A sermon for Sunday, September 19th, 2021. Readings include Psalm 54 and Mark 9:30-37
“They argued with one another who was the greatest.”
Who is the greatest? Does the Episcopal Church preach greater truth than the Baptists? Are the Cleveland Browns greater than the Houston Texans? Does God love America more than Afghanistan, or China? Would our democracy indeed elect the Unnameable God, or the Christ, to preside over even the kingdom of heaven?
When Jesus asked his disciples what they had been discussing, they didn’t like to answer, because they knew that it would only lead to more awkward questions. They were afraid to ask him what he meant about going to Jerusalem and dying there, and the ultimate victory of life over death, of love over power. And so he took a child, not his, and set it in the midst of them, and bid them welcome it, accommodate it, serve it.
Sometimes, we feel awkward baring our questions and doubts, arguments and emotions before God. We pretend that we can hide them, but Jesus knew what his disciples were debating, and he answered them anyway. If we were raised not to answer back to our parents, nor to show anger to our elders, we might not dare to face God with our grief and our frustration and our pain. Yet the one who formed us knows us, inside and out, as it says in the Psalms (see Psalm 139).
Sometimes, when people find it difficult to know how to pray difficult and dangerous emotions, I send them to the Psalms; “every emotion is covered by them,” I tell them, “and you can borrow the words of our spiritual ancestors – the words of the Bible, authorized for use in conversation with God – to cover your own experience.”
The flipside of that is that I am not always comfortable praying the Psalms when they express emotions that I do not want to experience, or admit to.
Take today’s reading from Psalm 54. In the version offered by our Book of Common Prayer, verse seven invites God, orders God, to render evil against my enemies. It is not my understanding that God creates or commits evil, even at my most earnest request.
I consulted a few translations and commentaries. Some have the same squeamish response as I do, and translate the evil as coming from my enemies: “[God] will repay my enemies for their evil” (NRSV). Another introduces some divinely-appointed karma: “Let evil recoil on those who slander me” (NIV). Yet another calls the evil that is called down, “pay back”.[i]
Perhaps it is ok for me to pray after all, then, since payback, or vengeance, is the remit of God, and not of me; perhaps offering my secret impulses of anger and resentment back to God for divine discernment and judgement, giving them to God to sort out, is a good call. And if someone else happens to be praying the same verse against me, then it is in God’s hands.
Because I am no greater than my enemy; I am no more beloved of God than my neighbour; I am created no closer to the image of God than the face that I love the least.
The disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant, and they were afraid to let on to him what they had been arguing about, and after all this time in his company, how could they not trust him yet with their doubts and their discomfort and their souls?
So he took a child, and placed it among them, and bid them welcome it.
Children are always asking questions. They will ask Jesus why, and they will ask follow-up questions, and they will not be satisfied until he has laid out for them the whole plan of heaven, to redeem and restore the world, the creation, our humanity to what God intended for us when God looked upon us and called us good.
And the child will ask us why we are arguing over who is the greatest, and what greatness means, when God is in all and over all, and God’s love is made manifest in the childhood, the humanity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And when we are afraid to ask God the hard questions, or afraid to share with Jesus the doubts and dangerous emotions of our hearts, he welcomes us like little children, asking out of our ignorance and innocence, and he answers us with his embrace.
For God does not render evil, but renders evil moot, and answers even death with the irrepressible life of the gospel.
If we are, in fact, no greater than our enemies; no more beloved of God than our neighbours; if we are created no more closely upon the image of God than those whom we personally would like to love the least; if all of that is true, then neither are you any less, in the sight of God, than those who are greatest in the eyes of the world. And the least of us is welcomed, as God’s own child, into the heart of Christ’s embrace.
[i] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A translation with commentary, Volume 3, The Writings (NY: W.W. Norton, 2019), 138