James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael CA on September 23, 2012.
A Sunday school teacher asked her little children, as they were on their way to the church service, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” And one bright little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping.” And I think this is partly why Jesus loved children so much. They are able to quickly deflate our self-importance with their honest frankness. This morning, the Gospel invites us to let go of our self-importance and relax into God’s loving arms as his dearly beloved children.
In the Gospel, the disciples argue over who is the greatest, which on the surface seems harmless, but at a deeper level, might be far more poisonous. I try to imagine what their conversation might have actually sounded like. I imagine Peter starting off by saying something like, “Hey, just so you all know, I’m the best because when Jesus asked ‘Who do you say that I am?’ I obviously gave him the right answer.” And then John butts in and says, “Wait a minute, I disagree. Jesus clearly loves me the most here so I’m the best. I am, after all, the beloved disciple!” And then James says, “Well, I’m pretty important too because I saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain and the other disciple whose name is James did not, so we should call him ‘James the Less’ because he’s not as great as me.” And then James the Less gets angry and they all start arguing more and more about who is the greatest.
I’m not sure if the conversation actually went that way. In fact, it may have been much more subtle and malicious than that. It may have been like some of those conversations that we sometimes find ourselves in, which appear to be friendly and affable, but are actually a subterfuge for asserting social status and prestige. Such rivalry and competition eat away at our souls and infect us with all kinds of spiritual disease. Although the disciples’ conversation may be fairly harmless in itself, Jesus sees how their words were watering the seeds of vicious rivalry within their hearts and he wanted to cut the rivalry at its root. So by asking them “What were you arguing about?” Jesus invites them to acknowledge their vanity. I love how they are completely silent after he asks that question. They obviously feel pretty ashamed and silly for arguing about something so vain. Jesus’ question to his disciples also invites us to ask ourselves, “In what ways do I try to assert my self-importance, even at other people’s expense? And furthermore, why do I try to do that in the first place? Do I feel like I am lovable only if I can prove myself better than others?”
And so Jesus sits down and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then I imagine “James the Less” getting really excited and thinking, “Wow, I must be really great then since I’m less.” But before the disciples start arguing over who is the best at being last, Jesus does something to cut to the root of their problem. Jesus knows that they are trying to find their identity over and against others. And so he redirects their attention away from their competition. He takes a little child in his arms and by doing so, invites the disciples to see themselves as dearly beloved children, held by the arms of God. He is saying to them, “Find your identity here, as a child, in loving arms. Don’t try to find your identity over and against others. Welcome yourself as a beloved child of God. And when you do that, you welcome me. And you welcome God.”
And the Epistle this morning says the same thing, “These conflicts and disputes among you come from cravings that are at war within you. You desire to build yourself by putting others down. Rather welcome yourself as a beloved child of God, held in his arms. There, you can ask for anything because your loving Father is happy to provide for you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Resist the egotistic and diabolic desire to build yourself up at other people’s expense. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
As the Youth Minister for these five Episcopal churches in Marin (Nativity Church, Christ Church, Church of the Redeemer, St. Paul’s and St. Francis), my prayer is that this new community of young people becomes a safe haven for them to claim their identity as beloved in God’s arms. I honestly cannot think of a time in my life more consumed with rivalry among my peers for social status and cachet than my time in middle school and high school. As young people are beginning to find their identity outside of their home, they can very easily and quickly get caught up in the webs of peer pressure and competition. And I hope and pray that we can create a space where they can claim their identity as God’s beloved and can even be guided by that identity through the many ups and downs and pressures of these turbulent years.
And I pray the same for all of us. I know I still need to be reminded of my identity as God’s beloved every day, when I get caught up in the competitions and cravings that war within me. I pray we may all resist finding our identity through rivalry, a pursuit that keeps us perpetually anxious and insecure. And may we remember to regularly welcome ourselves as beloved and as held by God so that we can learn to welcome others in the same way. By doing so, we welcome Christ in our midst, the One who makes himself known in the Beloved Community. Amen.