We Are All Cup Bearers

Sermon preached the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost…

click here to listen: We Are All Cup Bearers

Each day more than 2 million passengers go through TSA security check points at US airports.  Since 2008 self-select lanes modeled after familiar ski icons guide travelers to choose the appropriate one based on their skill level.  Green designates the queue for families or beginners, blue is for casual travelers at the intermediate level,  and black diamond is reserved for expert travelers who know the  rules and arrive at the checkpoint ready to go through efficiently.

I’ve learned this from three years of weekly commuting between Manchester-Boston Regional and Philadelphia International on Southwest Airlines.  The experience has led some to dub me “the Southwest Seminarian” and along the way I’ve become an expert traveler (at least by Federal TSA standards).  This week however… in my impatience with the long lines (even in the black diamond lane), I had what one could call a “Zebedee brothers experience.” 

At Philadelphia there is an unmarked lane behind the initial security kiosk for airline priority and V.I.P. members.  So on Thursday I flashed my card the TSA agent stepped aside, pulled back the rope and allowed me to go down the empty lane ahead of hundreds of other travelers lined up on the left and on the right.  And just like the Zebedee’s James and John, others began to be angry and wondered aloud:  “who does that guy think he is…” and “why does he deserve preferential treatment?”

So who did James and John, Zebedee’s sons, think they were?  They we bold enough to take Jesus aside and ask him to move them to the front of the line.  They want him to treat them as very important persons and get them the best first class seats in heaven.  But Jesus tells them that they have no idea what they’re asking for and that anyway, that was Dad’s department!

The others ‘loose it’ with James and John, so Jesus gets them all together to settle things down.     Jesus said, “You know how the world works: the movers and shakers tell the lowlifes what to do and when to do it.  But the new world cuts across all of that.  If you want to be treated like a V.I.P., you’ve got to take on the menial jobs that’ll help others.  If you want to be number one, you’ve got to work like a slave for others.  If you need a mentor for this—look and learn.  I’ve come with one thing to do: serve others, not to be served like some V.I.P.  I’ve come to give away my life in exchange for the many that are held hostage.  (Paraphrased from The Message and The Word on the Street Bibles)

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Ironically, as I settled into my favorite exit row window seat (with the extra leg room) I began to read the book I had grabbed for the flight, Can You Drink The Cup?  Henri Nouwen’s reflection on the question Jesus asks the Zebedee brothers in today’s Gospel.      

Nouwen was a spiritual thinker who stressed the relational in his writing and life of service to others.  His writing captures for me, our longings for meaning, belonging, and need for reflection before we speak and act.

His beautiful imagery is appealing in its simplicity as he weaves a story of:  holding the cup, lifting the cup, and drinking the cup.  He focuses on verse 38 “…are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”  The Zebedee brothers rush with their quick answer of  “We are able!”  But I am appreciate of Nouwen for giving us a frame through which we can ponder Jesus’ question for ourselves, for this faith community, and for those we are called to serve.

It is easy for me to rush into images of the cup as Eucharist, the cup of salvation, sacramental means of grace experienced at the table here each week.  Well, most weeks… this morning we are sharing a service of the Word and so it is through the Gospel proclaimed and preached that our thirst is quenched. 

Holding the Cup

When we are thirsty, for physical drink, for material wants, for emotional needs, or for finding meaning in life, we are impatient and seek immediate satisfaction to quench these thirsts.  But drinking, like life, is more than just the act.  To be truly satisfied, one needs to know what one really thirsts for.  As Nouwen says, “A life that is not reflected upon isn’t worth living.”

How often in life do we just go through the motions, caught in a routine, not pausing to give thanks, to notice God’s hand of creative grace along the way.  Even in prayer we rush into our needs and wants.           

  • We drink from the cup without holding it.
  • We chug down life without pausing to look at the cup.
  • We pray by asking… rather than by acknowledging, reflecting and holding the cup of life’s sorrows and joys.    

In doing this we often fail to notice all that God has done, and the gifts of our creator, sustainer, and redeemer.

The Zebedee brothers are thirsty, thirsty for power, for prestige, and the experience of being close to their teacher who has quenched all physical and spiritual thirst.  

It is easy to scoff at James and John… how dare they ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in glory… how dare they immediately say that they are able to drink from the cup… without holding, reflecting and knowing the cup that is before them.

We are all thirsty people, but holding the cup will help us know it, whose we are, and what we are called to live through it.

Lifting the Cup

In formal occasions a cup is lifted before it is drunk from. 

  • It may be a toast to health and happiness.
  • It may be a blessing on a birth, marriage, or anniversary. 
  • It may be raised in welcome, or thanksgiving.
  • It is raised in community… to life, in sorrow and joy, in brokenness and unity, a cup of promise for you and all people.

We lift the cup of our lives best after it has been held.  We lift the cup of our lives best when it is done in community.  We lift the cup of our lives best when it is shared with others.  Our lives can be chugged down in solitude, sipped, savored, or shared with others who are thirsty.  For those who struggle with alcohol, drinking alone is a red flag.  For those who drink the cup of life individually,   it is also a red flag.

Nouwen reminds that the cup of sorrow and joy, when lifted for others “to life,” becomes the cup of blessing.  In the Isaiah reading today the servant song is lifted up.  We as Christians see this cup of oppression and suffering lifted up as the life and death of Jesus the Christ. 

In Mark, Jesus shares the cup of his life and ministry with the disciples as they travel on to Jerusalem.  He shares his impending death and teaches the disciples what it means to hold and lift the cup.  But the disciples fail to understand this cup of salvation.  They see, hear, and thirst for what they want, oblivious to what it truly means to hold, lift and share the cup of life. 

We are all thirsty people, but lifting the cup and sharing it will help us know it, whose we are, and what we are called to live through it.

Drinking the Cup

The cup we hold and lift, we must drink.  We have been given this cup of life and community in which to share it.  Drinking is much more that a means of satisfying thirst, it is a starting point, a connecting point, a sharing point, and a life sustaining point. 

Nouwen describes it this way: 

In whatever country or culture we find ourselves,
having a drink together is a sign of friendship, intimacy and peace.
Being thirsty is often not the main reason to drink.
We drink to ‘break the ice,’
To enter into a conversation,
To show good intention,
To express friendship and good will,
To set the stage for a romantic moment,
To be open, vulnerable, accessible.
It is no surprise that people who are angry at us
or who come to accuse us or harm us
won’t accept a drink from us.”
They would rather say,
‘I will come strait to the point of my being here.’
Refusing a drink is avoiding intimacy.

To drink the cup we have been given is holy action.                              

  • It is to know what one really thirsts for. 
  • It is to lift it in sorrow and joy as a cup blessing. 
  • It is to drink from fully with and for community. 

Drinking it is more than satisfying the thirst of life as individuals and community.                                                             

It is more than a V.I.P. pass or reward for what we, wish, ask, or do.  It is what we are given, one cup filled in, with and under the Word and promises of a good and gracious God.

We are all thirsty people, but drinking the cup and sharing it will help us know it, whose we are, and what we are called to live through it.

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It is my hope that in hearing about the cup in words alone, that your thirst for meaning is piqued, your sense of belonging as a child of God secured, and your reflecting on how to live as a disciple of Christ renewed.  May this week of parched longing and journey be quenched when you return to the table with hands outstretched.  Amen.

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