Finding Our Place

This is a sermon I preached at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Seward, Alaska, on Sun., October 18, on Mark 10:35-45.

 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to (Jesus) and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 

Friends, I come to you today with a heavy heart. But not with despair.

My “regular job” is serving as manager of Spiritual Care at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska. I’ve been the Children’s Hospital Chaplain there for 11 years, and I’ve been in Alaska since 2000. I’ve got the best job in the world. But I’m also not unaquainted with having a heavy heart.

You may know that in the last couple weeks, four young people in the village of Hooper Bay took their lives. Yesterday at AFN, the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, my very good friend Kippy Lanz watched a young man climb onto a balcony and jump off, falling 59 feet to  his death. She was across the lobby, on the other side of the atrium, when she saw him go over the railing.

And recently a young woman from St. Mark Lutheran Church, in Anchorage, took her life, leaving behind her young daughter and her mother. She was not the first in her family to complete suicide.

We have heavy hearts. 

But not despair.

Today’s texts aren’t easy ones, but they have something to say to us about all this today. As I’ve prayed and reflected and thought of you, I’ve been thinking about what it means to find our place in this world. And how easy it is to lose our place, or feel displaced. Rudderless.

In a way, I think James and John, when they come to Jesus and ask him to “do for us whatever we ask of you,” and say “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they’re trying to find their place, assure their place with Jesus.

Well, not only does Jesus say, “that is not mine to grant,” but boy, they tick off the other disciples. If you go back a chapter, the disciples were just arguing with each other about who was the greatest, and Jesus JUST told them “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then, he encourages them to welcome the children, reminding them that in doing that, they welcome Jesus himself.

I did a lot of reading this week on first century Mediterranean culture, and was reminded how important honor was in that society. It’s hard for us to imagine. But your place in society was a HUGE deal in that time and place. Much of societal interaction was about maintaining your place in society. In our society, we grow up believing we can be who we want to be, and our place in society can change. We can “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” That wasn’t their understanding at all… you were born to your place, and there was no moving. It took a lot of work to keep balance and stay, everyone, in their place. So it’s no wonder that this conversation was a big deal to the disciples, and they kept getting angry with each other. 

Still, knowing that, I also wonder this. Jesus had just told them about how he would be betrayed and killed, and three days later rise again. You know, there are a lot of things that jar us out of our place. That make us feel unsettled. And hearing your beloved teacher talk about dying a violent death … well, that would make me feel insecure about my “place.” James and John’s request probably was about honor, but I can’t help but wonder, was it maybe also a way to hang onto Jesus? Let us stay with  you?  

 There are a lot of things that make us feel like we’ve lost our place. Your pastor left over the summer, and you’re waiting for your next pastor … that is certainly a feeling of being adrift. And there are so many things that put us into that place. Illness. The end of a job, or a relationship. The death of someone important to us. Even good things … a promotion. I’m still settling into my new position at work, and finding my place. 

A new relationship, a move … So many things impact our sense of belonging or place. Being uncertain about the future. Struggling — with addiction, with mental illness, with physical illness. And it is SO uncomfortable to not know our place, to not know what comes next, to feel adrift. 

And I believe that for so many who contemplate or complete suicide, that there is a deep sense of lacking a place. Lacking a sense of meaning or purpose. Feeling despair. And when suicide happens, suddenly we are all in that place of feeling adrift. Like our world just got turned upside down. 

But we can make a difference. We can listen deeply, and love deeply, and when we see signs that someone may be considering suicide, we can act. 

Call 9-1-1 or seek immediate help from a mental health provider when you hear or see any of these behaviors:

–Someone threatening to hurt or kill him/herself, or talking of wanting to hurt or kill him/herself
–Someone looking for ways to kill him/herself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means

–Someone talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person

Seek help by contacting a mental health professional or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a referral should you witness, hear, or see anyone exhibiting any one or more of these behaviors:

–Hopelessness, loss of interest
–Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge

–Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking

–Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out

–Increased alcohol or drug use

–Withdrawing from friends, family and society

–Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time. Irritability

–Dramatic mood changes

–Giving away prized possessions, or intentionally saying goodbyes. Sometimes people may show a sense of relief, not because they’re “better,” but because they’ve made a decision to act.

If you are suicidal or you think someone you know is, we want you to know that help is available and recovery is possible. Start by learning the warning signs, and do whatever you can to get yourself or someone you care about to the help they need so that they can return to living a fully functioning life.

There are so many resources available. I found these, and more, at 

Take5tosavelives.org.  

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Bill Martin , the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council chairman, tells us that Alaska’s suicide rate is twice the national average, and for people between the ages of 14-27, ten times the national average. But he also reminds us that “if you save one life, you save many lives. They are young people. We’re losing future leaders, future parents, future grandparents, who have so much to live for.” 

And yet, I keep telling you, we do not despair. There is hope. We know some things. We know, unfortunately, that suffering happens. It is a reality of life. Jesus tells James and John this … that they WILL drink the cup he drinks. But, more importantly, we also know this. We know that love and life are stronger than death. Jesus lived, and taught, and loved. He suffered and died. But death could not keep him — he rose again, and because he lives, we share in the promise of abundant life. 

This morning the verse that kept going through my head was from 1 Corinthians chapter 4: 

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

We know a couple of very important things from Jesus. First, our place is secure. We are God’s beloved children. God has promised us that nothing, NOTHING can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. God is always with us. So there is nothing we need to do in order to secure our place. Jesus has done that for us already. You are loved; your place is secure as a child of God.

And yet, in light of that, in this world of suffering and uncertainty, what DO we do? Jesus tells us to serve. to love. To welcome those who need love — the poor and vulnerable, the children, the hungry, those in prison, those who are ill or homebound. 

We see it in what Jesus did. He washed the dirty feet of his disciples. He talked with people he wasn’t supposed to… foreigners, sick people, outcasts. He served. He loved.

What do we do when we are feeling lost?

Listen. Listen deeply. I was privileged to spend a day and a half this week listening to Alaska Native elders — Ilarion Merculieff, Marie Meade, George Pletnikoff, Jim Labelle. They reminded me of the importance of listening, rather than speaking. And listening with our hearts, more so than our heads.

They reminded me, as they told stories of their history, stories of the suffering Alaska Native peoples have experienced — slavery, land stolen, villages decimated by disease, the pain of generation trauma, and that we ALL have experienced trauma in a variety of ways — they reminded me of the importance of telling and hearing our stories. We all have stories that yearn to be heard. Your story longs to be heard.

  Friends, there is also so much good news. Helen Keller reminds us that:

The world is full of suffering but it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

On Saturday afternoon at AFN, many people were recognized for their good in the world — a teen who organized a food drive after a village store burned; a young woman who survived cancer to become a doctor and help others; a woman who became an inspiration to others after she got a college degree and a driver’s license at the age of 70. Wanda Jean Solomon served two tours in Afghanistan and is now working to develop ways to better serve veterans returning from war with ptsd, traveling to villages throughout the state.

The elders also reminded us that it is not our work to determine our place. Someone who says “I am an elder,” isn’t an elder. An elder is determined, called, raised up by the community. “One does not presume to takke this honor, but takes it only when called by God.” (Hebrews 5:4)

What can we do when we feel we’ve lost our place? Go outside. Be present in the moment. Pay close attention to what God has made. 

Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and spirt and mind. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.  Love your children, your dear ones, your pets.  

 Pray. Work. Sing. Walk. Dance. Write. Draw. Color. Meditate.  Appreciate beauty… We are surrounded with it here. And in both expected and unexpected places. Savor the precious and powerful, the joyful and surprising moments of our lives. Do those things that reconnect you to your own heart. To the heart of those here, those who are part of your community. Do those things that reconnect you to God’s heart. 

Martin Luther reminds us that 

A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none. 

And a Christian is perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject of all.

Friends, your place is certain. Jesus made certain of that. You are loved. And you have much to give. I want to close with this reminder of that by the poet Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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