"The cup that I drink"-Sermon for Proper 24, Mark 10:35-45
There is nothing I enjoy more in this life than table fellowship. As I look back on the length of my days, now encroaching upon 48 years, I believe this has always, for me, been true. When I reflect back and allow my mind to meander down memory lane…on all those moments and events and experiences that have shaped who I am, the sorrows and joys, it is the tables I see first…where my mind wanders first. Boiled crawfish or crabs laced with corn on the cob, red potatoes and sausage…steaks smothered in mushrooms sautéed in butter and wine…hamburgers and hot dogs with grill marks on paper plates in a large crowd…green vegetables proudly grown in the backyard…the most intimate expression of farm to table…chicken thighs braised for hours in stock or broth…sauces begun with a mirepoix of onions, celery, garlic and carrots softening in olive oil followed by browned venison that I myself hunted…getting very close to my food and giving thanks to God for that precious animal’s life sacrificed to fill my own loved ones…bringing us health, growth, and vitality. Clearly, I remember the food that sits on the tables that are dappled throughout my past and will be in my future…and I am getting hungry!
But way, way more than the food…what I see and remember most clearly when I look back at the tables I have gathered around…are the people with whom I gathered. From birthdays, to holidays, to wakes, to all manner of family celebrations, to simple and quick weeknight dinners with my immediate family, to intimate meals shared only with a few close friends or eating alone with Ashley my very best friend and life-partner…at all of those occasions…that for which I am most grateful…what burst my heart wide open…what I remember most of all are the people around the table…taking each other’s hands and saying or singing our blessing…raising our cups to each other in celebration of a life shared together…and then, of course, I remember so many of the conversations that followed…some very hard…tears involved…remembering a life lost or profound mistake made or deep wound caused by the thoughtlessness of another…and I remember conversations full of overwhelming joy…regaling the past with laughter or looking forward to future adventures with great anticipation…or celebrating some rite of passage, some triumph. It is like, as we are holding up our glasses to one another, with an abundance of sweet and savory scents spread across the table…it is like we are holding up together the fullness of life…every last drop of it…holding it up…all the sorrow…all the joy…holding it up together, with and for each other, in unending gratitude to the God of life and love…for breathing both into our flesh and bones…profound gratitude for every breath we get to take. Of all the words used across the globe when glasses are held up and chinked together…toasting the God-breathed life we are blessed to live with each other…my most favorite of all is the Spanish word “Salud”, which means, “To life!”
And it is the very image of the table that Jesus sets before us today as he addresses the question raised by two of his friends, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Now the question itself seems wrongheaded, out of place…even self-interested…especially flowing from the lips of two people who shared such an intimate place in Jesus’ life…seats at his table. For they are asking for seats of honor at the table that Jesus has set for them and for all of us on the other side of glory...the heavenly banquet table where we and all the saints will feast in light perpetual, when the course of our life has come to its end in this world. The question, indeed, feels self-serving. They are after all following the one who came to serve rather than being served. The one who says that our greatest fulfillment lies in sacrificing ourselves for our friends and really all those in need. It seems like somewhere along the way these two have become lost…have confused following Jesus as some sort of accomplishment that deserves honoring, rather than, seeing following Jesus as a call to continually honor other people by caring for them and giving them dignity when they need it most. And Jesus, indeed, redirects all of his disciples when word gets out about James’ and John’s request, saying to them, “[W]hoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
But where I really want to focus this morning is on Jesus’ initial response to the question…a response that feels quite measured, even graceful, considering the self-interest that underscores the question. For rather than simply dismissing the question as self-serving…rather than throwing up his hands in frustration that these two friends have so badly missed the whole point of the ministry they share with Jesus, which is all about self-giving love. Rather than either of those two reasonable responses, Jesus instead asks them a question in return…one that in my mind points directly to the table…this table we share in church that we call an altar…and all the tables we gather around throughout our lives…and that question is, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” And, they respond, in my mind, somewhat courageously, as I don’t think they really understand the cup metaphor…as Good Friday and Easter are still yet to come…but still they respond, “We are able.” And Jesus then affirms that they are able and that, indeed, they will drink from Jesus’ cup.
So, what is this cup of which Jesus speaks…that he will drink, as will James and John. Well, I believe it is similar to what I tried to describe at the outset. Like the cups we hold up to one another at table in celebration of the life we live together, the cup that Jesus offers is nothing less than the cup of life. And, what I think we see as we take in the whole of the Gospel…from beginning to end…is that Jesus’ cup…that is the whole of the life he lived…is full of sorrow and joy…disappointment and triumph…isolation and companionship…death and resurrection. And Jesus drank all of it…every last drop. For here is the secret, that I believe all of you already know, sorrow and joy are always co-mingled in the cup that is our own lives…and that Jesus bids us to drink. For joy and sorrow cannot be known unless held up together. For I have never seen the depth of true love…the all-encompassing power of love…more clearly than in the grief poured out of the one who has lost their beloved. I have never seen the true power and purpose of reconciliation to utterly remake relationships more clearly than in the lives of my friends practicing the 12-steps…that is when they have come to the 9###sup/sup### step which requires them to name and list the people they have deeply wounded, reliving that sorrow, and then making emends…making new life and renewed joy possible. In his book “Can You Drink the Cup”, Henri Nouwen writes, “Joys are hidden in sorrows! I know this from my own depression…we keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness…. We need to remind each other that the cup of sorrow is also the cup of joy, that precisely what causes us sadness can become the fertile ground for gladness. Indeed, we need to be angles for each other, to give each other strength and consolation. Because only when we fully realize that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow by also a cup of joy will we be able to drink it.” This invitation by Jesus to drink the cup of sorrow and joy is an invitation to really live a fully alive sort of life…which is the glory of God. And we must do so, drink the cup of life set before us, remembering always that at the very bottom of Jesus’ cup…the last sip…was resurrection…the greatest expression of creativity and life born out of the sorrow that proceeded it. And the same is true of the cups we hold in our hands. For we hold the cup of life not death…Good Friday, our own Good Friday like moments, are always followed by Easter…our own sort of resurrection moments.
And, I want to share one last thought on Nouwen’s reflection that ties back to the place I began. And that is the table is a place of gathering…a place where we get to be, as Nouwen says, angels for one another. Our cups will, at times, be heavy and we will want to set them aside…so we must hold them up together with and, at times, for each other. Nouwen continues, “When we do want to drink our cup and drink it to the bottom, we need others who are willing to drink their cups with us. We need community, a community in which confession and celebration are always present together.”
We call the cup we share at this altar a communion cup…a common cup…a cup we hold together in community. Within it lies both sorrow and joy…death and resurrection. It is the cup of life that we hold with, alongside, and for each other. And we share it every week to remind us of the great gift of the life that God has given to each of us…the life that is made so wonderful precisely because we get to share it with each other…the sorrows and joys…a real life…well led. This cup we share, the sorrows and the joys, is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that awaits us and all…and that has no end…where only love and joy are known…for all time and forever…so as we lift our cups together…to life my friends! Amen.