Ordinary 29 (Proper 24), Year B
Isaiah 53:4-12 † Psalm 91:9-16 † Hebrews 5:1-10 † Mark 10:35-45
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” asks Christian Wiman. Wiman, an American poet who was the editor of Poetry Magazine and now teaches at Yale, asks a question that might remind us of James’ and John’s request of Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit…at your right…and at your left in your glory.”[i]
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” In a way, Wiman answers his own question: “I say God,” he continues, “but…greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means.”[ii]
Now, to be fair, it is making something of an assumption to suggest that these two followers of Jesus or the other disciples who react once they hear the other two got there first are motivated by greed, pure and simple. In these days, we have enough of this simplistic, binary thinking that reduce others to a simple idea, to an enemy, to one who is good or is evil.
Neither is Wiman thinking of this scripture in Mark. He’s reflecting on something more basic—about survival, and particularly our survival beyond ourselves.
This is the poet’s question, of course. “When I left college and set out to be a poet, I thought of nothing,” Wiman admits, “but writing a poem that would live forever. That’s just how I phrased it: live forever…” And we should listen carefully to what he says next. “It was, I suppose, a transparent attempt to replace the soul with the self”[iii]
It isn’t just the poet’s question, or the writer’s, or even that of one who is famous, is it?. We all ask it: Will the world remember me? Have I made a mark? Will my life live on in some meaningful way—through my kids or my grandkids, my estate, my influence, my good works.
It’s not just about money. We know this. In fact, it likely has nothing at all to do with money, even if it sometimes seems all we can talk about is money. It is about self, and about soul—about the essence of ourselves, and what worth it could possibly have if we do not somehow survive beyond these bodies. To say it another way, it is a question about what ultimately lasts.
Wiman knows something about this too. Fifteen years ago, he was named editor of Poetry Magazine, which was a great honor, especially as young as he was, in his thirties. It was especially striking, because he started just as the magazine coincidentally received a massive gift he had nothing to do with.
Wiman decided within a year of getting the gig that it wasn’t for him, even as much as he enjoyed it. The challenge was overwhelming, and it distracted from his own creative work. I’ll let Wiman describe his experience. This is from his book He Held Radical Light:
I suspect that this [distraction] would have been the case even if a two-hundred-million-dollar bequest from the pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly had not just dropped on the bow of that tiny craft that had puttered along on financial fumes for a century. But suddenly, as Roy Scheider says in Jaws, we needed a bigger boat, and we had to build it right in the midst of the storm of expectations, recriminations, and bureaucratic chaos that our good fortune had unleashed.[iv]
Wiman had it all, you could say, and he quickly realized it was not what he wanted when he couldn’t stop wanting. This was only confirmed when he came down with an incurable form of cancer, and his need to find what he truly wanted only became more urgent.
“When you are ending,” he reasons, “it can seem like everything is, and the last task of some lives is to let the world go on being the world they once loved. But what song,” he asks, “or,” as Julie Kae has so often reminded us, “what but song—can contain that tangle of pain and praise?[v]
The disciples, you see, are not that different from us. They are on the lookout for something, and every now and then, like in this story, they think they’ve found it. And they are so close!
What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?
As you may remember from last week, there are five words that Jesus’ Bible looked to as an answer, of sorts, to this question: Justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion. These are words that speak of lasting things; these are principles that speak of what we most deeply want. They are ideals that speak to what holds us, what helps us to last in this human endeavor, what anchors us when so much seems adrift.
These are not words of certainty. These are not words that stop our thinking, but in fact demands it. These speak to what we most often notice in their absence. So the poet Isaiah laments: By a perversion of justice—there’s one of them—this suffering servant was taken away.
And they are noted by their effect. So Isaiah sees that this righteous one—there’s another of them—will make many righteous.
Here's the reason I was thinking about this, and about Christian Wiman. He tells the story of an encounter some years ago with Denise Levertov, another poet who died in 1997 and, like Wiman, claimed Seattle as a home. She wrote a poem called “A Cure of Souls,”[vi]
So, in order to explain this, I need your help for the next part. Do you know the way our language gives groups of things, groups of nouns particular kinds of titles? There are all sorts of them, like a litter of puppies, a kindle of kitchens, a pride of lions, a pod of whales. Can you think of others?
Wiman spends a little time with the title, A Cure of Souls which is really what I want to talk about with you this morning as we think about what it is we want when we can’t stop wanting. You see, Levertov had been thinking about the cure of souls, which is a reference to one of the fundamental roles, or offices, of priests and pastors. Cure means literally care, as in the care of souls, as in taking care of the flock, as I n taking care of others, as in the kind of well-being that comes when justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, and compassion are on the rise.
But Levertov does an interesting thing with this phrase for a pastoral office: the cure of souls. For the title, she changes it ever so slightly from the definite to the indefinite article, from “the” to “a”. So rather than “The Cure of Souls,” her poem’s title is “A Cure of Souls.” And it becomes a term for a collective noun like a richness of Martens or a labor of moles or a tower of giraffes.
Christian Wiman summarizes it this way: “A cure of souls is this group of people … shepherding through their fear of death … or perhaps even through death itself, as they are ‘souls’ after all.”[vii]
What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I suspect Levertov’s quiet little poetic trick gets to it: A Cure of Souls.
We want something that lasts, that is reliable, that feeds us with new life, even and especially in our worst moments, and Jesus becomes an example of what the prophet Isaiah imagines—one who shows us the way out from our self-destruction, a righteous one who makes many righteous, one who models how we too can be a cure of souls in times of sickness.
You see, not only did James and John not know what they were asking for when they lobbied for these places of privilege—and they were not theirs because according to Mark, they belonged to the two criminals who would be crucified along with Jesus on his right and left. James and John had little idea who Jesus was or what he was trying to show them. Neither, by the way, did the other disciples, who, once they heard, were ticked off about the whole thing.
Isaiah asks, “who could have known his future?” Who of us knows ours? And the disciples didn’t know theirs, even though they thought they knew what they were asking for. But, they did get what they asked for—both in the ways in which they gave of their lives when they could have never imagined at that moment the cure that enabled them to do it, and in the life they were given as they found wholeness in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.
Here’s the good news. They figured it out. As Jesus’ life spent with them modeled what heals us, they all became models of lives spent for others—not in perfection, but in weakness made perfect. Through their commitment to justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion, through their commitment to the way of Jesus, in an unsettled and dangerous time, they became a cure of souls.
The task of religion, says Karen Armstrong is “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations.”
Thanks to God for this One who shows us this way, and for the many who follow in righteousness making us righteous.
[i] Mark 10:35, 37.
[ii] Wiman, Christian. He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art (Kindle Locations 96-98). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Ibid. (Kindle Location 76).
[iv] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 301-305).
[v] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 103-105).
[vi] It can be found here, among other places:
ttps://jasongoroncy.com/2012/09/05/a-cure-of-souls-by-denise-levertov/. Retrieved on October 20, 2018.
[vii] Wiman, Christian. He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art (Kindle Locations 169-170). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
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