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The Most Clueless, Inappropriate Response…: The 18th Sunday after Pentecost


September 23, 2018
Wisdom 1:16 – 2:1, 12-22
James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

So, if I understand it correctly: Jesus wants to travel undetected through Galilee, because, the text says, he wanted to teach his disciples. And what he teaches them is about the torture that’s going to befall him in Jerusalem in the not-so-distant future.

So he tells his disciples, for a second time, that he’s going to be betrayed, killed, but will rise again. But they don’t understand what he was saying, and, Mark adds, they “were afraid to ask him.” I suspect that they wished that he’d stick to the more accessible and high-energy messianic acts, like healing. But Jesus seems to have this unhealthy preoccupation with a death that they probably judged to be wicked, and evil, and unfair.

And the disciples respond to Jesus’s difficult words not by offering messages or gestures of support, or by pledging their support through thick and thin. (The third time he brings up this morbid topic some of them will, but when the time comes, of course they don’t.) No, the disciples respond by falling into the background and continuing in some argument about who amongst them was the greatest.

In a story like Mark’s sometimes seems that the disciples are there for not much more than comic relief. But this absolute obliviousness to the clear words of Jesus (with, I wonder, a quiver in his voice… at the very least) is disappointing, to say the least. We’ve already got the bar set pretty low for them… and they go lower. “For on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” If only these all too human disciples had had the Letter of James in their day, where they’d hear what we did: “Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.”

But really… as hard as we might think we ought to be on the disciples, I think the story actually shows a profound awareness of human behaviour, and I’d add, 21st century behaviour. Because the disciples, as bad as they are, they’re probably exhibiting ordinary human nature.

Think about the role — the huge, unavoidable role — that ratings and reviews play in today’s world. When I’m looking for a restaurant in a certain city or a certain part of town, I go on the website Yelp, and look for a place with a high star rating. More controversially, in recent years websites have popped up that allow students to rate their professors. (Are they interesting, helpful, easy markers, etc.?) And churches aren’t unaffected; even our own St. Andrew’s Facebook page has a built-in star-rating option. And there’s even a website in the UK called Ship of Fools that for years has had a ‘mystery worshipper’ section. When people visit a new church they’re welcome to submit a review, answering questions about the atmosphere, and the sermon, the welcome they (hopefully) received, and what I like: “which part of the service was like being in heaven” and the opposite: “which part was like being in… er… the other place.” And another good one we’d all do well to remember: “what happened when you hung around after the service feeling lost?”

An obvious place for ratings and questions of who’s better than whom is in sports, like baseball. But while everyone knows statistics like batting average and slugging percentage and runs batted in, in the last few years a new school of statistics-taking has developed with new, and much more complicated rankings like WAR, “wins above replacement” that somehow tells us how many games a certain player helps us win, compared to a theoretical ‘average’ player. Or Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures a how well a pitcher does on their own, without the help of fielders.

But what’s more interesting here is that there are arguments among baseball fans — like the arguments among the disciples — about who’s better. There’s the old guard that goes by the simpler stats and cares a lot more about a player’s hustle and spirit. And then there’s the new crop of baseball analysts that only cares about the new stats. And these two groups don’t get along.

And while all those examples are just kind of amusing, ultimately this isn’t just funny business, because this applies to more than just sports or hobbies or consumerism. A few years ago one of the big novels in the literature world was a book called Super Sad True Love Story, kind of a new take on George Orwell’s 1984. The author describes a world where every person is constantly hooked up to some kind of social media program that gives constantly-monitored ratings about attractiveness, and success, and influence. And your ratings are continuously broadcasted, displayed on polls in the streets, and on everyone’s cellular devices. So the main character in the book, he might walk into a room, and everyone else in there, as soon as he walks in, they see that the attractiveness score of the room goes down… This example is kind of funny too, but we’re probably not too far from reality, where today so many people on social media don’t post photos or news stories or comments to actually share information, but to show that they’re like this group, or that group, and in doing so, rise in the esteem of their ‘friends.’

But back to the gospel story, what’s interesting about the behaviour of the disciples is that it comes right after an incident that the lectionary skipped. Something between last week’s gospel and today’s. It’s the story of the disciples’ attempt at healing a boy possessed by an evil spirit. And they fail. They find they can’t do it. So with Mark putting these stories side-by-side, is it a comment about how these unhelpful comparisons (these disordered and selfish arguments about the greatest among them) — does this arise from our insecurities? Our sense of inadequacy?

But Jesus shows us something different; he presents a different Way than this insecure score-keeping. Firstly, remember that in his whole ministry Jesus has been reaching out, healing, and demonstrating an openness to the people that society deemed to be without value. (And somehow the disciples have missed that, if their arguing is any indication.)

And then especially, right there in that house, Jesus gives an example of radical openness in how he picks up and embraces the little child. What Jesus does is show love and appreciation and esteem for this little kid that no one else was paying attention to. A kid that from time to time was probably a bit loud or messy, or ‘childish.’ Jesus raises up this little person who wouldn’t rate too highly in the competition that the disciples are engaged in between themselves. If anything the disciples would have just seen someone very inconvenient who takes up lots of time, attention, and resources.

But Jesus, in pointing to the child, he says that ‘THIS’ is who the Kingdom of God is for. ‘THIS’ is who they need to be most open to, rather than get caught up in their own successes or lack of success.

Because, it’s not all about what we do or how well or how badly we’ve done. I think what Jesus is doing is showing us that it’s about who we are. Because preceding our abilities and success (or lack thereof), or our Facebook posts or whatever else, is our identity as children of God; people made in God’s image.

And there is the reality too, that we’re people who fall short from time to time; in the things we do, and the things we leave undone. (The churchy word for this being ‘sin.’)

But more powerful than our sin is the reality that we’re people who’ve been forgiven (by God, at least, which I’ll take). I’m thinking here of the old Anglican BCP liturgy, which gets a bit of a bad rap as being overly dour, and focussed on our unworthiness. But right before the Eucharistic prayer, in each service, there’s the recitation of the ‘comfortable words’ that speak to that reality of our forgiveness: Come unto me all that labour and our heavy laden, and I will refresh you… God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life… This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners… If anyone sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

It’s with that comfort and encouragement that we draw near to God (like the Letter of James puts it); it’s not all on us. Our drawing near to God is our response to God’s mercy already having drawn near to us.

So today we’re reminded that (as important as hard work is,) in a culture that’s increasingly based on comparisons and competition that can numb us to the message of the selflessness of the Cross, Jesus calls us to see and appreciate the people and things that our society judges to be ‘without value.’ And in a sense, the hospitality that Jesus shows toward the little kid is related to the Cross, because hospitality and relationship can be selfless in that it can be a ‘dying to ourselves.’ In expressing hospitality to ‘the other,’ we risk being changed in the encounter. In extending hospitality to ‘the least,’ we open the possibility to change and transformation and growth (both in us, and in them). We might think we’re bringing Jesus to someone by clothing or feeding them, but we actually find that we’re also meeting Jesus in that encounter. And that, I think, is the unfolding of the Kingdom of God, that Jesus is trying to awaken in his disciples.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter