A Sermon preached on September 20th (Proper 20) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Proverbs 31:10-31, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
You can’t help but feel sorry for the disciples. I sometimes feel that they can only get it wrong. Whenever Jesus used parables or metaphors they fail to understand him, often by taking things literally, causing much frustration on Jesus’ part: “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13) Jesus asks them after the parable of the sower when presumably they took that illustration so seriously that they all wanted to dash off and buy seeds to sow. Or when Jesus warns them to “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod,” all they can think of is the bread they had forgotten to bring “They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.” To which Jesus replies “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (Mark 8:15-17)
So by now the disciples have got so used to looking for a deeper meaning in Jesus’ words or actions that when he tells them that he will be betrayed, killed, and three days after being killed, rise again (Mark 9:31) they don’t know what to make of it. I can just imagine them thinking: Is this another one of his parables, if so what does it mean? Not what he says I hope. I don’t want him to die …. I don’t want to die. But we’re not going to ask him – look what he called Peter a couple of days ago, Satan!
Well I can’t say I blame them entirely. And don’t we still do that at times – look for some deeper meaning in Jesus’ action and words, especially when we don’t like the most obvious one? A couple of days ago Elaine White posted a quote by the American comedian Stephen Colbert that sums up that attitude very nicely: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.” Just substitute the word “refugee” for “poor” and you’ve got the attitude of some European “Christian” politicians.
But returning to the disciples in today’s gospel, rather than ask Jesus what he meant, they go back to humanity’s favorite occupation: jostling for position and prestige: “They argued with one another about who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:34) I wonder what that sounded like – Peter saying, I’m the most important because I was Jesus’ first choice? Sure Peter, but who did Jesus call Satan the other day? Anyway, says Matthew, look at what I had to give up behind – I was a successful tax collector! Or Judas saying – words, words – I’m a man of action. Who knows! What we do know is that Jesus knew very well what they were talking about. So how can he make them – and us – understand that following him is not a matter of prestige or status, nor will it lead to wealth and success? How can he show them, and us, that no one follower of Christ is more important than the other – regardless of the type of collar they wear or what position they have been elected to, or how long they have been a Christian or a member of a parish? Well he can tell them directly and he does: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (9:35) And he uses a teaching aid – a child.
Why a child? Jesus often uses children to make a point. In the next chapter of Mark’s gospel we find that famous passage when the disciples try and keep some children away from Jesus. “He was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (10:14) In 1st century BC society children had very little status or protection, which doesn’t mean that they were not loved by their parents. But when Jesus says “it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” one thing he wants us to understand is that everyone, even those without status and position, in fact especially those without status and position, have access to God and to God’s grace and love. But when he goes on to say “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (10:15) he is referring to the childlike innocence and trust that should frame our attitude to God. It’s not who we are or what we do, but how we approach God that is important and that makes us – to stick with the theme of children – God’s children. At the very beginning of John’s gospel we read: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12) And according to Paul we are children of God when we are led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14) and “in Christ Jesus we are all children of God through faith.” (Gal. 3:26)
All these meanings are behind this morning’s passage too. First Jesus calls on his disciples to welcome those such as this child, so to welcome and to care for those without status and position, for there are no restrictions on who can follow Jesus. We cannot and must not place any limits on God’s grace.
And when we who are already followers of Christ and perhaps also leaders within a Christian community reach out to the helpless, that is also an illustration of Jesus’ call to be servant of all. In fact there may even be a visual pun in there for the disciples and the early Jewish Christians, as the Hebrew word for child – talya – can also mean servant.
The call to welcome one such child in my name (9:37) reminds us of why we are called to reach out, not just to help others, thought that is a primary reason, but also to bring people to Jesus by those acts carried out in his name that is as a result of our faith in him and in his Father, the one who sent him. And there are no particular qualifications required, no length of service, no special education – all we have to do is welcome and help the needy and the helpless in Jesus’ name.
In doing so, we also welcome Jesus, that is promise to follow him and to make him the center of our lives, and the God who sent him and who we really only know through Jesus. And of course in welcoming God in Christ we are welcomed, received, loved and forgiven too. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Is how James puts it in his letter that we also heard read earlier. (James 4:8) In fact James’ letter could in part be a – rather more wordy – summary of Jesus’ teaching. “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.” There it is again, no partiality – no selection of who is worthy. We help those who need help – full stop (or period). The concept of “Wisdom” as James uses it is Christian wisdom, God’s wisdom – the wisdom of the heart and not of the mind, the wisdom that for us is personified by Jesus Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God.
“Show by your good lives that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” (James 3:13) show by your lives and witness the wisdom that is our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus.