Compassion ~ Commitment ~ Reverence ~ Reconciliation
The messages delivered each Sunday by our clergy at St. Augustine’s in-the-Woods are powerful expressions of our values and theology. Below is the most recent. To read a particular favorite, read one you may have missed or get acquainted with our clergy, please visit the sermon archive, here.
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost –Proper 20–Year B–The Rev. Canon Joan Anthony 9.19.21 Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
We hear much lately about freedom and ‘rights’ as they relate to behavior and rules. This is especially true of “mandates” and laws that seek to protect the public health by requiring the wearing of masks, of vaccination, and of social distancing. Wherever you come down on any of these issues and a host of others, this kind of conflict is not new. At its core the question is: How do we live together as human beings, and how do we balance our personal needs and desires with the needs and desires of the community? This is especially true, when for a significant portion of the community personal wishes are at odds with what is perceived by the authority as for the common good. In years past the question was often phrased by young people as “What would Jesus do?”
It may be comforting to know that this question of what Jesus would do in any circumstance was as confusing and difficult for the disciples as it is for us. That is at the heart of what both the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark are speaking of in our readings today.
My brother and I are 2 years apart in age. We grew up in the middle of the War in Vietnam. My father had been a draftee during the 2nd World War, ending his service as a sergeant in charge of the motor pool in the European theater. As teenagers, my brother and I were passionate about war and our opposition to it. We had long conversations with my father on this subject. He would listen patiently and point out the flaws in our idealistic arguments. He took the time to listen more than he spoke. Many of our teenage points centered around our “freedom” to do as we liked.
Out of those long-ago conversations I still remember what I learned. Learnings that have served me well my whole life long.
Freedom is a right which also comes with responsibility. Right and responsibility are tied together and of equal importance. Like so many things right and responsibility are not absolute but contextual. If my actions largely impact me and not others, then I have a larger measure of freedom to choose what I will do. On the other hand, if my actions have a great deal of impact on those around me, then responsibility plays a larger part. I still remember my Dad saying to us. “Your freedom ends at the other guys nose.”
The Letter of James written early in the history of the Church, addresses the problem of wisdom and obedience. In our contemporary society, when we think of wisdom we often think in terms of the intellect. Someone who is wise is described as having insight, being discerning, exercising careful judgement, someone who is knowledgeable. Wisdom is seen as largely an attribute of age and experience. James and his world saw wisdom differently. Today we might describe the wisdom James spoke of as integrity. We would see it as congruity between what one said and how one acted.
The wisdom spoken of in the Letter of James was separated into two kinds, human and heavenly. Human wisdom might be described as seen in the person who was sly, out for their own best interest regardless of anyone else. What we might describe as survival of the fittest. Heavenly wisdom had at its center, trust in God. Such wisdom is described as pure, peaceful, gentle, willing to yield, merciful and resulting in good fruits.
In contemporary language this is the wisdom that could be described as the right use of freedom and the recognition of the responsibility we have to one another when we exercise our freedom. To be wise is to live out the simple commandment to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. To do so results in those good things in our lives, peace, gentleness, mercy. They come about when we learn when to yield to another and when to stand our ground. The commandment is simple or at least simply stated, living it out is a bit more difficult.
We have an opportunity to exercise heavenly wisdom each time we make a decision, consciously or unconsciously. When we decide to speed down the highway because we are late to an appointment, we have the freedom to press on the gas pedal to achieve our goal. We also have a responsibility to the others on the highway. Do our actions in that moment align with our commitment to the safety of others? Is there a wise balance between our freedom and our responsibility? Do our actions in the moment have integrity?
The disciples had been called, commission and instructed by Jesus. They were part of the inner circle, who lived daily with Jesus as he moved around Galilee and beyond, announcing the Kingdom of Heaven and a new way of living. This new way of living, welcoming the teaching of Jesus and welcoming God was to live wisely.
As much as the disciples were exposed to this new way of living, of being wise, they still found it greatly difficult. They did not understand. The wisdom of heaven was strange and so they focused on what they knew best, human wisdom. When Jesus asked what they had been talking about as they walked along to their next destination, they were embarrassed to answer. For they had been arguing about a very human matter, who was the greatest. Who was the most influential, the most powerful the most important? Who had the most status?
Jesus knew what was in their hearts, knew that they were consumed by human desire and not yet completely accepting of what he was teaching. Jesus knew that for human beings to change direction so dramatically would be a lifelong endeavor. And so, Jesus never gives up on the disciples. As it was for the disciples, so it is for us. A lifelong endeavor to become truly and heavenly wise, a life-long adventure to draw closer, ever closer to God. But just as with the disciples, God does not give up on us.
Jesus gave his disciples a simple answer to the question of who was the greatest. It was the one who was servant of all. Again, a simple answer but one which is very difficult to live out with integrity. And so, to help them remember, knowing that an example was more powerful than words, Jesus took a little child on to his lap. Children, especially in the day were not valued. They were often not even counted until they were of an age to work. They were powerless in the extreme. This visible parable of the little child would remind the disciples of what it meant to be wise and to be the greatest. Each time they saw a child, they would remember Jesus with the child on his lap. They would remember the words spoken: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To live in this manner, with the example of the child always before them is what it meant to welcome God, what it meant to receive the teaching of God, to accept them and to strive for all the rest of their lives to live these teachings with integrity and grace.
Each time we see a child, in the grocery store, in our neighborhoods, on the ferry, we can smile and remember that though they do not know it, they are a witness to us of the wisdom of God. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” And so we can renew our determination to be wise and obedient as God calls us to be.