A few days ago, Oprah Winfrey was on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” talking about an upcoming series on her cable network.
The series is called “Belief,” and coming soon, over seven nights, it will explore the origins of different religious faiths, which as a former teacher of 7th Grade World Religions, I am very much in favor of.
Religious illiteracy is a dangerous and all too common thing in our world. I’m glad someone of Oprah’s public standing is taking up the challenge. I hope I can tune in and that many others do, too.
But Oprah’s interview with Stephen Colbert was interesting just in itself.
Colbert is a church-going Christian, and a thoughtful person, and so at one point, he and Oprah were talking about growing up in church, and he asked her what her favorite Bible verse was.
I’m not sure if the question surprised her, or threw her off for a second, because she responded at first by asking him what his favorite Bible verse was.
Without missing a beat, he said, “Mine’s from Matthew. I like it ‘cause Jesus says, ‘So I say to you do not worry, for who among you by worrying could change a hair on his head, or add a cubit to the span of his life?’ What I like about it is that it’s a commandment to not worry, and I’ll go with that.”
Oprah responded warmly, saying, “Mine is Psalms 37:4. ‘Delight thyself’—I love that word ‘delight,’ don’t you? I’m so glad that David knew it.”
“‘Delight thyself in the Lord. He will give you the desires of your heart,’” Oprah said.
She went on to say: “Now what that says to me, Lord has a wide range. What is Lord? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the Lord is revealed. Delight thyself in goodness, delight thyself in love, kindness, and compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart. It says to me, if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come.”
And that’s where it gets a little harder for me. Don’t get me wrong: she is absolutely right that delight is an important part of faith. Where and how we find our delight says a lot about what is most important to us, and it says a lot about the state of our soul.
And yes: compassion, love, forgiveness, and kindness—I am for all of these things. I think all of us are.
But with all due respect to Oprah, that’s also where I find myself resisting.
Surprisingly enough, this morning’s Gospel is part of the reason why.
You may well know the story.
It wasn’t too long ago on this extended road trip they’ve all been on that the disciples were fighting over which of them was the greatest. You’ll remember that this is what provokes Jesus into some of his famous affirmations, including “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
And he says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but the one who sent me” (9:37).
It’s the jockeying between the grownups that pushes Jesus to his important words about welcoming children as a way of welcoming him.
Well…it’s a few miles down the road, maybe a few days later, and it seems that the disciples are at it again.
Jesus has gotten mindful about Heaven, and it seems that the disciples have gotten newly mindful of Heaven, too.
But their earlier preoccupation with who among them is the greatest has come roaring back.
If Heaven is where they’re going, fine. Their question is who will be seated in Zone 1.
I’m sorry to say that religious people can really do this.
Religious people, it turns out, may have a particular definition of what Zone 1 may be—it may be very different than flying business class on an international flight—but the old, old impulse to be in Zone 1 still affects us.
I have a dear friend who is a devout Buddhist, and goes on extended meditation retreats at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York several times a year.
And she once complained that one of the real challenges of going on retreat was watching so many people try to “out-compassion” and “out-kindness” one another.
Even the Buddhists have their version of Zone 1.
So there the disciples are, walking along the road with their rolling bags, and James looks at John and says, “You know what Heaven is going to be like? Heaven is going to be having the overhead compartments all to yourself, and waiting for you at your seat will be a little ramekin full of those warm nuts.”
And John smiles and says, “Right. And the flight’s not too full, and you’ve got your seat on the aisle, and all of the babies are back in Zone 5.”
It’s not that what they say is crazy. It just isn’t the Kingdom. More immediately, it’s not what this journey is going to be like, at all.
So let me flog this metaphor one more time and just say, when the plane hits severe turbulence, it isn’t all that different in one zone versus another.
And what Jesus is talking about is the reality of turbulence, not only for God’s people, but in the end, really for all people.
Jesus asks John and James, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (v. 38)
With all the turbulent events that are to come, for Jesus, and for them all, are they really committed to this journey, or not?
So with that in mind, let’s go back to Oprah for a moment, because I think that’s what strikes me as thin in her answer about her favorite Bible verse.
Because who is not “for” compassion and love, or for forgiveness and kindness?
Do good things come of practicing them…do we receive something for practicing?
Of course we do.
Yet how deeply does that go? When our lives get turbulent, are those the values that will still guide us? Is that what people who encounter us will see?
Great when everything turns out our way, I guess. But when our dreams don’t come true, what then?
Because it’s dangerously easy to turn cultivating our virtues into a strategy for receiving, instead of a way of living.
When we don’t receive what we think we have coming to us, the temptation is to find another strategy and just try that, instead.
“Oh, I tried being a Christian for a while…but it just didn’t pay off. Speaking the truth in love, turning the other cheek, going the second mile. Now I’m more into massage and macrobiotics, you know, mind-body.” Or whatever.
More seriously, we all know good and decent people whose lives have been made small and bitter by loss, or illness, or deep disappointment, desperate to find a way forward.
Who can blame us for trying to buy a little good karma just in case?
There’s no getting around that life is hard sometimes.
And there’s no getting around that trying to live it as a Christian can be even harder.
Our faith insulates us from so very little. But as Jesus makes clear in this morning’s gospel, insulating was not the point, and never has been.
The point has always been to transform us.
The point is to give us a strength that we cannot have on our own; to call us to a compassion that may not be natural to us; to push us to forgive when bygones aren’t yet bygones, by any means, and it’s hard, and we have so many questions.
The point is to lead us into ways of kindness that aren’t just fakey-fake niceness, but something that comes from the real us, seeking to do good in the real world.
The point is to change us. To reorient us. So that in some way, we can be part of how God changes and reorients the world.
“Can you drink the cup?” Jesus asks.
The Gospel tells us that we can.
May it be so.