This past June, David McCullough Jr. gave a startling commencement address at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, where he has been an English teacher for the last 26 years. He does not extol the virtues and achievements of his students; he does not heap the usual accolades upon them and send them off to an entitled future. Instead he tells them they are not special. They are not special because everyone is special.
When I am honest with myself, I admit to a recurring desire to be special, successful. I want to do something someone will notice, something that will make a difference, something that will merit a small headline somewhere. So I am troubled when I hear Mr. McCullough's words and when I read Jesus' response to the request of James and John, made as they travel the road to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross.
Jesus is striding out ahead of the twelve. James and John catch up with him to ask a favor: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." Jesus replies, "To sit at my right or left is not mine to grant. But you don't know what you're asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? You must be buried with me in order to live. You must drown in the deep waters of my love to be free from all that binds and destroys you."
"We are able," James and John assure him, all too quickly, just as we can make and affirm our Baptismal Covenant in the Episcopal rite without considering its daunting implications. Persevere in resisting evil? Strive for justice and peace? Sure. No problem.
"So be it; it is the only way," Jesus dubiously responds. The other ten are indignant at the presumption of James and John, and Jesus continues, "The great among you must be servant and slave of all." This has been his message all along. We just don't get it--or prefer not to get it.
In our day, as in the day of the twelve, what counts is being up front, applauded, recognized, cheered, leading the league, head of the class, beating out all competitors by a mile. So what the price of stress? So what the damage to relationships? So what our loss of integrity. Back to our promises: Continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? OK, but what do they really have to do with anything that matters?
We live in a culture in which success is achievement and failure is unacceptable, a culture that has taught us well the importance of being effective, of making it, of being number one. And each of us has made it in our own way. Buried in a box in the attic of our hearts is the trophy for which we worked so hard, gave up so much. Hanging on the wall of our souls is the yellowing certificate for which we sacrificed more than we really had.
We hurry on past Jesus' words about suffering and serving, not because they are obvious or naïve but because they indict and offend us. They startle us and whirl us around. We are afraid they just might be true. So we go back to fighting among ourselves for position, spinning futilely on our merry-go-rounds, unwilling to make them stop, unable to get off.
But Jesus is not giving crazy instruction that makes no sense or damning instruction that, like the brass ring, eludes our grasp. Jesus promises us his presence: "I have come to serve. I am with you. Do as I do. This is the way you were created to live--face to face with each other, no one on a higher plane, and face to face with me. It is the only way. I am willing to show you how. I am willing to serve you with my death for you. It will be enough."
Jesus gives us a startling word about how we are to live as baptized, reborn people, called to be signs of God's presence and activity, witnesses to God's reign, advocates of those denied God's benefits and blessings. His word can be difficult to comprehend, let alone live faithfully. Our typical experience of baptism too often fails to set forth this most radical act of the church.
Many of us remember when infants and children were baptized at private family events, apart from the whole community. Godparents were chosen, not because of faithful living, but because they were relatives or friends. The date was rarely remembered or celebrated, as biological birthdays and other events assumed greater importance. What all too often followed was a time of spotty attendance at church school, during which children in effect were excommunicated until they could understand the mystery of Holy Communion--as if they ever really would!
We prepared adolescents by a crash course in Bible, theology, and church practice for confirmation, a puberty rite that made them church members and allowed them to commune. They now had arrived and could graduate right out the front door. Although our current Book of Common Prayer asserts that baptism confers full church membership and is our primary sacrament for all ministry, vestiges of the past remain. Too often there is little in the church's ongoing practice that sets forth the primacy of baptism. Too few of the baptized designate themselves as being ministers of the church.
All this is so different from the experience of the early church. Adults took three or more years of preparation and testing to determine whether or not they were living a faithful Christian life. Then in an elaborate liturgy at the Great Vigil of Easter, they were submerged in a tomb-like baptismal font, dressed in white clothing, anointed with oil, confirmed, and for the first time, invited to pray the Prayers of the People, the priestly ministry of all believers. From then on, they remembered and celebrated their baptismal day.
Although throughout the year we come together as a community to baptize and to reaffirm our baptismal covenant, too often we continue to allow worldly culture to pervade the church and our personal lives. Our distortions eclipse our understanding of ministry as servanthood, and we eliminate or discourage whatever does not grow, becomes cost effective, brings obvious change to people and systems, gives results--results that can bring honor and glory. The Gospel of Jesus is not a gospel of success and prosperity, as some preachers would have us believe. Jesus never says, "Be effective." He says, "Live for each other; live with me." God always favors the outsider, the outcast, so Jesus invites us to join him in their midst.
I know a woman whose actions do not make sense if we are talking about dramatic change and results. Meg told me about her introduction to the nursing home where her mother, a victim of Alzheimer's, finally resided. There she found a largely deserted population, forsaken by family, doctors, and clergy.
Meg goes to the nursing home every Sunday to lead Morning Prayer for fourteen Episcopalians. She takes a cross and places it on a table she covers with a white cloth. She plays the old familiar hymns, and the little group gathered in their wheelchairs around the table begins to stir. Stilled voices murmur little fragments of song, sagging faces lift, and dulled eyes flicker with sparks of recognition. The words of the General Thanksgiving they anticipate and love to repeat with Meg are, "for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory." Again from the Baptismal Covenant: Seek and serve Christ in all persons? Respect the dignity of every human being? Yes. With God's help.
We have a crucifix hanging on the wall of our study. Nailed to the walnut cross is an abstract human form. Toward the top of the figure is a white and red-ringed agate. A tear of blood drips from this eye of God, the eye that sees all the hurt and broken ones of the world: confused, unfaithful followers; victims of greed and the misuse of power; those caught in illness and violence. All of us.
And because we are held fast by this suffering eye from the height of that cross, we can receive power to live lives that seem to make no sense by the standards of the world. God loves us indiscriminately and with abandon. God becomes an outcast from all we consider effective, useful, and successful. "This is what it is like to be mine," God tells us; God is for us. We too will suffer, but in that suffering, we will find life. We will meet ourselves as we already are: ones created in God's image.
The choice is ours. With our baptism, we learn the truth about ourselves and how God wills us to live. We spend the rest of our lives living into this truth and making Eucharist for God's care of us: for grace that bathes us with the clean water of divine blood, for grace that frees us from our drives to he effective and adequate, for grace that liberates us from that whirling merry-go-round. Over and again at God's table, we can be reconstituted as Christ's body, taken up into God's reign and sent back with a renewed vision of God's intention for us. Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Absolutely. With God's help.
Let us pray. Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
(BCP, p. 832)