A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. James 3:18
Many years ago when I was working on my first Master’s degree in the vet school at Mississippi State University in an emotionally toxic laboratory environment under the control of a verbally abusive professor, my sister made a very astute observation that has held true in many situations with a large number of people. She said, “Robyn it’s always about power…who has it and who wants it.
Today in our gospel reading while the disciples didn’t word it in this way they were very much concerned with the same thing. The argument they were having was about who among them was the greatest. While most of the great religious traditions stress the importance of humility humanity cannot seem to resist the lure of power…of being better…or having more…then someone else. In our modern age, this drives our economic and geopolitical systems…our social structure…even our relationships with neighbors and fellow believers. In order for me to feel better about myself someone else must be less. In order to feel valued, I must always get my own way even at the expense of someone else. In our churches we give a lot of lip service to the idea of humility but often find ourselves in conflict over issues that really distill down to “who gets to have his or her own way”…who gets to have power over others.
We cannot agree to disagree because then no one wins and someone must always win. This is the good old American competitive way. Gone are the days when we practiced civil discourse…. When we valued kindness and mercy…gentleness and compassion. Now we laud aggression…we reward greed and have created idols out of the powerful. We crave wealth both out of an appetite for stuff but also because wealth is power. We revere powerful people and ridicule the vulnerable and the weak.
One of the underlying factors driving the current rise in nationalism is the idea that this country and its citizens are somehow better than others…that it has more wealth and power…obvious signs of God’s favor. This attitude is the root of the prosperity gospel… a heresy that declares God’s favor to be revealed in the accumulation of the trappings of wealth and power. I am not sure how Christians came to be so misled or have allowed themselves to believe such lies.
Our reading in Mark shows our Lord teaching his disciples the truth about what is of value in the Kingdom of God. If one wishes to be great one must be the servant of all. In setting the child in their midst and declaring that whoever welcomes one such as the child welcomes Jesus and in turn welcomes God who sent him, Jesus was lifting up the lowly…the powerless. In the culture of the day, children had no status….no voice…no power. Their only value was in the continuation of family and their worth as bargaining chips for advantageous unions with other families. They were powerless….the weakest of the weak.
But do not be mistaken, in advocating that his followers allow themselves to be counted among the weak and the powerless our Lord is not commanding us to be helpless. Rather in voluntarily giving up power, we are taking control of ourselves…our emotions…our desires…and we are refusing to be held captive to the societal systems that attempt to dictate what we are to consider worthy and admirable. The only way to fight the unjust systems of power and control that we have created is to refuse to participate in those systems. In giving up the quest for power and influence we will no longer need to appease those in power but will be liberated to be truthful…to be ethical…to be merciful and kind to those abused by those very systems we once served.
As members of the body of Christ, we must be vigilant with ourselves and resist the need to recreate the systems of power and control in our worshipping communities. We must learn to be cooperative …to compromise…to listen to those whose voices are rarely heard and to offer the opportunity for everyone to be part of the decision-making processes. We must not seek to control but rather to serve…to see clearly…to speak wisely and to disagree with grace and civility. We must try to call up leaders who speak painful truths with mercy rather than those who tell us only what we wish to hear. None of us is perfect and we all have room to grow in grace and knowledge.
It must be clear to most of you by now that the ways of God and those who would seek to inhabit his kingdom are counter to the status quo. The Kingdom is an upside down, topsy-turvy kind of world where the last become first and the first last…where one gains one’s life by being willing to lose it…where love is more important than power and where justice is tempered by mercy and forgiveness is always available for those who would repent. It is a society ruled by compassion where everyone who needs one gets a “do over”. It has an economic system based upon giving away one’s goods, money and time and a power structure where leaders are called by God and chosen by the people.
Now, of course, I am speaking of an ideal…the Church as it should be. We all know that because we are humans, flawed and broken every one…we can at best manage a flawed approximation of the ideal. But that does not mean that we do not keep trying…that we keep working to align our own lives more truly to the will of God and in turn align our communities to reflect the ethos of God’s kingdom here on earth. While we will not be perfected until our next life we can make this life better for others and for ourselves. We are not helpless…or hopeless….but to make significant changes in one’s life and behavior takes great desire and courage. We must desire the things of God…..and be brave enough to face possible ridicule and hardship by making radical public changes in how we live.
In a culture driven by a lust for power and wealth love and generosity are acts of revolution…and it all begins in gratitude….gratitude for the life we have been given…for the love of God in Jesus Christ…for Christ’s salvific act on the Cross when he gave his life for each and all of us…and for the many gifts and talents we have been given that can be put to good use in the service of God and his children.
Begin small…make peace with that neighbor ….admit when you are wrong…..let someone else have the last word for a change…refuse to argue over politics…or religion…or sports. Take a deep breath and think before you speak. Be gentle…be kind…be still…pray and wait for the guiding of the Holy Spirit. Seek counsel from someone who is wiser than you are. Be careful with the advice you give. Offer to help someone who has not asked.
The Kingdom of God that is and is coming will be and is made up of ordinary folks just like you and me. It takes no special skill or education…only a kind heart and a gentle spirit and a sincere desire to follow the will of God. But to follow the will of God we must give up our own will…our pride in our own abilities and our lust for power and influence. We must become the least of these….the servants of all…God’s gentle people and disciples of Christ. But for everything that is given up God will supply peace of mind…the deep satisfaction of work well done and the fullness of joy in our intimate relationships with the Divine and with one another.
The letter of James says it this way: Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.