the saints could not help but notice that there was at Jesus’ right hand at the head of the table, a woman gloriously dressed and bathed in light. Some thought that it must be the Virgin Mary. Others thought she must be Mary of Magdala or perhaps Lydia of Philippi or another great saint. Finally, one of the saints worked up the courage to ask, “Lord, who is that at your right hand?” The Lord answered, “Ah, that is my Sophia.” Jesus went on to explain, “There was one day when I was so despondent from being so thoroughly misunderstood, so crushed under the weight of constant attacks, so weary of dealing day after day with stupid questions, pointless arguments and overwhelmed by oceans of human suffering that I was ready to give up. I felt as though I could not go on one more day. That is when Sophia showed up with her sweet smelling perfume, pouring it over my fevered head, rubbing my scalp and massaging my tired feet. That delightful scent and the touch of those caring hands were just enough of what I needed right then to recapture my vision and zeal for God’s kingdom. I declared that wherever the gospel was preached, her act of kindness would be remembered in her honor-and can you believe it? That blockhead evangelist forgot to record her name! You can’t find good help anywhere anymore. Anyway, you are all here with me today because she was there for me then.”
Jesus tells us that “many that are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:31. It may well be that the places of honor at the messianic banquet will not be filled by the Twelve, Augustine, Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa nor anyone else we would expect. Perhaps those at Jesus right and left hand will be people neither we nor history recognize. They might be just ordinary folks who offered a hug, a kind word, a helping hand or a bottle of ointment at just the right time to change the trajectory of a life, a movement or even the course of history. Any act of kindness, mercy and compassion has ripple effects unforeseen and unforeseeable. That is so because the right hand of God is everywhere making use of these moments to move us closer to the day when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. God’s hand turns up in the most unexpected times and places. The privilege of being there is not an honor to be achieved. It is, like all of God’s good gifts, a matter of sheer grace.
Here is a poem about someone who might just be at Jesus’ right hand.
Roses in the Subway
The ground beneath us rumbles
As the crowded cars roll by.
The old bag lady mumbles.
A cranky baby cries.
The weeping of a saxophone
Cuts through the stagnant air.
A million soulless drones head home
Their faces worn with care.
None stops to drop a dime
Into the frail musician’s case.
Everyone is pressed for time
And loath to break the pace.
This cavern deep beneath the ground.
Which knows not night or day,
Is where the wretched folk are found
Who have no place to stay.
Yet in these very bowels of hell
She hums a merry tune.
The sweet scents of her wares dispel
The stench with breaths of June.
Her smiles chase the blues away
Her laughter mocks the gloom.
She sells roses in the subway,
Places flowers on the tomb.
Anonymous c. 2001