Sermon for 23 September 2018
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Again today we have 4 unrelated readings.
The proverbs reading about the good wife at one level is no more than male fantasy. Historically it reflects an age where women were the property of their fathers or husbands. As such they were lowly ranked below a house and slightly above slaves and animals. Remove the gender bias, and this passage praises diligence, industry and responsibility, and above all in the final verse “the person who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
Psalm one is extortion to Godly living by obeying the Law. “Blessed are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord”.
The reading from James is one that every congregation should hear regularly. James is condemning innocuous, malicious conversation. “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts great exploits. How great a forest fire is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire”. But I am sure that that is not an issue among you.
Today’s gospel follows closely on last week’s reading with another prediction of the passion and death of Jesus. Note the issues raised in this reading as I want to say more about it later.
Two issues from last week’s Gospel reading re-emerge in today’s reading. When Jesus asked his disciples “who do you say I am?” it became obvious that they had not yet really understood him and what he was on about. This is picked up again in today’s reading. Also when Jesus rebuked Peter with “get behind me Satan, you are thinking as humans think, not as God thinks,” he was pointing out that the disciples had not yet begun to see with gospel eyes. They were still thinking and seeing this kingdom and not the Kingdom of God.
Today’s reading begins, “They went on from there………and Jesus continued teaching his disciples.” From what Jesus is doing here it seems that we can say three things from today’s reading.
Firstly, despite their short comings, and even failures, Jesus, against all human logic, sticks with his disciples. This motley bunch who continue to follow him, and continue to respond in such a way as to indicate they have no real idea of who Jesus was or what he was about. The point here is that Jesus did not give up on the 12 when they repeatedly fell short. He continued with them and their defective sight and understanding. Similarly Mark is saying to his listeners that the same applies to them. Some commentators want to suggest that Mark is suggesting that the disciples are like mirrors in which hearers and readers see themselves: hearers and readers with failures and lack of understanding like the 12. They too are slow to get the point and understand a Messiahship that is rejected, betrayed and killed. The disciples persisted in this not really understanding and continuing to see things in a human rather than divine way right up until Jesus showed himself on Easter Day. Remember the words of Thomas, “unless I see, I will not believe”. And really that is at the heart of our Christian preaching and teaching. It is a bit like trying to removing cataracts so followers, disciples, can see more clearly what Jesus was really trying to teach them, and in the dramatic events of Calvary, show them. But the underlying insight for us is that God does not give up on us if we are slow in seeing Jesus for what he is, SAVIOUR, our Lord and Saviour.
This flows into the second point which is again a source of reassurance to us all. The disciples found the message and teaching of Jesus baffling. Even though in today’s reading Jesus again points to his destiny in Jerusalem, the disciples fail to understand, and it seems that they are so intimidated that they will not ask any questions. “They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask.” And to make matters worse they engaged in trite argument about greatness, who was the greatest, who was Jesus’s favourite. When called out by Jesus about their argument they seemed justly embarrassed and had nothing to say. They may not have understood much, but it seems that they knew enough to realise that their petty argument was completely out of line with what Jesus had been talking about. It is noted that this is probably one of the lowest points in their relationship with Jesus. They are baffled and humiliated, but not rejected or discarded. That is the hopeful lifeline that I hang onto.
And that leads us to the third point; as disappointing a team of followers as they seem to be, Jesus is not through with them – he still has more to say to them and teach them. This story of failure, of falling short by Jesus’s closest followers opens a unique opportunity for an important lesson for them, and us. So who is the greatest? Well in this world, the person with the biggest house and the most expensive car. But Jesus has already reprimanded them for thinking that way. No, in Jesus’s way, Jesus’s kingdom, “whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all. Jesus’s messiahship is not about power and importance, but about humility and servant hood. Don’t be too hard on the disciples for being slow to pick up on this. For us who live in this world the notion of humility and servanthood is not necessarily admired values either. So as Jesus said to Peter, stop thinking as humans think, stop valuing human values. Think as God wants you to think.
And to illustrate the servanthood point more clearly, “Jesus then took a little child and put it among them. “Took IT”. Children ranked lower on the pecking order than women, which was pretty low. Somewhere down with slaves and outcasts, but just above animals, the dogs of a previous chapter. This child epitomised the lowly and the powerless in society. For us, this represents the poor, the lost, the refugee, the marginalised and disenfranchised. “Jesus then took the child in his arms”, he actually physically embraced this almost alien creature, this IT, “and said to them”, the disciples, the most unlikely candidates for this kind of servanthood, ” whoever welcomes one such child IN MY NAME welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Or as Jesus said elsewhere, whatever you did for the least, you actually did for me. Disciple servanthood is about open hospitality, generosity and inclusiveness of all our neighbours.
So I hope you too find hope and encouragement in this Gospel snippet. If Mark is suggesting that the disciples are like mirrors in which hearers and readers see themselves, their own failures and lack of understanding, it speaks loudly to me if not to you. My foolish God, or as Fr Nicholas has said, our reckless God, does not give up on us even when we fail to understand who he is or what he was on about. When we wander off or fall over he is still there and with only the occasional chiding continues to teach us about the kingdom and its ways. For our discipleship, and that is what our baptism designated us as, disciples of Christ, our discipleship calls us to servant hood. The servant hood of the servant King who gave his whole life for us as the way of reconciliation with our foolish and reckless God. A servant hood that calls us to embrace the children of powerlessness. “For whoever welcomes one such child IN MY NAME welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Fr Terry Booth