Pentecost 18 – Proper 20
Welcoming children. Jesus told us to welcome little children in his name. That’s not so hard for us, is it? This past week, I’ve received an email from several of you called “Life is Beautiful” which has all these great illustrations of people doing acts of kindness.
One of the examples is of a father in business clothes, soaked to his skin in pouring rain, holding his umbrella over his precious son so he stays dry. In opinion of the person who created this list, life is beautiful when every parent knows that their child comes first. Nothing shocking about this! Makes us feel pretty great, actually.
The thing is, the context of the Gospel, Jesus wasn’t in the least bit interested in making the Twelve feel great.
Each time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus talks about his death and rising, he then gathers them and teaches them about discipleship, about how they must turn from being captive to the way humans get what they want, which is to be forceful, violent to the point of murder.
Instead, they need to embrace the way of God, the author of life, who wins by defeating death and by serving others, not coercing them. Jesus tells the Twelve that they must get off of the ladder of ambition, because upward mobility is not a Christian goal. God’s way is for everyone commit to serving everyone else.
Jesus takes a little child, who can do nothing for an adult, and tells these big grown men that their job is to serve this useless person. As sweet as the picture of the Dad is, and I love it, the truth is that our society has said that teaching and caring for children is actually not very valuable – look at what teachers get paid!
Real work, valuable work, is to be very productive, to make things, especially money, and our culture lionizes those who earn the most. According that infamously liberal publication, Forbes magazine, on average, corporate CEOs earn 361 TIMES more than the average worker.1 It’s these uber-rich CEOs who have vast influence in our political system which is quite successfully helping the very wealthy get even more.
1 Diana Hembree, “CEO Pay Skyrockets To 361 Times That Of The Average Worker,” Forbes, May 22, 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/dianahembree/2018/05/22/ceo-pay-skyrockets-to-361-times-that-of-the-average-worker/#22c00125776d
Today’s Collect and Scripture readings are at the end of the sermon text.
Copyright notices: The Scripture text (except for the Psalm) is from the Common English Bible, CEB, Copyright 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, all other content is original and copyrighted by Becky Robbins-Penniman, 2018. All rights reserved.
My point is not to demand anything of our current system of capitalism, but to contrast the teachings of this system with the teachings of Jesus. Today the airwaves are stuffed with people arguing, using ugly, violent, abusive language against each other, all for purpose of being the one who gets to call the shots in this system. What would we say if Jesus were to turn to us as we polarize ourselves, “What were you arguing about?”
When Jesus takes that little child in his arms, he was making his point using the least worthwhile, least admirable person in the house; he is saying that a useless, needy child is more representative of God than any politician, CEO, military hero, or talking head.
Karl Barth, widely regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, took this point to it’s logical, challenging, faithful end: On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; …. No other attitude to any kind of fellow [humans] is possible. It is identical with the practical acknowledgment of [their] human rights and [their] human dignity. To deny it to [them] would be for us to renounce having Jesus Christ as Brother and God as Father. 2
So, who is a “little child” to a disciple of Jesus? How about these children in immigration detention centers? Before you think I’m getting political, this isn’t current events. This story is from 2014, over 4 years ago. I could show photos of Japanese kids in our interment camps of the 1940s, or Jewish kids in German concentration camps, kids in Soviet gulags. Humans have been doing this kind of thing for a very long time.
We are certainly entitled, as a sovereign country, to use this system of keeping the useless riffraff out. I wonder, though. As Cindy reminded us last week, our founding fathers were Christians.
As we debate immigration policies, what if those fathers came and asked us, “What are you arguing about?”
Well, I could put up thousands of pictures of suffering children: in war-torn countries, in refugee camps. I could put up thousands of pictures of suffering adults, as well. Besides making you sad and feel guilty, I don’t think it would accomplish much, so I won’t do it.
What I’m going to do is acknowledge how very difficult it is to want with all one’s heart to be a disciple, but to also want to be a winner in our everyday life.
James knew this about our predicament. He knows what we are taught by our culture to do –
to follow what he calls “earthly wisdom”- to jostle for position and status, to compare ourselves against others, to want our piece of the pie, to be the one who dies with the most toys, to grab for the gusto.
James asks us not to judge each other, but to look at ourselves what we really want:
to satisfy our cravings, or to have the mind of Christ, to submit to God, to do God’s will on earth
to do it single-mindedly, which means all the time, even out in the world.
2 Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, p. 53
To do God’s will, we need to use heaven’s wisdom, the wisdom from above. his wisdom guides us into being pure, to keeping our heart, mind, and body out of the gutter. What do you read? Watch on TV? Put in your body? What come comes out of your mouth? If you wonder whether it is pure, there’s a simple test: ask yourself if you’d invite Jesus over to join you in doing it.
Wisdom from above is peaceful and gentle, Disciples make more peace than there was before. They wage peace. Waging peace and being gentle means to be kind to jerks, to help people who don’t deserve it, to forgive enemies – and pray for them, to declaw and soothe that raging, roaring lion of simmering anger that seems to be right beneath the surface of so many people today. Remember, you don’t have to like anyone to be kind to them.
To paraphrase what Jesus said last week, to tolerate people you agree with is easy; tolerating intolerable, intolerant people? Now, that’s some hard work! It’s what God does with regard to humanity every minute, though, am I right?
Ah, but what about Jeremiah? He’s demanding God’s revenge on his enemies! But what was God’s revenge for this prophet who called on Israelites to stop their child sacrifices, to stop their political intrigues and follow God? Was it to kill those plotting to wipe even the memory of Jeremiah’s name? No, God’s revenge is to uphold justice against those who are unjust. Remember, JUSTICE is when the world is the way God created it to be, without human sin messing it up.
God’s revenge was that we are STILL reading Jeremiah’s words passionately calling humanity back into covenant with God. I’ll wager Jeremiah’s name is said somewhere on earth every single day.
Can anyone in this room tell me the names of those plotting against him? I sure can’t. God’s revenge is that Jeremiah’s call to live justly still rings out, and the people who plotted against him are forgotten. This is how heaven does things, it’s the wisdom from above.
Wisdom from above is also obedient. This can mean a good number of things, but there’s something I’ve noticed is happening more and more: so many people seem to think the rules apply to everyone but them. Don’t want to wait in line? Ditch. Literally push your way to the front. Don’t like how slowly the person in front of you is driving? Pass them, and the heck with the double yellow lines. Those lines are for losers. Can’t find a parking place close enough? Park in a handicap spot.
If a critical mass of people each think they are so special that they don’t need to be obedient to the rules, what we’ll get is chaos. Obedience, graciously sharing common space, is one way we serve each other.
Finally, wisdom from above is filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Give people a break, do the right thing, treat others as you want to be treated, and be real, straightforward, not two-faced. Don’t gossip.
Imagine. What would the world be like if we all served each other like that?
James then promises that disciples who do this, who make peace this way, sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts. Wage peace, and we’ll get justice, a healed, complete creation.
I’m going to tell a story from my sabbatical. It’s hardly earth-shaking, but it taught me something
about using wisdom from above in a very practical situation.
I was planning to stay in Edinburgh, Scotland for 3 nights, and I asked a person from Scotland another Anglican priest, for a hotel recommendation. She said, “Oh, get an Airbnb. Much cheaper.”
Well, sure! Gus and I have done that plenty of times here in the States.
So, I got a room with an Airbnb Superhost, which means he had lots of 5 star reviews.
It was really cheap, about $60 dollars a night and included breakfast. It was also in the family’s living quarters: Flat 5 of 37 Forrest Road. I liked that – get to know real Scottish folks, Kevin and Sarah. who lived right in the middle of all the major sights in Edinburgh: the castle and all the places JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books.
I flew to Glasgow and got the train to Edinburgh on a chilly, bright morning. At this point, I’m traveling all by myself; Gus is meeting me in 2 weeks. I got off the train and followed the map on my phone to 37 Forrest Rd.
No problem. I find Forrest Road, and I find 35 Forrest Road. It’s a coffee shop. I find 39 Forrest Road. It’s a Thrift Store for an agency that helps the homeless. Cool. But where is 37 Forrest Road? There’s only one choice, and it’s this door, covered with graffiti and no number on it. I didn’t like the looks of this at all.
But I thought of the 5-star Airbnb reviews, the Superhost rating. Also, was I on this sabbatical to do the same things I’d always done, or to meet new people, learn things?
There’s an intercom box on the doorpost. From episodes of Friends and Seinfeld, I remembered
that I’m supposed to push the button of the flat and someone would let me in. There was a button with “5” next to it, I push it, and a male voice says, “Hello?”
“Who wants to know?”
“It’s Becky. I reserved a room through Airbnb?”
“Oh, right! Been waiting for you. Come on up.”
The buzzer buzzes, and still pretty leery of this graffiti-infested door, I push it open, leave the bright daylight, and walk into this: a pitch dark hallway, at least until my eyes could adjust. I turn on the flashlight on my phone. Still not a very reassuring sight. But, it doesn’t smell. So, I head toward the stairs.
I hear a door open up above somewhere, and Kevin’s voice, “It’s just up here, 3 flights. I’ll wait for you.”
Up I trudge with my backpack and tote, I round the last corner, and see this huge tattooed man.
This is not actually Kevin, but it is a very close likeness. I almost turn and bolt down the stairs.
But: 5 star reviews, Superhost rating, the purpose of the sabbatical. Kevin holds the door for me, and I walk in.
Well, Kevin was the nicest guy. He runs a security company for pubs – we would call them bouncers. This, evidently, is THE look for bouncers the world around.
This picture is of a guy who was a bouncer in Washington, DC. (I wouldn’t know, as the kinds of places that need bouncers are not the kinds of places I usually hang out in.)
Anyway, turns out Kevin and Sarah are teetotaling vegans. We had a number of wonderful talks, including one late at night over tea about faith and Jesus and what it means to live as a Christian in a crazy world This talk was with two people who hadn’t been to church since infancy. When I left, I gave him 5 stars, but did suggest he talk to his landlord about painting the door or at least putting a number on it.
If I had judged the Book of Kevin by the cover, I would have hurt his feelings pretty badly, I would not have shared my faith in Jesus with two hungry spirits, I did not convert them, surely, but maybe planted a seed? Worst of all, if I’d bolted, I would not have friends in Edinburgh now.
And look how others served me: Not only Kevin and Sarah opening their home, but also the people that gave Kevin the 5 star reviews on Airbnb, people I’ll never meet, helped me to do something new, to be at least a little brave and trusting. These were good actions that were fair and genuine.
All of us together waged some peace and sowed seeds of justice.
This almost silly episode also showed me that in my 64 years, I haven’t pushed myself into many places where I’m uncomfortable.
James tells us it doesn’t work to be double-minded. We need to make up our minds on what to do with the one wild and precious life God gives to us. Shall we argue, struggle and fight over things and ideas that we can’t even take into eternity? Or will we submit to God, draw close to God, do some things that might make us uncomfortable, serve and welcome the little ones who can’t do anything for us, but whom Jesus embraces, and over whom God the Father holds an umbrella of love?
COLLECT OF THE DAY
O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The Lord informed me and I knew. Then he helped me see what they were up to. I was like a young lamb led to the slaughter; I didn’t realize that they were planning their schemes against me: “Let’s destroy the tree with its fruit; let’s cut him off from the land of the living so that even any knowledge of him will be wiped out.”
Lord of heavenly forces, righteous judge, who tests the heart and mind, let me see your revenge upon them, because I have committed my case to you.
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the lord, and they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.
JAMES 3:13–4:3, 7–8A
Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.
What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. You don’t have because you don’t ask. You ask and don’t have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.
Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners. Purify your hearts, you double-minded.
From there Jesus and his followers went through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. This was because he was teaching his disciples, “The Human One will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him. Three days after he is killed he will rise up.” But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.
They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
SERMON HYMN: O God of Every Nation