Ordinary Sunday 29: 18th October, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Is 53:4,10-11; Ps 33; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45
Mark's gospel tells us in chapter one that James and John, along with our patron Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, were the first disciples to be called (Mk 1:19). In chapter three we hear that James and John were chosen as apostles, and given the nick-name "Boanerges" or "Sons of Thunder" (Mk 3:17). In chapter nine there are no names given, but we hear of an apostolic argument on the road over leadership; who is the greatest? Then in chapter ten, in today's gospel reading, it all comes out. The Sons of Thunder are out lobbying: "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you .... Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." They want to be the leaders of the apostles; perhaps they have been vying with Peter for top job.
Competition is a good thing. Exams drive us to stretch ourselves from an early age and get the best marks we can. The sports field draws out the very best in an athlete. The cut and thrust of the market place has given birth to the material comforts that we enjoy and take for granted. But competition is not the whole story. Not everyone can win all the time. Sometimes we fail; things collapse, people die, we get sick and lose the fight. What then?
Julian of Norwich, the mystic, writes: "first there is the fall, then there is the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God." They are liberating words. God's mercy is in resurrection, transformation, getting up and recovering from failure; yes, we all know that. But the mercy of God is found also in the fall: in death, in failure, in imperfection and loss. That is counter-intuitive. God's grace is as much in my failure as in my success.
In his book Falling Upward (2011) the Franciscan teacher Fr Richard Rohr explores this profound truth of the spiritual life: the mercy of God in both failure and recovery. He writes about the two halves of life. These are not necessarily strictly chronological; some young people, especially those who have endured great suffering, have already embarked on the second half of life. Others remain stuck in the first half of life into old age.
The first half of life is about creating our own ego-identity. It is important; through it we define who we are, we distinguish ourselves from others. Adolescence is a time when most of us enter deeply into this process, often defining ourselves against others: I am not like you (my parents, my teachers, my church)! This is my style of fashion; my sexual orientation; my friends; my life-style choice; my way of seeing the world. This is my container, the shape of who I am. And there is a paradox here. If my container is well built, I don't need it. Like good parents or good teachers, we do ourselves out of a job. That's the whole point.
The test comes when our container is formed, and we then encounter failure, betrayal, rejection, grief. This is the place where the transition to the second half of life needs to take place. The Sons of Thunder had to learn this lesson in today's gospel. They thought they had it all together. They were the super-disciples, the leaders, apostles of apostles. But Jesus says "no" to them. That is not the sort of leadership I am looking for. If you want to be great, you must get off your high horse and be a servant. The first of all must be the slave of all. You must learn how to come last in the race. How to be the last-place-winner. How to fall upward.
Falling upward is a dynamic that we need to know as a church, as well as individually. We want our church to be a success, of course we do, but what if we fail? Has God abandoned us? The 12 became the 70 and Jesus' followers grew, but then the tide turned, even Peter denied his Lord before he died a humiliating death. Jesus fell. But he fell upwards. God's grace was in his falling as much as in the recovery of resurrection.
I'd like to close with a poem that Thomas Merton wrote a year before he died: "When in the soul of the serene disciple."
- When in the soul of the serene disciple
- With no more Fathers to imitate
- Poverty is a success,
- It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
- He has not even a house.
- Stars, as well as friends,
- Are angry with the noble ruin.
- Saints depart in several directions.
- Be still:
- There is no longer any need of comment.
- It was a lucky wind
- That blew away his halo with his cares,
- A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
- Here you will find
- Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
- There are no ways,
- No methods to admire
- Where poverty is no achievement.
- His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.
- What choice remains?
- Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
- It is the usual freedom
- Of men without visions.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.