Proverbs 31:10-31 | Psalm 1 | James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a | Mark 9:30-37
- What is Jesus' understanding of greatness? How does it compare with yours?
- Who might Jesus be setting in our midst today while saying, “whoever welcomes one such...welcomes me”?
- In what ways do our own vulnerabilities as individuals and as a church shape how we care for others?
In the midst of the struggle against apartheid, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu walked by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk wide enough for only one person at a time to pass. A white man appeared on the other end, recognized the Bishop as one of the leaders instigating reform in the system of white privilege for which he stood, and said, “I don’t make way for gorillas.” At which Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, “Ah, yes, but I do.”[i]
And heaven knows that there is enough bullying going on these days. And we know it to. We’ve set up systems and programs in our schools to prevent it. But it still happens. I suspect those of you still in school know this all too well. These days it has found new life on some of our largest political stages. There’s something about it that is intoxicating, that appeals to festering frustrations and deeply rooted fears of change and loss.
Listen again to that reading from James and how contemporary it’s advice sounds:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.[ii]
And it isn’t just in “them” whoever “they” are. It is in us too. “Who is wise and understanding among you? ... if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition … do not be boastful and false to the truth.” We know it. We know it. Even as we struggle against it.
This struggle, this deep knowing that we are really no different than others as much as we want to think otherwise, creates in us that same deliciously awkward feeling that we encounter in the great story-telling of Mark. Mark juxtaposes Jesus telling his followers about this Messiah’s downward path with the pregnant question “What were you arguing about on the way?”
What were you discussing along the way? And they were silent because they were talking about who was the greatest, the most important, the leader.
I’m betting that the author had a smile on his face—or her face—when this story was first told, and then handed down and woven so imaginatively into this narrative. If she didn’t, we should. Because we can relate. We know the feeling, don’t we?—What it’s like to bounce between envy and empathy, craving and contentment, ambition and mutuality. We know how dizzy we get as we race with all the other rats and yet try to listen out for that deep, clear, refreshing clarity that flows from a quiet center.
This is a time in history when we need wisdom. “Love is little, love is low” the choir will sing to us. But “Love will make our spirits grow. Grow in peace, grow in light. Love will do the thing that’s right.”
I am so grateful for those moments that come as gifts when that childlike clarity comes into view—when that gentle, elegant response to our ugly behavior appears with a gleam in its eye, and with a sweeping, generous motion steps aside to make way for our better selves. And it can come from anywhere!
Perhaps some of you saw the story that emerged from Texas on Thursday and then blew through the internet. Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old in Irving, Texas, was detained by the police on Monday after a teacher said the clock he had built and brought to school looked like a bomb.[iii]
It was set to play out tragically like so many of our other stories these days—questions about how much Ahmed’s name and brown skin may have prompted such a strong response by the teachers, school, and police and whether a kid named, say, Scott, with a lighter skin color might have seen a different response. It is an important question, of course. It goes to ongoing questions about our social systems and assumptions that continue to privilege some and disadvantage others, about black and brown lives mattering. And in this specific instance, it is probably unanswerable.
That’s why what I saw next was so stunning.
A tweet came from the president: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”
And I felt like I could breathe again.
For me, this was such a perfect example of the wisdom of Jesus bringing that little child before the disciples. Sure, we have all kinds of big systemic questions to struggle with, but how often do we forget the little children, or 14-year-old children, in the midst of it all? And so, from the halls of power, comes this gentle and literal, “come to me.” Come and show me your project. Let me honor you. All the law and the prophets was wrapped into this one response, as all that was good about this young man’s creativity was noticed and rewarded from a seat of high privilege. And who knows. Maybe nothing will come of the visit. We can only be responsible for what is ours to control. Although when Ahmed was asked about it recently he said he hoped to use his moment in the spotlight to—and I love this!—“try [his] best…to help every other kid in the entire world that has a problem like this.”[iv]
And in a way, it already has made a difference, because I’m inspired to seek ways that I can use whatever power I have to encourage the Ahmeds and Ambers, Jaxsons and Jennifers, Sophias and Scotts that have been given to me by virtue of my location and my baptism to care for. I’m looking for that imaginative move that makes me laugh and cry and smile all at once, that fills me with energy and joy and a deep sense of God.
I know goodness has the power to change the world because I know that I am already changed by it. And I know that you and I have everything we need to do the same. We can tap into the creative spirit of God to guide gorillas into grace and see bomb makers transformed before our eyes into clockmakers.
How can your life preach? How is it already doing so? What future is just waiting for your imagination to bring to life? How will you recognize it?
Do not, dear friends, underestimate the power that lives within you to inspire and shape and endow others with a future that is better than the past. Our lives whether they are lived in the bright lights of the public eye, or in corners that we think make us invisible, are blazing with possibility. Whether you innovate or teach or heal or build or mop up after others, whether you have given yourselves to relationships that flame out or burn steadily for fifty years, your life, lived in service to others is mighty. God will change the world through it. And through you, church, God’s salvation comes to live with us.
Thanks be to God.
[i] This story is attributed to Walter Wink. Quoted here: http://www.wisdomquotes.com/topics/nonviolence/index2.html.
[ii] James 3:13-16.
[iii] See NY Times article online “Handcuffed for Making Clock, Ahmed Mohamed, 14, Wins Time With Obama”: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/17/us/texas-student-is-under-police-investigation-for-building-a-clock.html?module=WatchingPortal&_r=0.