Seeking God in Understanding and Service

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20

Psalm: Psalm 54

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37

“Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Amen.

Have you ever been in a class or a lecture, and the teacher says, "Any questions?" Often when the professor asks, "Any questions?" there is deafening silence. Of course, that does not mean there are not questions. Many times the lack of questions is due to fear. We are afraid we are supposed to know ... everyone else probably knows ... if I ask I will look stupid ... maybe the teacher or my peers will make fun of me. The cost of this fear, the willingness to be vulnerable, is understanding. If we don't ask the question, how will we gain new knowledge? What if others have the same question? What if no one else has ever asked our question, and we remain silent? Revelation may be lost for all.

A small boy sat with his mother in church, listening to a sermon entitled, "What is a Christian?" The preacher punctuated his point at key intervals by asking, "What is a Christian?" Each time he pounded his fist on the pulpit for emphasis. At one point the boy whispered to his mother, "Momma, do you know? Do you know what a Christian is?" Concerned about disturbing others, inappropriate behavior, and the embarrassment of his disruption, the mother replied, "Yes, dear, I know, now try to sit still and listen." As the minister was wrapping up the sermon, once again he thundered, "What is a Christian?!" and pounded especially hard on the pulpit. At that point the boy could no longer contain himself, jumped up and cried, "Tell him, momma, tell him!"

Jesus is teaching his disciples, then and now, as we seek understanding. But today’s lesson offers some pretty deep, complex, confusing information. "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." Though this is the second prediction of Christ’s passion in Mark, it is still quite a bomb to drop on the disciples. It is still hard for us to hear. Jesus does not ask, “Any questions?” And the disciples do not risk question or comment. Perhaps Jesus’ earlier rebuke of Peter still stings a bit. The disciples do not understand what Jesus is saying, yet are afraid to ask for explanation. An opportunity is lost. An opportunity to grow in the knowledge and love of God is wasted. An opportunity to more fully participate in this revelation is passed up, due to hangups over fear, embarrassment, and losing face among their peers. The first lesson is to embrace the mysteries, love the questions, risk exposing our limitations, and seek to understand.

Jesus and the disciples arrive at Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, and enter a house. Jesus must have noticed some hubub along the journey, and asks them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" I imagine God asks this question often of humanity. In this divided, polarized world, we should ask this question of ourselves. "What are we arguing about along the way?" Are not most of our squabbles trivial compared to God's call and purpose for us? Our answer to this question will often be the same as the disciples' response ... shamed silence.

The disciples never admit the topic of debate. They don’t have to. Jesus knows the twelve are arguing about who among them is the greatest. Despite Jesus’ teachings of the kingdom of God, they still do not understand, and seek worldly status, position, and power for themselves. Conflicts and disputes come from cravings and desires at war within and among us. We have wrong methods and intentions and motivations for what we seek. We rarely understand the power given to each of us to do good, to follow God’s will, so to compensate we seek self-serving power and influence, as if it will satisfy, or last. James points us in the right direction. “Submit yourselves therefore to God ... Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” Jesus states more clearly, to apply in our daily lives, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.”

Jesus helps us understand the power of serving in the example of a child. A child was handy when Jesus needed one to illustrate. Perhaps children were all around, but they were not in the inner circle. Perhaps these children would grow up one day and become productive members of society, but at the time, as children, they were on the outside, powerless, even a burden. They might even be a liability if they did something to dishonor the family. Children were often last in line. In the family pecking order, there was the first born, and everyone else. Children had not yet become anything, and had little value.

Jesus turns the social order upside down. "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." In God’s eyes, children are also created in God’s image, and contain the full capacity for understanding and power, and participation in the kingdom. Some say children are the future of the church. Children are full participants in the church now!

Jesus speaks about those in society, no matter their age, who are last in line, and of their great value to God. Welcoming means including even the lowest at communal meals and gatherings. Jesus asks His disciples to extend their heart and hand to those in society who often only feel the back of a hand and the hardness of human hearts. Welcoming is full inclusion. To be last of all means identifying with those considered last. To be a servant means offering one's self to those who are often servants ... the seldom served. And what better example of servant power is there than the Incarnation? Full of power and might, God reached out to us in the Incarnation as a servant. God knelt down to Creation and entered into it, in the flesh, to reconcile and redeem it ... to reconcile and redeem us. In the face of rejection, temptation, persecution, suffering, and even death, Jesus remained faithful to this purpose to the end ... to a new beginning.

Today’s gospel is about power and understanding. Sometimes we feel we have one and not the other. Sometimes we have neither. On rare occasions, we happen upon both, and it is in these times and spaces we approach God’s purpose for us. Through God, we have the capacity for understanding and power.

Perhaps in serving children, we might also learn from them, and improve our capacity for divine understanding and power. Children have a powerful understanding of the world around them. Consider a broken escalator. As adults, we worry about repairs, emergency exits, and liability ... we post “out of order” warning signs. A child sees a broken escalator and simply imagines it has become stairs. Children are not bogged down with adult hangups of difference and exclusion. A little white girl, on her first day of first grade, went to a newly integrated school in the height of the segregation storm. Her anxious mother met her at the door to inquire, "How did everything go, Honey?" She replied, "Oh Mother! You know what? A little black girl sat next to me!" In fear and trepidation, burdened by all the baggage of racism, division, and hate, the mother expected drama, but remained calm and asked, "And what happened?" The little girl replied "We were both so scared that we held hands all day."

Child-like faith is allowed to ask questions ... is allowed to have faith without questions ... is allowed to leave the questions behind and not trouble the mind. Perhaps in serving children, we might heed the lessons we teach in kindergarten and re-learn them for ourselves. "Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Say you are sorry when you hurt someone. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic. Hold hands and stick together. Be aware of the wonder."

We are called to serve children and all the least among us, so that we all might become One in Christ. As one, we might truly understand the value of others, and ourselves, as children of God. In denying our desire for individual power, we might discover God’s trans formative power to reconcile the world. We are challenged to seek the understanding and power that comes from God, and apply it, offer it to others, and serve. Amen.

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