A sermon on Mark 10:35-45 first preached at House for All Sinners and Saints October 18, 2015
Grace, mercy and peace are yours in the name of the triune God.
I’ve been going to House for about a year and a half now and if you’ve been paying attention, and I don’t know why you would have been, you migåht have noticed some things.
The first thing is that I like to sit right up there, next to Jamie. And, sorry Jamie, it’s not just because I enjoy your company. Which I do.
You may also have noticed that when the time comes I’m one of the first people to jump up and go get some bread and wine.
Other things that you probably haven’t noticed: If, during Communion, Jamie calls out a hymn that I don’t know by heart, I won’t sing it.
And, while I’ve done almost all of the jobs that are handed out every Sunday, I have never been a communion server at House.
All of those things are related, all of them are because I love, love, love watching people come to the table, I love seeing the community coming together as we receive the elements. Watching all of us doing that together brings me joy and it’s often that joy that gets me through the week.
My love of the sacrament and the community it forms goes back long before I ever even heard of House. I first discovered it at the church I attended in Alabama and then nurtured it through my time at seminary. Never missing the Friday chapel Service of Word and Sacrament.
But this Gospel reminded me of a Friday where I had to miss it, a Friday when I probably needed it more than any other.
Ten years and eleven days ago, on Friday October 7, 2005, at just after 10 in the morning, a letter was placed into each of the mailboxes on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
The date and time had been selected very carefully, so that the letters would go into the mailboxes during the best attended chapel service of the week (Friday was always the best attended because it included Eucharist) so that there was the best chance that most people on campus would get them at about the same time as they swung by their mailboxes on the way out of chapel heading to community coffee time.
The day was also chosen because it was the beginning of the Board of Directors fall meeting and so they would be on campus as well.
The reason I know so much about the complex machinations involved with the circulation of this letter is that I wrote it. I had for the several weeks before that Friday been doing draft after draft to get the wording and content of the letter just right.
Basically what it said was, "You know that thing you think you know about how I'm male and my name is Jim? Yeah, not so much."
Needless to say, I was very interested in how the students, faculty and everyone else would react to that announcement.
For the most part it fell out in two ways. Most people were very nice and supportive, and those that weren't were pastoral enough to take the old "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all" adage to heart. Most of them just pretended that it never happened.
But there was a reaction that I got repeatedly and which I didn't expect at all. People kept telling me how brave I was, How much they admired my courage for doing this.
I struggled with that “you’re so brave, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” and it was interesting to learn that I wasn’t alone in that, the was an article in the Guardian this week titled “Don’t call trans people brave, we’re just trying to live in a prejudiced society”
The author, Rebecca Kling, wrote:
First and foremost, calling all trans people brave results in distancing the person saying it from the experience of being trans. It’s often followed by, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”. Or, even worse, “I could never do what you’re doing”. That speaks to a depressing lack of imagination. In a world of video games, Netflix, 3D movies, fantasy football and more, I pity someone who can keep track of the Houses of Westeros but can’t expand their vision enough to contemplate what it might be like to have one’s physical body and mental identity at odds with each other.
My personal struggle with it is that I never felt that brave. I didn’t come out to make a stand or to change people’s minds. For me, all along the way from coming out to one person, to coming out to the world, to starting to go out in public in the clothes that make me feel like myself, all along the way I have done those things because it had become too painful to not do them. In my mind I feel like bravery comes when you do something difficult that you could have chosen not to do. And when I had a choice, I stayed closeted, when I felt like I had a choice I wore jeans and t-shirts (what my friend Rai calls my “boring clothes”). No. When I had a choice, I hid. It was only when the agony of not doing those things became so great that I had to that I made any of those moves.
And I have always thought that being brave meant doing something selfless, something for others. And in doing this I was anything but selfless. I was doing this for me, not for you, no for anybody.
So, being called brave always struck me as wrong.
That next spring, I took a class called “The Preacher and The Poet” taught by Dr. Anna Carter-Florence, where we did many exercises around the writing of poetry and the way that writing process influences and informs the writing of sermons. We used a number of writing prompts to practice our craft during the course. Near the middle of the term Anna gave us, as writing prompts, a list of the various questions that Jesus asked of his disciples and others during the course of the gospels.
Our assignment was to choose one of the questions and to write our response as a five minute sermon.
I chose one of the questions that Jesus asks in today’s text: “Are you able to drink form the cup from which I drink?”
And my reaction at the time, was “No I can’t, not even close” Despite all those people telling me that I was brave, I knew that I was not, and certainly didn’t have the courage that Jesus shows through his death and sacrifice for all of us.
All of my life I had been taught about how God chose to go through great pain and suffering, suffering that God could easily have avoided, for all of us, “To save us all from sin and sorrow when we had gone astray.” Now that’s bravery.
That’s what I talked about in that five-minute sermon ten years ago, Jesus was brave, not me.
It’s been interesting then to look at this question again ten years later and to see if I feel differently about it.
The question I asked myself was, could I now, after all this time, claim some measure of that bravery that I had attributed to Jesus in that sermon?
But the answer that I came up with surprised me: what if I had been wrong not about my lack of courage, but about thinking that what Jesus did was brave?
What if God would tell us the same things that I did.
What if God made what we have always thought of as this great selfless choice because God’s agony at watching the children of God suffer and struggle became so great that God had no choice at all, God could not continue the way things were.
When I first reflected on these questions, I experienced fear. How could I hope to face the things that even Jesus, God, struggles with? No matter how many times people tell me that I’m brave for coming out, I know that bravery, that courage had nothing to do with it, how could I take up Jesus’ cup? But now that I’ve thought more about it, maybe I could, or at least I’m willing to look at it a different way.
What if when Jesus promises that James and John shall drink of his cup and be baptized with this baptism, he’s really saying that they are not going to face the things he faces without a measure of his strength?
I think that all along I have been thinking of the wrong cup. What if the cup he’s referring to is the cup that he will drink from at the last supper?
That means that James and John will receive the same cup that we’re about to receive as we celebrate the Eucharist; For them and for us that cup is our source of strength and courage to face whatever awaits us.
If I was brave to come out, if I am brave to dress in the clothes that make me feel like me, then that bravery comes from my experience of baptism and of the Eucharist and the lessons that I have learned there, that pain and crucifixion are not the last word. That the cruelty of the world and people in it are not the way things have to be. We can be better. We will be better in the already and the not yet of the kingdom of heaven.