A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, September 30, 2018.
Proper 26 - Year B
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to You, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today, we hear the voice of the Disciple named John speaking for the first time in the Gospel of Mark. He speaks only twice in the whole Gospel, and both times he tells everyone as plain as can be that he has no idea what Jesus is going on about.
Picture the scene - and let’s recap last week’s reading first: Jesus is walking along a road, shortly after his transfiguration, on his way to Jerusalem to face his death.
Some way behind him, no doubt aiming for some privacy, the disciples are in a whispered argument about which among them is the greatest...which makes sense if they thought Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to take the throne of David and set up his court - they’re trying to establish a pecking order early in the game.
You know: who will get Minister of Finance, who will get Defense, who will get Sports and Recreation - that kind of thing. They’re jockeying for position.
They’ve been at it for some time, I imagine, and the whispers are getting more and more heated, and Jesus knows exactly what they’re about.
He turns around and says to them, “what are you discussing amongst yourselves along the road?” But in shame, they don’t want to answer him.
So wanting to make a pointed statement, he sits down, and gathers a child into his arms, maybe just 3 or 4 years old, totally in rapture at being held by Jesus, and he looks at his disciples and says, “this is the greatness you should be aiming for. Seek to be last, not first.”
That’s where last week’s reading ended- on that nice note about which a million hymns have been written and sung.
But the story doesn’t end there, for in today’s reading, Disciple John pipes up in reply: “Teacher! We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop them because they weren’t one of us!”
And then I do believe Jesus put his head in his hands and breathed deeply with anger and frustration.
We pass over it in the story so quickly: but there must have been quite an altercation between Jesus’ disciples and that faithful person, trying to do some good for someone in need.
We know the disciples were competing amongst themselves - why would they not have been competing with others? Of course they were
Without a lot of difficulty, we can imagine the conversation: “listen, you: we’re his real disciples. We’re the ones who do stuff in his name. We’re the ones who he’s chosen. We’re the ones who have walked all this way with him - and if there’s stuff being done by “disciples of Jesus”, it’ll be done by us, see? Now push off!”
It’s terrible news for Jesus on two awful fronts: first, that it was clearly a group of his disciples that had this altercation - not just a rogue disciple; and second that John clearly pipes up because he thinks this behaviour is going to be rewarded by the Messiah.
They haven’t even reached Jerusalem, and already the disciples are setting up a kind of court, a fence around Jesus, in which they police the boundaries, and they keep guard at the access points, and they’re trying to control who’s out and who’s in! And they’re trying to focus his grace and favour to benefit themselves most of all.
And in so doing, they were simply replicating the old system; exactly the same system that Jesus had come to overturn.
But meanwhile, (praise God), there clearly were some people out there who got what Jesus was actually all about. They take delight in Jesus’ presence; they share his good news of healing freely with others; and they are finding their way onto a journey of discipleship quite different than what the disciples think is really going on.
Perhaps these are the ones Jesus calls his “little ones”. They are the ones Jesus tries to encourage his disciples to be more like.
And so Jesus says to John: don’t you cause one of my little ones to stumble.
Again and again the disciples make this mistake about what Jesus was called to do as the Messiah.
Again and again they think that they will be the beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry - he will take the throne in Jerusalem and their lives will be rich and powerful and wonderful for ever. They think they will collect benefits - instead, they will come to open their hearts and their hands and pour out all they have for others.
The mission and ministry of Jesus will call them to give up everything, to benefit the kingdom of God.
Next Sunday at St. George’s, we are giving thanks and baptizing children! Often a baptism is an occasion for the parish to breathe a sigh of relief that there will be a new generation of church members, who will keep the church running after we’re done.
But, friends, we’re not intended to be the beneficiaries of a baptism. Instead, its a call to us as disciples: to share lavishly the love of God we experience - not in order to benefit us in the end; but to build up the kingdom of God. To participate in what Christ is doing as he continues his mission and ministry to the world.
We have three babies we’re baptizing, and none of them may grow up here. And a 6-year old girl who has been coming here all summer, and decided she wants to get baptized.
Whatever happens in their lives; wherever they end up worshipping; wherever their journey of faith takes them, we have this opportunity open our hands and our hearts and give them a gift - freely: their first moments as our sisters in Christ, filled with love and acceptance.
And in giving first with open hands, then we receive: wonder at the mission and ministry that Christ continues doing in the world, and the ways he opens our hearts through faith, and the incredible journey he walks with each and every one of us.
At this time of year when we might turn our attention to all that God is doing in our midst, and we count up all our blessings, God’s dream isn’t just to make our lives great - you know, wealthy and healthy.
It is, in fact, to invite us on a journey where everyone’s life is made better. Such that we open our hearts and our hands and pour ourselves out for the building up of the kingdom.
So may we find our way to the path of true discipleship: to give with open hearts, and in giving, be blessed enough to receive, and find ourselves in the end, almost by accident, richly blessed.