Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Can you Drink the Cup?
The truth is that I have a lot of favorite books – and one of them is genuinely called: Can You Drink the Cup? The book is written by Henri Nouwen who many of you will know, I’m sure, and it is based on the very passage of scripture I just read.
Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest — very brilliant and really quite grand, who taught for many years at Harvard and wrote a whole bunch of famous books, but who finally gave all that up to go and live in a plain old house with a small community of physically and mentally challenged people in Canada.
One day, as he lifted up the chalice during communion in this unobtrusive home, he was struck anew by the question Jesus asks his two close friends in our passage today: Can you drink the cup that I will drink? and over the next couple of years he wrote this little book.
For Nouwen, the question gets right to the heart of the question that had nagged him for so long: how should he live his life? Could he drink the cup that had been given to him, with all it’s ups and downs, successes and failures, sorrows and joys? Could he stop running away and actually claim this cup as his own, lift it up, and then empty it all the way to the bottom? Could he ever begin to live his life – not someone else’s but his own life – “to the full, whatever it would bring?”
These are important questions, I think – and I’m hoping we can spend some time with them today by more or less straightforwardly summarizing what it is that Nouwen had to say, and then ending with a short story from his book to wrap things up.
Ok. So, he begins by breaking down the question into three distinct actions: Holding the Cup, raising the Cup and Drinking the cup.
Number 1, holding the cup is, for Nouwen, the first step in moving towards our life in all its imperfect specificity instead of closing our eyes to it and sort of pretend-wishing that it was something else. It is the process by which we stop skating along on the surface and start to actually wade into the truth of our lives, allowing ourselves to notice, and then reflect on, whatever it is that we actually find there. Now, I don’t know about you but I sometimes find it easier to turn my back on all that; to put on my best face and continue on as if none of the questions and doubts and fears that might emerge if I really pay attention to my life were simply not there at all. But holding the cup of our lives says ‘no’ to this pretend existence, at least for a time. It is daring to say, as Nouwen does: “This is my life, the life that is given to me, and it is this life that I have to live, as well as I can….” Before we can do anything very meaningful with our lives, he says, pretty straightforwardly, we first have to know what they are – I mean really — and holding our cup is this process of accepting the truth of the sorrows and joys that are mingled together within each one of our lives.
Are you with me so far?
Ok. Next up comes the act of lifting the cup. If holding the cup is affirming and accepting the truth of our lives, then lifting the cup is offering to share that truth with others as a blessing — in just the same way that lifting your cup to offer a toast does. It means daring not only to move towards, but also to openly share the fullness of our lives in all their complexity — thereby giving others permission to do the same.
Nouwen says ‘…As we lift up the cup of life and look each other in the eye, we say let’s not be anxious or afraid. Let’s hold our cups together and greet each other.” Let’s dare to “acknowledge the reality of our lives and encourage each other to be grateful for all the gifts we have received” – both easy and hard. The act of lifting our cup then, isn’t only about ourselves. Instead it expresses our desire to support others through their muddied and complex journeys not by sharing our wisdom or our strength, but by daring to share our own muddle and complexity. And this combination of generosity and vulnerability is – more than anything else in the world we have been given to share – both the engine and the power of real and lasting community.
In fact, living community, vibrant community — community shot through with the power of the Spirit which attracts others and then draws them in – can only exist when it is made up of people who know that here at least we can be ourselves – our real selves — without pretense, or posturing, or shame. The truth is that most of our lives are a giant great jumble of pain and joy, grief and celebration, peace and turmoil–and while we may sometimes find this overwhelming on our own, our fear turns suddenly to hope when we share honestly with others because, at last, we don’t have to pretend anymore — and so we become free.
Nouwen believes, and I agree, that we all need a community in which we feel safe enough to reveal who we really are, day by day, week by week. A community in which – for once – we don’t have to dress up and pretend. A community in which truth-telling and celebration are brought into one through the transparent vulnerability of Jesus himself right here at the altar. A community whose very purpose is breath, and space, and truth and healing. A community like the one Jesus himself created and creates still in which all are welcome – especially (not even but especially) the sick and the hurting and the struggling…
We need it because only with and in a community like this will most of us ever summon the courage to actually drink the cup that Jesus drank – the cup of life abundant, full to the brim with challenges and promises both. This is essential because by drinking the cup, Nouwen says, we are not only saying this is my life, but also, I accept that this is my life and I will proceed from here, I will say yes to it.
Drinking the cup is fully making our own the lives we have been given to live – down to the very last drop. It’s not always easy to do this. And the truth is that most of us can’t do it on our own – it’s too scary. We need the strength – and also the weakness – of each other, and of God, to help us – which is where the church comes in.
Church is not the building – as everyone of you already knows! And church is also not the liturgy – not on its own. Instead, the liturgy exists in service to the church, as a way to help strengthen us for this work of both being and becoming who we already and honestly are — together.
This is why everyone is invited to participate in it, whoever and however we are – no matter what. It is not a formality, and it is not a performance, and it is not even a well orchestrated re-enactment of something long dead and gone. It is a living breathing work of the people and of God together, through which we become able again to find the resurrection power hidden in the depths of our own deaths – the joy mingled in with our grief, the oneness of us all in our specific solitudes.
Releasing, empowering, healing, redeeming, recovering and re-igniting, the liturgy is as impossible to break or interrupt as a river – and as alive – and, though it sometimes gets trapped in convention and habit, it is – at its heart – is a celebration – full of thanksgiving and joy for the way in which Christ himself looked deep into his own suffering and death and then offered them up as a blessing for us all… And as Christ did, so we can too – together with each other and with him, this I think is Nouwen’s ultimate point – Let me read a quick story from Can You Drink the Cup? about another kind of community and another kind of liturgy brought alive by someone who dares to hold, lift and drink his cup to the fullest:
A few years ago, one of the handicapped members of the Daybreak community had to spend a few months in a mental hospital near Toronto for psychological evaluation. His name is Trevor. Trevor and I had become close friends over the years he loved me and I loved him. Whenever he saw me coming, he ran up to me with a great radiant smile. Often he went into the fields and collected wildflowers for me. He always wanted to assist me in the celebrations of the Eucharist….
During the time Trevor was away I decided to go see him. I called the hospital chaplain and asked him if I could visit my friend. He said I was welcome to come and wondered if it would be all right if he invited some of the ministers and priests in the area and some members of the hospital staff to have lunch with me. Without think ing much about the implicatins of this request, I said immediately, “Sure that will be fine.”
When I arrived at 11:00 AM, a large group of clergy and hospital personnel was waiting for me, and they welcomed me warmly. I looked around from Tervor, but he wasn’t there. So I said: “I came here to visit Trevor. Can you tell me where I can find him?” The hospital chaplain said: “You can be with him after lunch.” I was stunned and said, “But didn’t you invite him for lunch?” “No, no,” he said, “that’s impossible. Staff and patients cannot have lunch together. Moreover we have reserved the Golden Room for this occasion, and no patient has ever been allowed in that room. It is for staff only.” “Well,” I said, “I will only have lunch with you all when Trevor can be there too. Trevor and I are close friends. It is for him that I came, and I am sure he would love to join us for lunch.” I noticed some mixed reactions to my words, but after some whispering I was told that I could bring Trevor with me to the Golden Room.
I found Trevor on the hospital grounds, as always, looking for flowers. When he saw me his face lit up, and he ran up to me as if we had never been apart and said: “Henri, here are some flowers for you.” Together we went to the Golden Room. The table was beautifully set, and about twenty-five people had gathered around it. Trevor and I were the last to sit down. …
People were making small talk. Many of the guests were strangers trying to get ot know each other. The general atmosphere was quiet, somewhat solemn. I got quickly involved in a convesatin with my right-hand neighbor and didn’t pay much attention to Trevor. But suddenly Trevor stood up, took his glass of Coke, lifted it, and said with a loud voice and a big smile: “Ladies and gentlemen… a toast!” Everyone dropped their voncersatina nd turned to Trevor with puled and somewhat anxious faces. I could read their thoghts: “What in the heck is this patient going to do? Better be careful.”
But Trevor had no worries. He looked at everyobody and said: “Lift up your glasses.” Everyone obeyed. And then, as if it were the most obvious thing to do, he started to sing: “When you’re happy and you know it…lift your glass. When y ou’re happy and you know it…lift your glass. When you’re happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, when you’re happy and you know it, lift your glass.” As he sang, peole’s faces relaxed and started to smile. Soon a few joined Trevor in his song, and not long after everyone was standing, singing loudly under Trevor’s direction.
Trevor’s toast radically changed the mood in the Golden Room. He had brought these strangers together and made them feel at home. His beautiful smile and his fearless joy had broken down the barriers between staff and patients and created a happy family of caring people. With his unique blessing, Trevor had set the ton for a joyful and fruitful meeting. The cup of sorrow and joy had become the cup of blessings.”
That formal luncheon became church that day thanks to Trevor – not despite, but because of his particular way of being. Through taking, lifting and ultimately drinking his cup he transformed the wariness in the room into joy, just the way Jesus must have done when he gathered his friends for the very last time. And as with Jesus and Trevor and Henri Nouwen so also it can be with us who gather for these few, sacred hours each week drawn by love to all that is truest in this world. May it be so. May it be so…..