Monday, September 14, 2015

Who’s the Greatest – 20 September 2015 – Lectionary 25/ Proper 20

We know it is not a contest in this life to be the greatest in the terms set by the world’s values. Yet, most of us cannot live as if we give no thought to worldly successes: status, wealth, power, self-aggrandisement of all sorts. We live torn by the tension between our desires and God’s desire for us.

Jesus knows this. It is one of the primary troubles of life against which stands his gospel of resting in the arms of the one who loves us, as did the little child.

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus has heard the disciples’ inability to understand his teaching about the death of the Son-of-Man, and then he hears them arguing about who will be the greatest. He responds by setting the least powerful person, a child, in their midst in order to teach them again about welcoming the one who has no standing, no voice, no greatness.

[Before you] write your own sermon. . . check the statistics on child poverty, child violence and child hunger in this country. . . . Jesus isn't talking about economic and political policy because he probably didn't envision the day when his followers would have economic and political power. But we do. Welcoming the child is not just about what we do in church school. . . it's about what we do with our votes, our taxes, our contributions, our dismay. . . .

[T]he child here is a sign and surrogate for all those people who need welcome—for the strangers and sojourners of every type and every race. . .  Jesus' reaching out is a reminder, warning, promise to the church that we reach out, too.

. . . The focus is on the child and on the one who sent the child.– David Bartlett

Jeremiah 11:18-20

The prophet here utters a prayer for release from the scheming of his enemies, acknowledging that it was the Lord who showed the prophet the problem, revealing the evil. The one who is menaced asks that the schemers receive their just due.

How we are to connect this prayer with the words of gracious welcome spoken by Jesus to the little child in the Gospel story has to do with the perspective from which we are to “see” Jesus’ point. Here in Jeremiah is the cry of the one who is voiceless, powerless, without hope for “greatness.” We hear the cry of the little child (i.e., the poor and destitute, the refugee and migrant, the families caught in war, those who have no employment, those who have no hope).  The prayer begs for justice to come from God when there is no human advocate.

Jeremiah speaks for all those who need welcome. Jesus commands the people to see those who are in need.

James 3:13 – 4:3,7-8a

As with all Epistle readings, James gives us a vision of the church’s rightful response to what Jesus has set before us and what Jeremiah causes us to notice. James says we can either see with earthly or heavenly wisdom. Which will we choose?

[H]ere again James is writing Christian wisdom literature. The distinction he makes is between those who trust in the guidance of heavenly wisdom and those who trust in human wisdom. Heavenly wisdom is especially noteworthy for the way it brings peace among believers. Earthly “wisdom” looks a good deal like envy and covetousness, and wherever it appears, disorder follows.

. . . God will honor God's friends and humble those who proudly cling to the world and the ways of the world. – David Bartlett

Putting it all together, the gospel message for this day is summed up in narrative form by John Barden in this way, taking the perspective of the little child in Mark:

I imagined hearing the grown man, no longer a child, tell these people, children and young teens and adults, what it was like the day Jesus came to his house. He had been quiet, he told them, just as his parents instructed him, trying to stay out of the way of these weary travelers. But he had been curious to see the man everybody was talking about. He had heard that this Jesus was a great leader. He had heard that people were calling him Messiah. He had already learned from the rabbi that the Messiah was the anointed one of God who would lead the people of Israel in a great rebellion against the Romans. The Messiah would gather armies and they would run the Romans out of the holy land. Then the Messiah would establish once again the house of David on the throne, and Israel would be a great and mighty nation.

. . . So he crept into the room [to] see and hear what was going on without being noticed. But then a hush fell over the strangers and this Messiah, this great leader of them all, started saying something about the first being last and being the servant of all. . . . Is this the way to train your generals for a battle. . .?

Then the Messiah's eyes saw him. . . and grabbed him by the shoulder. At first he was afraid; would the Messiah yell at him for overhearing their discussion?. . . But instead, Jesus embraced him, held him close. He felt safe and important. . . . And he told others about it. – John H. Barden

David Bartlett, an ordained American Baptist minister, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.

John H. Barden, a Presbyterian pastor, received the Angell Award in 2005 from the Presbyterian Writers’ Guild for his book of original folktales, ‘Postle Jack Tales (KiwE Publishing, 2004).

Homily Service 39, no. 10 (2006): 35-44.

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