Sunday, September 23, 2018

Welcome Wisdom: Sermon for Proper 20 B

Mark is always hard on the disciples, constantly making them seem foolish—the opposite of wise. In today’s gospel, they are painted as being too thick to understand what the gospel writer, with his gift of time and hindsight clearly understands—that Jesus will be handed over and killed. Then they are depicted about arguing over status just at the time that Jesus is trying to tell them what lies in store in the future. They seem to engage in foolish posturing and competition just at the time when they should be engaged in seeking the heart of wisdom. They are silent just when they should be asking questions.

The wisdom of the world is often used for personal advantage. And here we see the disciples engaging in just that. Having heard again Jesus’s prediction of his passion and death, they respond by arguing about who is the greatest among them.

Many references are made to the claim that the time we live in is “The Information Age.” Many of us carry in our pockets phones that have computing power 1500 times greater than one of the four navigational computers on board the Apollo spacecraft. We can look up almost any fact we wonder about in little more than a blink of an eye. And strangely, most of us use that incredible power to watch videos of baby goats in pajamas. We may not be any smarter, now, but at least we’re happier, and our blood pressure is down, too.

Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that knowledge or information does not produce wisdom. And the definition of wisdom in our world can also be slippery. Literally. When we consider how repeatedly we hear ruthlessness, manipulation and cheating being extolled as being “smart” or “clever,” we have to begin to think that wisdom, especially the wisdom of God that we have been urged to seek in our readings for the past several weeks, has to mean something else entirely.

Just like our readings from Psalm 1 and James, Jesus points out that the wisdom of God, and the way it orders our lives, turns worldly wisdom upside down. To illustrate this, first Jesus talks about the importance of servant leadership, which then as well as now sounded like an oxymoron. To further make his point, Jesus then places a little child in the center of the disciples, and equates welcoming that little child with welcoming Jesus himself, the Son of God, who is also sometimes referred to as the Wisdom of God.

Our epistle states that living a good life—one framed by gentleness and virtue-- is the very heart of Godly wisdom. The Wisdom of God is so important in ordering our lives that the Psalter begins by specifically naming wisdom as a blessing par excellence. Our reading from James reminds us of specific characteristics of those who cultivate and seek the wisdom of God:
purity, peaceableness, gentleness,
being willing to yield and not insist on your own way,
being merciful, productive, impartial, sincere.

Does this list sound familiar? Try this passage to see if you can hear any echoes:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith,
so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things."

Do you recognize this passage? 1 Corinthians 13. Here we see Paul describe the faithful love and charity of true discipleship with some of the same characteristics James uses to describe God’s wisdom. Wisdom that grounds us in what really matters—seeking justice that is the only foundation of true peace, serving rather than being served, embodying humility and compassion as we seek to follow Jesus.

The way of wisdom, the way of welcome into God’s household, is also the way of mercy, grace, and above all, love. Welcoming little children—with all their joy and purity and sometimes noise and even their mess—is the same as welcoming me, Jesus reminds us. That’s no small thing. In Jesus’s time, and even echoing in our own laws today, little children were not accorded full status as persons. They were explicitly viewed as the property of their father, in fact, part of his household. They had less than no status.

Yet it cannot be denied that, when they’re not cranky or hungry or wet-- because let’s face it, everyone should get a pass when that’s going on—they also embody many of those same qualities: especially purity, gentleness, kindness, an openness to affection and love. But children, like servants, had no social status.  The kind of wisdom Jesus urges us to embrace turns all the calculations of the world on their heads.

And so, what a blessing that this weekend, St. Martin’s formally welcomes a little child as a new Christian into the household of God. Today, we will baptize Imogen, and I mean that “WE.” We will surround her and her family within the community, welcoming her in the waters of baptism, gathered around both font and altar as one body of disciples.

One of the things I most love about the Episcopal Church’s practice of baptism in our current prayer book is that it makes clear that the welcoming of a new Christian is not to be done privately, unless under extenuating circumstances. Instead, just like in our gospel, that new Christian, whether a little child or an adult, is placed in the midst of the disciples. We all stand around that child, and together we join in recommitting ourselves to the baptismal covenant once again. We commit ourselves to supporting the newly baptized, and we repeat again just what the basic wisdom of the Christian life entails in a series of 8 questions.

Let’s look at those again. Please turn in your prayer books to pages 304 and 305. The first three questions recapitulate the Apostles Creed by asking, Do you Believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? The last five questions then move to actions that flow out of those beliefs—actions that outline the wisdom of God that bears good fruit in our lives. We know that these questions shift from beliefs to action by the change in the question words themselves, in the shift from “Do you believe?” to “Will you?”

Listen to the active verbs in these questions:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  

And in answer to each question, we answer “I will, with God’s help.” That’s also key. The life of faith is NEVER a life lived in isolation, thrown upon our own meager and faltering resources. The life of faith is always strengthened and aided by God’s abundant mercy, grace and love. The life of faith is lived in community with God and with each other. That’s why the wisdom of welcome and love is so important. And that also why the wisdom of welcome and love we are called to practice as a community of wisdom seekers is so extraordinary when actually put into practice.

Will you continue in learning, in fellowship, communion, and prayer?

Will you persevere against sin, repent, and return when you miss the mark?

Will you proclaim God’s good news of reconciliation by who you are and what you say?

Will you seek, and serve, and love all persons as much as seek, serve, and love yourself?

Will you strive and respect every human being, and not just tolerate but celebrate their dignity—rich or poor, sick or well, friend or stranger, old or young?

This is the wisdom of welcome, beloveds, that we are called to commit to as disciples. Wisdom that doesn’t seek advantage or calculation, but, always and everywhere, serving each other in purity, gentleness, and love.

As you are standing with Imogen and with each other renewing your promises, look up. Look at the faces all around you. Each one of the people around you is also a beloved child of God, as beloved in God’s sight now as when they too were children. Know that you are also beloved children of God. 

The heart of the Christian life is shared life. A shared life is an abundant life. The promises we make as Christians we make with one voice in community at baptism-- as individuals, yes, but also as the community of St. Martin’s, within the universal Church that exists through time. With God’s help, may we always re-member and embody the welcome we have received into Christ’s Body, and continue to witness to the abundant welcome and love of God we each ourselves receive, again and again, through our Savior, Jesus.


Preached at the 505 on September 22, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on September 23 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

1) and 2)- Icons representing Mark 9:37.
3) Baptism photo by Jill Gould.

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