Sermon: The Cup of Life

In the summer of 1984 as I was preparing to enter 9th grade, it was an Olympic year and an election year, and I had better luck with rooting for my preferred Olympic team than I did with speaking up for my preferred presidential candidate. 

Looking back on it, I don’t remember talking politics with anyone but my grandmother that summer, and we agreed, so there wasn’t that much to say. 

But I must have.  

And I must have done it awkwardly, because while I don’t remember saying anything, I remember very clearly some of the response I received. 

I was sleeping over at a friend’s house, and when I rolled up on my ten speed just before dinner, my friend’s dad motioned me into the living room. 

“I want to talk to you,” he said.  

His face was concerned.  Sad.   Not the face of a dad when you were in trouble for something, but the face of someone sharing bad news.

“I understand you’ve been talking about the election,” he said.  

“I hope you realize how important it is.” 

I nodded.  

He nodded back.  

“I really think you should take the time to do a little more research,” he continued.  “I thought this might help.” 

And he handed me a campaign pamphlet for the other person, which I guess he’d gotten somewhere.  

I could feel the hot prickle of my face getting red. 

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.  

I don’t remember saying anything else political to anyone after that, but I must have.  

A few days later, I went back to my bike after spending the day at the beach with my friends, and it was covered with bumper stickers for the candidate I was not supporting. 

That’s not so bad, I know.  

It was just a prank, and a pretty harmless one at that, done by people whose concern for me was real enough.  

But it was hard not to feel that something deeper was at stake than my opinion about an election in which I was not even eligible to vote.  

On some level, I felt like I was being given a very quiet kind of warning—not that anything was going to “happen” to me—but somewhere in it there was, nevertheless, a caution (however quiet) that somehow, I was beginning to suggest that I might not entirely belong.  

That I might not be one of them.  

And I came to see the world a little differently because of that. 

I began to wonder about my place – what it meant to have one.  

For that matter, I began to recognize that some places were safe ones in which to disagree, but others were not.  

And I began to notice who was allowed to talk and who wasn’t, and how that worked.  

I got that it was my place to receive pamphlets but not to give them.  

I got that I could take the bumper stickers off my bike but not alter or deface them, not use them to mock or poke fun or signal disrespect, even though it was my bike and I was not the one who had not put those stickers there in the first place.  

I suspect that if I had and something else had happened, it would have been scored as my fault for escalating the whole thing. 

I am certain that if I’d complained, I would have been told that I couldn’t take a joke.  

This is how bullies work.  How points get made – at first.  

In any case, for the rest of the summer, they won my silence.  

II.

Now I know that when it comes to disagreement and the consequences of speaking out of turn, my own experience in the summer of 1984 is the smallest of sips from a cup that many have drunk from deeply. 

There are so many in our country’s past and present who have not had the luxury of choosing whether to drink from that particular cup.  

All too often in our nation’s history, it has been considered somewhat of an affront for many of us simply to be in the bodies God gave us, much less to speak up about things like our rights or needs or dreams.  

All too often, that’s been dangerous to do—in fact, lethal—as we remember so vividly on this weekend, when we particularly remember Martin Luther King, who did just that. 

It wasn’t necessarily obvious that he would. 

The weight of moral obligation that he felt might have found expression in any number of important ways.  

It wasn’t obvious that Jesus would feel it, either.  

These were choices. Decisions.  

Actually, I’m not sure either one always felt up to what was being asked of him.  

In fact, I’m quite sure that there were times when even Jesus did not. 

“Lord, if it is thy will, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The sound of the marching soldiers coming to arrest him is already growing louder. 

He is not up to where he knows events will take him now.

It’s a dark moment.  

He had been up to the challenge of so much. 

Jesus was so brave so much of the time – so able to name where he was coming from, and to name how he saw things. 

He was so eager to engage in the rough and tumble disagreement of a vibrant faith and find the light on the other side.  

We see him doing just that so often throughout his ministry.

He’s so brave. 

Or rather, he is until he’s there in the Garden of Gethsemane, when for a moment, he isn’t.

It’s strange to wonder if maybe was harder for him, harder on him personally, than it had ever looked, than he had ever let on. 

They ran him out of his own boyhood temple back home – his own neighbors nearly threw him off a cliff.  

Later, he’d been preaching a powerful sermon, a scorcher, to one of his very first crowds, and his mother and brothers show up because he is embarrassing them, embarrassing himself, and they’ve come to take him home.  

So maybe Jesus, for his part, knew a thing or two about a beloved elder taking you aside for a thoughtful chat, or being left beet red with embarrassment, suddenly unsure of what you were supposed to say, much less what needed to be said.  

Most of the time, he plows through, anyway.  

Until the Garden.  

Until the moment when he wishes that the cup might pass, after all.  

But here’s the thing about that cup: it doesn’t pass. 

It doesn’t pass for Jesus. 

It doesn’t pass for Martin Luther King. 

It doesn’t pass for our beloved country. 

And it doesn’t pass for us. 

I do not mean the cup of death. 

I mean the cup of witness to a greater truth — God’s truth – the cup for which God has trampled out the vintage, as the old hymn says. 

III.

The moral leaders of our nation and our risen Lord, himself remind us that getting there is costly.  

Injustice overreacts.  

Where it cannot find assent, it seeks to enforce silence.  

Where procedure serves it, all well and good, but where not, not.  

It sees violence and fear as tools for getting the job done. 

It lifts up people who find a perverse joy and purpose in being its perpetrators, rewarding their commitment to its cause…for as long as that remains expedient, when even they are cast aside.  

This week, I was particularly struck by a photo of a man charging the Capitol police as the crowd first stormed and overwhelmed the barricades, which he did while carrying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag.  

And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a parable.” 

For all its posturing, all its slogans and rallying cries, the only cause injustice has is itself.  

“Don’t Tread on Me” – don’t make me laugh. 

Because what is it that injustice isn’t prepared to tread on? 

We’ve seen this so many times before.  

But that’s not how truth works, is it?  

That’s not how hope works.  

That’s not what builds a future.  

Time and time again, God shows us that we grow and find renewal in our capacity to listen for new voices, to make space for their needs and their dreams, to discern new claims upon us.

What lifts us is our willingness to learn from our prophets, to harness the energy of new insights – to take a fresh look. 

At the heart of loving our neighbor is the recognition that we share a common destiny. 

Loving our neighbor starts with recognizing that we both have a right to be here, and that we have certain claims on one another.   

Because we need each other.  We need each other to find our way forward — to find our way to God and to anywhere else worth going.  

It is not obvious, and it is not easy.  

So much of the ground seems like it’s forever shifting beneath our feet. 

It asks so much of us.  

No wonder we hope that the cup will pass from us, as even Jesus hoped it might. 

IV.

But Lord, it is holy work.

Those moments when you feel like you have come around the corner or out of the long, dark tunnel, and what you see before you is a new, undreamed of vista, you know…you don’t even need the voice to tell you to take off your shoes…because you know that where you’ve found your footing is holy ground.

Because you’ve lived a little more fully into being God’s people. 

You’ve made some of God’s goodness more visible. 

The light shines that much brighter.  

Sadly, this is what so many in the crowd outside the Capitol seem to have lost.  

I’ve lived in the mildest version of that world. 

Let’s not rewind that old movie. 

Even then, it wasn’t a world entirely worth having. 

It certainly isn’t now.  

We’ve been called to much higher and holier work. 

The work of this moment.  

The work that flows from being the people we now recognize ourselves to be, thank God. 

The work of faith and of democracy both get harder as we strive to make them more perfect. 

This is the cup from which we must drink – not a cup of death, but a cup of witness to God’s truth.  

A cup of life.  

We have that choice.  

Humbling as it is, we get to say what that means now. 

If we don’t, our silence will say it for us. 

May God grant us the strength to keep working for a better tomorrow, hand in hand.                             Amen.  

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