Anyone who would be first must be last, and servant of all

Anyone who would be first must be last, and servant of all

by the Rev. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton
If any one would be first, they must be last of all and servant of all." Mark 9:35b

A Sermon for the Community which gathers at 10 AM at St. Mary's, Sparta September 24, 2000, Proper 20 B "


This morning's Gospel lesson is a continuation of St. Mark's account of the miracles and teachings of Jesus. He gives us little snapshots in a collage of word pictures of the ministry of this Rabbi from Nazareth, so that we may know that he is, indeed, the Messiah.

Isn't that all we have, really, of anyone's life " little snapshots, stolen moments and memories which grow fuzzy in the detail and faded in the particulars? We can't know the totality of anyone's life, much less the life of one who lived more than 2,000 years ago. The miracle is that we know so much about this man named Jesus, who never wrote down a word, much less wrote a book so that he might be remembered. Instead, we have these four major reports from four different men who tell the story of the Good News of Jesus who is the Christ

In the scene from this morning's gospel, Jesus is on a teaching mission around his home territory of Galilee and Capernaum. Some of the disciples are discussing with one another who among them is the greatest. Jesus has overheard them talking and calls the twelve to him and he says, If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.

In this one scene, in this one moment, we join the disciples as they learn a great deal about the values and the principles of this man, Jesus. It will be an important image to hold onto if we, with them, are to understand the images which are to come " Jesus washing the feet of Peter and giving him a New Commandment to love one another as I have loved you. Jesus being taken to trial and speaks truth to power: when Pilate asks him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answers, You have said so. Jesus, an innocent man, wrongly accused but fulfilling his life's mission as he hangs from the cross, crying, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

But, the disciples cannot know this now, in this moment. When Jesus tries to tell them of what is to come, scripture tells us that ,"they did not understand . . . and, they were afraid to ask him." Isn't it sometimes so that the only way to understand some moments is to do that in retrospect? What's that old saying about "hindsight is always 20/20?" Sometimes it is only long after the moment of truth that we come to understanding about the truth of that moment. It is sometimes when we have our own moment of truth that we can come to understand someone else's truth. And, sometimes, we can even come to some acceptance of the truth.

I want to tell you of a moment like that which happened just this past week. One of our six children, our 27 year old daughter named Julie, raised over $2,000 for people with AIDS by riding her bike 300 miles from Boston to NYC. The training she had done for this event was hampered by the fact that she had surgery on her knee 7 weeks ago, so it was a remarkable feat, one which makes us as her parents very, very proud. But, that's not the whole story. I have to give you a retrospective if you are to appreciate the fullness of Julie's most recent and remarkable accomplishment.

You have to first understand that, of the six children, Julie probably has had the most difficulty with our family constellation, which is not so much "blended" as it is "shake and bake." When Julie would bring her friends to our home after school, it did not escape either of our attention that Julie would wince when she and her friends left the kitchen and one of them would ask, "Now, who is that other woman with your Mom?"

She never said a word, even when we gently tried to get her to discuss it with us. "It's okay, honest," she would say, even though we knew it wasn't. She knew that we loved her deeply and that we were doing our very best to provide her with everything she would need to become an educated, well-adjusted, well prepared young adult. We also knew that she loved us deeply, so it pained us to know that we were " in more ways than most parents " as much of an embarrassment as we were a quandary and a puzzlement to our daughter.

Very much like the rest of her siblings, Julie has become a very accomplished young adult. She graduated with a double major from college and, within three years, earned her Master's degree. She loves academia, having worked as an Admissions Officer for Hofstra and now works as Director of Major Gifts and Funds in the Development Office of NYU School of Law. Her recent accomplishment, however, actually began 10 days before this past Christmas.

We got a phone call from the Emergency Room at Beth Israel Hospital in NYC that Julie had been admitted. Could we come? An hour and a half later, we learned that Julie had had a seizure of such intensity that it threw her from her couch to the floor and she had broken her jaw, her nose and her two front teeth. Thanks to her HMO, she was sent home within six hours where she would have to wait until the next day to have a CAT-Scan and other tests. "It could be anything," the doctor said, "from a brain tumor to adult onset epilepsy. We won't know until the neurologist does some more tests. Until then, go home. Rest. Take these pills every four hours and you should be okay until you see the specialist in the morning."

We spent the next three days in the agony of the unknowing. Could this be a brain tumor which would continue to cause the seizures until it killed her, or, could it be something which could be treated with medication? Finally, the neurologist said that it was, indeed, epilepsy which, he said, "We know now is genetic " you get it from your mother" (Great! One more thing to feel guilty about!). And, he said, it could be easily controlled with medication. The seizures, that is, not her self-image " which was careening chaotically out of control.

About the fifth day of her stay with us, Julie sat down with us at the kitchen table, having a cup of tea and planning for her return to work. When the moment seemed right, I tried to lay out for her that one of the things she needed to do was to have a conversation with her director as well as the director of Human Services. I told her that it was very important to develop a safety plan " in case she ever had a seizure at work. She needed to tell them her diagnosis, give them her doctor's name and number, and some instructions on how to care for her until help arrived.

Julie was horrified! "Mom!" she said, "I can't tell ANYBODY what I have! Mom! Don't you know that I can lose my job? If I lose my job, I'll lose my apartment! My independence! I'll lose my friends. People don't understand. They'll think I'm weird. Mom! You have no idea!"

But, I did. And, I wept right along with her, great sobs of anguish and pain. Yes, it was my mother's grief for my daughter's pain, but it was also the pain of knowing that my daughter, in her own way, was going through the same torment I had when I came to understand the truth about myself which made me different. Which people don't understand. Which make people think I'm weird. Which, in fact, cost me the custody of my children which we had to fight five long years to get them back. Which, if I'm not careful, can cost me my job or which, in fact, has severely limited my vocational and job possibilities.

Somewhere, in one of those moments of tormented sobs, Julie looked at me and suddenly, in the time it took to catch her breath in a cry, in the second it took for a tear to fall from her face, she understood. She came to the truth of what our life had been, and the great cost of living that truth with honesty and integrity. She came to understand the love we had for each other, and the true worth of the sacrifice " on all of our parts " of that love.

I want to be very, very clear: homosexuality, unlike epilepsy, is not a disease. However, like epilepsy, it is something one is born with. It may be hereditary. It may even be genetic. The thing is that it is what God has given you " the way you are meant to be in this life " which is not the way most of the rest of the world is made. That can mark you and bring about prejudice and even hate-filled bigotry. Some people will want to kill you. Indeed, in Julie's research, she discovered that two of her father's great aunt's died in what used to be known as an Insane Asylum and it had been whispered that both of the girls used to suffer from "fits" and "had to be put away." Just 100 years ago, we treated epileptics like criminals, because we didn't understand. And, what we don't understand, we fear. And, what we fear, we hate.

So, Julie's accomplishment is, on many levels, quite amazing. Yes, she did it to raise money for people with AIDS. But, she also did it to raise her own self esteem by accomplishing something she had never done before. She pushed her body to the limit of endurance, and, she said, "I didn't have one seizure the entire time." She rode along side gay men who became brothers and comrades in arms " and, legs, and backs, and shoulders " who called to her words of praise, when she earned it and encouragement when she needed it.

She delighted in the gay men who developed "Theme parties" at the rest stops along the journey " some dressed as Boy Scouts, other time as Construction Workers, and still another as Nurses and Doctors " and got her food to eat and something to drink and bandaged her blisters and rubbed her shoulders. She said, "When I wanted to cry in exhaustion, they brought me the gift of laughter, and I found energy I never knew I had."

The best, said Julie, were the little kids who lined some of the streets in some of the towns in their wheel chairs. These HIV positive and AIDS babies carried signs which said, "You are my Hero!" and, "Thanks for being the wind beneath my wings." Julie wept as she told me this. The best for me, however, was watching my little girl grow into an amazing young woman who understands, now more than she ever could before, these words from Jesus, If any one would be first, that one must be last of all and servant of all.

Amen.


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