Shuck and Jive

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can You Drink the Cup? A Sermon

Can You Drink the Cup?
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
October 18th, 2009
Isaiah 54:4-12
Mark 10:35-45

One image for the spiritual life is to drink the cup. In all its complexity and ambiguity, in all of its richness and its depth, to drink the cup is to experience life fully. We toast with a cup. We celebrate with it, “To life!” The cup is a symbol for the via positiva, the celebration of life, joy, beauty, royalty. We drink the cup at weddings, graduations, and celebrations of all kinds.

To drink the cup of joy is a sacred thing. It is a holy thing. It is to acknowledge the awesome, joyful mystery of being alive. To share the cup with a friend is to celebrate divinity within each other. We need to do it and do it often so we can remember how precious life is.

We need to play, sing, dance and enjoy life and one another. Our calendars, whether religious or secular, move from feast to feast. It is how we mark time from celebration to celebration, from one cup to the next.

But when Jesus asks James and John: “Can you drink the cup?” he is talking about a different cup. In a sense it is the same cup. It is the cup of life. It is the cup of the holy and the sacred. It is the cup of reality. It is the cup of what is. But this cup is not the cup of joy, celebration, beauty, and accomplishment. This is a cup of sorrow and pain. This is the cup of loss, emptiness, and letting go.

It is also a shared cup. To be human is also to share our cup of sorrows. As the passage in today’s reading ends, Jesus says to his fellow cup drinkers: “the human being came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for the ransom of many.”

James and John get a hint of the via positiva. They know the end of the story of victory, celebration, and royalty. It is in that spirit that they ask to be seated at the anointed one’s right hand in glory. Before they experience that they will need to drink the cup of letting go.

It is an odd exchange Jesus has with them. They ask if they can be seated at his right and left hand. They want to be in the place of honor--of privilege and entitlement. Jesus responds to this request with a question of his own: “Can you drink the cup?” and “Can you be baptized with the same baptism as the one I was baptized with?”

With the confidence of those who have no idea what they are talking about, in the naivete of those who “do not know what they are asking” they say, “Oh yes we can do that.” Jesus replies, “Yes you will drink the cup and be baptized with my baptism.” In other words:
“You will let go. You will drink the cup. It may not be until your death, but eventually you will let go.” And then Jesus says, “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.”
I have often wondered what that meant. He could have said that at the beginning in answer to their question.

“Can we sit at your right and left hand?”
“It is not mine to grant.”

So why does Jesus ask them if they can drink the cup? The lesson here is that the glory cannot be separated from the shame. Neither can the fullness from the emptiness, the light from the dark, the receiving from the giving, and the joy from the sorrow. The via negativa is in a perpetual dance with the via positiva.

In order to live authentically we need to learn how to drink the cup of letting go and letting be. We need to learn how to embrace our sorrow, pain, limitations, vulnerability, and emptiness. It is part of life. If we run from it, hide from it, deny, or ignore it, we will cheat ourselves from experiencing the sacred and the holy.

The cup occurs twice more in Mark’s gospel. At the supper, Jesus took a cup and gave it to them and all of them drank from it. Then just before his arrest, Jesus prayed that the Holy One would take the cup from him, and then added, “Not my will but yours.”

One of the best books on the via negativa --the way of letting go and letting be-- is the last book written by Henri Nouwen. Father Nouwen, a Dutch priest, died about 12 years ago. He wrote a number of books on spirituality. I was looking for his book, Can You Drink the Cup? based on this passage in Mark to help me with this sermon. I couldn’t find it. I picked this book off the shelf in my Nouwen collection. It is called Adam: God’s Beloved.

In the last years of his life, Nouwen was the pastor of the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. This is a community for mentally handicapped. He had been the community’s pastor for about ten years.

Nouwen was going to write a book about the Apostle’s Creed and what it might mean for contemporary people, when his best friend, Adam Arnett died. Adam was severely handicapped. He couldn’t speak. He was gripped by seizures. He lived his life in obscurity. He was the first person who Henri cared for when he came to L’Arche community.

After Adam died, Father Nouwen decided to write about Adam instead of the Apostle’s Creed. This is Nouwen’s last book. He never quite finished it. A year after Adam died, Father Nouwen also died. Adam: God’s Beloved was published after Father Nouwen’s death.

It is interesting that Father Nouwen, a famous author and teacher of theology and spirituality, would spend ten years of his life as the pastor of a facility for the mentally handicapped. From that experience he wrote one of his most touching books about the life of Adam who for Father Nouwen became the Christ. This book about Adam is told in the framework of Christ’s life.

Adam was the first person Father Nouwen cared for when he came to L’Arche Community. Henri was given the task of getting Adam ready for the day. Henri writes:
Helping Adam meant waking him up at 7:00 A.M., taking off his pajamas and dressing him in a bathrobe, walking him to the bathroom, shaving his beard, giving him a bath, choosing clothes for the day, dressing him, combing his hair, walking with him to the kitchen, making his breakfast, sitting close beside him as he ate his breakfast, supporting his glass as he drank, brushing his teeth, putting on his coat, gloves, and cap, getting him into his wheelchair, and pushing him over the pothole-rich road to his Daybreak day program, where he would spend the day until 4:00 pm. P. 41
He couldn’t figure out why he was asked to care for Adam. Adam was one of the most needy. Henri had no experience. It took two hours of his day. When he asked he was told, “So you can get to know Adam.” Even as Adam could not speak, Henri had to learn how Adam was communicating with him. If he ever rushed Adam, perhaps pushed his arms through his sleeves too quickly so he could get on with the business of the day, Adam would respond. Henri writes:
He let me know that I wasn’t being really present to him and was more concerned about my schedule than about his. A few times when I was so pushy he responded by having a grand mal seizure, and I realized that it was his way of saying, “Slow down, Henri! Slow down.” Well, it certainly slowed me down! A seizure so completely exhausted him that I had to stop everything I was doing and let him rest. Sometimes if it was a bad one, I brought him back to his bed and covered him with many blankets to keep him from shivering violently. Adam was communicating with me, and he was consistent in reminding me that he wanted and needed me to be with him unhurriedly and gently. He was clearly asking me if I was willing to follow his rhythm and adapt my ways to his needs. I found myself beginning to understand a new language, Adam’s language. P. 47.
In caring for Adam, Father Nouwen discovered that Adam was his teacher. He wondered what Adam thought about things. What sense of self-awareness did he have? Did he think about God? Could he pray? He writes:
And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness of the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered. P. 55-6.
Father Nouwen wrote that Adam, like Jesus, had a public ministry. People would come to Daybreak and were affected by Adams’s beautiful, silent presence. Henri writes:
Adam was a true teacher and a true healer. Most of his healing was inner healing that announced peace, courage, joy, and freedom to those who often were hardly able to acknowledge their wounds. Adam, by his eyes and by his presence, said to us, “Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to run away from your pain. Look at me,, be close to me, and you will discover that you are God’s beloved child, just as I am.” P. 65.
Father Nouwen in this beautiful book about Adam, realized that Adam drank the cup. Adam suffered. His life was one of suffering. Father Nouwen calls it Adam’s passion. The greatest aspect of his suffering or his passion may have been that he could never tell anyone what was bothering him. His life was dependence upon others. He was acted upon. He made no decisions about his own life. Others decided for him. He was in many ways, like the Christ, who fulfilled his mission, not by doing great things, but by letting go, by giving himself as a ransom for many.

Adam lived in total dependency. Henri writes:
He seemed deeply resigned to it, totally given into the hands of others, radiating light and peace in his utter weakness….Adam’s passion for me was a profound prophetic witness. His life and especially his passion radically criticized those of us who give ourselves to the norms of a society driven by individualism, materialism, and sensationalism. Adam’s total dependence made it possible for him to live fully only if we lived in a loving community around him. His great teaching to us was, “I can only live if you surround me with love and if you love one another. Otherwise, my life is useless and I am a burden.” Adam clearly challenged us to trust that compassion, not competition, is the way to fulfill our human vocation.” P. 90.
When Jesus asks James and John, “Can you drink the cup?” he is not scolding them. He is teaching and inviting. He is asking them, “Can you be vulnerable? Can you let go of your success, your ambition, your illusion of independence? Can you accept who you are outside of your accomplishments? Can you love yourself and others as you are loved, as God’s beloved?

Can you drink the cup? Can you let yourself be dependent upon the love and compassion of others? Life isn’t so much what we have done. It is mostly how we respond to what is done to us. We like to think that we are in control. But most of our lives are spent dependent upon others. Not just childhood or old age. The pews we are sitting on were constructed by others. Everything we eat, where we sleep, all we do is connected with everything else.

We are not individually made or sustained. The Adams of our lives teach us that. If we are wise we learn from them. It is in times of loss that we realize how quaint are our concerns. When circumstances force us to let go, to drink the cup is to be conscious about where we are in our lives and who we are.

“Can you drink the cup?” is a question of invitation. It is invitation to be here now, in the present, with one another, with ourselves, with Earth, with life, without pretense or presupposition.

To drink the cup is in the words of Father Henri Nouwen:
“To choose to give our love when we are strong and to receive the love of others when we are weak, always with tranquility and generosity.” P. 94.


  1. Hi John. Another terrific sermon. However, just for fun I want to propose a bit of a challenge, keeping in mind that my purpose for writing my commentaries is not the same as your sermon-writing purpose, nor is my sermon-writing skill anywhere near yours.

    It seems to me that often when hearing stories such as Adam's, it is easy to slip into a dangerous piety. "After all," we might think, "I'm not like Adam (thank God) but I can certainly feel sorry for him."

    Related to this point is my blog from July 5 (proper 9). The whole commentary is at

    In the commentary, I am referring to Paul's "Fool's Speech" in 2 Corinthians 12:2-10:
    "Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” A scene from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol comes to mind. Under the spell of the Second Spirit, Scrooge visits Bob Crachit’s family, preparing for Christmas Dinner. Bob arrives from church services with Tiny Tim on his shoulder. Bob says, “. . . Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” In the context of Dickens’ artistry, this sentiment is pointedly charming. When it is understood to reflect cherry-picked Paul, it is dangerous piety.

    Likewise, in the context of Henri Nouwen's profound experience, the story is deeply affecting, but still runs the risk of causing listeners to create some distance between ourselves and Adam.

    I'm looking forward to next week!

  2. Thanks, good important thoughts.

    "I'm not like Adam (thank God) but I can certainly feel sorry for him."

    That certainly wasn't my intent. My hope was to make connection not separation.

    Anything I could say differently?

  3. Thank you for your sermon. Living in Toronto, one frequently finds connections to L'Arche, Daybreak and Henri Nouwen. Nouwen visited our congregation once, in fact a few months before he died. He told our minister at the time that it was a "holy place." As an elder I worry about our stewardship of that and if it still is a "holy place."

    I also went on a Jesuit retreat this summer and one of the members of my quad was a young woman (well young to me) who, instead of going to college, lived and worked at Daybreak. I must remember to continue to pray for her. She was drinking very deeply from the "cup."

  4. I wouldn't suggest you could have said anything differently. My quarrel with much of Christian preaching is that we sometimes fall into glibness -- especially when using stark examples like Adam. The other danger is guilt, which helps no one.

    I'm not really criticising, just lifting up a caution.