Today is the third week in our focus on the Cycle of Gratitude at Emmanuel. If you came in through the Great Hall you may have noticed the chain that we are making is growing. It is hanging over the edge of the balcony and now has two colors of loops in it. The first week we used blue strips listing names of people for whom we are grateful. Then last week the salmon colored strips were for naming things we had taken for granted but now realize our thanks. In case you were not here, or did not have time to fill out those slips, there are extras on the tables in the Great Hall and you may still do those.
Today we will be doing an exercise that might require a bit more reflection. On the yellow strips in your pew write something that was difficult when it happened, but now for which you are grateful. Something that was difficult that now I am grateful for.
This morning fellow parishioner, Nancy Suchomski will speak to this topic, giving us her reflections on gratitude that comes over time and through reflection. Nancy.
Thank you, Nancy.
Remember, it is ok to write while I speak, so pick up one of the yellow papers and jot down your gratitude for something that was difficult but now upon reflection has brought you growth, or understanding or peace.
Perhaps your something was failing out of a certain university and then you chose a new major that brought a fulfilling career.
Perhaps your something was finding you no longer could do a hobby that brought you much joy but then you found a new interest that you had not had time for before.
Perhaps your something was the end of a particular relationship or even a divorce but now you have found a new person with whom you experience much joy, or perhaps decided being single is ok.
Perhaps it was a political candidate you supported who lost and now you have realized the importance of getting more involved in government.
Perhaps it was a stage of life when you were too busy to spend time with your own child and now are grateful for the chance of time with your grandchildren.
Perhaps your something is an illness that prevents you from doing all that you once did and now you are grateful for the time to reflect and pray.
Perhaps… use the yellow papers to write your own answer.
I want to look for a few moments at the morning’s gospel. We heard the story, as Mark tells it, about James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking Jesus for special favors. In Matthew’s version of the story James and John’s mother goes to Jesus with this request. Perhaps for Matthew it seemed easier to take if a Mother was pushy, rather than the disciples being arrogant themselves. We have heard this story so many times we may look past the incredible insensitivity of these two. They want to be first when Jesus comes in his glory. They want to be closest to him after the resurrection. They want to be the best.
Jesus has just told them of the suffering he is to undergo and this is how they respond. You can almost see their hands raised, saying pick me, pick me!
In answering them, Jesus reminds them of the suffering that is to come before the glory. This doesn’t seem to faze them. Without any real thought, they answer that they can handle that suffering; they are able to do that, if they can be granted the best seats for eternity.
When the other disciples hear of James and John’s brazen request they are indignant. They are angry. Do you think perhaps that is because they also wanted that special treatment from Jesus?
Now before we look too harshly at these cherished disciples, let’s be honest with ourselves. Isn’t the desire to be the best something for which we strive? Don’t we want our children to be at the top of the class or the state qualifier in sports or… don’t we want and work for that promotion or to have that raise or the biggest house or nicest car or…however we might define “best”. Aren’t we are all in some way a son or daughter of Zebedee ourselves?
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a sermon 50 years ago on this particular gospel and it still is a masterpiece. It is titled “The Drum Major Instinct”. The drum major instinct.
In that sermon Dr. King says that we might automatically join with the other ten disciples in condemning James and John for their request of Jesus. We could say that those two were selfish and narcissistic. But Dr. King suggested that we look more closely at ourselves before we do that. When we do we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition and for importance. That desire is for attention and to be first. We want to be important to achieve distinction, or as Dr. King says, to lead the parade. It is a part of human nature to have this desire.
Dr. King goes on in his sermon to say that the drum major instinct can lead one to think that because he has some education, he is a little better than one who doesn’t have it. Or because she has some economic security, that she’s a little better than the person who doesn’t have it. This is how we can get into trouble, the same trouble as James and John. We start to think that I must be first; I must be supreme, which can easily change into, I am entitled to this. We are really no better than these disciples!
In his sermon Dr. King takes some time developing his points but to summarize he says that Jesus doesn’t necessarily condemn this drum major instinct but instead Jesus changes the priorities of how we are to be great and how we are to be first. Jesus tells us that everyone who wishes to be great must be servant of all.
Serving others is the antidote Jesus gives us in this gospel to striving to be above others. Serving others is not trying to solve another’s problems or fix another’s life, or even of helping another, because that can imply someone who is weaker and someone who is stronger. In true service we allow our lives to be touched by the lives of those near us. Serving others has at its core, compassion. It means we see the person we are serving with the eyes of love rather than with pity. When we serve others we learn we are not better than they and they are not better than we. There is not one above the other; there is not one who is seated closest to Jesus in his glory. We are all the same.
Don’t forget those yellow pieces of paper; have you filled out yours yet? Perhaps your answer involved some form of servanthood that caused you to see a difficult situation from a different point of view.
Taking these moments to reflect specifically on what we are grateful for is also a way to realize that we are interdependent, that we are not the head of the parade. The conscientious practice of naming what we are grateful for helps us to remember that we do not exist on our own. Recognizing our blessings and then giving thanks to God for them helps us to put our lives in perspective.
One thing I have noticed over these past few weeks is that each time I focus on one thing for which I am grateful other things also pop into my mind. Overall I have reached a deeper realization of just how much a gift life is.
While Jesus’ antidote to being self-centered is to serve others I think we can also say that this month we have learned at Emmanuel that the practice of gratitude also brings that same result. God is the drum major of this parade we call life, not us!
Make sure to finish those yellow slips this week and if you find you need more time you can turn them in later. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by.
I will end with a paraphrase of a quote from Dr. King’s sermon on today’s gospel passage from Mark. “Everybody can be great by Jesus’ definition because anybody can serve and anybody can make the conscious choice to be grateful. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve or to give thanks. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve or to express gratitude. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And yes, each of us can be that thankful servant.”