(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
“Do you want us to go and gather them?” He replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” O Lord of hosts, * happy are they who trust in you.
This may only be true for me, but my guess is that somewhere along the way we’ve all known a very particular kind of longing: a longing to be, in the words of Fr. Basil Maturin, “as though [we] had never sinned,”—a “longing of the heart… at any cost to pluck up the tares which have been left to grow so long.” This morning Jesus invites us into another agricultural parable of the Kingdom; and unlike the parable of the sower, which we hear in the same chapter of Matthew’s gospel, this one draws us into the uneasy fields of yielding—yielding to God’s wisdom alone. As we tread upon the soil of this parable, let us keep the words of Our Lady near at hand: be it unto me according to your word.
This afternoon marks the conclusion of our four-part Advent preaching series, entitled “Salvation Revisited,” in which we have been exploring the meaning of “salvation,” a concept that is at the heart of the Good News that Christian faith offers and proclaims. If you’ve missed any of the three previous sermons in the series – by Brothers Curtis Almquist, Geoffrey Tristram, and Mark Brown – you can read or listen to those sermons on our community’s website, www.ssje.org. This afternoon, our focus is once again on the meaning of salvation, this time asking the question: “Salvation: From What? To What?”
The very notion of “salvation” rests on the assumption that there is something wrong that needs to be put right; if all is well, there is no need for a savior. What is it, then, in the view of Christianity, that is wrong and needs to be put right? Frederick Buechner summarizes it when he writes:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it.[i]
David Watson, priest and canon of the Church of England, wrote about his conversion experience in his autobiography You Are My God. This conversion experience began when his college chaplain, a priest named John, inquired about Watson’s faith. Watson writes:
“John began by asking if I felt any need of God. I couldn’t honestly remember feeling any need, apart from the impulsive cry when I was suffering from a hangover. That surely was enough. Perhaps in my more reflective moments I was unsure of the purpose of my life. ‘Is that what you mean by a need of God?’ I asked John. He explained that a sense of purpose is certainly included, but that our primary need of God exposes itself in our need of forgiveness. In countless ways we have broken God’s laws, we have gone our own way, we have done our own thing. That is why God is naturally unreal in the experience of us all, until something is done to change that. Surprisingly, I did not need much convincing about this. I was ashamed of some things in my life; I would not like the whole of my life exposed. Also, I could see logically that this was a possible explanation of my sense of God’s remoteness and unreality. If he did exist, and if I had turned my back on him, it followed that there would be a breakdown of communication. ‘Yes,’ I said after further discussion, ‘I’m prepared to admit that I have sinned and so need forgiveness.'”
One of my favorite buildings in all the world is the Chartres Cathedral in North France. I had the privilege of living in France for a year near Chartres and I used to love visiting and getting to know the amazing work of art.
I especially loved the stunning west front of the cathedral and those incredible stone carvings of Adam and Eve, the prophets, apostles, saints and martyrs. But at the very center, that favorite scene of all: the Last Judgment. And it was illustrated by that favorite symbol – the weighing scales. Each poor soul would in turn, stand before the terrifying judge of all, as his good works were put into one side of the scales, and his evil deeds into the other. Would he be a sheep or a goat? If his evil deeds outweighed his good, down he would go into the fires of hell. But if on balance he had done enough good works, up he would go to join the heavenly host. And what a host! You’ve never seen such smug, self-satisfied faces as those in heaven! And we may sympathize with the view that if they are the ones going to heaven, I might prefer the other place!
When I was a boy I looked down on my Episcopalian neighbors – mostly because they played outside and watched television on Sunday and we didn’t. They didn’t go to church nearly as often as we did – and sometimes there was beer in their refrigerator. Their boys received a quarter every time they rehearsed or sang with the children’s choir at their church; we did it for free. They went to public schools; we went to Christian schools. Yes, there was a lot to be proud of, plenty of evidence that we were a notch above them on God’s scale.
But even as a boy I could see myself in this parable. The contrast between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is so stark and so dramatic that even children have a hard time missing the point. I knew my feelings of religious superiority were wrong.
Obviously, at some point I must have dropped my bias against Episcopalians. But new biases arose and the pattern repeated itself. Today the temptation is to look with contempt at biblical fundamentalists, or at the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, or at those who count themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Being a Pharisee doesn’t go away easily. I tremble a bit when I read the words that introduce this story: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I have to ask myself, who are the others I regard with contempt?
Obviously this was a problem in Jesus’ day, too – hence this parable. Jesus addressed the issue more than once.
In his Sermon on the Mount he instructed his disciples not to sound the trumpets when they gave alms so that they could be seen by others, but to give secretly without drawing attention to themselves (Mt 6:2-4).
He told them not to stand and pray in conspicuous places, but to go to their rooms and shut the door and pray to the Father in secret (Mt 6:5-8).
He said, Don’t disfigure your faces when you fast so that people will notice your piety; put oil on your head and wash your face and act normally so that only God will see and know your practice (Mt 6:16-18). Spiritual disciplines lose their power when they’re done in order to draw attention to ourselves.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus says, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Mt 6:1). Don’t consider yourselves better than others or more righteous. “Judge not, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged” (Mt 7:1-2)
And we get it, don’t we? And yet arrogance, conceit and self-centered pride creep in, again and again and again. We find ourselves thinking, if not actually saying, “Thank God I’m not like them.”
How does it happen? How does the enemy so easily ensnare us? St Ignatius of Loyola, the 16thcentury Spanish saint and founder of the Jesuits, has an answer. It’s like this, he says:
First, we recognize that we have riches– wealth or success or physical beauty or popularity or some special talent or a spotless reputation or a good family.
Because of these riches we receive honorfrom others. They praise us, look up to us, consider us special – and we believe them.
This, says Ignatius, is what leads to arrogant pride– the pride of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. We deem ourselves to be special, unlike others, worthy of praise and honor from others, separate from them, higher and better. Riches, Honor and Pride – that’s the progression, says Ignatius.
And it’s not just something that happens to us as individuals. It happens to groups of people, to nations, for example, and to religious groups, and to ethnic or racial groups. We long for “riches,” those things that are most valued in the world – popularity or fame, a certain lifestyle, financial security, social status, worldwide power and influence. These are the things that bring us honor and respect (or maybe fear) in the eyes of other people. And these riches and honors cause us to swell with pride. We see ourselves as better, more righteous, more deserving. And we consider with contempt those less righteous, less gifted, less influential and less worthy than ourselves.
Dean Brackley, author of the book The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, quotes a letter which a friend of his received from a leading credit card company, inviting him to apply for a new credit card – (he doesn’t say what card it is – I’ll call it the Gold Card, just for now).
Recently I invited you to apply for the GoldCard…. I believe you’ve earned this invitation. You’ve worked hard and have been recognized for your efforts. And nothing is more satisfying than achieving your own personal goals.
Now it’s time for you to carry the card that symbolizes your achievement – the GoldCard.
Only a select group will ever carry the GoldCard. So it instantly identifies you as someone special – one who expects an added measure of courtesy and personal attention. And with the GoldCard, you enjoy an impressive degree of convenience, financial flexibility and service….
TheGoldCard says more about you than anything you can buy with it. I think it’s time you joined the select group who carry it.
Here’s the message: You’re special. A cut above. Worthy of “an added measure of courtesy and personal attention.” You deserve the honor and respect of others. You’re special. The fact that you have the GoldCard puts you in a special class of people (a modern day version of the Pharisee).
These are the ways of a world gone wrong – a world infected by covetousness and greed. A world that climbs and pushes its way to the top of the ladder, often stepping over others in the process. A world that grasps after the symbols of power and success. A world of competition, a world of upward mobility….
It’s a world that creates outcasts, that values or devalues people based on their social and economic status, their gender, their sexual orientation, their race and class. At the top are the glamorous movie stars, the well-paid athletes, the successful CEOs, the rich bankers. At the bottom are the mentally ill, homosexuals, prostitutes, people with AIDS, homeless alcoholics – the people it is easiest to despise.
“Whenever one group of human beings is treated as inferior to another,” says Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, “hatred and intolerance will triumph.”
[quoted in The Washington Post, Sunday, October 23, 2010 in an article by Navanethem Pillay entitled “How We Can Fight Back Against Homophobia”]
Jesus shows us a better way. He tells us to humble ourselves, to stoop low so that we can listen and learn from the marginalized and the poor, to be indifferent to honors, to drop out of the race for social status, to put ourselves in solidarity with the needy, to cooperate rather than compete, to give rather than take. His way is a downward way, a way of service and self-offering; it is the way of humility rather than pride. “[Jesus] emptied himself,” the Scriptures tell us, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). He came not to be served but to serve. He counted prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners as his friends, and ate and drank with them.
And we are to have the same mind. “Let each of you look not to your own interests,” St Paul writes to the Philippians, “but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:4-5)
There’s no room in the kingdom of God for arrogance and pride. Everyone’s equal there. There are no outcasts, no persecuted minorities, no inferior peoples.
“He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Let’s learn the lesson well. The world will be a better place.
We’re meant to be shocked. The effusiveness of the tears, the wiping with hair, the kissing and anointing of a man’s feet are meant to be embarrassing. Something is out of control, a line has been crossed. The clinical term for this is “disinhibition”. Ordinarily we feel healthy inhibitions around violating social norms. Intoxication, drug use, mental illness, brain damage, dementia, post-traumatic stress—any of these can cause disinhibition and we cross lines. Bathing feet with tears? Wiping with hair? Non-stop kissing–of a man’s feet?
We’re told the woman is a sinner, but that’s all we know. We’re probably meant to assume that her sins are of a sexual nature, but we don’t know. And we also don’t know what the tears are about. Are they tears of remorse? Possibly. Are they tears of release and joy, the tears of a burden lifted, tears of gratitude? Possibly.
Or, perhaps they’re tears of sheer frustration, tears of weary frustration. Perhaps the woman realizes that whatever wonderful thing happens today while she’s with Jesus, tomorrow will be a lot like yesterday. Whatever conditions, whatever situation, whatever human frailty drove her sinful behavior yesterday will still be there tomorrow. Tomorrow’s sin will be a lot like yesterday’s sin.
The Sea of Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee, is actually well below sea level, so the heat in warm weather can be really oppressive. And the outcroppings of black basalt along the northern shore just keep on baking the landscape through the night. It’s not surprising that Peter would be stripped down to the minimum required by Jewish modesty. They’re probably all in their hot weather work clothes. But that Peter immediately covers himself when he realizes the Lord is near may remind us of someone else. Adam and Eve hid their nakedness when they heard the Lord in the garden.
Peter, too, is deeply ashamed. Those three denials are seared into his heart forever. And, yet, in spite of his guilt, in spite of his fear, he makes his way as fast as he can to the Lord’s side. We can imagine him in his confusion thrashing his way through the shallow water trying to get his clothes on right, stumbling over the rough stones. He knows his guilt. But he also knows his Lord.
A cloud of despondency has hovered over the scene. They’re tormented by the coulda-shoulda-wouldas of those terrible days in Jerusalem. And they can’t even catch fish. Grief, shame and a sense of utter failure pervade the atmosphere. And they’re probably all, like Peter, feeling utterly exposed in their despondency, utterly stripped down, totally vulnerable.
The Risen Lord’s response? Let’s have breakfast! It’s OK—come and eat! I’ve already got a good fire going. Bring one of those fish you just caught. It’s OK—don’t bother to dress up—I’ve seen you with your shirts off before—come as you are! The bread is already toasting. And I may even have a little wine here somewhere… It’s OK; c’mon—you must be hungry, you must be thirsty.
We have this old phrase, “misery loves company.” Peter and the Beloved Disciple were keeping company in their misery, but not for the same reasons. The Beloved Disciple was grief stricken over the horrendous crucifixion of his dearest friend, Jesus, with whom he had stayed until it was finished. Peter, on the other hand, was frightened and appalled by his own betrayal of Jesus, whom he had denied and abandoned from the bitter outset. The two disciples were together but in very different places when they hear the news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus’ body is gone. They run towards the tomb independently, no surprise. The Beloved Disciple would be ecstatic, remembering Jesus’ promise that if he were killed, he would come back to life; he would be resurrected. Peter, on the other hand, would be in agony. He, too, had heard Jesus’ prediction about his resurrection. But Jesus’ resurrection for Peter would be so very, very difficult because of his having to face Jesus. Peter would need to ask Jesus’ forgiveness… again. Not that Jesus would not forgive Peter, but that he would, as Jesus had undoubtedly forgiven him so many times before. How many times had Jesus forgiven Peter already? More than Peter could imagine.[i] You may recall Jesus had renamed Peter “his rock,” not just because he was so strong, but because he was so hard-headed.[ii] Peter here is running in very familiar territory as he races to Jesus’ tomb, only this time it’s much worse. This time, Peter has crossed a line; he now is more a follower of Judas and than Jesus.
There was once a man whose younger son wanted to make his own choices in life. Now it pained the father to let him make these choices because he suspected that his son was not really mature enough to make wise choices – but still he gave him the freedom he wanted. (There are times when this is a good thing for love to do.)
At any rate, his son was pleased, and he began to make his choices. He chose, first of all, to have his share of his father’s inheritance turned into spending money. Then he chose to leave his father’s home, taking all his money with him. Next, he began to choose some new friends, and together with them he chose some ways to spend his money. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. Until at last he found that his choices had ruined him.