Who wants to be first?
SERMON: 18 Pentecost B 9 23 18
Pro31:10-31; Ps1;Js3:13-4:3,7-8a;Mk 9:30-37
I was speaking with a clergy friend this week who mentioned their parish has engaged in Renewal Works, as we did a couple of years ago. My friend observed that parish leaders and other laypeople had achieved a very high rate of response to the Spiritual Life Inventory, the survey of people's and dislikes in church. My friend said that the congregation really came out and said things that were surprising. Like how they don't believe, most of them, that the authority of the Bible directs their lives in any meaningful way.
We had a great chat about how useful an anonymous survey can be. It can shine a light on what people really think, even though they may not want to talk about it or, in this case, admit it in any public way.
What a gift! as my thought. Folks really putting it out there, even anonymously. Then the parish knows what it's dealing with. Just the issue of Biblical authority alone invites all kinds of reflection and insight. At least I think so.
This conversation fit perfectly with our readings this week. If you look at our Hebrew Bible reading from Proverbs you see what the writer thought the attributes of a capable wife should be. It goes on and on and on. Her husband, lucky fellow that he is, evidently, sits in the council of elders and praises her. That's all the reading has to say about him. But about the wife there is much: her skills are endless, her capabilities boundless, her respect in the community impeccable. It's a job description for a PhD in home economics.
But what I think it really is, given the times and the limitations on women's opportunities then, is a profound example of how much can be done if one is faithful to the tasks at hand and, clearly from the reading, is prayerful and ever seeking God's will as one performs mundane tasks.
Our Epistle reading from the Letter of James sets down a different set of markers. It reorients those who would seek advantage over others, who would let their ambition drive them, rather than their love of neighbor. In very clear language the Letter of James asserts, "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth...(W)here there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind."
This is a different task list than that applied to the capable wife in the reading from Proverbs. This list reminds us that how we live our lives, how we interact with others, is the test of the state of our souls. It goes on, "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace."
Biblical authority doesn't compel us; it entices us. It offers us hope for a better life when we behave as better people. I suppose some people are waiting for the lightning bolt from above to jolt them into proper living. But the Bible doesn't promise that. At least not in this life. This life is about figuring out the right thing to do and doing it.
I think our Gospel captures exceedingly well the human dilemma in terms of this matter of getting our instructions from the Bible. Biblical authority refers to the credibility of the Bible, its capacity to represent for us what we consider the Word of God. And in the Gospel we encounter the perpetual human dilemma.
That dilemma is played out in many ways, but it boils down to this: can we get the information we need and can we do the right thing with it? This is the eternal question confronting us.
Everyone here probably knows one of my very favorite movie scenes was from "A Few Good Men," in which Jack Nicholson plays a morally bankrupt Marine colonel and Tom Cruise plays a naïve young Navy lawyer. After a series of deflected questions the lawyer demands from the colonel, "I just want the truth." The colonel, who has rationalized his orders which led to a marine's death almost lunges out of the courtroom witness box and yells, "You can't handle the truth!"
From this profound theological source I draw two things: first, the truth is sometimes difficult, unpleasant, uncomfortable. Second, humans are capable of seeing in others misdeeds and characteristics they themselves possess.
This came to mind when I was reading the Gospel. Jesus has brought his disciples together to spell out what lies ahead for him. It is grim, it is unpleasant, it will rock the world. How do they respond? Well, at first they were silent. Then they admitted they were arguing about who was the greatest, that is, who would be in charge when Jesus was gone.
Look at this story. Here's Jesus explaining the very sad and very important details of what is about to happen to him. And how do his disciples deal with it?
First let's ask how should they deal with it? Should they ask why? Should they ask for details? Should they inquire if this is actually God's plan? Should they express dismay at the potential loss of their friend and guide? Should they tell Jesus they'll miss him and try to do the best they can to live in his image when he's gone?
Those all seem like pretty good ideas to me. Not so much the arguing about who was the greatest.
What Jesus realized was that his followers, the men who had been with him for three years and knew more about him than anyone else on earth, well, they hadn't been paying attention. They immediately started scheming and positioning themselves for his position, as if, as if, AS IF one of them could fill Jesus' shoes.
Jesus must have just shaken his head. "There they go again," he would have thought. Those disciples started in on their self-serving squabbles once they heard a whisper of Jesus' fate. They didn't wait until he was gone. They just went at it.
Jesus realized what he had to do. It wasn't a matter of what he had to say. It was a matter of how he presented it. He had to treat them like children.
Our reading continues, "He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
To get his point across Jesus had to get down to their level. He had to be in a more conversational mode, not like the tutor or teacher. Then he had to tell them that the greatest serve, they don't get served.
Now this message was probably not the best news to the disciples. They had managed to miss the very nature of Jesus' earthly ministry, in which he helped and healed and just sat with folks who needed his healing grace. He didn't demand payment or praise or even a soft cushion.
Jesus took a child in his arms and told the disciples "whoever welcomes a child in my name ... welcomes the one who sent me," meaning God.
It's safe to say that the disciples had not been thinking about serving God and serving others. They had been thinking of themselves. Jesus turned the tables on them by clarifying in the most graphic way how we turn ourselves into servants as we love our neighbor. We do not lord it --our position, our generosity, our prestige--over them.
This is Biblical authority in big type. This is the rulemaker clarifying the rules so we can understand. We know this is a difficult truth, at least at first. But when we experience the joy of service to others, when we are able to be of aid with no credit or glory and feel wonderful about it, then we know God has moved us to appreciate that which Jesus called us to do.
Love one another.
A sermon preached Sept. 23, 2018 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector