James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30 – 37
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on September 20, 2015.
A Sunday school teacher asked her little children, as they were on their way to a 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 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 they call me less.” But before the disciples start arguing over who is the best at being last, Jesus again 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 and 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.”
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 up 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 several Episcopal churches in Marin (which begins its fourth program year tonight), I pray that the youth group serves as a safe haven for young people 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 the Episcopal church can offer 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. This is my prayer for all the youth in the Episcopal Church, including the wonderful youth here at St. Mark’s Crockett: that they may claim and be guided by their identity as God’s beloved.
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.
A couple weeks ago, I spent several days in a Benedictine monastery in Washington state, praying, reading, walking, drinking whiskey with the monks (occasionally), and trying to write a chapter of my dissertation. These wonderful monks knew how to embody Benedictine hospitality. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, “All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger, and you took me in’ (Matthew 25:35).” By welcoming me, the monks helped me welcome myself as God’s beloved. They helped me welcome those parts of my self that I sometimes don’t want to welcome: parts of me that are tired and need to rest; parts of me that are vulnerable and human and childlike. As I was gradually learning to welcome these human and childlike parts of myself in the warmth of Benedictine hospitality, I came across an image that revealed the world’s heartbreaking lack of hospitality for humanity and especially for children. The image brought my knees to the floor and tears to my eyes. The image was a photo of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian 3-year-old boy wearing a bright red shirt, whose body was washed up on a beach in Turkey. Aylan and his brother and his mother are now counted among the more than 2,000 Syrian refugees, who have died in their attempt to reach Europe. Many (if not most) of these are women and children under the age of 18.
While corrupt leaders continue to argue and dispute over who is the greatest (just like Jesus’s disciples and those to whom the Apostle James wrote his epistle), the child to whom Jesus directs our attention lies washed up, face down, and dead, on a beach. Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Does this not also mean that whoever does not welcome such a child but rather leaves such a child for dead also does so to me and to the one who sent me? Yes, in fact, it does. Jesus says, “Whatever you did not do for the least of these you did not do to me” (Matthew 25:45).
I know that many countries, including the US, have already welcomed thousands (even millions) of Syrian refugees and that the US provides billions of dollars worth of aid. And thanks be to God for that. And yet we are still haunted by the heart-wrenching photo of Aylan Kurdi on the beach, a symbol of Syrian desperation and the world’s failure to respond.
If Jesus of Nazareth did indeed take a child in his arm while teaching his disciples (as I believe he did), the Palestinian child in his arms would have looked a lot like Aylan Kurdi.
The Gospel this morning challenges us to consider whom we might be refusing to welcome. What parts of ourselves are we drowning or leaving washed up on the beach? There is a Buddhist proverb that says, “Whatever we reject in ourselves we will reject in others and whatever we reject in others we also reject in ourselves.” Maybe we are refusing to welcome our own humanity, our own vulnerability, our own inner child. The photo of Aylan Kurdi indicates that collectively we have indeed failed to welcome our own humanity.
The Gospel invites us to let go of our insecurities about the scarcity of a supposed ‘greatness’ and learn to embrace and welcome humanity as beloved by God because it us by welcoming all parts of ourselves as beloved that we can learn to welcome others in the same way. As we pray this morning, I invite us all to relax into God’s loving arms as his dearly beloved children and ask God to protect all the Syrian refugees, especially the children, to comfort the victims of the earthquake in Chile and the devastating fires in northern California, to soothe all those who suffer and finally to ask God how we ourselves might be his loving arms in this world, welcoming those whom the world leaves for dead and bringing them into God’s tender embrace. Amen.
 The Rule of St. Benedict, Ch 53, translated by Anthony C. Meisel and M.L. del Mastro (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 89.