I arrived at Grace during the middle of the day in the middle of July in 2006. There were kids everywhere. And so were kitty litter cubbies and left-behind shoes and remnants of lunch……… and in the parish hall a Greek music CD was playing and a few young people and adults were dancing with some children. So I joined them and we danced together. And I have been dancing with all who cared to join in the dance at Grace Memorial and Grace Institute ever since.
Perhaps that is why I have loved being a part of Grace. Grace understands the nature of dancing, metaphor or not…… and when to join in the dance. Sometimes we simply sit and enjoy it from the sidelines, to be sure, but we do recognize joyful creativity, pensive expression, letting go, entering into and emerging……….knowing when to hold on to old traditional steps and when to reinvent…….how to keep the center whole while being made new. As part of the body of Christ, we recognize that the liturgies of the year form the choreography of our lives together and we allow ourselves to live into it fully and completely.
The dance is circular much like life. There are beginnings which emerge out of other endings…….and eventually their inevitable endings simply slip into new beginnings. And within each dance of living, we find our place in the choreography of it all as we are called upon to contribute to it……. to be the servant of all who dance with us and of all those who long to. The dance emerges out of a particular communal dedication to servitude …each contributing to the whole.
The concept of servitude – of entering into the choreography of creation, seems to be lost on the disciples we hear in Mark’s Gospel. The squabbling disciples, all jostling to be close to Jesus………. to be lifted up as the “heir apparents”…….. seems to indicate they have missed the sense of ministry as emerging out Jesus’ vision for God’s Kingdom…….amazingly, they seem to have missed the meaning of true ministry altogether. They are each working for themselves rather than the communal whole. Their concept of leadership is caught up in their worldly notion of power and status.
All the disciples must have been talking among themselves about a special kind of recognition……about who’s going to take over top spot in their community of ministry alongside Jesus.
James and John, sons of Zebedee, having held some confidence with Jesus in the past are now jostling for a more formally recognizable position……demanding that Jesus do for them whatever they ask. Jesus responds by having them try to explain what it is they want. They reply that they want to be one with him at his right and at his left. I can’t begin to imagine what Jesus must have thought at that moment. Their inability to even begin to grasp the enormity of what true discipleship means…was astounding given all they had seen and witnessed by already being so close to Jesus. Jesus warns James and John that they do not know what they are asking when they demand that he grant them special status
The rest of the disciples are angry at the possibility of being left out of Jesus’ inner circle and Jesus is led to remind them that the world’s concept of leadership and greatness in the world, where one rules by tyranny or lording it over everyone is the exact opposite of that in God’s Kingdom.
The disciples are demanding answers to questions they don’t know how to ask or don’t even understand. They are motivated by their lack of understanding and their fears. In a way, they are asking Jesus, what is to become of us? What’s next? ……hoping to hear an answer which will direct them to a happy outcome.
And what of us….in our world……..what does it cost us to be servant of all? Who is first and who is last? And if we want to be first….want to be at the right hand of greatness, then how do we know what being first will bring with it. What is its cost?
Unlike our world, where visibility means everything……..true greatness in God’s Kingdom renders one invisible in the eyes of the world …..even as it exalts one in the eyes of God. True greatness in discipleship is often hard to see….it is mere wind beneath wings …..a hidden source of true leadership which is witnessed for its simple doing without the need for recognition.
So….what would we ask if God showed up among us? Would we point out our good works and ask to be given special status? After all, don’t we all want the best seats in the house? What would be our questions? What is our need to know? What is it we are seeking or hope to gain by that seeming status?
Like the disciples before us, would we demand to know what we cannot know now? Our self-absorption may not show itself as overtly as did that of James and John and the others, but don’t we all spend a good part of our lives thinking about some level of privilege that might be attained in one way or another……..the one who holds the information, the answers all the rest of us would love to know. Don’t we all have a little of the sons of Zebedee in us as well?
Last week I was in Florida for a week long clergy retreat and we were tasked with serious introspection. I found myself asking God what’s is to be next in my life…….. waiting impatiently for God to answer. I felt the weight of the cross in my “need to know”, weighing more and more as I thought about coming to the end of my ministry at Grace. So I decided to walk the large brick labyrinth available at the center. And I made the decision to make my way to the center with a very slow meditative walk. This is a meditative walk used in tai chi. Each single step takes about 20 seconds to complete or 40 seconds for both feet to completely move forward. The cross that I carried with me on that very slow walk, was heavy with my questions of what was to be next for me and, as I walked, recognizing my own impatience to hear concrete answers, I asked God to take the cross from me.
Time went by painfully slowly as I walked toward the center of the labyrinth. I was aware of the cross becoming heavier still, as I became anxious over what time it might be, whether or not I was missing lunch, what if people thought I was crazy creeping along like that. I continually worked to check these thoughts and, with intention, focused on coming back to my conversation with God. But I still sounded like the disciples. I want you to do this for me, Jesus! I want you to tell me exactly what’s next! How long will I have to wander the wilderness? Who am I? What is my purpose? What is it you know about me………..that I am yet to discover?
The answer seemed to add yet more weight to my cross….”you do not know what you are asking……are you ready to willingly walk into the wilderness like me? Willing to take up the cross of faith like me?” Willing to bear the burden of whatever direction your faith takes you? Sensing the test of these words, I seriously considered giving up the whole idea of walking silently with God and heading for the swimming pool, but the Spirit compelled me to keep on walking and walking. It took me just over an hour to reach the center. And there I stood. I felt relieved yet vulnerable to my own weaknesses….would the journey have been worth my time and yes…..would this long walk to teach me anything beyond a little patience……even when I had the time for it?
Then, from deep within, the still small voice of the Spirit whispered, “Lead with your gifts, not your anxieties. Will you not trust in me enough to lead with your gifts I gave you? Lead with your gifts.”
I was amazed at the simplicity of the answer and realized in that ….just as the answer is true for me……so, too…. the answer is true for all of us just as it was for James and John and the rest of the disciples.
We are called to lead with our God-given gifts……. not our fears. To allow our gifts to step in front of our fears is a call to real discipleship which is not easy living in our contemporary world of war and violence on the world stage, upheaval in our communities, and in our families. We are fearful that our homes are not safe, our churches are fading, fearful that we will lose our security and peace wherever we seek it, fearful that we won’t be recognized for our good works.
We can articulate our anxieties and address our fears which are very real, but they are not meant to guide us. We are to keep on keeping on with all the amazing and beautiful particularities given to each of us by God.
We are to quiet the din of voices that try to pry us away from simple faith in ourselves and faith in the gifts God gave us for successful living. Jesus teaches us to remember God’s perspective as he asks the disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Linking baptism, the Eucharist and the way of the cross, Jesus is asking us, just as he asks the disciples, what is the nature of your cross and are you ready to pick it up? In order to sit at the right hand of God we are compelled to do so.
We can’t just lay our cross down…..we are to willingly climb on to it in order to allow our fears and insecurities, our egos and self-glorification, and all that we know to be born of fear….. to die there. Jesus links our destiny to his own and makes sure we understand this is the way to come closer to God. It is not desire for leadership that is anathema to God…….it is misplaced motivation behind our desire for leadership that can get us into trouble. When leadership serves as a mask for our insecurity, or as an avenue toward recognition, serving only to bolster our egos, then we have missed the opportunity to discover the joy of selfless contribution to God’s Kingdom and to finding new life in Christ.
As people of God and as community we are called to consider our own self-sacrifice; of ego, of jockeying for first place. To embrace the notion of self-sacrifice does not mean that we are to deny ourselves of the joys of life….far from it. But it does mean that to enter into the holy dance of true discipleship, we are to serve something far beyond ourselves.
If we are not careful, our fears and anxieties can get interconnected and entwined with our tendency to self-glorification…..leaving God completely out of our thought processes as we imagine ourselves wise and powerful as God. We forget, that even though each one of us is God’s beloved, so is every other one of God’s creatures along with the rest of the world in which God takes great delight. We are each of us made in God’s image, but as God’s message to Job point out, we are all part of God’s world of abundance, not ours alone.
If we can understand our relative importance amid the unending magnificence of creation that is God’s and beyond our knowing, we can begin to understand God’s knowledge of each of us as individuals and as part of community. Mary Oliver expresses that perspective in her poem “Wild Geese.”
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on……meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again….” 
The Good News of the Gospel is that in sacrificing ourselves for the other, our better selves will be given new birth and the reign of God propelled forward. What I learned from my walk on the labyrinth, was that I was of far more use to God by leading with my gifts than by hiding my faith and trust behind my fears. When we can live free from our fears ….. we can become whole and ready to serve rather than to be served…….
Leading with our gifts becomes a powerful antidote to new fear and newly imagined insecurity……a powerful continuation of renewal and resurrection.
It is a time of strength….a time when transformation happens.
It is when we look at each person here today and thank God for their gifts.
It is what it means to enter into the dance of God’s continually evolving creation.
It is out of this context of faith and trust that God speaks to each one of us and calls upon our gifts freely given to us for the building of God’s Kingdom. As members of this priestly servanthood, this divine humility before God……. we are empowered to be all we are called to be, with vision and with grace, not because we are first or best, but because we are willing to stand firm with faithful hope in the midst of the world’s brokenness.
How we view the future and how we view the gifts we bring to bear, rather than our differences, can move us to amazing possibilities for building community and can have a powerful impact on future ministry and mission. We can recognize that regardless of our circumstances, the world and all its gifts….all its possibilities…. are ours to embrace. We can begin to picture our lives in the future as a desirable outcome of the decisions we make today.
Good people of Grace, may you be filled with grace-filled questions and answers.….. where there is no first or last under God…..only the joy only of using all your amazing gifts for service…. with no expectation of anything other than joyous participation in the compelling beauty of God’s great vision for creation.
May your doors always be open…..so that God’s gifts may find their way through them and then find their way to serve out in the world.
May the clouds be your chariots and may you have the courage to ride on the wings of the wind.
Make the winds your messengers, the fire and flame of faith and trust in God your ministers so that your work to set the world firmly on the foundations of God’s intentions for it, will never end.
Above all, may you be always willingly take part in the dance God has invited you to join. It is a holy dance…..where the steps aren’t complicated but are difficult to sustain……where choreography belongs to God who calls upon you to complete the whole.
May you always be bold and fearless enough to accept the invitation……..may you always look forward with joyous anticipation and hope built on confidence in God’s gifts in you……and may you never forget that words and actions are meant to build bridges ….create and hold on to relationships…….that to serve and not be served is to love in humility and in peace.
May you always gladden the hearts of those who walk along side you, lifting up to build in the face of all that would tear down, living into the holy dance of the resurrection story….allowing what must die, to die so that what must live, may live. Above all, may you never forget to love one another as God loves each of us….never forget to forgive yourself as you forgive all others, never forget that the way to peace is not to understand, it is to love.
I give thanks to God and to all who have listened with the ear of their hearts, as I bid this pulpit farewell. It has tested me, upheld me, propelled me and insisted on the truth of my convictions. It has brought me to my knees in confession in the face of my own frailty. It has made me face my own mistakes and has heard my call for absolution. It has called me to be prophetically courageous, has insisted that I walk the walk that I talked and above all, it has taught me to serve. I pray that all the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart were acceptable to God, my strength, my redeemer and my inspiration.
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver
October 18, 2015
Final Sermon at Grace
 Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110.