This Cup 2

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. 

Shema Yisrael

A sermon on Deuteronomy 6 4-9, first preached at Family of Christ PC(USA) October 11, 2015

Shema Yisrael. Hear O Israel. 

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 

That brings to an end this whole long passage that seems so legalistic and prescriptive to our ears,  and indeed time and again it’s been read as “Here are the rules, now follow them.” From the Pharisees to Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, this is what you have to do and those who fail to do not will face the wrath of God and be doomed to hell for all eternity. 

For so many people that reading makes this passage a heavy burden to carry and that legalistic way of looking at the church has driven a lot of people away as they’ve either felt the weight of it themselves or experienced others wielding it like a club against them.  

It’s created lifetimes of guilt and shame and has led many to leave the church as they came to believe that is what the church is all about. 

I’m going to propose then a different reading, particularly of the Shema Yisrael. Maybe instead of being a tool to use against others, a way of filtering the worthy from the unworthy, the elect from the reprobate, maybe it’s there as something to lean on. 

Maybe it’s a place for those who are lost or are struggling to find their path again. 

I’ve been reading “Furiously Happy, A Funny Book About Horrible Things” by Jenny Lawson, who is also known online as The Bloggess. 

Miss Lawson has struggled with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions for all of her life and has learned ways to survive when things are at their worst.  

. . .And I remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to feel such great sorrow, and also such great happiness. I Can grab on to each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have see the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to be able to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved, because those same moments are a medicine, a balm. Those moments are a promise that life is worth fighting for, and that promise is what pulls me through when depression distorts reality and tries to convince me otherwise. 

Through long painful experience she knows that she will have times where she will not be able to get out of bed because of the weight of depression, when she won’t be able to leave the house because of the terror of anxiety, but she has learned to remember the times of great joy, indeed she has learned to cultivate those times, to experience them and take them far beyond where those without the lessons of mental illness would take them, that’s what she means when she talks about being furiously happy. She says, “I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that “normal” people also might never understand, and that’s what FURIOUSLY HAPPY is all about. It’s about taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence.” 

In another place she talks about the way that, in the midst of depression, our brains lie to us. “…And I push myself to stay healthy. I remind myself that I’m not fighting against me. . .I’m fighting against a chemical imbalance. . .a tangible thing. I remind myself of the cunning untrustworthiness of the brain, both in the mentally ill and the mentally stable. I remind myself that professional mountain climbers are often found naked and frozen to death, with their clothes folded neatly nearby because severe hypothermia can make a person feel confused and hot and convince you to do incredibly irrational things we’d never expect. Brains are like toddlers,” she says, “They are wonderful and should be treasured, but that doesn’t mean you should trust them to take care of you in an avalanche or process serotonin effectively.” 

I understand exactly where she is coming from, I too suffer from depression, perhaps not as extreme as Jenny’s and I’m very fortunate to have it under control at the moment, thanks to my friend Wellbutrin. But when it is not under control, my depression will lie to me again and again. “You’ll always be alone, just accept it”, “No one wants to be around you, you might as well just sit at home”, “you’re not good at anything, there’s no point in trying and on and on. And the thing is, when depression tells me those things they make perfect sense, “of course no one wants to be around me,” I’ll think to myself, “I don’t want to be around me.” 

In the musical [Title of Show] they talk about it this way: 

It’ll wake you up at 4am to say things like: 
Who do you think you’re kidding? 
You look like a fool. 
No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be good enough 
Why is it that if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform 
and said these things, I’d think he was a mentally ill asshole, 
but if the vampire inside my head says it, 
It’s the voice of reason. 

My pastor and friend Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote about her depression in her book “Accidental Saints”,  

I remembered that, at one point in my life, my own depression had felt so present, so much like a character in my life, that it had actually felt right to give her a name. I named my depression Frances. . . 

Frances first stopped by in my teens and early twenties and was written off by my family as my being “moody.” But later when I found myself coming to like the same things Frances liked – booze, emotionally unstable boyfriends, self-destruction—she finally just moved in, turning my studio apartment into a wilderness. 

She was a terrible roommate. She kept the place filthy and always told me devastating things about myself. When Frances lived with me, I was no longer able to do simple things, like remembering if I’d showered or shopping for groceries.” 

Jenny Lawson’s decision to be furiously happy is to reject those lies and to claim the identity that she knows to be hers, that of a beloved mother and wife, as an very popular and talented blogger and author. Those are the truths that she needs to hold on to when depression tries to steel them away from her. The furiously happy moments anchor her to what she knows to be her true identity, no matter how hard depression and mental illness try to deny her those things. 

What if that’s what the Shema Yisrael is meant to be for Israel? 

God’s call to Israel is one of remembrance and anchorage. It is a call to identity. 

I’m not saying that Israel as a nation was depressed, but it is certainly true that throughout their history, nations and powers have tried to make them forget their identity, to convince them that they weren’t who they knew themselves to be. Conquer them, make them slaves, scatter them throughout the word in the diaspora.  

But through it all, they had the Shema, not only to remind themselves who their God is, but to remind them that they belong to that God and that nothing anyone can do can change that.  

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[e]5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 

God’s call to Israel is one of remembrance and anchorage. 

God wants them to remember in the good times, but also in the bad times who they are and who their God is. 

Their God is the God that led them out of Egypt, their God is the God that gave them manna in the wilderness, their God is the God who made promises to Abraham and Isaac, who was furiously happy with them and who in turn made them furiously happy to be loved by God. 

And God knows that people will forget, God knows that the outside voices of powers and principalities will try to convince Israel that they are not the special people that they have known themselves to be, just as depression tries to steal our identities away from us. 

And because God know that, God gives them very specific instructions to help them remember. Talk about it, God says. Tell your children, remember it when you go to sleep and when you wake up. Write it on the back of your hands so that you will see it with everything you do, write it on your foreheads so that those around you will be constantly reminded of who they are. Remember it when you are home and when you are away, and put it on your doorposts and gateposts so that when you’re neither home nor away but somewhere in between you will think of it then as well. 

Hear o people of God. You are not what others tell you you are, even when those others are your own brain. In life and in death you belong to God, and that makes God furiously happy, remember that. 

Keep these words . . . in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates