Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Sermon for September 23, 2012
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37 1st Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20 Psalm 54 2nd Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a I’m sure you’ve all read the cartoon The Family Circus over the years. When I read the Gospel for today, for some reason, I thought of little Billy from that cartoon, as the one that Jesus placed in the midst of the Disciples. I thought Billy would be curious enough to be standing there close to Jesus, having wandered there on one of his excursions, halfway listening, replacing words he didn’t understand with cute phrases of his own, ready to report to Dolly all he’d heard. There he’d be with his big head and his golden cowlick with his head cocked and his big eyes soaking everything up, not realizing that he was about to become the object lesson—the one the Disciples would be looking at in envy, wondering how they could be more like him. Some of my favorite Family Circus cartoons over the years were Billy’s excursions, where they showed the dotted line where he had gone that day. In one frame, cartoonist Bill Keane could show so much and make our imaginations see Billy jumping over the dog and going round and round the telephone pole, kneeling at the pond, and climbing the trees. With a few dotted lines, we could picture Billy’s curiosity, his playfulness, his physical exertion, his imagination, and his joy. One thing about Billy, he always went unexpected places, because he was a kid. He went places you and I wouldn’t go, but we remember going there because we were all kids once. We might have forgotten hiding under the bed until Billy reminded us. We might have forgotten the feeling of catching a frog or getting all muddy. We might have forgotten how we used to imagine that the grass was hot lava and hop from one rock to the next, but Billy reminds us of the imagination we used to have and the joy we used to have as we explored our world. If you traced the path of the typical adult, it might look very similar from one day to the next. Go to work. Go to the store. Pay the bills. Make dinner. Water the yard. And thinking of the path of the good life for a typical adult it would look like this: get an education, get a good job, get married, buy a house, buy a car, have a few kids, get a bigger house, get a better car, get a boat, get nice clothes, keep up with the Joneses, and so on. But today’s readings don’t have a lot of good things to say about the path that the world values. The path the world values is in question in the first lesson. Jeremiah has shared God’s displeasure with the way the Israelites are handling things and treating the poor. Now those in power are coming after Jeremiah to shut him up, for good. In the second reading, James is also criticizing the normal path of envy and selfishness that the world values, where we want what we don’t need and we hurt other people in order to get what we want and how we get totally focused on our own pleasures. James draws us another path and that is a dotted line to God and God coming down a path, a dotted line to us. So we might be asking what a path to God might look like. What does the path of a disciple look like? How do we get there from here? What does success look like for a follower of Jesus? How do you know you are a disciple? Jesus draws a dotted line to the cross. That can’t be right! Nobody even wants to ask him what the heck he means. All our dotted lines are running away from the cross. Now Jesus gives them another example, and puts Billy in their midst. This another way the path of a disciple might look. When we think of children, today, we have a very different view of how they were regarded in Jesus’ time. Today they are lavished with attention, given I-phones and fancy clothes, treated to ice-cream, and assured of having their own bedroom. I’m not sure they are valued today more than they were in Jesus’ time, but they are valued differently. Today, it seems we pseudo-value them. Our nation’s farm bill gives them food that isn’t good for them, but doesn’t make nutritious food available for needy families. Families lavish children with gifts, but don’t want to pay taxes to fund the greatest gift of all—an education. In Jesus’ time, they did value them less than we do—they were a liability, a mouth to be fed, a dowry to be paid, land to be divided, an expense. So when Jesus puts Billy in their midst, it is the Billy who has gotten dirty and made mischief and interrupts and is not very cute at all. In fact, maybe it was Dolly in their midst, even more worthless—a girl, an expense, a nobody. And the disciples are supposed to look up to her. She’s on the path that you’re looking for, boys. I have to think that children today and children of Jesus’ times had many similar qualities, even though we value them differently. This is what I think Jesus was pointing out. Children are vulnerable and trusting. This was a quality that Jesus also had. Of course he came as a child, a baby in the manger and had to rely on others to take care of him. This isn’t just true of children, but true at various levels all throughout our lives and again when we are older. Billy’s path takes him to the neighbor’s yard, through the woods, over a stream, past a barking dog. There are dangers in his path. Yet he moves forward on that path with confidence, trusting that he will be ok and finding his way back to his family by the end. We, like children, are vulnerable. We may be able to do a lot ourselves, but we always rely on others to help us at some level. Someone picks up our garbage. Someone puts gas in our car. Someone writes our social security check. Someone cleans our teeth. We need other people to get by. This is good practice for learning to trust others, or knowing who to trust and who to stay away from. It is good practice for learning to turn things over to God. It is good practice even when we get hurt by those we trust, because we learn to forgive just as God forgives us. The next thing about children is that they find joy in the simple things. We think it is the right house or car or vacation or gadget that will make us happy. But children remind us of what really brings us joy—it is the simple things. Billy plays with a stick. He hops on one foot. He watches a bug. The other day Nick, Sterling, and I went blackberry picking. I gave the baby his toys in his stroller to occupy him and that lasted a little while. Next thing you know he’s throwing his toys overboard and complaining and I am trying to get him interested in his rattles and bright green sippy cup, and toy keys. Then I see him reaching for a long piece of grass. So I gave that to him and he lasted 10 more minutes. The natural world has so much to offer us. There is so much beauty in a piece of grass or a flower or a cloud or tree. Just sitting there watching the wind blow through the bushes and listening to the birds is so relaxing. There isn’t anything to do but to let your heart burst with thanksgiving at being a witness to this beautiful world we live in. I’ve seen so many times, as we age, we have to let go of all those things we thought were important and downsize to a smaller apartment, assisted living, or whatever the new living situation is going to be. Again and again, the people I’ve known don’t miss any of that stuff they had. They are taking joy in each day, in the people they meet, in the memories they have, and in their families. We can learn from children how to be old, how to find joy in the simple things. One more thing I think we can learn from children and from older people is how to be curious and have an imagination. Kids and old people are the ones who ask the inappropriate questions. They are soaking up information. They are interested. They tell tall tales, stories with adventure and embellished details. It isn’t lying. It is imagination. It is something that God wants us to have, because it is something that God has. Remember God, creatively creating the heavens and the earth? Remember God making humankind in God’s image? We are like God in that we are creative. Creativity helps us be better problem-solvers. It helps us see the world that God wants to create, where people are fed and share things with each other, where we aren’t in competition with each other but we work together to get things done, where our welcome encompasses all that God has made, and where having a child as your role-model, or having a slave as your role-model is a normal thing because we are on God’s path, not the world’s path. The world’s path leads to despair and fragmentation. God’s path, like Billy’s, leads back to family, to love, to connection, to hope.