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Fr. John Allison

Proper 20B

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

Mark 9:30-37

September 19, 2021

Christ Church, Hudson

“But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”  These words from our Gospel reading today have been with me this week and pointed me to consider, what am I afraid to ask God? What is the truth that Jesus reveals in my own life that either I can’t quite fathom or that seems so hard that I just throw up my hands and say, I don’t understand, and go blindly on my own way.  

Much like our reading from last week Jesus reveals to the disciples a bit more about who he is and how his identity as messiah will be lived out and, just as importantly, what it means for how his disciples are to live their lives—what it means for how we are to live our lives. Last week, Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Today the story continues with Jesus on the road with his disciples and he again tells them how he will be betrayed and killed and then rise again after three days. But, as before, this is not what any of them are expecting. It’s not what they want to hear. Their version of the messiah is of a great king who will lead Israel against Rome and restore its people to their rightful place as a free people.  With this in mind, I can understand why the disciples are confused. I can understand their shock, their unwillingness to really hear what Jesus is saying. Indeed, it seems that no sooner than he reveals these details of his fate that the disciples begin to argue about which of them is the greatest, which some commentators see as the disciples jockeying for position as to who will assume the role of leader if what Jesus tells them does indeed come true. Of course, Jesus knows all this and in their silence to his question as to what they had been arguing about we can hear the shame they feel. And it’s here that Jesus further clarifies for them what it means to be his disciple, what today is often known as servant leadership. The first must be last and servant of all. That was a hard lesson then as it is today, for us, living in what is the most powerful and richest country in the history of the world; it’s every bit as difficult to understand—perhaps more so. Our world, just as that of Jesus, rewards strength and wealth. To get ahead, to have power, to succeed in life, is a matter of being stronger or smarter than everyone else and those are attitudes that are looked up favorably and cultivated in our society. But that is not Jesus’ way; that’s not the way of the Cross. 

In our letter from James he echoes this theme as he asks, who is wise among you? And then he contrasts two types of wisdom: that which grows from gentleness of spirit and that which grows from envy and selfish ambition, what we might today call street smarts or being savvy to the ways of the world.  Of course, none of us wants to admit to envy or to selfish ambition but, here’s the thing; we live in a world where such attitudes are normalized. It’s okay to want to get ahead, to be successful, to get into the best schools or have a big house or expensive car or any other obvious markers of success. The question is, at what cost? At what cost to us personally but also at what cost to our sisters and brothers with whom we inhabit the earth and who may not have the same advantages as us? What does it look like to live a “successful” life and at the same embrace the wisdom from above that is peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy? That’s a high ideal and as much as I might like to think I strive toward such qualities, I know I miss the mark more often than not. These are the times Jesus calls me to action and I throw up my hands and say, I don’t understand and turn the other way. The times when I’m willfully ignorant. 

When Jesus takes the little child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” he was making a profound statement of radical welcome and inclusion. In his day, children had no social standing whatsoever. They had no power and were essentially non-persons. At best they were the possession of the father of the household. In elevating the lowly child Jesus is pointing to a new order that privileges the least among us, and it was as radical then as it is now.  It’s a call that is as difficult for us now, as it was then for the disciples. No matter how many times I hear that call, hear Jesus say the first must be last and servant of all, that we must pick up our cross and follow him, no matter how fervently I want to follow and the good intentions with which I might start, I inevitably find myself somewhere down the road bickering about who is the greatest or some other such matter that is, as James says, born of cravings that are at war within me. 

There is an old theological term that we don’t hear much anymore but that I find it helpful in understanding those conflicting desires that are often at war within. Compunction refers to muddled feeling that is the joy we feel in our desire to do what pleases God, to love as God loves, but at the same time a feeling of mournful sadness in knowing that we cannot do it perfectly in this life, that inevitably we miss the mark, which is the more literal translation for the Greek word for sin. The beauty of this word, compunction, is that in this dual acknowledgment of joy and sadness there is also the implication of forgiveness.  I, we, do miss the mark—often if I speak for myself. What’s important beyond that acknowledgment is that when we do so we turn back to Christ, we follow Christ instead of going off blindly on our own way. That is a choice that is before each and every one of us every day. 

There are many times when I don’t understand and like the disciples don’t ask questions, don’t pray for the wisdom that comes from above—or when I do pray it’s for what I want with little regard for how it aligns with God’s will to love. Sometimes it’s because I fear the answer will not be what I want to hear or that I fear I can’t meet the task. What I’m reminded, however, is that Christ is there waiting for me, that Christ embodies the wisdom borne of gentleness and peace that we are called to emulate and that fear has no power of us. As James says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.” Colorful language, to be sure, but I think it portrays pretty clearly what goes on in our hearts. It’s essentially the covenant we make with God at baptism and that we affirm every time we come to this table. May we all be bold and fearless in facing those hard questions that linger in our hearts and that we would rather not answer. May we seek to live into the wisdom that comes from above and turn back to God’s love when we stray. Amen.