A Center That Can Hold

Sermon Preached on October 22, 2006
At Church of the Transfiguration - Palos Park
Proper 24, Year B

Top Ten Lists – it seems that everywhere we look today, we find them. David Letterman is, of course, most renowned for his nightly top 10 lists – always timely and almost always funny. But, I was curious to know what else I could find, so I googled “Top 10” and got the following results[1]:

  • Top Ten Holiday Parks
  • Top Ten Best Web Sites - is there a list of the Top Ten Worst Web Sites?
  • Top Ten Most Wanted by the [2]:

    • Top Ten Stock-Based Derivatives - I don’t even know what those are
    • Top Ten Fastest Growing Companies
    • Top Ten Video Sites
    • Top Ten Songs in the Flemish Singles Charts
    • Top Ten Most Vulnerable Democratic Incumbents

    Now, October is stewardship month at Transfiguration so before I leave my list of lists, I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you this gem: The top 10 ways to involve your kids in stewardship. For those who are interested, that list is posted on my blog which you can access through Transfiguration’s website.[3] I confess to adding the word “stewardship” to my search to get that one!

    As you and I think about these top 10 lists – stock-based derivatives, fastest growing companies, video sites, Flemish songs, I think we can agree that it is a good thing to be in the top 10 and, if you and I were Flemish song writers, we might even have a bit of friendly competition going on between us to see who could make it into the top 10 singles charts first. Even the list of top 10 most vulnerable democratic incumbents – while, on the surface, it sounds not so good – may not be so bad. After all, just being on that list in the first place does mean that you have been the top one winner of at least one previous election – so, come on, it’s not all bad.

    This morning’s gospel reading is the reason for my recent fascination with top 10 lists. The first time I began reflecting on James’ and John’s request, “Teacher grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” I recognized in it our own obsession with glory. While James and John are asking for a place of honor among the disciples and among Jesus’ many followers, you and I are often asking for places of honor or status in our own cultural milieu.

    If you just take a moment to think back to a time when you were on a team – a sports team, a team at work, even a church committee. Once you have that image, think about how the people on that team functioned. Was there someone or maybe a couple of people on that team who wanted to take charge, to take primary ownership for the work of the committee? People who wanted all the glory for the success of the team? Were you angry? Did you feel cheated? Maybe you were quietly jealous or resentful? Or maybe you were one of the ones who charged ahead, taking the initiative to get things done even if that meant stepping on a few toes along the way. So feelings were hurt, you met the goal, didn’t you? Whichever side of the equation you find yourself on – and most of us, if we are willing to be honest, can find times when we’ve been on both sides – but whichever side we are on, we are complicit in a system that says being in the place of power and status is more important than anything else in that moment. We all want our place on the top 10 list.

    And so I am also fascinated this morning by Jesus’ response to this request from James and John. Instead of reprimanding them – and, remember, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus does, in fact, reprimand the disciples from time to time – remember his harsh words to Peter, “get behind me Satan?”[4] So, instead of reprimanding the disciples, Jesus instead tells them, “You do not know what you are asking.” I hear these words and I wonder if James and John understood what suffering and what service would be required of them should they be granted their request. And then, when Jesus asks them “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” James and John quickly reply, “We are able.” I can almost hear their enthusiasm as they try to convince Jesus that they really are the best- suited for the job. But there is a sad irony in their response because you and I know that it will only be a matter of time before Jesus’ death march through Jerusalem and only a few years later before both James and then John are themselves martyred. Had they known the cost, would they have been so certain of their answer and so excited about holding their place beside Jesus?

    Now let’s go back for a moment and consider the other disciples. They become angry with James and John but let’s not think for a moment that they are outraged because James and John would ask such a selfish question. No, they are outraged because they wish they had had the audacity to ask the question themselves. “Why didn’t I think to ask to sit on his right hand in his glory?” Like James and John, the other disciples do not fully comprehend the implications of the request. They understand power in the 1st century much as we understand power in the 21st century. They understand that the ones with the power are the ones who control all the decisions, the ones who can tell others what to do. It is a place of prestige, of status, and of honor. And who among us has not wanted, at one time or another, to be there – to be at the pinnacle of success as defined by our culture?

    Jesus takes all of this in and teaches them in the 1st century and teaches us in the 21st century, “. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus, the Radical, is saying that the social and cultural understanding of power and of status in the 1st century and in the 21st century is upside down. And Jesus has come to turn the world and our lives right side up again. James and John and the other disciples understood being at the top as status and as power over others. But Jesus makes it very clear that this is not the model of leadership he is advocating. The cup that he drinks and that you and I are invited to share today in the celebration of the Eucharist is the cup of service and the cup of servanthood.

    Bishop Vincent Warner of the Diocese of Olympia in Western Washington has defined several values of servant leadership. Some of these values include:

    • Collaboration rather than competition
    • Accountability rather than blame
    • Compromise rather than control
    • Truth-telling rather than concealment
    • Power with rather than power over[5]

    As we are approaching Election Day, television, radio, and newspapers are filled with ads pitting one political candidate against another. Most of these ads are filled with language that blames the opponent without ever addressing their own position. All of this, not in an effort to unite us or to bring us together for a common cause, but in an attempt to make their opponent look undesirable. I can’t help but think of these ads as images of candidates vying for that prized seat on the right hand – or is it the left? – of a center that cannot hold. A center built on competition, blame, control, concealment, and power over other people.

    There is a poem by William Butler Yeats called “The Second Coming” and it begins like this:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.[6]

    A center built on competition, blame, control, concealment, and power over cannot hold. This is a truth that those who are recovering from addiction understand. So long as the addict continues to live a life centered on their addiction – whether it be alcohol, gambling, drugs – a life centered on self, centered on concealment, the center will not hold and mere anarchy – chaos – is loosed upon their world. So, in recovery, the first step is to admit our own powerlessness over these false centers and to recognize the chaos and unmanageability of life lived in this way. And then, after we’ve recognized this, then comes a second realization that there is no human being that can become that center for us and make the chaos disappear. Instead, the recovering addict learns that only God can be that center and only God can restore us to sanity.[7]

    At the heart of Christianity is a center that can hold and that center is Christ’s love. Any other center point is divisive. Any center other than Christ’s unrelenting love for us results only in division between you and me, between us and them, between humanity and God. Former senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, recently said, “Church people should speak out on behalf of reconciliation as opposed to emphasizing . . . issues [like abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research[8]] that in the name of religion tend to split us apart.”[9]

    James’ and John’s request to be in a special place of power and prestige is a request that creates division between them and the other disciples and it is a request that creates division between them and God. Our own seeking after honor, power, and status creates the same divisions today. But if we are ever mindful of Christ at our center, mindful of the Holy Spirit already at work in and among us, if you and I seek ways to collaborate with God’s reconciling work already ongoing in the world, then in those places where we only saw division and chaos, we will begin at last to catch glimpses of God’s reign in our lives, in our communities, in our world.

    [1] Results which follow are based on a single search (sorted by relevance (search-engine’s default setting)) for “Top 10” at Google on October 19, 2006.

    [2] Results which follow are based on a single search (sorted by relevance (search-engine’s default setting)) for “Top 10” at Google News on October 19, 2006.

    [3] The Church of the Transfiguration Homepage. The direct link to the post on my blog.

    [4] Mark 8:27-38 is the appointed Gospel reading for Proper 19, Year B in the BCP Lectionary.

    [5] The Rt. Rev. Vincent W. Warner, “Values of Servant Leadership,” in Diocesan Profile: The Episcopal Church in Western Washington, Diocese of Olympia accessed online on October 19, 2006.

    [6] William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming," The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd ed., eds. Alexander W. Allison, Herbert Barrows, et. al. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983), p. 883.

    [7] Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, 4th ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001), pp. 59-60.

    [8] This list of examples comes both from Kim Lawton, “Religion Blamed for Strife: Senator Believes Issues Stir Division,” Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly accessed online on October 18, 2006 and from Peggy Eastman, “Senator Danforth Decries Religious, Political Polarization,” The Living Church Foundation, October 4, 2006 accessed online on October 19, 2006.

    [9] Lawton.