A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on September 23, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
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“Who is wise and and understanding among you?” James asks.
The answer comes from the story of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. The small boy who isn’t very old either, and 96 year old Miss Nancy are the wisest and most understanding among us. The child and the elder are both memory-keepers. They remind us of something from long ago, of warmth, what makes us cry, what makes us laugh, and what is far more precious than gold. In other words, they remind us of who we are.
The most powerful people among us are not those of us who have money and degrees and fancy positions of influence in the church or in the world. They are not the physically strong, or those of us who seemingly have it all together. The most powerful among us are the eldest of all and the smallest of all.
My husband and I were reminded of this two weeks ago when we rushed our five year old youngest child, Isaac, to the hospital. He was having an asthma attack, though I didn’t know it at the time.
It wasn’t until we got to the emergency room that we realized the seriousness of what was happening. As the minutes wore on, I watched wires being attached to Isaac’s little heaving chest and belly, an IV inserted into his small blue veins, and a nebulizer quickly lifted over his head, specialists coming in and out to give him an EKG and look up at his beeping vital numbers’ machine. He looked so small and weak…and I, too, felt like I couldn’t breathe.
Time stopped. Nothing else mattered. Not world politics or our money concerns or climate change or what we do for a living, or our other responsibilities, or the delicious dinner my husband cooked that was still on the stove.
My only important job in this lifetime is to make sure my three children are breathing. So as I watched my youngest struggle to breathe, he held the most wisdom and understanding of anyone in the room.
The X-ray nurse came in to “take a picture” of his lungs. He smiled weakly and said “cheese.” The doctor came in and told him he had to take a ride in an ambulance to another hospital. He nodded stoically and said, “OK. Can my dad come?” When we told him he’d have to stay over night in the hospital he said, “You mean like a be-cation (which is what he calls vacation)?”
When my mom asked him what the hospital was like the day he came home he said, “I was very brave.”
Our wisdom comes not from invulnerability, but our ability to be brave in the face of our powerlessness. We can do hard things despite the truth of suffering. The smallest among us have something to teach us about what matters most: Keeping each other alive. Breathing. And that we can be brave when we feel very small. As long as we are not alone, in the ambulance, or whenever or wherever we encounter the depths of our own suffering.
One of the most oft-repeated phrases in our scriptures beside “do not be afraid,” is “remember.” The smallest and oldest among us are our memory-keepers. They help us to remember truth from long ago, warmth, what makes us laugh and cry, and what is far more precious than gold.
We need the memory-keepers. Jesus urges us so often to remember because he knows we humans are so prone to forgetting. In our text from Mark, the disciples have forgotten a lot.
First of all, I love the disciples because they are just your average bunch of clueless humans. They aren’t special or holy, which is how we know that we, too, can be followers of Jesus. They are just totally and completely hapless sometimes, really: obtuse, bickering, jealous and slow on the uptake.
I mean, aren’t we all?
When we encounter the disciples in this passage from Mark, they have already seen Jesus perform several miracles. They have heard all about the cost of following him. They have seen him transfigured on the top of a mountain. They have heard him begin to talk about what awaits them in Jerusalem.
Passing through Galilee, Jesus is still trying to teach his 12 followers while attempting at the same time to escape notice from the authorities. These guys still do not seem to understand Jesus’ mission, to a comical extent.
Imagine witnessing the miracles of Jesus, listening to him teach things like “blessed are the poor, and the merciful.” Imagine believing that Jesus is the Son of God himself, born to save humanity. Imagine Jesus then trying to tell you that he will suffer and die at the hands of humans, and three days later, he will rise again like a Phoenix from a fire.
And then imagine being too afraid or dense to understand, and not wanting to admit your ignorance. I can. I’m still not sure I grasp fully what it all means, and I know how the story ends.
Of course the disciples don’t get it. The story Jesus is telling them flies in the face of everything they know about the Messiah. Namely, he’s not supposed to die. I’m sure Jesus sounds a little unhinged to them.
So Jesus tells them all this, and the disciples don’t ask a single question. The text says they were afraid to.
Maybe they didn’t want to reveal their ignorance, or maybe they were just plain terrified of what would happen to them. So their response is to bicker with each other. When we are feeling scared and not very smart and powerless in the face of suffering, our response is often to fight with one another.
They fight over which one of them is the greatest. It’s like being in a sports bar full of bros late in the evening when too many beers and dart games have been consumed. They are walking to Capernaum being like, “Dude I’m the best, though.” “No, I’m the best! Jesus likes me the most.” “No, he likes me the most. He thinks I’m the smartest.” “Dude, I’m the smartest!”
“Wanna arm wrestle for it?”
Reminds me of our current political climate. We are just a bunch of scared people fighting about who is right, rather than admitting our own ignorance and fear. Calling each other names, rather than facing our vulnerability before God. Arguing ceaselessly, because we don’t want to face that there will be suffering beyond our imagining. And like the disciples, we have so little faith. We don’t actually believe that in the end, Love will win.
The disciples are embarrassed to tell Jesus what they’ve been fighting about when he asks. But Jesus already knows.
“True greatness,” Jesus says, “is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder but rather descend it, taking the lowest place. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status.” (Elisabeth Johnson, Working Preacher)
Jesus uses a child as an object lesson. "See this kid?” He says, holding a small child in his arms. “The person who cares for this kid cares for me. The person who cares for me worships God. Therefore the person who loves this kid, loves God. A small boy who isn’t very old either is the most powerful among us. Not because he isn’t vulnerable or innocent, but because his power comes from his fragility. He is a memory-keeper. He reminds us of who we are, and whose we are.”
In God’s upside down kingdom, we prove our power by caring for the powerless. Our salvation is collective. And it comes from our willingness to care for the least of these. No one is saved until all are saved. The last will go first.
In 1976 at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him.
Without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction—toward the injured boy.
While the other competitors struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them then linked arms and together they walked to the finish line.
By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering and crying. The crowd had been reminded of warmth, of what makes us laugh and cry, about what is far more precious than gold. By turning back and helping the boy who fell, the other competitors lost their own chance to win the race, but the triumph was in crossing the line together. Their greatness was realized in that moment.
True greatness is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. True greatness comes from our ability to ask, “And how are the children?” True greatness comes from admitting that we are vulnerable, and being brave in the face of our powerlessness. Do not be afraid. Remember. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Amen.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.