Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 23 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
18th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 September, 10:30am
Prov 31:10-31; Ps 1; Jas 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mk 9:30-37

“They did not know what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him.”

I mentioned last week that we’ve come to a turning point in Mark’s gospel; and the next several weeks of readings will be about the disciples trying to cope with the things Jesus is beginning to tell them, things they don’t want to hear, things that confuse and frighten them. They are afraid to ask him what he means in part, probably, because they don’t want to look foolish, but also in large part because they suspect that any clarification is going to be even worse news. Like most of us, they do not deal well with fear and confusion. They fall into a very familiar, very human pattern—they redirect their bad feelings into competition with each other, into a quest for reassurance that, at least, they have a shot at pre-eminence in the Kingdom; a chance, precisely, to be, not just valued, but better, more valued, than the others.

It’s pretty much spelled out in the reading from James today, how this broken human impulse operates. The way that we somehow find ourselves compelled to structure our desires around competition. We want what other people have. We want it because they have it. We want what we want, much of the time, precisely because getting it involves taking it from someone else. Not the thing in itself, but the victory over someone else which is found in the getting. It works really well as a way of creating and directing desire, this kind of unspoken competition. It’s pretty much how consumer society operates. The creation of false desire through marketing is based almost wholly on, “This person has something. Therefore, you want it. If you have it, you will be happy. Even better, if you have it, and they don’t, you are the winner.”

It’s not that desire as such is bad. It is not wrong to want love. It is not wrong to want music and warmth and good food and companionship, beauty and safety and pleasure. God has put us in this rich creation and made us creatures of desire, and that is a huge part of how we grow towards God, in whom all loves are encompassed. It is when desire turns or is turned into competition, into violence, into the need to divide ourselves into the winners and the losers and fight to be on the winning side, that we have problems. That we are problems. It is part of our human trouble that this turn is so very easy, so nearly automatic.

There are huge bodies of theory out there about why that turn is so easy for us, why we seem always to make that turn into fighting for what others have, into trying to accumulate goods or love so that we can always be sure of having more than the next person. But I think a great deal of it is rooted in fear. The fear that if we don’t have constantly more and more, we won’t have anything. The fear, ultimately, of being erased altogether. Of loss, of failure, of death. Meanwhile, to the consternation of the disciples, Jesus is walking straight into that fear, quite deliberately and consciously. He is turning honour culture on its head and freely taking, and asking them to take, the role of a servant to the world’s ills. He is going with full awareness towards betrayal, loss, abandonment, and death. He is telling them that only by going right into the heart of all this can new life be born. It was nonsense then, and it is nonsense now. It is the nonsense to which we have pledged our lives. It is no wonder the disciples don’t want to ask him for further details.

And then Jesus calls a child to him. This scene has been terribly sentimentalized, of course; as childhood is sentimentalized. We’ve all seen the pictures of a nice, clean, usually blonde, child, who seems to have popped up out of nowhere, smiling on Jesus’s lap. We think of children’s lives as simple We think of children as happy. But Jesus isn’t talking about happiness or innocence. Children were not, we need to remember, highly regarded in his time. Children were very low in status, inclined to perish, vulnerable, often abused. And a child who was running around in the vicinity of Jesus was almost certainly a child of poverty, one of the occupied people of the Galilee.

The child is one of the disposable people, the unnamed throwaway people, like the casualties of violence and poverty through the centuries. And this, Jesus says, is the one who represents him, the one who is, for us, the presence of God.

So the question is whether we will embrace the small vulnerable frightened ones, the ones that the world has declared to be unnecessary, unimportant. Children can’t give you very much back, really. They have little to give but the bare fact of their existence, their frail, human existence. Can we do this, can we open our arms to those who have nothing to offer us but their need and their fear? And, perhaps even more challenging, can we let ourselves be received in the same way, as people who have nothing to offer but what we lack?

As adults, we don’t want to admit that we’re weak or confused or afraid. We don’t want to admit to frailty and sickness and mortality, to failure. We live in our fears, fears of inadequacy, fears of rejection and the loss of love, fears of the loss of our very selves; and because we are afraid of these things we don’t want to talk to anyone who is too obviously weak or sick or lost. We are afraid to ask them. Because we don’t want to be reminded of our own constant failures, and we don’t want to be reminded that the God who came among us had to be rejected by the world, had to be killed flesh before he could rise. We don’t want to admit how helpless we are in our own lives.

But that is what we are. And so is our God — by his own will breakable, killable, killed. And so, perhaps, sometimes, we enter the Kingdom, frightened and uncertain, confused, vulnerable. It is very Marcan, this; we can’t forget that fear not only runs through Mark’s Gospel but is its very last note, even after the resurrection; in the first chill of the morning, in a world strangely changed, the women at first told no one; for they were afraid. There are times when that is how salvation feels, like confusion, a break in the normal course of your life that you don’t yet understand. It’s like being alone and afraid on a hillside in the cold, unsure what to do next, knowing only that things have to be different now.

We are asked, and it is a terrible demand really, to be the people who live within the fear, who do not deny it or try to make it go away through the brief defeat of someone else, the brief winning of a piece of material good or status or affection. Because we believe that on the other side of death is that amazing mystery of resurrection, we are called in the meantime to live in the gap and to be gentle. To welcome and care for the throwaway people—and more than that, to acknowledge the fundamental kinship, the solidarity, between us, and to let this shape our actions. And there are no special gold stars, we aren’t specially rewarded by God for being better or braver or smarter or even more compassionate. We fear and we fail and we go on trying, and we are only loved. And being loved, we cannot be erased. Through all uncertainty and doubt, even when we ourselves hardly believe it, we are preserved in God’s being and God’s love.

And with that knowledge we can strive, through prayer and thought and careful work, to let go of the fear, to let go of the desires that are based on fear, the cravings that we create to protect us from the void. It is a hard interior labour, for the fear runs deep, and the broken desires are very difficult to sift out from those that lead to love and life. But we try. In the chilly morning of resurrection, afraid to speak or move, we can move and speak nonetheless. We can love and try to do good, and try to let the fear go, and follow through the suffering and danger into our true desire and our true fulfillment.