Last week I got a letter, email, from a good friend who's going through a tough time: the job’s not going well, working with people he doesn’t trust, too far away from home and good friends and family, feeling very lost and lonely. Plus he recently hit the big 50 and finds he’s nowhere near to being who and what he wanted, or where he hoped he’d be at this point on the journey (and in this he’s not unlike James and John, those two upwardly mobile, hoping for glory, disciples who come to Jesus with their request in the Gospel reading for today). So my good friend sent a letter with a lot of sadness, anger, disappointment, mourning: he’s not a happy camper. It’s a very human and rather common place to be and most of us have visited there at least once or twice. This is what I wrote to him:
What if you stop looking at what you didn't turn out to be and base your life in the middle of where you are? I read these articles, hear stories on the news, about people in Africa who have had their arms cut off during the uprisings in the Sudan. And I think: there’s only one thing I could do with that, I'd either have to die right there, or I’d have to stop and say, “Now I have to start living as someone who has no arms, will never have arms, and live from that point - giving up all the dreams of a person I was before. That man is dead and I am alive and this is where and how I am.”
Now the Asian martial art of Aikido talks about "taking the hit as a gift" and that is a tough discipline: giving up the old dreams, the hopes, the stuff we felt was ours as a right or an outcome to expect, and taking the hit of what we have in front of us, within us, whatever it is, and learning to use that as the place where we live, where we offer to the world and to God just what we can. Sometimes that means balancing with being off balance, learning to take life as a gift with no arms, if you have to, and somehow believing there is a gift to give that comes from being who and where you are no matter who and what that is.
But saints can do that, and everybody can be a saint, even if just for a short time now and then: in those transient moments when the gift and grace of the present moment show up in the graceful light of eternity when we see clearly that everything is a gift, even losing, even leaving it all behind: when it is all somehow seen as lit from within. But it doesn’t always show up when you want, in the time you choose, in the context you would want. And that’s not easy to swallow. Here’s a story I love from Zen Buddhism:
A man is walking in a field when he sees a lion coming after him. He runs and the lion runs. He comes to a cliff at the end of the field and the lion is closing in. He jumps, he falls, he catches himself by grabbing onto a small branch which is protruding fro the side of the cliff. He takes a breath and looks down at the bottom of the cliff and there are two tigers looking at him hungrily. He looks up and the lion is climbing down, He looks down and the tigers have set up a picnic blanket and are saying grace (I’ve adapted the story a bit at this point).
Suddenly a little furry animal comes out of a nearby hole and begins to chew on the small branch the man is holding onto, and it starts to come apart. As the branch begins to break, the man sees one small bright red berry attached to the end of that same branch and he reaches out to take the berry and puts it quickly in his mouth. He bites into it. He says, 'Ah, Delicious!' "
Samuel Johnson somewhere said that the prospect of an imminent death concentrates the mind wonderfully, But I think it also can serve to open the heart. So this odd little story might tell a very important truth which is that we're always between the lion and tigers, failure and death are never NOT an option, as much as we’d prefer to avoid that truth. But giving up on what we thought we wanted, and accepting the difficult grace that comes where we are, can open us up to some unsought but very sweet small berries in the very middle of the way, and can lead us to a new understanding of how our lives might be lived out, offered out, and where our ministries might take us, for they can only start here in that understanding and in that place.
The Holy Eucharist we celebrate here is many things, has many facets, and maybe it is also a very sweet berry: a bright moment on a shadowed journey that gives us a taste of how to take the old road or go down the old cliff in a new way. We look up to the east end of the church and see this ongoing dance of give and take, of offering and oblation, of service and sacrifice, because the liturgy at the east end of the church pictures the caring that lives in the middle of the universe. It is both a kind of coming attractions as well as a statement about the foundation of daily life, weaving our lives anew through the recurring themes of sin and grace, mercy and thanksgiving, the perils of the journey and the joy of finally coming home.
But it is critically important to remember that this great feast comes to us right in the centre of where we are, between all the lions and tigers, and that is what bears watching. For while what we do here is glorious (and absolutely necessary) it’s not where we live, where we take up our ministry, our servant-hood, our daily practice, discipline, discipleship.
We are here, as “westenders”, catching that dawning eastern light in order to light up the world where we live, and to light up our way as witnesses and workers in that very same world. We are here to enlighten and inspire our vocations as very fragile and deeply valuable servants who work out our salvation – and everyone else’s - in each of our humble daily tasks just as we can.
So what happens at the east end is only the beginning: the centre of it comes in the middle of our lives, no matter where or how they are. For that is when we have the difficult, dangerous, glorious opportunity of looking for and living with God, as friends, co-creators, co-ministers of the work of creation, redemption, in the daily in-your-face holiness of life. In the middle of it all, we are Jesus Christ’s word in the world: servants of the most high God in this mundane and wondrous existence and that’s where our call calls us.
We say it every Sunday in this place: “We offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice through Jesus Christ our Lord. Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.” And then we go to try it out, flesh it out, work it out, give it over, all over God’s good world.
One last story: a woman dies after a long and careful life and the question of the estate comes up. One person says, “Did she leave much?” And the response is, “Well, actually she left it all!”
In the end there is no question of winning: we leave it all, just like Jesus. And as the old song says, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” and there’s a lot of freedom here. For in giving our life to Christ and taking on the yoke and ministry of Christ’s servanthood to the world we find the freedom of having nothing left to lose. For all is given up and will be found again in Gods glory, God’s service, God’s love, Gods’ good time, which we come to know in the face of this Christ, who calls us here today to be ministers and servants in this new creation.
May we do our jobs well, may we honour our vocations today and everyday, in the name of Christ.