The View from the End of the Line
Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 12:3-8 & Mark 12:35-45
Trinity Sunday May 27th 2018
35 James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came up to him. “Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us.” 36 “What is it? I’ll see what I can do.” 37 “Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” 38 Jesus said, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” 39-40 “Sure,” they said. “Why not?” Jesus said, “Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. There are other arrangements for that.”
41-45 When the other ten heard of this conversation, they lost their tempers with James and John. Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.” Mark 10:35-45 Message
3 I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. 4-6 In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pride fully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t. 6-8 If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face. Romans 12:3-8 Message
Last Sunday I talked about vocation…how the Holy Spirit inspires us to live lives which give witness to God’s truth and love. The theme of vocation continues this morning with the question: what is God’s calling for me at this point in my life?
We don’t know how old Isaiah was the year that King Uzziah died, but we know he had a life-changing experience in the Temple. Worship opened this morning with his account of seeing the Lord God, Yahweh, sitting enthroned on high… attended by six-winged seraphs…with just the hem of God’s robe filling the Temple. Talk about an awesome God.
The vision overwhelmed Isaiah with a profound sense of unworthiness. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts!” These are honest words for a prayer of confession. In the presence of the Holy, our un-holiness becomes plain to see.
When we are willing to confess our sin, we look for some message or gesture of forgiveness. Which is why there’s a Word of Assurance following the corporate prayer of confession in Sunday worship. Isaiah was given a powerful assurance of pardon when a seraph touched his lips with a burning coal taken from the altar. The unclean was rendered clean…but something else also took place.
Isaiah’s ears were opened and he heard the Lord God ask: “Whom shall I send; and who will go for us?” If the Pentecost question is: ‘What language does your life speak’, then the Trinity Sunday question comes from our Creator: ‘Whom shall I send?’
Have you ever been addressed like this by God? I doubt many of us have heard such words, but once heard Isaiah was ready to respond: ‘Here I am—send me.’ He didn’t even know what the task was yet, but he was ready….even eager.
Most of the time God seems to move us by more ambiguous means. We get a nudge…what I call a ‘holy hunch’. A burden is laid upon our heart and concerns us enough that we are moved to respond. There’s a decision to be made, and even if we’re uneasy, the way seems clear. “Here I am. Send me.”
There’s no guarantee that the hunch is from God. Perhaps its rightness will be born out in the results….in hindsight But all in all, living by faith is putting ourselves in a place to trust that God wants to and does communicate with us…that god has a purpose for us…and if we’re willing (and sometimes unwilling) God will make God’s will plain to us.
I want to share a vocation story I came across early in ministry, though now in my late 60’s it’s a whole lot more relevant. I shared it before, but it’s worth another listen…because it addresses the notion of God calling us at the particular point in life where we find ourselves.
“Others got there before her. She started earlier, it was true. But in her old age she could never move fast enough…to be first. She had reconciled herself to this turn of events, and had long since squelched any bitterness about how she was tolerated by the quick and nimble of foot. When she paid bills in the department store, boarded the bus, check out at the grocery, or stopped at the laundry, she was always last.
It came to her, after the passage of years, that being at the end of the line was a very good place to pray for those at the front of the line who were jockeying and vying for first place. She knew she would never be a front runner in the competition. Perhaps on the sidelines she could undergird those who were so sure of their position, so confident, energetic, strong and able.
It became her way of doing life, a vocation from the end of the line. By accepting where she stood, she discovered a starting point to bless the world; she was reconciled with her limitations, found joy in her opportunities and meaning in her contribution.
The world opened to her as it had too few in other places, this lady of prayer at the end of the line.” “The End of the Line”, Lee Phillips, AliveNow from the 1980’s.
“It became her way of doing life, a vocation from the end of the line.” We’ve all stood in line and been last. What do we see from the end of the line?
More than once in the gospels Jesus announced: “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last”. He meant it as a counter-cultural statement….a stark reversal of expectation and fortune in line with his famous beatitude: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
In the passage from Mark, Jesus makes the same point: “Whoever would be great must become a servant.” There’s something fundamentally Christ-like about the notion of the greatest being servants….that in order to get ahead we must step aside and not only let another go first, but support others in going first?
I love how this old woman discovered that being last wasn’t such a bad position to be in after all. It afforded her a unique point of perspective. With God’s help, she was able to turn the diminished circumstances of being slower into a powerful vocation of prayer. From the end of the line, she found “a starting point to bless the world”…a staging ground from which to channel prayer-energy to others who probably hadn’t even noticed her.
Such wisdom doesn’t come easily for any of us. Something had to take place in this woman…an inner shift….a coming to terms. It took “the passage of years” as she struggled….perhaps having fits at times….to finally arrive at an inner peace of acceptance that growing older was, among other things, also a gift….that her cup of life was half full, even containing the unexpected possibility of fresh purpose. She discovered how to ‘bloom where you’re planted’ .
Consider the psalm: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies (aging, aching, slowing down?): thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
In order to grow older gracefully you and I also must allow our self-image to shift and change. When I was eighteen I ran up Mount Katahdin. At 27 I dreamed of conquering the high peaks in every wilderness area in the USA. At thirty-five I co-led teenagers on backpacking trips, and could flyfish for eight hours straight. In my fifties I started to slow down a bit…and had the inclination to stop and notice small clusters of flowers and rocky outcropping I had earlier rushed past trying to the top of the mountain. Nowadays I find myself content to sit and contemplate. And fishing for two hours is enough of an outing. My self-image is adjusting to the realities on the ground.
Paul spoke about self-image in Romans 12, exhorting his fellow Christians to have a realistic estimate of themselves and their abilities…to not think too highly of themselves. “Think with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith with which God has blessed you.” (Romans 12:3)
In the passage we’ve heard, Paul goes on to discuss how members of the Body of Christ interact, each bringing unique strengths and gifts to the common tasks of being Church. His point is that we each have a ministry…a part to play in the ongoing mission of Christ in this world. And it works out best when we humbly accept our limits along with our ministry which is one part of the whole.
Allowing our self-image to change and embracing interdependence are part of growing up…maturing humanly and spiritually. It means being reconciled to certain limitations, learning to make wise choices, and looking for creative possibilities within the energy resources we now possess.
I’m reminded of Paul’s stirring words earlier in Romans: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-38)
In college I once had a 90 year old landlady of profound Christian faith. She was a mighty prayer warrior. Often when I’d drop in for a visit she would be interrupted by a telephone call asking her to pray for some situation right then and there. Which she did….on the phone…sometimes for quite a while as I waited. Then before I left she’d pray with me. She could hardly walk across the room, but she was perceptive, strong in spirit and knew God’s goodness and faithfulness to the bottom of her heart.
Take a look around you from the vantage point of whatever “end of the line” you are experiencing these days. Does the Lord have something for you to do…some ministry… some compassionate work…some relationship to nurture…some small contribution that will build up the world?
Go ahead….imagine the sort of person you are called to be as a servant of Jesus Christ in your present circumstances. Life is intended to be lived as a gift… gratefully…from beginning to end…even from the end of the line. Grace and peace be with us all. Amen.