Gospel: Mark 9:30-37 1st Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
2nd Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
When I was on sabbatical, I had the chance to attend some other churches in the area. I commend anyone who has had the bravery to walk into a new church setting recently. I was really nervous. Sometimes I had Sterling with me. Sometimes I was all alone and awkward. I forget how comfortable it is for me to come here, and how uncomfortable is not to know what is going to happen. I did my research to find out what was close to my house, what time their services were, and what their philosophy was. The most important question that I couldn't ever find out from a website was how long the service would be. Would I be able to make it to my next engagement on time? Now I know, when people call asking more details about church services, this is probably what they are asking.
I have to admit, I found myself being judgmental as I did my research. One website had a couple of typographical errors, one being that an “s” to make a plural had an apostrophe, making it possessive. This is a pet peeve of mine. I didn't end up going to that church. Other churches, I would read their pastor's welcome statement or part of a sermon, and I would get so put off by the tone, I would decide that wasn't the place for me. The first 4 churches I went to had female pastors. For some reason that was easier for me. I couldn't picture myself in a setting with an authoritarian male pastor, who in my imagination would try to be our buddy, or like a dad lecturing us on with too many easy answers. That fourth church I went to, we had a confession about who we are unwilling to accept and who we discount, so I had to admit to myself, I was having some hang up about male pastors. I had to confess that maybe God had something to say to me through one of these pastors, and maybe I was closing myself off. The next church I went to was Episcopal, and had a male priest. They ended up having a wonderful community garden that I asked about and also a couple of hospital chaplains that I connected with at coffee hour. Then I realized it wasn't men at all. I prefer gentle people. I like humble pastors. I like pastors who are open and kind. It had been so long since I got to pick my pastor, that I didn't even realize what I was looking for. And then of course it got me reflecting on what kind of pastor I am and how people see me.
I was comparing myself to other people. I was trying to figure out who was the greatest. I was measuring myself and others. And in the end, at the church I felt the most at home, the pastor was away that day and they had a supply preacher. It was the community, it was the warmth, it was their unequivocal welcome of my son, who I could hear shrieking in delight from downstairs at children's time. It was about the welcome. And I felt inspired by the music and the preaching and the prayers. God spoke to me.
I was so nervous about going into all of those churches, even with all the research I did. I made sure they were welcoming of all people and had a formal welcome statement. I went to only mainline churches, so I knew something of what to expect. But being the stranger, I knew I was not just judging, but I was being judged. Would I dress more formally or less formally than the other people? Would I know when to stand up and sit down? Would my kid behave more or less how you'd expect? Would anyone speak to me? Would folks be too eager for me to join their church since I was well dressed, can sing, and have a small, delightful child? I could feel going into these churches, the sizing up, the measuring, both that I was doing and from them toward me. In most places, it certainly wasn't a time of peaceful meditation, but it ended up opening my eyes a little bit about comfort and welcome and I did feel quite close to God in my fear of the unknown.
Most of the time, church isn't about being comforted. Ok, maybe occasionally a little comfort is ok. When you're weary, feeling small, when you're grieving, hurting, lost, alone, then church is for comfort. When you're a kid or someone else everyone discounts, church is for comfort. When you're in transition, ok, we'll offer you some comfort.
But every week we come here and we listen this uncomfortable story. We don't hear about Jesus in the easy chair, sipping margaritas. Whatever else we hear, we hear this story of the night before his death, and about blood poured out and body broken. It is uncomfortable. It makes us squirm—the pain of rejection, the pain of the Disciples misunderstanding, the pain of death, the kind of people Jesus talked to, the judgment from the Disciples, the measuring of greatness in Jesus' time reflected in our own situation, and Jesus' refusal to use usual human measurements to crown the greatest, the self-confident, attractive, strong, wealthy person with the nice house and car, with kids that never get into trouble, like we expect.
These human measurements of greatness are the ones that often take central place in our minds. We deny it, but our actions speak louder than our words. We say we don't care about things like that, but we pretend to have it all together. We wear nice clothes. We want a nice car. We are proud of our nice house. We eat rich food. We can buy almost anything we want. We can go almost anywhere we want, and no one would bat an eye. We are accepted and acceptable.
But Jesus constantly puts the person in the limelight and sets people before us that don't fit our standards for greatness. In fact, he chooses the very most unlikely to be the example and to represent him. Here's a leper, be like a sick person. Here's a child, welcome her. Here's someone of a different faith, welcome him. Here's someone who is an undocumented immigrant who doesn't speak your language, welcome her and you welcome Jesus. It is all about the other person's comfort, not my own.
When I come to my own church and sit where I always do and do the things I always do and see the people I always see, it can easily become about my own comfort. When I went to those other places I could see the comfort of those who already knew where they would sit and what the Gospel response was, etc. And still because I could say to them, “I am a pastor on sabbatical,” I found that I was quite easily accepted and relatively more comfortable than most other visitors. It was my discomfort that probably helped me grow the most, that made me more aware of what people go through when they visit or when they are sick or feel alone or when everyone ignores them.
When we are uncomfortable, it can be easy to fall into the mindset in the Old Testament Reading. We might feel persecuted or personally rejected Everyone is out to get me, like in Jeremiah. God knows what that is like, to have everyone scheming against you, and certainly hears our cries. And we don't live in that space, forever. As I have watched the Syrian refugees, babies in life jackets held above their heads on crowded boats, all thoughts of “poor me” are banished. We are all so blessed. We remember the friends we do have. We remember the privileges and comforts we do have. And we use that experience to drive us to compassion, that is to suffer with, those who are truly being destroyed. When we say to ourselves that it doesn't feel very good to be in this experience or we feel alone or uncomfortable, then we can ask ourselves, who says this about us, what we read in Jeremiah? Who are the recipients of our schemes and our destruction? Who is complaining to God us about us, this morning? What is it that we think we need that we don't have and what have we been willing to do to get it? Who have I looked right past in my effort to put myself first and be the greatest? I'm not really that bad, am I God? Please tell me that I'm good enough!
The Gospel is challenging before it is comforting. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and be killed.” Humans will fail Jesus and kill him. Humans fail one another and kill each other every day. Each of us is failing that little child, that person who is lonely or ill, that mentally ill guy on the street corner, and so forth. And we are failing our planet, our Mother Earth, that God made to sustain life. We are failing future generations, burning up all this oil and putting poison back into the air that the Earth once filtered out and sequestered so that human kind could safely walk this earth. If we think we are innocent of Jesus' blood or of the blood of innocent people, we are wrong. In our quest for greatness, of having what we don't have and have it cheaply, we step all over people we never even see and cause them great suffering.
Jesus' eyes go to the little child and our eyes go there, too. Look at what you're doing. Look at what you're teaching this child has value—a car, rich food, the latest phone, the latest style, that the eyebrows and finger nails have to look perfect. Instead of acting like children and fighting over what doesn't matter and what doesn't last, lets turn our focus and look at each other and see in each other the little child, so full of potential, so innocent and helpless, so pure. Let us look to that child to learn something about being open and curious, about being vulnerable and so often in situations where they don't know what to expect or how to dress or act, about seeing people as people instead of putting everyone into categories.
Ask a child who is the greatest and it is the person who is funny, or who has a dog, or who has a fan to turn on and off. Sometimes I take Sterling with me to visit people who are homebound and he always asks me, “Does she have a fan?” And there is one woman, in particular, he always cheers and boisterously exclaims, “She has a fan! Is it spinning?” He doesn't think she is old and bed bound and sometimes grouchy and abandoned by her family. He knows she has value because we take the time to sit with her and show by our presence that she has value. You should see him when we go to pray with her. He sits right up on her bed and takes her hand. She is someone who could complain and has complained that nobody loves her and everyone is out to get her. But in that moment, she who has endured many evil deeds, and has suffered greatly, is comforted, is part of something, is that one that Jesus puts in the center.
“Submit yourselves therefore to God,” we read in James this morning. Our lives are not about wanting what we don't have and getting stuff for ourselves. It isn't about us. “Submit yourselves therefore to God,” we read in James this morning. I doubt anybody likes this language. It sounds so much like wives submit to your husbands, which we gave up a long time ago. What the scripture is saying is to trust God. It is a lack of trust in God that leads to wanting what we don't have and getting in fights and conflicts and arguing about who is the greatest and stepping all over the little people that God cares about. Trust God. Don't be afraid to ask him your question, like the Disciples were, but just know that God might answer a different question than the one you're answering. If we're asking why all these people are out to get us, God might turn that around to cause us to think about who is asking that question about us. If we are asking why we can't have that new car or jet ski or trip to Disneyland, God might be reminding us all the things we have to be grateful for. If we are asking why me, why am I sick, why am I struggling with finances, God does have compassion and teaches us then to have compassion for others who are worse off.
If we stand around waiting for our due, for people to appreciate us and all our hard work, we may be waiting an awful long time. The Disciples are sure that they deserve something as a reward for their good work. Instead a child gets rewarded, singled out as a focus. Give others the very basic of human respect, a welcome, because that is something we've already received from God, and there is one sure way that God's welcome gets spread among all those whom God loves and that is to welcome them ourselves.
I am interested in the Syrian refugees that will be coming to our area. I was watching the news last night and Lutheran Community Services was mentioned many times because they help place refugees all the time. We are going to get a chance to test this welcome and extend it as far as possible. This may not be popular among many Americans, receiving Syrians in our midst, but here are people who have suffered, some of them children who probably looked very much like this kid Jesus took in his arms. These Syrians have risked life and lost everything, but they will stand here at long last and give thanks to God for saving them and taking a new opportunity not to ask why is everyone out to get me, but thank you God that I am alive and my child is alive. Now how can we give back? May we learn from the Syrians and from the children that God is the greatest who came as a servant and what our taking a role of a servant can do to open our hard hearts and change our focus from what is trivial to what really matters, which is the outpouring of love that brings the flourishing of life.