Mark 9:33-37; James 3:13-18 Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert 20 September 2015
Have you heard the story about the kindergarten girl who was working very hard on her art and her teacher said, Sophia, what are you drawing? She said, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher said, “How can you draw God? Nobody knows what God looks like.” The girl looked up with exasperation and said, “Well, they will when I finish!” This is our third week on wisdom. First week we read about King Solomon, the Wise and what was his strength which turned to weakness as he grew in popularity and power and wives? Humility. He lost humility and with it, wisdom. Wisdom is a gift, but the gift can be lost. Wisdom is more than knowledge, Paul say, it is God’s power.
Last week we read some of the Wisdom literature – namely Solomon’s proverbs, hearing the challenging call of wisdom, the mystery of wisdom, which requires us to lay down our life in order to pursue her. To be discerning is to want more than anything to see life and death from God’s perspective. Jesus tells us to lose our life in order to find it.
Today we go further with wisdom, hearing from Jesus that power and greatness are turned upside down, and from James, that wisdom is being gentle, peaceable, and willing to yield. Hear these two scriptures:
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 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. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (NRS)
And the disciples were arguing over who is the greatest. This was after he told them he would be betrayed, killed, and rise again. But they did not understand. They wanted greatness. That’s the trouble with wanting greatness. It has a way of blinding us to everything else. I want greatness for Peace. I want to be a great pastor. So should I not want those things? Does wanting them get in the way of being faithful? Yes, sometimes. If I want attention for success, if my ambition turns selfish, or I begin to be envious of other churches and their apparent “success.” If I boast of things that are not true, or not completely true, trying to make others and even myself feel better about me, then ambition has gotten the best of me. I honestly do not know if it is possible to be a politician and follow Jesus’ way of wisdom. It didn’t work too well in his day either. They killed him, instead of crowning him.
Churches in the USA are losing their greatness in our generation. Leaders in our denomination and others used to be able to speak and people would listen. We used to have a huge bureaucracy to manage our greatness as Presbyterians. It is shrinking and maybe this humbling is good for us. We can wish for the church of the 70’s and 80’s, or find a way to be faithful servants, okay with being last. We can focus now on showing by our good life, not by our greatness, that we have wisdom born of gentleness.
Jesus picks up a child and says when we welcome someone vulnerable, who needs to be served, then we are getting the message about what it means to follow him, to welcome Christ into our lives. Don’t forget that in Jesus’ day, infant mortality and childhood diseases took the lives of well more than half of children. The average life expectancy in the first century was about 26. And we tend to think of Jesus’ life as short! Ancient Greeks and Romans readily accepted the practice of exposure to eliminate unwanted, deformed, or illegitimate children. It was truly a survival of the fittest. Historians estimate that 20 to 40 percent of all babies were abandoned during the later Roman Empire. Infanticide was common. Jesus’ teachings about valuing children came to a culture that did not cater to children. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son was not so strange to their ears as it is to ours. Herod’s commitment to kill all infant boys shows how expendable children were.
Yes, first century couples desperately wanted offspring, because without offspring, there was no one to care for you as you age, no one to do the work for you, the heavy labor as you became less able. You could not just sign up to go to the Assisted Living Facility in Jesus’ day. But children were not adored like they are today. Children were just more hungry mouths when food was scarce. Little children, often sick, dying so easily from malnutrition and disease, were seen as weak, and were not valued until they made it to adulthood. Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes this weak, useless, burdensome one, welcomes me.” Who are the burdensome, vulnerable ones of our day? People who are homeless, struggling many of them with serious mental illness. People trapped in vicious cycles of poverty and violence. Families of refugees and illegal immigrants? We are called to find a way to welcome and to serve the weak.
Friends, I was shocked by the numbers this week. 4 million does not make an impact on my brain until I realized there is one Syrian refugee struggling to find safety, food, and shelter for every 100 persons in the United States of America. For three decades the top producer of refugees was Afghanistan. Now it is Syria. Four million refugees have left Syria but over 7 million are internally displaced – they are still in Syria, but with nothing, wandering.
We can complain that local countries should do more, but we must realize many of them are overrun. In Lebanon today, 25% of the population are Syrians. The United Nations estimates that around the world 60 million people are refugees or internally displaced persons. This is a higher number than the 50 million right after WW2.
Whenever we welcome the weak, we are welcoming Christ, who himself was a refugee as a child, his parents running from a threatening political leader. Who were God’s people in the Hebrew scriptures? Those who had escaped abuse and poverty to move as refugees to a land of promise.
Is the book of James not perfectly clear – whenever there is bitter envy or selfish ambition, there will be disorder and wickedness of every kind. We can easily spot the wickedness of President Assad and ISIS. We know those need to be stopped, removed from power, contained, shown a better way. God help us.
But we also have to examine ourselves to make sure that we do not contribute the disorder and wickedness of the world with our desire for greatness, our concern for our own safety at other’s expense, or our attitude of exceptionalism. The more power you have as a person, as an organization or as a nation, the more you must work to remain humble and willing to yield, rather becoming presumptuous about what you deserve. Greatness eludes the powerful, because selfishness creeps in. Jesus calls his followers to a gentle wisdom that values the weak, that is willing to be last in order to serve. James defines that wisdom as pure and peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
Why is the world so captivated by Pope Francis? He’s visiting the USA this week. Because he seems wise and gentle, full of mercy, and interested in poor and marginalized people in a genuine way. I pray he has the grace to maintain his gentle wisdom with humility as he wears this cloak of popularity and power as pope. God help him.
What will you do with our communal and individual call to gentle wisdom that welcomes the weak? How will it affect your analysis of political candidates? How will it affect your commitment to help the refugee? How will change how you spend your money? What does it say about who is valuable?
(short video about the Refugee crisis)