A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 20, 2015. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54 , James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, and Mark 9:30-37.
[The link for listening to the sermon is usually here, but unfortunately, the audio did not work this week for recording.]
When I was downtown yesterday, I witnessed an accident. No one was seriously hurt, it appeared, but it was like watching a movie or a T.V. commercial, as though time was in slow motion, headed toward an obvious end, and there was nothing anyone could do. One person tried to yell a warning, but the young woman was immersed in her cell phone. BOOM. She collided with an iron trash receptacle, on foot. The disciples didn’t have cell phones to distract them, but they had plenty of other things that got in the way of their really hearing Jesus and getting his message.
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus is trying to convey something vitally important, but the disciples are distracted. They’ve all been travelling together and Jesus has been laying it all out to them. He says, “The Son of man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him; and three days after he is killed, he will rise again.” But the disciples aren’t really listening. They’re distracted. They are thinking about, among other things, their own futures. They’re anticipating Jesus coming into power, maybe Jesus going into Jerusalem and taking over, and so the disciples are busy wondering about which of them will be the greatest. Which of them will have the responsible job? Which of them will be noticed, will be thanked, will be rewarded?
Distractions get the best of all of us sometimes, don’t they? Whether it’s in the middle of a project, while driving somewhere, while talking to a friend, or maybe (if not especially) when we’re trying to pray. Perhaps we are distracted now—the traffic, the person across the room, the light coming through the windows, unfinished conversations, things left undone.
For me, distractions, of a sort, are almost my default. It’s hard to live in the present, in this very moment, without thinking about either the past or the future.
I live in the past (especially as I have reconstructed it, of course). Dwelling in the past, I can hold on to old resentments, continuing to build the case to justify myself. I can replay heroic actions, like watching a videotape of me, again and again and again.
Or I live in the future. Maybe you do that too—we live in that place where we finally have the right job, where we finally meet the right person, when we finally have the right apartment or house, or ——- you can fill in the blank. When I think of my own tendency to be so easily distracted, I can begin to understand some of what the disciples must have been dealing with.
Jesus dispels the distractions of the disciples with simple words. The drama of the past, the endless possibilities of the future all crumble as Jesus says, probably very quietly: “To be first, one must be the last of all. To be first, one must be the servant of all.” And then Jesus takes a little child—probably much like any other child—helpless, vulnerable, and needy. And he says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.”
We miss the point if we romanticize the child and move on too quickly. Children in Jesus’ day were not viewed as sweet and innocent and cute. They had no rights. They were not viewed as citizens. Some were viewed as useful, if they were able to help with work, but beyond that, they were mostly to be ignored until they grew up and could help with the work. As Frederick Buechner puts it:
Jesus is saying that people who get into heaven are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than with their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves. [Wishful Thinking, p. 25]
Children can often tell the difference between a phony and the real thing. It was the photograph of a child, a Syrian toddler, who drowned near the shore of Turkey that woke many people to the pain and horror of the refugee crisis. Perhaps a shred of good—a tiny, miniscule shred—might come from the tragic death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, if that image works to break through our distractions.
Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.” Somehow we find Christ in the midst of those who can give us nothing in return.
All kinds of things cause distractions—for the disciples and for us. Greatness is a distraction. Importance is a distraction. The past can be a distraction. Dwelling too much in the future, can be a distraction.
Jesus calls us to attention. He calls us to absolute attention. (Simone Weil would remind us that this, “absolute attention” is prayer.) Jesus calls into the present, the concrete, the real. The stores about Jesus involve real people and real things—the salty sea water that splashes the face; fresh, clean water from a well; the mud of the earth that becomes healing balm, the freshly caught fish; dead, cold flesh that is given the warmth of new life. The bread, the wine, the water, the blood.
Teresa of Avila, the 16th century nun and mystic, knew the overwhelming force of distraction. As she put it in the Way of Perfection, she felt it her calling to offer a little guidance to those with “souls and minds so scattered that they are like wild horses no one can stop.” And so she offers a kind of prayer, a method of prayer, if you will, that has been called the practice of “recollection.” Teresa reminds us that the most important aspect of prayer—whether it’s at the beginning, it’s distracted and frustrated middle, and even at its ending—is to remember that God is near. God is very, very near.
Over and over again, if we allow it, the words of Jesus, the presence of Christ, will disrupt our distractions, and like the prodigal son, we are brought to ourselves again. The love and power of Christ works on us and in us both through distractions and attentiveness. It creates unity, and so through the Spirit we are oned with Christ, and with Christ we are oned with the Creator.
Jesus wants us to know fully and clearly what the Gospel of Mark sometimes casts as a great secret—Jesus will die and rise again. We, on the other side of Easter, know this not as a secret but as a truth to be proclaimed throughout the world, even in Washington.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Even with all our distractions, we, as his body in the world, already have his life in us. In him, we die and rise again, in faith, in life, and in life eternal.
May God speak to us even in our distractions that we may be brought again and again to the unity that is love eternal.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.