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On the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest… The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 19, 2021:
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

It would be very easy to come away from these readings with the general lesson to ‘not be a jerk.’ To be nice. And maybe that’s why the great theologian and reformer Martin Luther didn’t have much time for James, because it’s easy to see it as a list of rules (or laws), that were, to him, more a human thing than a reflection of divine grace. We could all use more niceness and kindness these days, but I’m not sure that the Christian experience provides a totally unique revelation of niceness.

So we can probably go deeper, and find something more unique in the — and we forget this a lot of the time — radical and even scandalous Christian idea that our hope is found in the Cross. This is Jesus’s second prediction and description of his fate for his closest companions, and it fails to penetrate to the extent that the resulting conversation among themselves is about who amongst them was the greatest.

There is something definitively, dramatically Christian about the message of the Cross: life out of death; love that goes to the very end; self-sacrifice; following where God leads; radical non-violence; and the self-emptying God who is incarnated as a human being, and dying in a way that is in solidarity with the most oppressed of human beings. In our baptism we talk about being buried with Christ. In the Eucharist we recall the hours immediately before his betrayal, and recall and re-present the very sacrifice of Good Friday. These themes are repeated again and again in our practices, as we seek to model our lives on the crucified God, and not on the disciples arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. And that’s where we can connect, in this deeper way, with the letter of James we heard today: our cravings are at war inside us [James 4:1], and envy and selfish ambition is “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” [James 3:15]. We want something we don’t have, and so we commit murder [James 4:2]. The writer describes that cycle of jealous conflict that motivated the mobs and crowds that were involved in the killing of Jesus. And lest we let ourselves off too easily, think of how in our own way, we want something, and so we might not commit murder in the plain sense, but we make decisions as individuals and as a society that are destructive for others and for our shared planet (and destructive to our mental and spiritual health).

Seen in this way, this letter is not just a recipe for eliminating badness and choosing niceness, but a description of our human predicament of struggling between selfishness and self-giving love. Our faith is not a one-time quick fix for this, nor a guilt trip for failing to live up to our ideals. Though many people often experience it as one of those two. I’d propose that, instead, it’s a lifetime’s journey where we’re given a map and companions out of the cycle of selfish ambition, and toward the love that we see on the Cross. There will be detours, collisions, and controversial forks in the road. But we are given a sense of direction and tools to get there. We celebrate non-repeatable experiences of guidance and divine presence, like in baptism. And there are repeatable ones, like confession and the communion. And we have our scriptures, our community, and our worship to continually challenge us and help us along this sometimes costly and difficult, but ultimately more life-giving pathway.

That we still wrestle with our earthly, warring cravings and are entwined in complex, imperfect if not downright unjust systems need not be seen as a wholesale failure on our part. Our awareness of, and honesty about, these things is the beginning of God working within us, in what, again, is a lifetime’s journey. The mistake would be to follow the apostles, who “they did not understand what [Jesus] was saying and were afraid to ask him.” So we, instead, ask. Ask questions of yourself, of God, and of our world. And remember that you’re never alone in this. And as we walk this sometimes difficult way, we remember words in the collect at the beginning of our service: “Teach us to discern your hand in all your works and to serve you with reverence and thanksgiving.”

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter