Sermon Seeds: First in Caring
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 20
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
First in Caring
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Away from the crowds (at least for the time being), here in the seclusion of a house, the disciples are getting a private lesson from Jesus. They need some quality time with their teacher, because things have been rather up and down for a while now. There have been mountaintop experiences, like seeing a blindingly radiant Jesus standing right next to Moses and Elijah, and other wonders as well: another crowd fed on a few loaves of bread (with leftover abundance), more healings, and still another bright, shining moment when Peter boldly recognized Jesus as the Messiah.
On the other hand, there have been some perplexing, even disturbing, moments. Jesus and his followers, it seems, are not on the same page. He speaks more than once about his coming suffering and death, and scolds Peter harshly when he balks at such unpleasant talk, while the disciples continue to be absorbed in measuring their own greatness, especially in relation to one another (some things cross boundaries of place, time, and culture). Peter, James, and John must be wondering, for example, whether they’re somehow more important because they were up on that mountaintop with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Who could blame them for feeling just a little bit special?
An awkward moment
And then Jesus turns and asks them what they’re talking about. They must be embarrassed, because their awkward silence is palpable, or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “deafening.” We would probably feel similarly uncomfortable in their place; Harry B. Adams suggests that we, too, might be silent in the face of such a question from Jesus, or if we examined how consistent our own lives are with our identity as disciples of Jesus (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). Talk about a lesson in humility! We do well, then, to heed Richard Swanson’s caution as we read this story about the disciples: “This is not an exercise in attacking their flawed notions of discipleship and contrasting them with our own potentially more adequate notions and practice” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark). We could find ourselves distracted by measuring our own righteousness against that of the disciples, and somehow judging ourselves greater, more aware, more faithful.
We know something important is coming when Jesus sits down, like a traditional Jewish teacher. This isn’t just a casual conversation but something critical, something profound, that he hopes his followers will remember long after he has died and risen again. At this point, they seem to suffer short-term memory loss when it comes to Jesus’ words about suffering and dying. They would rather think about glory, but then, who wouldn’t? However, many of us learn, as we read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end, that this journey toward Jerusalem and the cross is a long one, and understanding does not come easily to these disciples. We have a sense from the larger New Testament narrative that they never do “get it” until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills them with the understanding that eludes them throughout the Gospels. In the meantime, they’re human, just like us, and their sights are set much lower, on the high places of honor.
Jesus uses visual aids
As he so often does, Jesus uses more than words to teach his lesson. He likes earthy illustrations: mustard seeds, lamps on stands, and even dogs eating crumbs under the table. But he has also taught through his encounters with human beings, touching them in order to heal (even spitting on the eyes of one man), feeding them when they are hungry, and bringing them, as promised, the good news that will liberate them from every kind of bondage, including sin. He’s healed Jews and those outsider Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor. This time, his illustration (today we might say his “visual aid”) is a little child who happens to be nearby.
When I read that this part of Mark’s Gospel is taking place privately, away from the crowds, I wonder where that child came from and why he or she has been allowed to hang around a group of men who are wandering through town. (Some scholars say that Jesus had a house in Capernaum, the setting for this passage, but in any case he hasn’t been around much, and he always brings a band of strangers with him.) Such a question, of course, occurs to a 21st-century mother who thinks children should be watched over constantly and carefully.
John Pilch sheds light on the customs and culture reflected in Jesus’ actions and words. A child in our culture is deeply valued and put first in our priorities (at least, we insist this is so, in spite of the number of children in poverty). However, in the time of Jesus, a child was lowest on the priority list (no “women and children first” here). Even in medieval times, Pilch writes, Mediterranean cultures put a low value on children: “Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child” (The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B).
A tender scene, or a perplexing teaching?
Our own Western culture would reverse that order, so it’s tempting for us to sentimentalize the action of Jesus in picking up a small child and exhorting his followers to welcome “one such child” in his name as a way to welcome him. Isn’t it a sweet scene, when Jesus tenderly cuddles a child and, we imagine, appeals to the soft hearts under the tough exterior of these big, rough men? It is indeed a sweet scene that we imagine, but that’s not what’s going on here. Jesus is once again saying something not sweet, not sentimental, but perplexing, even disconcerting, and certainly provocative.
Those poor disciples are experiencing one more boat-rocking paradox, one more radical up-ending of the way they think things ought to be, and hope they will be, when Jesus comes into their idea of glory. He’s already told them that if they want to gain their life, they should lose it (8:35). Now, when they want to find their way to the top, to claim greatness, he’s telling them to lay claim instead to the last and lowest place. To illustrate his point, he takes a child in his arms and tells them that when they welcome this little one, they welcome him, and they even welcome the One who sent him.
This latest command makes no sense in the world of the disciples. Wait. What? Welcome someone who doesn’t have the power or ability or place to welcome us in return? No expectation of reciprocity? We might say, no return on our investment? No quid pro quo? First, our Teacher-Messiah keeps talking about suffering and dying instead of victory and glory, and now we have to welcome and even value small, insignificant, powerless people?
A long list of “the devalued”
Children in the culture that shaped the disciples’ worldview weren’t the only ones who were devalued; they shared space on the margins with many others in their society who were both powerless and vulnerable. Megan McKenna provides a long list of such people who didn’t “count”: people “who were old, handicapped, sick, illiterate, cast out as unclean. This group included peasants, farmers, shepherds, widows, slaves, the unemployed, aliens, immigrants, prisoners, homeless” (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross). How many of those people still don’t count in our own society? But what a wonderful illustration for Jesus in this setting – someone (literally) small and probably not even aware of what was going on around him or her.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, “Last of All” (in Bread of Angels), she calls these ancient-world children “fillers, not main events.” Their value was in their potential, that is, if they even survived to adulthood, and the odds were against them. At this point, however, they’re more like servants. In fact, the Greek words for “child” and “servant” have the same root, and both, Peter Marty writes, “live life on the receiving end of things,” not the giving end, and that, Marty claims, is where the power to control lies. In our culture, we organize our structures with a diagram that charts the power, where it comes from and where it goes (usually in a triangle, which neatly depicts a hierarchy with a few at the top and many below).
However, Marty says that Jesus up-ends that “flow-chart” and puts children at the top. Ironically, Marty makes the provocative claim that Jesus is fine with “rank” just as long as that system of ranking has been reversed, with the lowest at the top, and the high and mighty brought low, with the first being last, and the last first (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). As always, when Jesus talks about the reign of God, he reverses a whole bunch of our expectations and assumptions.
How much do we really value our children?
While we might think that things have dramatically improved since those long-ago days when children were devalued, we are hard-pressed to defend the suffering of children today whose lives and well-being have not been put at the top of our communal priority list. In our own families, we may love and cherish our children, but can we say the same about the children in our communities, especially our cities and rural areas, and in nations in the developing world? Do the children of South Sudan, or the Syrian children fleeing their homeland, or the children in our most poverty-stricken neighborhoods, rank high on our priority list? And even in our youth-obsessed culture where many children are indulged materially, do we still think of children as, in Marty’s words, “apprentices” who are not yet fully persons? Do we appreciate them for who and what they are today, rather than seeing them only in terms of what they will become someday (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels)?
Taylor would respond by describing our children as already “full-fledged citizens of God’s realm.” She suggests that we spend some time with them in order to spend some time in God’s presence. Not to imitate them (that’s not what Jesus said, she reminds us), because they’re human like us, so they, too, can be “noisy, clinging, destructive, self-centered, and surprisingly cruel.” In this sermon and elsewhere (see her book, An Altar in the World: A Spiritual Geography), Taylor writes about what is good for our souls, and here she advises us to attend to our own growth toward “greatness” by tending to our behavior when we are alone, to our treatment of the little ones of every kind, those “who [do] not count” in our society and the circles we run in (“Last of All” in Bread of Angels).
This passage from Mark’s Gospel is both short and powerful. Jesus’ teaching is clear, but Marty notes that Jesus speaks of “requirements” rather than “desire,” of “a new community with altered priorities” in which “the least of humankind would count….[and] be embraced” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Or, as Taylor puts it, Jesus didn’t just tell them but showed them who was greatest: “twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, nobody. God’s agent.” In other words, “there is no one whom we may safely ignore” (Bread of Angels). No one whom we may safely ignore.
From rejection to welcome
Focusing so closely on children in any culture should not distract us from an even larger truth. Richard Swanson sees “the operative flow in the passage” as “something more like from rejection to welcome” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark). After all, Jesus began this passage by warning his disciples that he would be betrayed and killed and then would rise again. How much more rejection could there be? And yet the passage ends by describing a welcome that extends not only to the little ones but also to him, and to the One who sent him.
We might not consciously think about aspiring to greatness, let alone claim it openly among our friends and colleagues, but many of us long to see ourselves as faithful, and righteous, in the eyes of God. Dianne Bergant thinks most people, however, are more concerned with success, beauty, strength, confidence, and fame, and those who enjoy all these things, those “who have made a name for themselves, those who entertain us.” All of these, it seems, are more important than “righteousness,” that is, being “gentle and merciful, faithful and sincere…lovers of peace….willing to take the last place” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). The righteous will be the ones who are first in caring for others.
Taking the message to heart, and to the road
The road to Jerusalem is a long one, and there is plenty of time for lessons, but the disciples still don’t grasp the meaning of what Jesus is saying. David Watson observes that while Jesus instructs his disciples to be the servants of all, the word “diakonos here in 9:35 and in 10:43″ is not used to describe them later; perhaps, Watson suggests, they never did grasp that part of Jesus’ message (New Proclamation Year B 2009). As usual, the first disciples of Jesus resemble us in many ways. For us, too, the way of discipleship is long and much is expected of us, and we too would rather think and talk about our reward than the price that will be exacted.
Jesus laid down his life for us, and we are asked to offer our lives, our priorities, our gifts, our very selves, along with the honor, the power and place and prestige that we long for. The repetition throughout Mark of where all of this is leading – to Jesus’ suffering and death – reflects the deep human resistance to the transformation to which we are called, the gift of radical transformation of our lives that is offered to us. Please, we ask, let us contemplate honor, not the cross. And yet, how else can we ever experience the resurrection and new life that is promised? How else can we experience true joy?
For further reflection:
Bill Watterson, 20th century
“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“A great [person] is always willing to be little.”
Helen Keller, 20th century
“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.”
Carson McCullers, The Square Root of Wonderful, 20th century
“The closest thing to being cared for is to care for someone else.”
William Shakespeare, 15th century
“[One] is not great who is not greatly good.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 19th century
“The soul is healed by being with children.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 20th century
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century
“Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”
Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.”
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands
she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
Happy are those who do not follow
the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of God,
and on God’s law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for God watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22
But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
“Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us
and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!” But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously, who try the heart and the mind, let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.
Save me, O God, by your name,
and vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
give ear to the words of my mouth.
For the insolent have risen against me,
the ruthless seek my life;
they do not set God before them.
But surely, God is my helper;
God is the upholder of my life.
God will repay my enemies
for their evil.
In your faithfulness,
put an end to them.
With a freewill offering
I will sacrifice to you;
I will give thanks to your name, O God,
for it is good.
For God has delivered me
from every trouble,
and my eye has looked in triumph
on my enemies.
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 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. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.