September 23, 2018

Pentecost 18   September 23, 2018     Psalm 1, Proverbs 3:27-35, James 4:1-10, Mark 9:30-37          Afraid to ask?

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The disciples are walking with Jesus in their home province of Galilee. Jesus is trying to avoid all public appearances now, as he’s teaching disciples in private how he’s going to be betrayed and killed and then rise from the dead. And as usual, his disciples don’t understand what he’s saying. (They didn’t understand last week. They won’t understand next week.) Not understanding is the pattern we see repeating again and again in the gospel…

A pattern that appears all the more troubling now, though – as we hear they not only don’t understand, but – are afraid to ask.

Maybe these disciples have grown so discouraged and dismayed by their failure to understand – and by Jesus’ frequent correcting of them – that now they’re afraid to ask questions…

Except – if this was actually the case – why do we hear now that they are arguing with each other – about which of them is the greatest?

As Israelites brought up and trained in the scriptures from birth, these disciples have got to be familiar with the word we’re hearing in Proverbs today, about God showing favor to the humble. They must remember how scripture calls Moses, our national hero and greatest of human leaders up to now, “the humblest of men.” They must remember how often the bible returns again and again in the psalms, the proverbs, the prophets – to the theme of the humble being exalted while the proud are brought low. A theme the apostle James recycles from Proverbs and underscores in his letter today. The disciples have got to know – promoting themselves as the greatest is completely contrary to all biblical teaching…

The disciples know they’re doing the wrong thing. They’re clearly embarrassed when Jesus calls them out and asks what they were arguing about.

But – maybe they actually do understand, at least subliminally– just enough of what Jesus is teaching – and where he’s going – so that they are actually being pretty deliberate now – in their not understanding… Maybe their boasting to each other about their relative spiritual greatness is their indirect backdoor way of trying to change the subject and avoid anything related to what Jesus was talking about last week, and again, today –  about crucifixion – and taking up our cross  – and following….The bible does tell us – there’s often an element of deliberate hardness of hearing when we humans choose to not understand…

And looking in the rearview mirror at my own life – and looking around at the wider culture – it’s pretty clear not all of us humans have entirely kicked the habit… of arguing about who is the greatest… Many still engage in who among us is the greatest competitions – in sports – politics – the arts – religion.

Now when this all happens with mutual respect and civility – and it’s not about who is the greatest, but about who can best serve the common good in a particular situation – a certain amount of competition is probably healthy; even a good thing…

But too often competition turns into “conflicts and disputes among us” due to “cravings at war within us” in the words of the apostle James. Too often it really is about big egos fighting over who is the greatest… Too often even when we try to be more discrete than the disciples of old, still it feels as if only the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent…

And when I catch myself engaging, subliminally or otherwise, in this kind of “who is the greatest” disputation – I do feel the same kind of embarrassment disciples of old must have felt, when Jesus called them out on what they were talking about.

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Jesus knows, of course, what his disciples are talking about… He’s surely dismayed by their cluelessness – especially the fact that they’re not even listening to what he’s teaching… Compounded by their failure to even ask questions… (Ignorance isn’t sin – except when it’s willful ignorance – about things we need to know, and should know by now, but are refusing to even ask questions about…)

Jesus knows all the disciples conversation. He’s got ears to hear it all. But the most teachable moment for me here in the gospel this week has been noticing how calm Jesus remains. He doesn’t lose his temper. Doesn’t correct his wayward followers then and there, on the spot… He waits til they’re in the house where they’re staying, then calls them aside – asks what they were arguing about (knowing the answer that they won’t speak due to their embarrassment). Then tells them “Whoever wants to be first needs to be last. Whoever wants to be great needs to be a servant to all.”

As I imagine the scene, I’m guessing – probably some of the neighbors are helping the primary host family, doing hospitality together – sharing bed space in homes with Jesus and disciples, helping prepare potluck supper, all while trying to listen to Jesus. We know some children are there in the house, with their families… Because Jesus gets a little child – brings the child over to the middle of where he’s talking with disciples, saying, “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me. Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Children in those times were expected to be seen and not heard. But Jesus makes this child his main illustration for his teaching-sermon. The Greek word translated here as children was also a popular expression meaning servant or slave. In that time and place children were very low on the social totem pole, on the same level as servants and slaves. Soccer Moms had not been invented yet. There were no student of the month bumper-stickers to put on your ox cart. No student athlete of the week featured in the weekly paper.

Parents loved their children as much as now. But children were not held in high honor. Elsewhere in the gospels we see disciples trying to shoo away parents who are trying to bring their children to Jesus for a blessing. The disciples think this would be a big waste of time for Jesus, who is way too busy to bother with children…Jesus corrects the disciples (yet again) when that happens…

Now today, thanks to Jesus and his correcting of earlier generations – we love all the children with Jesus stories. We sing Jesus loves me this I know… It’s a great song, I love to sing it… We’ve learned deep, enduring lessons about valuing children from Jesus… And…

We still have a lot to learn. Child abuse and neglect are still with us. Many children still grow up in very difficult family and home-life situations…Tracy, one of our members (in Bourne) volunteers as a babysitter for children born addicted… Children who need someone to hold them and love them for even a few hours… (Talk with her… if you feel God giving you a nudge…)

Children are also born into families that are materially prosperous but spiritually impoverished… Where children learn cut-throat competition to be the greatest…

All children need to be loved… All children need to be valued… All children need to be recognized as ambassadors straight from Jesus… Straight from God… All children need to be told they are loved and valued…

But – we’re not doing our children any favors or equipping them for the good life… by teaching them to pursue greatness… as defined by the world…

The good life according to Jesus is a harder sell… Being a servant is not glamorous work. Servants don’t have high-paying, high-prestige jobs. Servants are not usually asked their opinions, except rhetorically “don’t you agree?”

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Jesus knows, of course, he’s going directly against all conventional wisdom – when he presents us with a little child as his chosen role-model for discipleship.

Jesus knows this little child he brings into the conversation does not know as  much… as the older disciples know…. But this child – I’m guessing, but most children I know are usually not afraid to ask questions – and I’m guessing this child can teach and remind the disciples – it’s good to ask questions. It’s a very good thing to listen well and ask questions… when we don’t understand…. and…

This child is not old enough to know a lot yet… but that’s not the issue… This child is not the most charismatic preacher – not the most experienced teacher – not the most talented music minister – not the most efficient administrator… This child may grow up to be some, maybe even all of these things – but that’s not why Jesus selects her (or him…) to come into the center of his conversation about what it means to be his follower…  And…

Jesus knows – this child can remind us – the job description of a biblical servant – is not just about humility (though that’s certainly part of it)… Even more basically it’s also all about giving up power and privilege… Counting ourselves among the last and least… Being willing to stand with the children, the poor, the orphan, the widow, the lonely, the lowly, the weak and powerless…. even if that means risking our comfort and privilege.. Risking our reputation, risking, if necessary, even our life for Jesus and his kingdom… and…

Among the many things this little child can teach all disciples, already –  however young and inexperienced she or he may be – is to help us remember – God loves us for who we are – not for what we can do. God’s love is not an economic transaction – not a talent show – not something we can ever earn through our greatness…

God’s love is unmerited grace… poured out for us and for all… in the full measure of God’s greatness… God, the only One who is truly great…

And yes, we still need children to remind us…

To listen well… Ask questions… Love one another always…

And say – Thanks be to God… early and often…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.