When I was a child, my imagination had painted a picture of heaven — one which may well have been informed by the interaction between James and John and Jesus shared today.
Now it is so that before the age of eight, I had little reason to think much of heaven. And then my Great Aunt Esther died.
Now Esther was my grandmother’s sister. Grandma Anderson had died just a few months before I was born, so Aunt Esther was the closest thing I ever knew to a grandmother.
This is what I knew of Esther:
- She was not educated by the world’s standards. Like many in her generation, she had only completed eight years of formal schooling.
- Her husband, Glenn, was a laborer — all of his life he worked hard.
- They lived in a small gray house by the railroad tracks. As a child, I loved to lie on the couch in their living room and listen to the trains rumble by. (This, of course, is only ‘magic’ to a child!)
- I can close my eyes to this day, almost fifty years later, and see the hutch in the dining room which held a thousand treasures for small hands. Indeed, I can still feel the nubs on that brown couch against my face.
- Esther was a person of deep faith. She lived out that faith in many ways, I’m certain, but I especially remember when we went to visit, my sisters and I would clamor to go to her Sunday School class at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Waukesha. It didn’t matter if we were older than the other children in her classroom, it was where we wanted to be. In fact, Esther taught that class for more than forty years.
And I remember this: an emergency trip to Wisconsin when my cousin, Michael, was killed in Viet Nam. My mother was urgently trying to get there to be with her sister. I insisted on going along.
The grief that marked that journey was lost on the six year old I was then. I just knew I didn’t want to stay at home with my sisters and the inevitable ‘baby-sitter’ who would watch over us while my dad had to be at work. And I knew there would be people who loved me well on the other end of that drive. In fact, perhaps it would be forgotten altogether if not for this. In that time before seat belts and child car seats, my mother had to come to a sudden stop and my face had an abrupt meeting with the dashboard, blackening an eye and loosening some teeth. After having me checked out by her old doctor (no doubt, a detour that was not appreciated that day), my mother dropped me off at Esther’s who sat with me on the couch and held ice wrapped in a towel against my face. These many years later I remember her tenderness.
Aunt Esther was a servant — not only to me, but to many. When she died, I had my first taste of grief. And when picturing what had become of her, I was confident she was sitting at the right hand of Jesus.
Now it is so that I shake my head a little bit today at my childhood conclusions. For I don’t really believe any more that heaven is the kind of place where God has kept track and your assigned ‘seat’ depends on the score you had accumulated over a lifetime on earth. And even if this were so, probably every one of us has an Aunt Esther who we are certain deserves that special place of honor at Jesus’ right hand.
It is also so that even as James and John spoke, they were probably not thinking of some kind of afterlife. No, we can be pretty certain that they were imagining a time in the then not too far distant future here on earth where they might just be rewarded with seats of honor for being among the first to follow after Jesus.
And yet, even having said all this, as I hear Jesus’ response to James and John today, it is possible that as an eight year old, perhaps I was on to something — even if my picture of ‘heaven’ reflected the imagination of a small child. Indeed, from what I knew of her, Aunt Esther was exactly what Jesus calls us to be. She followed Jesus with the simple gifts and ordinary life she had been given. And in doing so, she simply served. Indeed, as you can tell, I was the recipient of her devotion. From my own experience I knew that she made small children feel safe and loved.
Not that it was probably as easy as she made it appear.
- For of course, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but don’t you think she would have liked to have at least finished high school?
- Don’t you imagine there were days when she wished she didn’t have to work so hard to get her husband’s work clothes clean? Or that he had a job which paid just a little more?
- Don’t you suppose she wished for a house that didn’t shake with every passing train?
- Don’t you think she thought from time to time that she deserved more? Perhaps she even wondered if it wasn’t about time someone started serving her.
Maybe Esther thought all these things at one time or another — even as James and John appear to be doing today. Maybe she carried those disappointments deep in her heart. All I know is they never showed. She must have learned to let them go. For all we remember of her is that she loved us well. Indeed, over time, it seems to me, Esther became exactly the sort of follower Jesus calls us to today.
Perhaps it is so that like James and John, you and I are only at the beginning of understanding the demands of this call to follow Jesus. And no, maybe none of us will ever get it completely right. At the same time, we are so blessed to have in Jesus the perfect model of what this journey looks like at its most faithful. And yes, we are also fortunate to be able to look back on our lives to see others like my Great Aunt Esther, who embraced what it was to serve.
And so I wonder now:
- Who is your “Aunt Esther?” Who taught you what it is to serve?
- What other examples can you offer of those who have drunk the cup that Jesus drank or were baptized with his baptism? How does their witness inform your life?
- How do the words of Jesus now shape your understanding of what it is to follow him? What will it mean to you to be baptized with his baptism or to drink the cup that Jesus drank? How shall you be a servant?