These days there are few things we need more than 'gentleness' and 'wisdom'.
Gentleness Born of Wisdom
St. Andrew's Church
September 23, 2012
James 3.13—4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37
I'm going to talk about Mark's story, but I want to frame it, on both sides, with that lovely and profound verse from the Letter of James that goes like this: “Show by your good life, that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”
That's worth pondering for a good long time.
“Show by your good life, that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” How good is that. In your spare time this week just dwell on that—gentleness born of wisdom....
So, to Mark—Jesus and his followers are traveling through Galilee and he is teaching them difficult things about how the Son of Man must be betrayed and killed and rise again. This is hard teaching since the disciples cannot reconcile it with who they believe Jesus is. It was Peter—bless his heart—who declared the Jesus was 'the Messiah'. But as soon as Jesus started talking about suffering, Mark rebuked him and Jesus told him to 'get behind me, Satan' because Peter was thinking, not of divine things, but of human things.
It's no easier on the road through Galilee. The 'Messiah', to first century Jews, was a figure they awaited who would restore the Kingdom of David. The 'Messiah' would triumph, not suffer and certainly not die. It turned their expectations inside out and upside down. It didn't 'compute'. They not only 'didn't understand', they 'couldn't understand'.
When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus' 'home base' in Mark's gospel, he asks them what they were arguing about on the road. They are shamed to silence because they were discussing who among them would be greatest in Jesus' Kingdom, who would stand closest to the Throne of David....
So Jesus ups the ante on his difficult teaching. He tells them that “whoever wants to be first must to last of all and servant of all”.
This is utter nonsense, not only to Jesus' friends but to us as well. It goes against every value and concept of our culture and society. It turns 'success' and 'competition' and 'making it' upside down and inside out. Call the shrink, Jesus has gone over the edge!
Go tell the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles that 'to be first you must be last'! Go tell the President and Gov. Romney that 'to be first you must be last'! Everything we're taught from the first thing we're taught until the last is the polar opposite of Jesus' teaching. Who on earth wants to be a servant? All of us want to be the one 'served'. We want to win. We want to be '#1'. We want to rise to the top and be the boss and succeed and be the captain of our own ship....
What is he thinking? 'Servant of all'--well, I never....
Then he embraces a child.
First of all, I don't think we can in any way understand what a radical act that was! We would have to forget all our romanticism of 'childhood', all our understanding and ideas about 'children', all our contemporary, Western, first-world concepts about the young in our midst. I don't think we can.
But let's try. In the 1st Century world of the Roman Empire and of Israel, it's not the Victorian ideal that children would be 'seen but not heard'. Oh, no, it goes layers deeper than that. Children would not be seen or heard or even acknowledged as human beings until the boys reach puberty and the girls came of the age to bear children. They were 'property', livestock not yet valuable. Children in Israel in Jesus' time would have been invisible. That a child would have been anywhere near a Teacher and his Disciples would have been unthinkable. The children would have been with the women—more property—until they were of an age to reproduce and then they would join the adults.
I'm asking a lot to ask you to imagine how shocking and upside/down-inside/out Jesus embracing a child would have been. But I ask you to and I ask you to realize how radical and transforming it was that he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me....”
What Jesus is telling the 12 and, I believe, you and me, is this: our calling as 'last of all and servant of all' is to reach out to and embrace and be kind and gentle to those who are invisible and forgotten and outcast in our society and our culture. This is 'counter-cultural' in the most extreme way. We are probably not 'up to this call', but that doesn't mean IT isn't our Call.
We must strive to 'be kind' and 'be gentle' to those in our midst that are neither seen nor heard. We must stride to 'show by our good life that our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom'.
I was hoping I'd signed up for something simpler and easier than that. Too bad for me. Too bad for you. The one whose name we are known by--”Christian” means we call ourselves by the name of the Christ, Jesus—calls us to nothing less than showing our good life by showing that we do works of gentleness and wisdom.
The older I get, the more convinced I become that 'being a Christian' has much less to do with doctrine and dogma and what we believe than it has to do with the simple kindnesses and gentleness of life that is born of the Wisdom that in God's economy, the last ARE first and the first ARE last.
Just that realization and being kind and gentle and seeking to be wise. That just might be our call.
That just might be our call....