Sunday, September 19, 2021
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Humility. During the bible study on Tuesday morning which was once again on ZOOM because of the storm, I kept being struck by the word humility. That is certainly something in very short supply in our world today. This theme becomes obvious when you look at the pairing of our gospel where the boys are arguing about who is the greatest with our passage from the Letter of James.
Our gospel is the second of three times Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to be killed in Jerusalem. Once again, the disciples do not understand and they don’t ask him because of fear, which is one of the themes in Mark’s gospel. Then we have the argument about who is greatest. This shows up in all three synoptic gospels. The only real variation is in Matthew where the mother of James and John ask Jesus to put her boys at his left and right in heaven. In all the stories they are condemned for this who is more important thinking.
A modern reader may easily miss the staggering power of these words, especially the reference to the child in Christ’s embrace. The Greco-Roman world was one that depended on status and power. Power was gained through a patronage system of attaching yourself to someone with more power and status than you. Power does not come from those below, but only from those above. The only people worth knowing and associating with are those who can move one up the social ladder.
We in our society have a radically different understanding for the most part of childhood. People often view Jesus’ references to children as implying innocence or immaturity maybe even dependence. That concept must be put aside in considering this passage. A child in the Greco-Roman world was at the very bottom of the social ladder. At best they were considered property. A female child remained property even in adulthood. Marriage was exchange of property rights and family alliance. A child in that world was socially invisible, a non-person. A shocking piece is that there was a child there at all. The children should have been with the women, not in the presence of the teacher and his students. That of course also implies that the women would have been somewhere else as well. Mixing together just was not done in this type of setting. The fact that the child was even present in the room may mean that this was a childhood slave sent to serve. If that is true then the substitution is even more surprising.
If all this was not shocking enough Jesus elevates the status of the child even further by his words. He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” Now in the ancient world the idea that Jesus was sent as an emissary of God and so the person receiving Jesus was receiving God would have been difficult to accept, but the concept of the ambassador sent in the name of another certainly would have been understood and accepted. Jesus however treats the child as a stand in, an emissary for him.
So now the disciples have been told that they must welcome even this inconsequential child as they welcome him. This image turns the roman patronage system upside down. Jesus is making a statement about power, who has it and how it should be used.
Now set that aside for just a moment and let us turn to James. I haven’t spent much time with the James passages in my sermons other than to look at the idea of being doers of the word, not just hearers. This letter is more in the genre of wisdom literature, like Proverbs that we also heard. Suggestions of how to live and get along with others. We are unsure of when it was written or who James truly is. Commentaries place it early in the time of the New Testament, others say it may be almost a 3rd century work. The early camp thinks it was in fact James identified as the brother of Jesus. Whether that is correct or not that really isn’t important. The advice on how to be a church is what is important. This evidence of strife is a theme not only in James but in most of Paul’s letters. Here this is again a question of who has power and how to use it. Sadly James could be writing to our churches and our leaders today, not much has changed.
Listen to the Message translation of verses 16-18, 16 Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats. 17 Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. 18 You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor
I was reminded on Tuesday morning of one of the things that Bill Moyers said in an interview many years ago when he had written a book with Joseph Campbell entitled the Power of Myth. He was asked about truth and what is truth. I remember him looking at the interviewer and saying, “I have truth and you have truth and everyone watching us has truth. None of us however has the truth. It is only by combing our truths that we can then grasp, the truth.”
Back to my original statement about humility. We must all understand that we need to be humble enough to grasp that none of us has the full truth only our piece. We all need the humility to say, I might be wrong.” And then willing to listen to facts that may change and adjust our thinking to them.
A problem we have right now is one of cognitive dissonance and rewriting the “truth” In listening to a psychologist talk about this I was fascinated. Cognitive dissonance is when what we think or believe is at odds with what we see. Unfortunately, what many are doing today is going out and finding facts or bending facts to reinforce their position rather than letting those new facts refine and correct our position. Humility teaches us to admit that we might be wrong.
More than anything else and I think that is what James is getting at is that humility allows us to not have to be first, the best, have the choice seat at the table. It takes courage to be humble. It takes self-knowledge to be humble. I am not suggesting that being humble means you let people walk all over you. That is not a piece of humility. In fact it takes real courage to be humble.
I want to reread one verse as I come to a close this morning. 18 You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor
We have to start getting along with each other if we are to make a difference in this world. And you can make a difference even if it is by building community one relationship as a time. That’s part of the final blessing which asks that we believe that we can make a difference and we can make the world a better place. So have hope. I want to close with a prayer that showed up in my inbox on Wednesday morning by Pastor Steve.
God, grant me the courage
to go without armor
or the privilege of being right.
Give me the humility
to renounce my imagined rank,
and take the lowest place.
Give me the heart to love without power
and serve without status,
to be last and not first,
a child in a world of big people.
God, grant me
the faith to trust my belovedness,
the wisdom to rely on your Spirit’s power,
the humility to serve,
and the courage to love.