James 3:13‑4:3, 7‑8a
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A common criticism of Christianity is that it’s a crutch, trying to create certainty in uncertainty, that it encourages superficial, narrow, black and white thinking, that it justifies instead of challenges its followers’ prejudices and expectations. Frankly, to me that’s a fair criticism. Often Christianity manifests itself in those ways. I just want to be clear: my own faith, of course, isn’t subject to such rigidity and unreality – that’s for everyone else out there.
Today’s gospel shows how difficult it is to follow Jesus. He messes with our expectations and turns our world upside down. The disciples lean on a crutch, and Jesus knocks the crutch out. Jesus challenges his followers, and they resist and resist and resist and don’t get it. That’s a strong, deep, persistent theme in Mark’s gospel, and it challenges me. It makes me wonder what I don’t understand, what I’m resisting, what expectations of mine are so settled that I’m unaware of what God desires for me.
Today’s gospel begins with Jesus predicting for the second time that he will be handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will rise. Three times he predicted his death and resurrection, and the disciples didn’t get it at all.
In chapter 8, the chapter before today’s gospel, Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, Peter’s great confession of faith. Jesus responded by making his first prediction that he’d be killed. Peter then pulled Jesus aside and rebuked Jesus for saying it. “That’s not what happens to the Messiah. The Messiah rules from a throne of power. He’s not killed.” Then Jesus sharply rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” As we know, Jesus sometimes had an acid tongue.
Peter, like all of the disciples, frequently got it wrong. Perhaps we can empathize with them. Being a disciple involves constantly trying to learn and understand and allowing our expectations and opinions to be challenged and sometimes shown to be false. It can build humility in us.
Today when Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, the disciples were silent. Usually we think of knowledge as power, as a way to control and be important, but here the disciples avoid knowing, perhaps fear knowing. There can be safety in ignorance. Each of us knows what it’s like to ignore what we don’t want to hear.
Mark says that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus. They didn’t trust him enough to try to figure out what’s he meant. Perhaps they were worried about getting a tongue lashing from Jesus. It’d be embarrassing, and it might possibly hurt their status among the disciples.
Instead the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, the most important, where each of them stood on the corporate ladder. The first disciples, like us, competed for prestige, importance, power within their circle. They wanted to know their ranking. They assumed that one person’s gain was another person’s loss. We sometimes operate that way too. They didn’t expect that following Jesus is a different way, a way without competition and ranking, without a hierarchy of preference before God.
When Jesus asked the disciples what they were arguing about, again there was silence. This time it was not a fearful or confused silence, but an embarrassed silence. They were scheming, calculating to move themselves up, and Jesus had just told them that his fate is suffering and death. The disciples were at least doing their scheming openly, explicitly. Usually we scheme secretly. It’s a sad aspect of human experience, our inner bondage, our captivity to worrying about position and what others think of us, often grasping for public recognition and attention, our insecurity with ourselves as we are.
The good news of Jesus is God’s embrace and delight in us as we are, that every person is precious and important to him, regardless of the esteem of other people. The most important thing for human beings to know, to trust deep in our hearts, is that each of us is a beloved child of God, that he delights in us. God values in a different way than we do. That truth leads to real freedom, no longer enthralled to petty hierarchies of perceived greatness and importance.
Jesus turned the disciples’ expectations upside down. God’s way, he said, is not about being served, not about receiving deference, but about serving others; not being in first place, but last place. That’s what we’re becoming. To illustrate his point, he cradled a small child in his arms and told them, “If you embrace a child as I do, then you embrace me and God who sent me.” That’s greatness, that’s strength, that’s honor.
The image of Jesus cradling a small child in his arms warms me, and it’s difficult to appreciate the force and challenge of this image. Many of us idealize childhood. I typically recall the soft and cuddly and gentle aspects, the sunnier bits, and forget how difficult childhood can be. I had a relatively fortunate childhood and adolescence, but those years included some of the most frightening and demanding and confusing and upsetting events of my life, huge challenges and feelings of disequilibrium. Can you recall the strangeness and uncertainty?
Childhood in the ancient Near East must have been more terrifying. Children were the weakest, most vulnerable people in society. Infant mortality sometimes reached 30 percent. Of those who survived birth, 30 percent were dead before their sixth birthday, and 60 percent were dead by their sixteenth – 60 percent. More than 70 percent of children lost one or both of their parents before puberty. Jesus was fortunate, part of the 30 percent. Luke tells us that he had a mother and a father when he was twelve.
In the ancient world, famine, war, disease, and dislocation were much more common than in contemporary America, and children were always the first to suffer. They had no standing in society. If their parents died, they were unable to inherit. People didn’t own anything until they reached their majority. Children had the same status as slaves. Indeed, the Greek words for “child” and for “slave” are closely related.
Jesus said, “Welcome and embrace the child seeking comfort and security from you. Provide care and hospitality to him/her. Look for me, see me, and the one who sent me in this child.” It’s completely counter-cultural. Ingratiate yourself with those who are vulnerable and with those whose social status is beneath yours. That’s where we’ll encounter God. Jesus is saying that in a Christian community the people who humble themselves and serve others are the ones with the most authority.
It’s a difficult standard, a reach for most of us. It was a reach for the Jesus’ friends. In chapter 10, the next chapter, just 25 verses further along, the disciples tried to prevent people from bringing children to Jesus, and Jesus sharply rebuked them.
One of the ways for us to move toward more openness, toward more appreciation of those who are vulnerable, of those of lower status, is to appreciate that God gives every person gifts - every person. We don’t always see or appreciate the gifts and contributions of all people, of our reliance and need for others, especially people who are behind the scenes, who have humble vocations.
An experiment. Imagine you’re a single woman living in London in 1946. You attend party where there are several single World War II veterans. You meet one who commanded a tank, and you kind of hit it off. You’re interested and question him, and he reluctantly tells you that he fought at El Alamein in ’42. You know that El Alamein was a decisive battle that turned the tide in North Africa.
A little later in the evening, you meet another veteran and again kind of connect, and under your pointed questioning you find out that he also served in North Africa, but not really on the front lines. He delicately jokes that he worked with the latrine brigade. Once you hear that, are you going to be tempted to glance over his shoulder and eye the tank commander? You know both of them want your telephone number, but you’ve got some crazy idea that you have to choose one. The tank commander is the one with the flair of position, clearly a hero. He’s the one that leaves the party with your number, right? That’d almost certainly be my choice.
At El Alamein, the British led by General Montgomery attacked and defeated the Germans led by Field Marshal Rommel. During the month before the battle and the month of the battle, about 2.5 percent of Montgomery’s army was admitted to field medical stations to be treated for diarrhea or dysentery. For Rommel’s army, it was twenty percent, and nearly 50 percent from frontline troops.
In the desert, flies were a significant problem, and the British sanitation detail discovered that by attaching a simple burlap flap over the top of their latrines, the flies were kept at bay and couldn’t transmit much disease, and almost all of the British troops stayed healthy. Rommel credited his defeat to dysentery.
Heroism is often not where we expect. We often are not aware of it. Concern about status blinds us. In a model Christian community, what we’re trying to become, we try to appreciate the gifts of everyone, we try to use our gifts for the common good, and we try to honor and welcome God in everyone.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Childhood statistics from Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 336.