Of chalices and calluses

I met a young priest once, years ago, who was struggling with his first parish placement.  He couldn’t seem to get anything done on time, he was often late or absent, and no one could really figure out if he was just lazy, or if there was something else going on.  Finally, I overheard him say in an offhanded way “These hands were made for chalices, not for calluses.”  Suddenly, I thought, “Aha,” here’s the heart of the matter, a fundamental misunderstanding about what the work of the Gospel is.

I will admit to you, that there are times in the past year when the phrase has flashed through my own head.  When we were out chipping ice off the sidewalk during rush hour after a sudden snowstorm, or up to my elbows in macaroni salad at City Camp at our mission parish of St. James-the-Less, I would think [sigh] “Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?  Wouldn’t it be nice if these hands were made for chalices and not calluses.”  But it is inescapable: Christian life, ordained or not, is a life of getting calluses.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

Once again, the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is teaching.  James and John come to Jesus because they want positions of power and authority.  They want to sit at his right and left in his kingdom.  They want to be the high chamberlains or chiefs of staff who control access and whose advice is prized above all else.

In response to their request, Jesus asks them a question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Jesus here, as his answer to their simple “Yes,” makes clear is not asking them about a cup or about the baptism that he received from John, but about the cup that he is going to Jerusalem to drink, and the baptism of the cross.  And surely his response to them is one of the more subtly terrifying ones that we hear Jesus make: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  In short, Jesus is saying, “Indeed, you will follow the way of the cross that I pursue, and you will know that baptism of blood which I am going to.  This life that you have chosen, and that I have chosen you for will be the death of you.”

And then once again, because they don’t understand, because they don’t comprehend what he is teaching, what he is preaching, what he is preparing to inscribe into his own life, Jesus calls them together.  The other disciples are annoyed at James and John.  They are perhaps not annoyed so much by James and John’s failure to understand Jesus’ teaching as they are by the fact that James and John got their request in first.

Look at what Jesus says to those disciples jockeying for position and power. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

The message of the Gospel this morning is the message that is also the message of Jesus’ life and death.  It is the utter reversal and complete inversion that God brings into the world in Jesus.  Greatness comes, not from position, not from authority, not from job title or money.  Greatness comes only from service.  To be great you must serve, to be first you must be a slave.  To get anywhere in the Christian life, you must give up trying to gain position or authority or power.

The way of the world is a way of the glorification and worship of those with power and authority.  It is the cynical subservience of the sycophant before the powerbroker.  It is about what I can get and hold for myself by whatever means necessary.

But that is not the way that Jesus goes.  That is not the way of the cross.  His way is the opposite.  His way is the complete opposite: serving rather than being served.

One of the ways that we can hear how stunning this inversion that Jesus preaches is, is when we lay the passage from the Gospel this morning next to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.  The Book of Job is rather like courtroom drama, in which we get to hear from all sorts of different characters.  God allows Job to be tested, and all manner of calamities befall him, and there are long speeches from Job’s friends and from Job about how God could allow this to happen.  Then finally, unthinkably, the character that everyone would like to hear speak, and no one expects to, God, opens his mouth and God’s defense of the suffering and calamities that Job suffered is so overwhelming, so majestic, that there is really little else to be said.  “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you shall declare to me.  Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements – surely you know!”  And on and on, the hammering home of God’s absolute power and sovereignty, of God’s total mystery and of God’s otherness from the human condition and mind.

“Who are you to question me?” God says.  “Who are you to even attempt to understand me, when I feed the raven and the lions and tilt the water skins of heaven.” 

And that is where I think we can see the absolute wonder and mystery of the inversion that is Jesus.  The assertion of the Christian faith is that the same God who laid the foundations of the earth became human, and came not for power, not for authority, but to serve.  The same God who is majestic, sovereign and mysterious beyond measure, inverts the way that “things should be,” and instead of coming as a king or president, comes to live the life of a carpenter-preacher in rural Palestine.  He came, not to garner as much power and authority as possible, but to heal, to serve and eventually to die.  That is the model that he leaves us.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”

I think about that young priest that I knew sometimes.  His life has not been easy since he entered the priesthood.  He has hopped around to different jobs often, trying to find a place where he doesn’t have to engage in getting his hands too dirty.  I feel sad, often when I think about him.  About the fundamental misconception that he is laboring under.  The reality is this: “Because these hands were made for chalices, they were made for calluses.”  And not just priestly hands, of course.  Christian hands were made for calluses.  After all, I’m pretty sure that he who laid the foundations of the world and became a carpenter in Palestine, developed some pretty significant calluses of his own.  If calluses are good enough for our Lord, I hope that they are good enough for me and for you.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

18 October 2009

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 20, 2009 .