Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Quieter Glory

Mark 10: 35-45

JRR Tolkien wrote several books about a world of fantasy called Middle Earth, populated by various races, only one of whaich was human. There were talking trees called Ents, there were wizards, who were old men of uncertain race, buit seemed to be human; and there were Dwarves and Elves and a race of small people who loved to eat and were content with comfortable small lives called Hobbits.

Tolkien used this world to tell stories about strength, and ambition, and commitment, and integrity, and the power of friendship. The central story of the main set of books, called the Lord of the Rings, is about a young Hobbit named Frodo who is chosen or chooses to destroy a simple gold ring, which turns out to be the most powerful magic ring in the entire world of Middle Earth. It must be destroyed at the fire where it was created, so that an evil being cannot have the power to complete his ambition, which is to conquer the world and rule it all.

Frodo takes on the task, and is accompanied every step of the way by a loyal friend named Sam Gamgee, who, back in the area they are from, a place called the Shire, was his gardener.

The journey that Frodo takes is unbearably long and dangerous. Many things happen to him and to the people who are around him. He is stabbed by a sword that is poised by dark magic and almost dies; he is attacked and almost eaten by a giant evil spider; he is saved from the ghostly riders that chase him constantly for the ring by the race of elves; and he loses the finger that wears the ring because of someone else's obsessive greed. The trip is made in almost constant fear, in cold and hunger, and it changes him, physically and emotionally. There are times he is under the ring's power, becomes obsessed with it as well, and there are many moments when Sam must help him remember his task, and once even physically carries him when Frodo can't continue. It can surely be said that if he had known all that would happen to him and Sam, he would have refused to go.

Anything that is significant in our lives has the potential to change us in the same way. The job we choose to work can change us, can cause change to our bodies and to our minds. Sometimes that's for the good, sometimes it isn't positive at all.

Think of people who used to paint the little marks on watches that glowed in the dark. They would touch the paintbrush to their tongues to moisten it and make the paintbrush point sharper. The stuff that they were painting, the material that glowed in the dark, ended up being carcinogenic, and they all became sick.

Soldiers will often tell you that the choice they made to join the military was the best thing they ever did, because the experience of basic training and a regulated life in the military taught them the way to live their life in an ordered and controlled way.

When people get married, their lives are changed as well. For some, they see the changes as compromises and the loss of freedom in exchange for something dubiously valuable, and perhaps even unnamable. Those types of marriages seldom last.

A good marriage helps us understand the value of living for someone else, helps us understand that when we learn to live for others, our lives truly have meaning. This is the beginning of love, and even the beginning of understanding God's love in sending his Son to us.

There is a self-sacrifice in commitment to someone else. There is a faith in the other person, and a forgiveness when they do not measure up. There is an openness to pain, and a prayer that that pain may somehow be transformative. It's no accident that we say in our wedding service that the model of marriage is the relationship between Christ and the church. When it works, and each partner lives for the other, it is the closest we can come to understanding the love of Jesus for us.

So when James and John ask for the places to the right and the left of Jesus when glory comes, what Jesus means when he says they don't know what they are asking is that they don't get the pain that is coming. They don't know that they are asking to feel the pain of abandonment on the cross, and the pain of the cross itself. All they see are the "starlight and roses" part of the glory.
They don't see the glory that comes from having been open to being changed. They don't see the greatness that comes from being a servant to all, and to God, an allowing themselves to live according to God's will. It's a less visible glory, but at the end of the story, at the end of their lives, outside of our record in the gospels, we can assume that James and John, if they did take a drink from the cup that Jesus drank from, the cup of commitment and sacrificial love, they would see truly what glory is.

There are no parades. There is no confetti and the ceremonially being seated on a throne. There is instead a quiet moment when you look on the face of the person you have devoted your life to, in God's name, and realize that, deep down in your darkest parts, in the deepest recesses of your heart, that you have loved well, have loved as God would love, and that person knows the depth of God's love because you have been that face for them. You have shown them the love of God, and they believe, and they know.

That's true glory.

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