Sunday, November 9, 2014

Can You Drink the Cup? (11/2/14)

(This is my candidacy sermon I preached before the congregation prior to its decision to extend a call to me).

Can You Drink the Cup?
John Shuck

Beaverton, Oregon

November 2nd, 2014

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139:7-12

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’
Mark 14:32-36

Episcopal priest, professor and author Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book this year called Learning to Walk in the Dark.   I have been working with this book in my series of sermons for this Fall.   It is a beautiful book and I recommend it.   She is engaging and thoughtful.  I interviewed her on my radio program earlier this year.  

She explores the concept of darkness.   By darkness she means actual, physical darkness as well as metaphorical darkness.    We use the word “dark” often.  Usually, we use it in a negative sense.  The Dark Lord.  The Dark Side.  The Dark Ages.   Her thesis is that darkness is not  something of which to be afraid or something from which to run, or to get through as quickly as possible so we can turn on the lights, but something to be explored as a sacred path.   We walk in the dark in order to walk toward and with the Holy.    Darkness is not evil or the absence of God but a way in which God is present. 

I have been exploring texts from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that are set in the night or at dark.   So far, we have explored Jesus walking on water in the dark and Moses climbing the mountain dark to prepare for the Ten Commandments.  There is the crossing of the sea to escape from bondage.   That happened in the dark.  Jesus went to a deserted place to pray in the dark.  Jacob wrestled with God all night.  He ends up wounded and blessed.  Those are the stories we have explored so far this Fall.  These encounters with the holy happen in the dark or at night.   

Today’s story is also about Jesus praying at night.  The added element is the cup.  That is the metaphor for today.   The invitation to drink the cup.    Before I go there, I should say a few words about how I look at these stories about Jesus. 

Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, wrote a book last year called The Power of Parable:  How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus.   Jesus told parables.  We know the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and so forth.   There are also parables about Jesus.  These are the stories we find in the gospels.   

With the parables that Jesus told, we are not concerned whether or not the prodigal son and his father and brother were real people and whether or not the story happened.  It is a parable that invites reflection on many things such as sibling rivalry, justice, reconciliation, the complex relationships of fathers and sons and so on.  The parable doesn’t live or die based on whether or not it happened.  

Similarly, stories in the Bible including stories about Jesus do not live or die depending upon whether or not they are historical. The evangelists were not giving us a biography or an historical report of the life of Jesus.   They were presenting a portrait or a parable of Jesus.   We are instead invited to explore what the stories might mean for us.   

The gospel writers would tell parables about Jesus by going back into their traditions, such as the Hebrew scriptures and drawing themes and details from those stories and then using those themes and details to create parables about Jesus.    Some are obvious.    Matthew bases the birth narrative on the story of Moses as a baby.   Pharaoh slaughters the children.   Herod slaughters children.   In both cases the chosen child escapes.  

The passion narratives are similarly constructed.   In our story today, Jesus ascends to the Mount of Olives to pray.  The Mount of Olives is also the legendary site of his ascension to heaven.   I visited the Holy Land in 1994.  It was a pilgrimage, a tour of the famous places.   We visited the place of Jesus’ supposed ascension.  The tour guide pointed to the very rock from which Jesus stood.  He also pointed out an indention in the rock.

Yep.  Jesus’ footprint.  For the curious, Jesus was about a size seven.   

The Jesus Seminar suggests that Jesus ascending the Mount of Olives to pray is drawn from David ascending the Mount of Olives weeping over the betrayal by both his son and his counselor.  That story is told in 2 Samuel 15-17.  Jesus is a David type.   They even share interesting details.  In both stories, for instance, the betrayer kisses the hero.    Absalom kisses David and Judas kisses Jesus.  

I trust that I can share this information with you since you have been hosting Jesus Seminars on the Road.  In fact, the one coming up in a couple of weeks with Steve Patterson should be a great weekend.  I interviewed Steve last week on my radio program on his new book on Christian origins.    

One aspect of being progressive is to evaluate our traditions and our stories critically.   Then the task is to reflect on the wisdom and truth of these traditions and stories.    We ask how are these stories true to our experience?  How do they inspire us?

So, we have Jesus ascending the Mount of Olives in the dark.  Betrayed.  Disappointed.  Filled with loss.  Anxious.  Grieving.   He prays that God would take the cup, whatever all of that means.  Then he says, “But your will be done.”   That is true.  We know this.  We know grief, loss, disappointment, angst.    Jesus is not exempt from this human experience.  

This is Mark’s parable of Jesus.  This is Mark’s imagining how Jesus might have faced his crucifixion.   This story is told decades after the historical Jesus.   By that time the theology of death and resurrection, and the cup that symbolizes that is part of the Jesus tradition.   The cup is heavy, filled with meaning.  The cup is not only a cup of sorrow, but a cup of life, of resurrection.  

Mark is not telling this parable of Jesus to speak only about Jesus.  He is writing to inspire and encourage his contemporaries to be brave, to be vulnerable, to trust and to drink the cup of sorrow and resurrection as he imagined Jesus did.

What might it mean to drink the cup?

In June of 2012, we lost our son, Zachary.  He was 25.  He suicided.  That is the cup we bring with us.   His death is not the cup.  The cup is the potential response on my part, and I will speak for me, to his death.   My decision to drink the cup is my decision to be vulnerable, to be brave, to trust, and like Jacob, to take one limping step in front of another in this life that is equal part dark and equal part light.   To drink the cup is to say this is my life experience.  I won’t run or hide or deny it as much as I might want to do so.     

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a famous book over 40 years ago called When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  In it, he spoke of the death of his 15 year-old son after a long illness.   Many years later reflecting on this experience, Rabbi Kushner said that before his son’s death he was an average rabbi.  Afterwards he experienced real depth, insight, and spiritual growth.    This experience made him a better rabbi. 

Then he said something equally true.  He said if he could choose he would give all of that up if he could have his son back.  Then he said but we cannot choose.  

The only thing we can choose is to respond to what is.   Author and spiritual leader, Joyce Rupp wrote a book called The Cup of Our Life:  A Guide For Spiritual Growth.   She begins the book with this quote from May Sarton:

This cup holds grief and balm
            In equal measure, light, darkness.
Who drinks from it must change.

Buddhists have been our best teachers in regards to impermanence and change.   Impermanence means that nothing is permanent.   Everything changes.   That being true, drinking the cup is accepting that as opposed to living in a state of resistance, clinging, or self-destruction.     To drink the cup means that we change with change.  

As we were going through things to pack just this past week, I ran across my great-grandmother’s autograph book.  It was from 1876.  She was a young woman, 23 I believe, and about to take a trip from Lockport, New York to California.   Relatives and friends signed this autograph book for her before she departed on her journey.    A young woman travelling from New York to California in 1876 was no light trip.  That was reflected in the comments.  Her father wrote several lines about that and how he hoped to see her home safe, but if that was not to be then he would see her on that other shore where all sorrows cease.   It was written in elegant 19th century prose with impeccable penmanship.    There were numerous other autographs and comments.     One stuck out.    It simply said:

This too shall pass.  

You can only wonder and speculate about all the meaning behind that comment.  What was the relationship between mother and daughter and mother’s opinion regarding this journey?    That will remain a mystery.  Regardless of the back story, what Mother said is absolute truth.   

This too shall pass.

Whatever it is, it will pass.    That is the truth of life.   The question becomes, given that, given that nothing is permanent, that all is change, that this, too, all joy and all sorrow, shall pass, given that, can you drink the cup?   Can you accept that, weep, laugh, hold your head up, and live?   Can you say, “Yes” to life?

Or in the words of Mary Oliver, in the poem with which we began the service:

Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  

I talked about the cup that is our response to our son.   Everyone here has a cup of some kind.   While each cup is unique, each cup is also quite similar.   To put it in Christian terms, that cup of death and resurrection, that cup from brokenness to life is a shared cup.    As Marcus Borg says we die to old ways of being and rise to new ways of being.  

This parable of Jesus praying at night in the dark about his cup shows me that in the midst of his struggle he is not alone.    This prayer on the Mount of Olives is a sacred moment.    The Holy, God, Spirit, whatever word or symbol we might use, was present.

Likewise, our own moments in the dark, not seeing, not knowing what is ahead, moving not by sight but by feeling our way is not a sign of divine absence, even as it might have felt like it.   As the psalmist wrote:

“Where can I go from your spirit…
 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.

I want to say that.   

I also want to say that this walk in the dark and this drinking of the cup is a shared experience.   And it is a sacred experience.  It is a shared, sacred experience.  As we connect we participate in a sacred and holy act.   As a community, we drink the cup of shared sorrows and resurrections.   The Risen Christ is in our midst.

If you extend a call to me to be your pastor, I will share this walk and your cup with you.    As individuals and as a community, I will be with you.   I will dream with you, plan with you, learn with you, listen to you, serve with you, laugh and weep with you.   I will have more questions than answers and more doubts than certainties.   

I come not as one who pretends to have the answers or a ten-point-plan-in-a-can for success.  I am, however, excited and energized about exploring possibilities with you about how our ministry will take shape in this place and turning those possibilities into actions.   

Mostly I come as one who has an increasing awareness of the preciousness and the precariousness of life.    I come as one who has walked in the dark and in the light and who has needed to make the choice to drink a particular cup.     Because of that I can share your walk and your cup as so many have walked and shared their cup with me.


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