Sunday, September 23, 2018
Prayer of the Day
O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Jeremiah 11:18-20 The prophet led like a lamb to slaughter
James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a The wisdom from above
Mark 9:30-37 Prediction of the passion
Title: Power That Brings the Passion
For editors who like to break up the books of the Bible into digestible stories, there is a tendency to give these subdivisions titles to help the reader know what in the following passage should get our attention. The second chapter of Luke gets the title The Birth of Jesus. The second chapter of John is titled The Wedding at Cana. Matthew chapter 5 through 7 is titled Sermon on the Mount. Last week’s reading from the 8th Chapter of Mark could be titled Peter’s Confession or Jesus Teaches About Discipleship. Today’s reading from the later part of Mark chapter 9 could be titled Jesus Speaks of His Passion. But that title might mislead us. Might cause us to miss the point of what is at the core of Jesus’ teaching, what has inflamed the disciples dispute, and the profound meaning of the presence of that little child.
Because more important than Jesus talking about events that will be coming soon and helping the disciples prepare for what is in their near future, Jesus is getting at the very core of humanity’s past, present, and future, what is deep in the rotten foundation of humanity’s rebellion against God. He is speaking of why he will suffer and the reason we need redemption. He is warning of what prevents our living in the peace and unity that God desires for us. In a word, he is speaking of POWER.
Political and religious power will soon have this man who is innocent, merciful and compassionate; condemned, suffering, and dying on a cross. The disciples, who here are trying to outdo each other as they jockey for power and position, will soon be trying to outrun each other as they abandon Jesus when he is arrested. And Jesus, with paradox and the help of child, is trying to teach us all that power isn’t what we think it is. Yes, power is all around this short passage from the gospel.
It’s there in Jeremiah’s words as well in the first reading. Poor Jeremiah, the epitome of the powerless prophet. He is the one who time and time again regrets ever having accepted the call from God, as he is victimized and persecuted by kings and mocked and rejected by prophets who have figured out that it is better to speak pleasantries to those in power than to speak truth to power. Jeremiah knows that he is powerless, that he is like a gentle lamb being led to the slaughter. But unlike Jesus, he does not want to accept this fate at the hands of the powerful. He calls on God to show almighty power and rain down retribution on Jeremiah’s enemies.
James also has something to contribute to this Power conversation as he continues his directives to the early church, instructing members how to live as disciples of Christ and united members of the community of faith that gathers in Jesus’ name. He cautions us about bitter envy and selfish ambition. Is not power at the center of these? Our desire and drive for it?
And all you have to do is watch the news of today to see that the desire and drive for power continues to plague and divide where there could be healthy community. Clutching onto Power stales and stifles where there could be progress that benefits many. Self-serving Power robs and hoards where there could be abundance for all.
While some want to say that the abuse scandals that continue to rock the church are centered on sex, wisdom tells us that it is about power. Power is what drives the initial acts as well as the bureaucratic cover up that too often follows.
Power is at the heart of our struggles with racism. Whether it be abuse of power from law enforcement or mass incarceration and wrongful convictions. Whether it be economic and educational inequality or voter suppression.
Power is at the heart of our struggles with sexism as well. #metoo is not about frustrated lovers and lonely people. It is about power and its intoxicating force that wrongly convinces one that he can take what every he wants.
As a nation, our struggle with power prevents us from moving forward on immigration reform. Prevents us from seeking true justice when faced with a challenge like the current controversy over the Kavanagh nomination. Prevents us from making democracy work as a means of government that is truly for, with, and by the people.
Jesus knew what power is and does. And soon he would feel its deadly force. But at no time will he, like Jeremiah, call down the power of God to retaliate or overcome the powers that put him to death. The wisdom of God in Christ knows the emptiness of human power that seeks to dominate with its heart of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Jesus teaches his disciples of every age to look not at the ones who seem to have all the power, but instead, look to the ones who have no power. For in his culture, that is the child that he places in their midst. He teaches not to jockey for position and prestige, but to strive to be the servant who appears to have no power.
This teaching does not mean that we are not called to speak truth to power. However, we are not to strive to bring down power just so that we might replace it with our own version. As one smart Viking said: “Power is dangerous. It corrupts the best and attracts the worst.”
Jesus does not lead us to replace humanity’s damaged institutions and foolish ways. For we are just as damaged and foolish. Instead he comes to invert, to turn upside down, to teach us a new way of being, of seeing, of relating, of thinking, of living.
Do you want to be first? Don’t run for president, don’t insist on your own way, don’t cater to those who will only pump up your ego. Be first, by being last, Jesus teaches us; by serving, by humbling oneself, by lifting up the other, by listening not just to reply but listening to understand the other. In all this, we release any attempts at claiming power.
And most importantly, Jesus teaches that if we want to see God, don’t look to the human powers that be, look to the one who has no power, the one who is forgotten, the one who is silenced, the one who is neglected, the one who is in need. There is God’s presence, there is the power, there is the one to be served.
It’s another example of this God who surprises. Who comes to us, not in a show of power, but in that still small voice, int the quiet, in the water, the word, the wine and the bread. Comes to us in the hug of a friend, the face of a stranger, the innocence of a child. There is the power that brings us life, true life. Surrender yourself to this power, and live.
The Rev. Mark Erson,