sermons, songs, etceteras
This was the first sermon I preached as pastoral intern at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN on September 19, 2021. Live video can be accessed here.
Mark 9:30-37 | James 3:13--4:3, 7-8
May the God who gathers Her children to Her breast and watches us sleep, nourish us now. Amen.
Good morning, Church, and thank you for welcoming me so warmly these past couple weeks as I’ve begun to settle in here. You may or may not know this, but writing sermons isn’t terribly easy until you’re like Pastor Tom or Brice, with years of practice, and even then I imagine it’s still work. For me, it always begins with a knot of ideas in my mind and heart, like a tangle of necklaces at the bottom of a jewelry box. It takes time and focus to find each string and pull gently enough to un-mess the mess without breaking it all.
This week, as I sat in my office to begin pulling at the threads, one of the daycare babies started screaming inconsolably. I turned my music up a bit, but it was useless. She was louder than both my music and my mind, which you’d know is a pretty incredible feat if you could hear my mind. And to be clear, I wasn’t mad about it; It wasn’t that she was bugging me; I genuinely love the sound of babies, so I was just distracted. Her cries were like a siren calling me. So I went into the gym, found her, and I crouched down, looked her in the eyes, and just said hi, how are ya. and she quieted. So with staff permission, I gave her some face time for a couple minutes while the daycare worker cleaned up some things. Then when she was done, the staff member picked her up again and I went back to work.
It’s funny how kids have a way of bringing us back to earth when we’re busy in the “very important work” of adulting and pontificating and theologizing in offices with closed doors and lots of academic books, where we hunker down to look for insight into the messes around us.
As I read today’s texts, I see a tangle of things happening. Our gospel reading catches up with Jesus and the disciples in the middle of increasingly intense revelations over the 8th and 9th chapters of mark.
Publicly, the disciples have witnessed Jesus 1. casting out demons, and 2. healing the deaf, blind, and dumb. 3. Together with him they have fed two huge multitudes of people.
On top of that, some religious leaders are growing ever more suspicious of Jesus and are ramping up their efforts to entrap him.
Privately, Jesus’s teachings are getting wild: When he asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter declares him the long-awaited Messiah - which is a really big deal! In response to that, Jesus commands them not to tell anyone about him, and proceeds to foretell his own death and resurrection for the first of what will be three times in Mark’s gospel.
Six days after that, Jesus takes three of the disciples up a mountain and transfigures in front of them -- whatever that means and into what, we are not told. But it had to be incredibly bizarre and even scary, made all the more by the fact that both Moses and Elijah also made an appearance! And after they witness this momentary glorification of Jesus, he again tells them not to tell anyone what they’ve seen until “after the Son of Man has risen from the dead,” which confuses the absolute heck out of them. Then Jesus goes on to heal another boy with a spirit, which brings us to today’s text.
Jesus tells the disciples for the second time that the Son of Man would be betrayed and killed, and after three days would rise again. Once more, they are confused. Verse 32 says they don’t understand what he’s saying and -- importantly -- they are afraid to ask.
So what do they do? They argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Now, this could be a petty argument, or they could be hearing Jesus talk about his own death, and wondering together what comes next for their crew and who’s going to lead them once he’s gone. Either way, they aren’t getting what Jesus is revealing, and things are getting more apocalyptic by the day. And that confusion and unrest leads to arguments.
Now, over in our James text, we get some insight into this kind of discord. He says that disorder, conflicts, and disputes come from pride, envy, and selfishness: From wanting what we don’t have and either refusing to ask, or asking from an orientation of selfishness. We do not understand and we are not getting what we want or need, so we take up sides and go to war with one another.
As for wisdom and understanding? James says these come not from winning debates or proving ourselves superior to or greater than others, but from a willingness to yield. He says a harvest of peace and justice awaits those who embody gentleness, mercy, and impartiality. He affirms what most of us know from experience, which is that sometimes our desire to be right comes at the cost of being in right relationship, but that a willingness to yield and say, “I don’t know but I am here,” can breathe new life into a room or a relationship.
So, back to the living room with Jesus and the Disciples: It doesn’t appear that any of the disciples admitted to Jesus that they’d been arguing about who was the greatest; they were just silent. But Jesus knows -- perhaps because he’s God and is a magical mind reader, or perhaps because he is wise and understands the human heart and that we default to hierarchies within social groups when the world around us grows unsteady. And so he responds by pulling a child onto his lap and saying that Greatness attends to smallness.
Now, in my holy imagination, I’m taken back to one day when I was a kid and the grown ups were having house church in my living room. We kids were told to go play out back or downstairs, but not to interrupt the bible study -- don’t distract the adults from the important stuff of the Word! But one of the bigger kids dared me to do something stupid and I couldn’t help myself. So I marched into the living room while the other kids hid behind the dining room wall, and in my biggest voice I cried out to a room full of very serious adults in a very serious conversation, “Eww, everybody’s drinking pee!”
Of course, they were just drinking iced tea, and that was the joke of it. But for a moment that stretched on for an eternity, I held my breath while my mom turned red, and I thought for sure I was done for. But then the rest of the grown ups started laughing hysterically, my mom’s face went back to normal. And I was safe. The other kids came out from hiding. The joke was heard. We were the kids whose stupid joke broke the seriousness of the moment and reminded all those grown ups that true greatness yields to smallness and silliness. Greatness knows what the real distraction is -- **and it’s not the kids.
Friends, just like the disciples, we’re living in apocalyptic times. And by that I mean the truth of things is being uncovered in ways we cannot ignore. Climate chaos is upon us, a housing and unhoused crisis is upon us. We are living through what feels like an endless pandemic, and our streets are wet with the blood of both state and street violence. And all the while, politicians and pundits argue in gilded rooms and online forums over who’s the greatest and will save the empire.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us are suffering from pandemic fatigue, politics fatigue, conspiracy fatigue, economic fatigue, war fatigue, and climate fatigue. We are tired. Our nervous systems are absolutely fried, and we are desperate for things to go back to normal even though we know in our heart of hearts normal is gone.
To a certain extent, our sense of safety and security are also gone, and so, just like the disciples, we default to arguments over who’s the smartest, or rightest, who has the best plan. We don’t understand what the heck is going on and we are either too afraid or too proud to admit it, so we fight.
I do not know the answers. What I do know is there is great wisdom in following Jesus’s example by taking in and attending to the children.
That looks like a lot of different things right now, right? It can look like getting the kids a snack or letting them crawl all over us, instead of mindlessly scrolling social media. Or it can look like dropping everything to join a search party for a missing toddler. It can look like letting our kids skip school to join a global climate strike led by an autistic teenager from Sweden. It can mean listening to the Maplewood youth who are protesting for police accountability after two of their friends died as the result of a police chase.
In north Minneapolis, where I live, this stuff is real. Street violence is on a whole other level, kids are killing other kids, and still so many adults are screaming at each other that the answer is to “Lock em up! Put em away for good!”
But the mandate from Jesus here is to “take the children in. Listen to the youth. Attend to them. What are their needs and why are you allowing your fear and in-fights and arguments to distract you from the children who are commanding your attention right now.
Again let me say: Being a grown up, never mind the greatest, has nothing to do with pontificating with other adults about what or who’s important; and everything to do with recognizing what’s important when it crawls on your lap or fires a gun in your neighborhood and says “look at me.” Do we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the will to yield?
It has been said that, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” And so I’d like to leave you today with a poem I wrote last January, the day after President Biden’s inauguration and just two weeks after the insurrection and attempted coup at the Capitol. I was watching my son sleep for the thousandth time, and my thoughts were consumed, so I wrote:
I Concern myself
All day every day
With what kind of world we’re leaving
For him and his generation and the next
I worry and concern myself
A few times every day
That the first President of whom
He’ll have a living, working memory
Is the one who just left but
Won’t be gone
For a long, long
Maybe til he’s my age
And has hims and hers and thems
To watch sleep at night.
I worry and concern myself
All day every day -
Are we teaching him well
To resist, respond, resolve,
repent, repair, revolutionize,
Restore and resurrect
to earn the trust to
I worry and concern myself
For his little heart,
So big in its smallness,
Is it filling with right and good
And just and merciful fullness?
Or the weight of all that is
And what we’ve only just
Begun to look at?
I worry and concern myself
All day, every day --
Does he feel like he’s living
At the dying of all things?
So many endings, closings,
Funerals in just a
Few short years.
Have I shown him well
so much death is
Just the birthing?