The Reverend Imogen Rhodenhiser
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (B)
October 21, 2018
Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
As we journey through our lives as individuals and as part of a community, I have found in my experience that certain seasons of life present one, whether we like it or not, with certain spiritual disciplines to be undertaken. And one that I recall going through was in fact wedding planning. The spiritual discipline of wedding planning. Because if you can retain your sense of humor, and if you can manage to be reasonably kind to other people as you endeavor to track all those details and all those invitations and to plan a wedding, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s, that in itself I believe is a most rigorous spiritual discipline.
And a practice that has found me in recent months, is what I have found to be the spiritual discipline of breastfeeding. It is, without question up to this point in my life, the most demanding, and, on a number of levels, all-consuming spiritual practice I have undertaken. And part of it is to do with the machinery that goes along with trying to feed a baby, and the other part of it is the fact that you are responsible for keeping your body producing enough milk to feed your child.
I note back and reflect on a few weeks after George was born when a lactation consultant came to visit me in my home. And those of you for whom that term is unfamiliar, think of it as some kind of breastmilk wizard, if you will. And the wizard said to me, “What are your breastfeeding goals?” And I said, “Well, I’m going back to work in about ten weeks, and my baby is going to be going to daycare, so I would aim – I would have as a goal that he would be able to be fed by my milk even when we’re not together. So I’m going to need some help with figuring out what that all entails. And if possible, I would love it if, as far as milk went, that were the only milk he were having. If that turns out to be feasible. And I would like to do this ideally for 12 months – for the first year of his life.”
How much information was I basing any of those goals off of? Pretty much none. Why did I pick 12 months? Who knows? Twelve tribes of Israel, 12 seemed like a good number. It seemed challenging but not ridiculous and I was trying to go somewhere in the middle there. I sympathize with James and John when they come up to Jesus. They’ve just heard in the versus that precede this passage that the teacher they’re following is about to undergo great suffering and a humiliating, horrific, torturous death, and is then going to rise again.
In light of that, one can imagine perhaps that James and John might have been reflecting on their own discipleship goals, as it were. They come to Jesus and say, I’ve given it some thought and I’ve got something that seems ambitious but not obnoxious, so try this out and see what you think. How about when You come in Your glory, those two seats either side of you, how about you give those to us? And Jesus says in a manner of speaking, love you as I do, you have no idea what you’re talking about.
I think when we embark upon giving of ourselves in any kind of significant way, especially when we know that it is going to involve discomfort and uncertainty, it’s a fairly wise and prudent move to say at the beginning, “What are your goals?” I am certainly not opposed to accountability, and I think it’s worthwhile to say what specifically are we looking to have happen, and how will we know when we’ve gotten there? How will we know that what we’ve done is enough? That what we’ve given is enough?
That’s a life-giving and helpful question up until the point where one day you fall short of that number. And at a certain point in July, I came into work and George was downstairs and I went to take the measures that I do to store up some milk for him for the next day. What I produced was a fraction of what he needed and what I was accustomed to finding that I could give. I was so upset and I was so frightened and I felt like such a failure because up until that point, I had really credited myself entirely with how well everything was going. Which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but when everything went right, when I got the number of bottles he needed and I measured them out and I sanitized them and I froze some extra milk that I had left over, I said to myself, “Imogen, you are winning! Way to go!”
But that meant that then if I got all the credit when things went well, then when they didn’t, I got all the blame. And I had no way of looking at that paltry amount without saying, “Imogen, what on earth did you do? Or what did you fail to do that you should’ve only gotten this much?” And I had to have a reckoning with myself and I had to revisit, perhaps, that conversation with the lactation consultant and ask myself why on earth was I really doing all this? Was I doing it because of my pride? Was I trying to prove something to somebody or to myself?
What emerged in that reflecting was that what I wanted and why I was doing it was in fact because I could see this little person who is smiling and happy and growing. And of all the things that fluctuate and change on a daily basis, I thought, if it’s possible for me to keep this going when it seems to be going well for him, why wouldn’t I do that? Why would I break what isn’t broken, if I had a choice about it, or if I had the means?
And in that I realized that all this business of breastfeeding, as much as I’d said to myself and to other people that it was a spiritual discipline, I really hadn’t factored God into it at all. I’d felt so alone in it and like everything rested on me. It was at that point when I realized that I knew a lot of people for whom this hadn’t been part of their parenting. For lots of reasons, but some of whom and many of whom hadn’t had the option. I started to realize how lucky I was that I got to be able to do it at all. At that point, I figured that really I didn’t know how long it was going to go on for, maybe it’d be 12 months, maybe not, but that any additional days it was a gift from God to me, and that I really needed to be more grateful that I got to have it at all.
The weirdest thing has happened as we’ve been thinking over the last set of weeks about not just what we give but how we give it. How God is inviting us to give in new and scary ways to us. I found myself over the last two weeks having given away almost all of the milk that I had in my freezer. I would hear Giles say to me, “We have so much milk in the freezer,” and I would say, “How do you know?” Which wasn’t an indictment on Giles as it was how do you know? How do you know when enough is enough? How do you know where that line is between what’s going to see you through and what is the excess that you can part with?
I’m not sure you ever know. I certain don’t. So I wound up giving everything that was in the deep freeze to a woman in Milan and then another portion a few days ago to a woman from Lavonia who I met up with in Farmington Hills whose baby had had a lip tie and a tongue tie. So that dance that you try and do with a baby and a mom just hadn’t quite worked out, and her supply was dropping. I showed up to this parking lot, she had gotten off work at 7:00 and we met there, and I had this bag of milk for her. I said to her, “There’s 200 ounces in there. They’re all in 5 ounce bags,” because you have to be so careful of how you thaw these things. And she said to me, “Are you sure you don’t want anything for it?” I said, “Absolutely.” I was going to be doing all of this anyway, I wasn’t really looking to turn a profit.
So that was part of it. And the other part was how on earth could I ever put an amount on everything that went into pumping and storing that milk? All the sleep I lost, all the hours that I tracked. How would I ever be able to say what that was worth to me, what it meant to me? And it was so quick. She thanked me and she hugged me and she got back in her vehicle and I got back in mine. And I sat there and I cried for a bit. I realized how unaccustomed I am to giving in my life without getting something out of it. Even if it’s just that I feel good for having done something that I knew to be the right thing.
And at the same time, I realized as I thought back on what that lady had said to me, “Are you sure I can’t give you anything for it? I thought that is how God loves me. God loves me without hope of getting anything back. God loves me without strings or conditions or expectations as to what I’d better do or be in return. And this struck me as a new invitation to a humility that’s far more uncomfortable than it is glamorous, at least to me, and which resounds from the example we hear about Christ’s own humility this morning, humbling Himself in Hebrews.
Then this portrait of the servant in Isaiah where what the servant goes through has nothing to do whatsoever whether anybody else deserves just that huge of a gift. That Jesus pours out his life without any regard for how you and I measure up on any given day. I think that has to be in part then why there’s this turn in the gospel this morning where it goes from being this private conversation between James and John and Jesus to this group conversation with all the 12. Which is that that kind of humility and that kind of giving, which is the hard giving, which is giving without expecting or hoping or even wanting anything in return, is only possible in a community of people who feel called to do the same.
As I parted with all that milk, and even as I look at my freezer now and I wonder if I really do have enough, if I’ve just been stupid – and I’ll find out. But there’s no way I would’ve had any of that to give if it hadn’t been for a God who loves me, a spouse who thought it was important and worthwhile to spend all that time doing that. People in George’s room downstairs at Little Lambs who thought it mattered too, who gave to me without any hope or desire for getting anything in return. Who would call me and tell me when he’d eaten or when he was hungry so that I could keep on my schedule. Without colleagues who respected me and loved me so that I could pump when I needed to during the work day. There’s no way I would’ve even had that milk to give without those and so many more people.
What Jesus seems to say to His disciples and what the Spirit seems to remind us of this morning is that often times the human way of looking at things is to value yourself based on what you can get out of situations or out of people. And Jesus says it is not so among you. The one who is big in the kingdom of God, that person you can recognize not just by what they give but how they give it. That person is distinguished not by the fact that they lorded over people. Not by the fact that they’ve got such control over the ones who seem to have no power whatsoever. But that they are the servant of all. And that I think is far less an isolated action and far more a way of living your entire life. That we are called to give in such foolish ways, such foolish ways. And we can sing out about that because it is. It causes anxiety in me and in other people. And yet, that kind of stewarding, that kind of serving, that kind of caring that is not the human way of seeing, but it is the divine way of seeing.
And so in this week ahead, as we come up to our ingathering Sunday, as we reflect on all the ways in which God is calling us to give without condition, without hope of any kind of return on our investment, I pray that you and I will find that that kind of foolish errand leads us to encounter a far different God than we might have known before. And to have a new sense of how it is that God looks not just at the world but at us. So that you and I might know that whatever offering we make in whatever form, in whatever amount, God looks upon that when it is given utterly freely. God looks upon that the same way as God looks upon you and I, which is to say as more than enough.