If to hear would be your pleasure, on button yonder exert some pressure.
Rev. Mark Koyama
United Church of Jaffrey
Mark 10:35-45 | An Excerpt from Cultivating Life by Helen Coll
One day Grandpa told me, “Go into the house and ask Grandma for a large rag of sheeting. I did just that and brought it to him and he proceeded to tear it into strips and together we tied them onto a string he had strung across the garden. This was to keep the birds away. Did it work? I don’t remember, but I was so pleased to be of help to him. It wasn’t often that I could work with him, and feel I was doing anything of importance. That is probably why this memory comes back to me now. I learned to can fruits and vegetables from my grandmother and mother. Sometimes my grandmother would have her sister Aunt Jennie come and help, and in return she would go to her home and help her can. After I was married they both came to New Hampshire and helped me can peaches. What a pleasant time we had talking and working at the same time and having a final product to take pride in. They also quilted and did sewing together and I have memories of them laughing and talking about so many things–a time I would like to return to in this busy rush, rush world. I spent many happy hours learning to sew and crochet with them and I do think I learned many of life’s lessons without even being aware of them while listening to their conversations. — Helen Coll
A Little Bit of Truth
On Friday, in the middle of the afternoon, I was sitting in a armchair in the English department staff room, waiting for some parents to show up for a parent/teacher conference.
I was waiting, and I was also wondering…
Wondering when I was going to have time to write a sermon.
I had an idea what I was going to write about, but… when… when? That was the question!
Pretty soon an influx of teachers wandered into the staff room. Class must have just finished.
One of my colleagues heaved a great sigh, and flopped down into a nearby armchair.
“In the words of my Grandmother…” he said “Thank you Jesus!”
“Thank you Lord,” I said.
Another of my fellow teachers, who had, in the meantime, occupied another nearby chair, smiled at this holy repartee, and picked up the thread saying…
“You know what my Grandmother always said?”
“What?” I asked.
“She used to say ‘There’s a little bit of truth in everything you say.’”
“Yeah,” he said. “But it made it hard for us to joke around with each other. Grandma was always there to remind us that we might have actually meant what we said.”
As an English teacher, and a writer, I am trained to pay special attention to dialogue.
In fiction, memoir, poetry, and of course, theater, — if words have quotation marks around them, it indicates that the character cared enough about the idea to transform it from a notion in her mind, to a spoken intention that has real life in the world.
Spoken dialogue also shifts the tone of a story from something that is being told, to something that is happening in the moment.
It is for this reason, that the words of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, strike me as particularly odd.
I refer, of course, to the words that James and John, the sons of Zebedee speak at the outset of today’s scripture lesson.
I picture them walking on the dusty road, in among the company of Jesus’ followers, debating between themselves, the merits of their great idea, and trying to figure out how to present it. But when they finally work up the courage to say it what’s on their minds, this is how it came out:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
This doesn’t sound like a request.
It sounds like a demand.
“…we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
And I don’t know about you, but I can just picture Jesus raising his eyebrows a little bit, when he replies :“What is it you want me to do for you?”
But if Jesus, (like you and I) was a bit taken aback by the audacity of this overture, he could have held onto his amazement, because no sooner are these words out of their mouths, then comes their bold request:
they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
On Saturday morning, I found myself sitting in another armchair — this time in the foyer of a conference center in Concord New Hampshire.
I could hear, the muffled sound of the speaker in the event space reporting to the gathered crowd about something related to governance at the conference level at New Hampshire UCC.
Its not that I didn’t care about what was being discussed.
I’d snuck out of the New Hampshire UCC annual conference because I was heeding the call — the same one that grabbed me the day before at school — the need to carve out a minute or two to write my sermon.
And as I sat there, I realized that there is at least one virtue to this process — this process of writing a sermon in the middle of living life.
When I do this, I can grab things almost as they happen.
Just moments before, during the worship service — attended by hundreds of clergy and delegates from all over New Hampshire, we’d shared a call and response prayer of confession. In the midst of this call and response, a phrase jumped out at me. I — and everyone else gathered — had just repeated these words:
We withhold mercy from those we deem unworthy…
Brenda and Sarah, who were sitting on either side of me, at the table, can attest that I immediately reached for a scrap of paper and wrote the phrase down.
We withhold mercy from those we deem unworthy…
“He’s writing his sermon,” Brenda said, laughing.
Sarah smiled knowingly.
There was more than a little bit of truth to what Brenda said!
On Saturday evening, as it was getting dark, I found myself sitting in yet another armchair.
This time I was in Owen’s living room.
Owen himself was off attending some Willa Cather related event, and so I had the place to myself.
No one about to distract me by saying anything witty or thought provoking — just the hum of the refrigerator in the next room, and the silhouette of the trees darkening on the far side of the little stretch of yard.
Now, I can pay attention, at last, to what Jesus replied.
You will recall that the James and Jon the sons of Zebedee practically demanded that Jesus place them on his left and right side when they came to him in glory.
There are two parts to Jesus’ reply.
First there is a kind of boring “Human Resources” answer. Then comes totally surprising spiritual answer.
The Human Resources answer can be summed up quickly like this: “You don’t know what you’re asking, and even if you did, you can forget it, cause its not up to me anyway.”
Its not that interesting.
The spiritual answer is more interesting because it addresses the subtext… that is, what the disciples really wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.
Jesus immediately saw right through them. Sure, they wanted to sit next to him in glory — but what they really wanted, was to be reassured.
Reassured of their greatness.
They were aware that they were in the presence of greatness. But they were unsure of their own greatness.
So their demand was the clumsy demand of vulnerable egos.
“Tell us that we are great…” they were pleading.
Deem us worthy!
Include us in your community.
And in response to these pleas, Jesus says, look, its easy…
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
And now, we can only imagine, it was the Disciples turn to raise their eyebrows…
What did he say?
To become great one must be a servant?
Whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all?
That makes no sense at all!
Greatness has to do with thrones.
Greatness has to with power!
Why is Jesus saying that greatness resides in being a servant?
Servants are not powerful! The only people who are servants are people who have no power.
Being a slave is the very definition of having no power!
What can Jesus possibly mean?
May I help you?
The Jews of the first century who were expecting a messiah to come, were expecting a king, or a great military leader who could get the power of God on their side.
They wanted a savior who could pull them out from generations of subjugation beneath colonial powers.
They weren’t expecting a teacher who said that servants and slaves were great.
That must have been almost an affront to them.
And to us too, its plain weird.
We define greatness through wealth, not through servanthood.
We know the names of rich people, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and Elon Musk,.
Those people, in our society, that do the work traditionally assigned to servants — janitors, waitresses, garbage men, migrant field workers — do we know their names?
And yet, according to Christ’s logic, if Bill Gates went to a diner, and Jesus was sitting in the corner, he’d look at Gates, and then he’d look at the waitress, and when the waitress said “May I help you?” Jesus would think — boom, she’s the greater of the two.
Jesus takes the logic that governs our society and turns it on its head.
Or is it?
What is greatness anyway?
Is it having a bunch of money?
Is it having a lot of political power?
Is it being in command of a great army?
Is it winning an Oscar for best picture?
Is it having 20 million views on YouTube?
If you are human being, then you might be tempted to give these answers.
But God doesn’t.
God is concerned with what is really important.
And every once in a while, we glimpse it too — even though we are mere humans
Every once in a while, we, like the ghost of Emily Gibbs in Act three of Our Town, get a glimpse of how beautiful life really is.
And when do we get these little glimpses of heaven?
When we experience servanthood.
When we step aside from any concern for our own benefit, and join in the collaborations of the heart.
I cannot think of a better example than the one that our own dear Helen Coll has provided in her memoir:
One day Grandpa told me, “Go into the house and ask Grandma for a large rag of sheeting. I did just that and brought it to him and he proceeded to tear it into strips and together we tied them onto a string he had strung across the garden. This was to keep the birds away. Did it work? I don’t remember, but I was so pleased to be of help to him.
God knows, and we know too, if we are really honest with ourselves, that greatness is not a matter of money.
its not a matter of achievement.
Its not a matter of material wealth.
None of that will matter.
The only thing that matters js the reality of love.
The only thing that matters is the sweet memory, from long ago, of the day you helped your grandfather string rags across the yard to keep the birds away.