September 20, 2015
17th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Over the last few days several hundred people gathered at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis for the first annual Why Christian? Conference. The event was organized by Rachel Held Evans, an evangelical-turned-Episcopalian blogger and author, and Nadia Bolz-Weber, who spoke to a standing-room-only crowd here at Gloria Dei earlier in the week. At this Why Christian? Conference, an all female group of pastors, theologians, and writers were each asked to respond to this question: Why, in the wake of centuries of corruption, hypocrisy, crusades, televangelists, and puppet ministries do you continue to follow Jesus? When there are so many reasons to steer clear of Christianity, why do you claim the faith? It’s a good question, and it’s one I know I wrestle with a lot.
Nadia Bolz-Weber opened the conference by offering her own response to that question. “I’m a Christian,” she said, “because I need the gospel to tell me a different story about who I am.” She went on to explain that she knows herself all too well, that she is painfully aware of her brokenness, painfully aware of her propensity for impatience and anger, and of her capacity to harm herself and others. As one who is in recovery from alcoholism and drug addition, she knows exactly what it means to be captive to sin and unable to free herself. The good news of the gospel, Nadia told us, is that her brokenness doesn’t get the final word. The gospel tells her a different story about herself. Every time she hears the words, “Your sins are forgiven,” she said, it’s like God reaches into her chest and replaces her cold, lifeless heart with God’s own. The good news of the gospel scatters the darkness of competing claims that tell her she is an irredeemable failure. Why is she a Christian? Because the Christian gospel tells her a different story about who she is.
I love that answer. Too often, I think, the world tries to get us to believe a set of lies, about ourselves and about others—lies that corrode our humanity, turn us in on ourselves, and keep us divided from one another. The world tells us we’re not rich enough, smart enough, successful enough, skinny enough, pretty enough, or loveable enough; that we don’t work hard enough, we’re not good enough parents, we’re not good enough children. The world tells us this lie: that we are not enough.
The world tells us lies about others, too: That people who struggle to get by are lazy and worthless; that some people—criminals, addicts, poor people, and undocumented immigrants, among others—are nothing more than a drain on society.
Maybe the biggest lie the world tells us—the lie underneath all these other lies—is that we are not one body, that our brothers and sisters with whom we share a common humanity are not actually our kin. I think this is the fundamental lie the world wants us to believe, that the divisions that keep us apart are natural and inevitable—that we are not one body but are instead rivals always in competition.
Jesus’ entire ministry is about exposing these lies and telling us a different story. Today’s gospel reading is a good example. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Capernaum, and as they go the twelve argue with one another about which of them is the greatest. If it weren’t so sad it would almost be funny. Jesus has just told them that he will be betrayed and killed—and rather than asking questions about that or expressing some sort of alarm or concern over Jesus’ shocking announcement, the disciples continue on their way, fighting over who among them is the greatest. It’s actually sort of a ridiculous scene. And maybe that’s the point. It highlights the absurdity of the lie the world wants them to believe, that there must be some sort of hierarchy that elevates some of them above the others and keeps them all divided from one another.
Jesus responds by telling the twelve that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And then he sets before them a little child. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This reminds me of the scene in the next chapter of Mark where people are bringing children to Jesus and the disciples try to keep them away. Jesus says, in words our congregation knows well, “Let the children come. Don’t stop them. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” These scenes with children have sort of a cutesy, Hallmark-card quality when we read them today. I can just imagine oodles of kids trying to pile onto Jesus’ lap, everyone laughing, parents snapping adorable photos. But when Jesus tells his disciples to welcome children he’s actually doing something radical. In Jesus’ time children were non-persons. They belonged at home with their mothers, who themselves had no status and certainly weren’t supposed to be out in public interacting with men. When Jesus brings a little one before the disciples and tells them to welcome children in his name, he’s making a powerful statement that has significant social and political implications. We are not meant to be divided between the greatest and the least, between VIPs and non-persons. If you want to be great and powerful, he says, you must welcome the least. Jesus is trying to tear down the walls that keep us divided from one another. He’s actually describing a world where there is no greatest or least but where there is simply one humanity, one body. He is rejecting the lies the world wants us to believe and telling us a different story.
All these years later, the world still wants us to believe these lies. The world is still trying to keep us divided against one another. And it still seems to be working.
This week Pope Francis will be here in the United States. If his speeches in this country bear any resemblance to the remarks he’s made in other parts of the world, we can expect to hear him, too, exposing the lies the world wants us to believe and telling us a different story.
In his first Apostolic Exhortation entitled “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis denounces what he calls an “economy of exclusion.” “Today,” he says, “everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized… To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others… a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor… The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
Somehow we have allowed ourselves to believe the lie that we are meant to be divided from one another, that some are meant to be greatest and others meant to be least, that we are not meant to be one body. To hear the Pope describe it, most of us are so taken with this lie that we have become completely indifferent to the suffering of the poor, unable to even experience compassion. Some of us do offer sympathy and even give generously to address the needs of the poor, and that is to be commended. But the Pope pushes us to examine our hearts: Do we really believe ourselves to be one with those on the margins, sharing a common humanity? Do we feel that their suffering is our suffering? If so, we should want more than just to feed the hungry. We should feel the pain of the hungry so deeply that we join with them in demanding a different world. We need the gospel to tell us a different story about who we are, to remind us that we are one body, that when one person suffers we all suffer.
If you’re sitting here today as one of the excluded, Jesus’ words today are for you. For some of you, it is your children who are struggling on the margins, facing unemployment, underemployment, massive student loan debt, addiction, and mental health issues. Jesus’ words today are for you. The gospel today tells us a different story in which there is no greatest or least but only one body where everyone is included and has an opportunity to thrive.
If you’re not one of the people feeling excluded—if yours is an experience of privilege—there’s something beautiful happening for you today, too. When we reject the lies of the world and hear this other story, we discover it’s a story about all of us being reconnected to our humanity, learning to be more fully human in relationship with one another. Jesus sets forth a vision of a world where there is no longer greatest or least, but only a community united in one body by our common humanity. That’s a different story that is good news for all of us.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium : Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (2013), http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.
Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8 eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).