Heaven Knows No Hierarchy

Heaven Knows No Hierarchy

The disciples still didn’t get it. The first will be last the last will be first, if you would lead you must become as a servant. They still didn’t get it. Maybe we have a hard time getting it too. James and John were part of the inner most circle of the disciples. When they approached Jesus in this passage they sounded like children: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Whenever my kids tried that one on me, I knew I was in for a wild ride, and I would almost always have to say, “No!”

Jesus was consistent. He answered their question with a question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

James and John were seeking preferment in Jesus’ Kingdom, and to sit at his left and right hand would have made them his chief lieutenants – Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were anticipating personal glory and status. As it turned out, when Jesus entered into his glory there was a thief on his right hand, and a bandit on his left, and rather than mounting a royal throne, he was hanging from a cross.

In this passage Jesus seemed to anticipate his fate. So again he answered James and John with a question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

James and John responded in ignorance: “We are able.” Jesus told James and John, you do not know what you are asking. Of course barely a few weeks later both James and John would abandon Jesus and go into hiding, when Jesus was arrested and nailed to the cross.

I have no room to make judgments about James and John. I am always reminded of my own compromises with the Gospel, my subtle evasions, my lack of genuine authenticity, my failures to love, my cowardice. Am I willing to drink the cup of suffering, or am I along for the ride so long as everything is smooth and easy, and I am promised eternal life?

There are two issues with which this passage challenges us to wrestle. The first issue is hierarchy the human desire for status by creating in our minds ladders of relative worth. We usually want to be able to view ourselves at our near the top of some scale, even if only to note how humble we are. “I’m the most humble person I know.” In the vanity of our imaginations we even try to project our hierarchies on heaven. Like the jokes about people going to heaven, and they are given a tour by St. Peter. When they come to one room, St. Peter asks them all to please be very, very quiet as they pass the room. When the tour finally gets past the room someone asks St. Peter, “how come we had to be so quiet when we walked past that room?

And St. Peter answers, “Oh the Church of Christ, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Seventh Day Adventists, or any other group who believe they are the only ones going to heaven, are in there and we want to let them think they are the only ones here.”

Another way we humans have projected our need for hierarchy onto heaven is to imagine different levels of heaven, hell and purgatory. If you are bad, you go to hell. If you are good, you get to go to heaven. And if you’re not too bad, but not good enough, it’s purgatory. Dante the author of the Divine Comedy even imagined nine different Circles of Hell — assigning different sins and sinners different punishments.

Human beings even tend to project their need for hierarchy on heaven. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, there’s another star in your crown in heaven. I can just imagine folks lining up to get into heaven, and people asking, “How many stars you got?” We just have a tendency to create rank, where there is no status and no need for pretense at all. I think I only truly understood the false consciousness of racism, when I saw a white lady in the 1960’s told there would be African Americans in heaven. And she responded with great vehemence, “If there are African Americans in heaven, then I ain’t a goin’.”

In this passage Jesus is trying to tell us, heaven knows no hierarchy. God loves us all without distinction, and heaven will reflect the universality of God’s abiding love.

Now the other issue with which our scripture asks us to wrestle is sacrifice. When we come to communion, the bread is the Body of Christ broken, the cup is the blood of suffering. The central act of Christian worship communicates that the secret of the Universe is self-sacrificing love. Now let us be clear, self-sacrificing love is not a pathological martyr complex or co-dependency. The Lord’s Supper, however, reminds us at some point in our lives God may ask us to live sacrificially for others. We don’t need to go looking for a hand grenade to throw ourselves upon. We don’t need to go looking for martyrdom. We don’t need to rush out to sacrifice ourselves. Rather, we can recognize, if we follow the way of Jesus, sooner or later we will be asked to embrace some sacrifice for others.

Most often I see self-sacrifice, in the face of illness. A spouse, a partner, a family member, a friend becomes ill, and other people give of themselves to care for the one who is sick. Caregiving, especially for certain kinds of dying can be very difficult and exhausting. Like when my mother and her friend Margaret were comparing notes on caring for aging husbands with cancer, and Margaret said, “Lorena, when they said for better or for worse, they really meant it!”

Our congregation’s caregiving committee tries to extend the care of our congregation to people who are sick, or in trouble. Serving on the caregiving committee requires a sacrifice of time, attention, and concern. Our covenant to pray with and for each other is another covenant of sacrifice — allowing the pain and distress of others enough space in our hearts to respond to them through prayer, visits, calls, cards, encouragement and love. Visiting the very sick and giving them space and time to talk about their dying is another difficult ministry. So often family and friends want to remain in denial about impending death, and to have a friend or loved one with whom a dying person can confide their hopes, their fears, and their faith can be a wonderful gift.

Beyond the call to care for others, I am also aware, when we commit to following the way of Jesus sooner or later God will ask us to do something we don’t want to do. I remember almost forty years ago I was asking a church member in Plattsburgh, New York, if she would do something in the life of the church, and her answer was, “no that’s not my bag.”

This was late in the season of Lent, and I began to wonder, where would we be if in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus had turned to God and said, “no God this crucifixion business just isn’t my bag, you go get yourself another messiah.” Again, I don’t think God is asking any of us to be martyred, but I can imagine God is likely to ask some of us to pick up tasks that need to be done, but that we would prefer not to do. And when we pick up those tasks, we understand it is not with the promise of extra stars in our crown. We take up those tasks because God is asking.

I don’t know what God may ask you to do. I have enough trouble struggling with what God asks of me. What I know is God will give us the gifts and graces we need to do what God wants us to do. I also know when we embrace God’s will for us, we find a peace only God can give.

Mahatma Gandhi had a list of seven deadly sins: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, Worship without sacrifice. And I think our scripture has something to say about the last of Gandhi’s seven deadly sins – that curious phrase worship without sacrifice.

On Thursday nights we are learning the practice of gratitude – learning to stand in awe of the gift of life and being. Gratitude for God’s gift of being brings us to worship to give praise. All of those songs of praise we sing in worship, the psalms, the prayers of praise and thanksgiving are appropriate expressions of thanks for the gift that is our lives. Most of the time, we take our lives as a gimme, something somehow owed to us. We act like we earned our existence. We behave as if we are entitled. And nothing could be further from the truth. How pompous and vain we are.

Worship without sacrifice is an important message. Praise without giving back is empty. Offering hollow thanksgiving without giving back to life is meaningless. We were not created for ourselves alone. We were created to give. We were created to give back from the talents and endowments God has bestowed upon us. Let’s allow God to shape us into servant leaders who give back to life from the abundance God has given to us.

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