The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 20, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Proverbs 31:10-31

I’ve always scratched my head just a bit when dealing with the “good wife” passage of Proverbs 31. Not because of the characteristics ascribed here, mind you! It’s the translation of the woman we are talking about. No English translation seems to capture the meaning exactly. The King James Version has us considering the “virtuous woman;” here, in the NRSV and other places, she is a “capable wife.” She has also been called a “wife of quality” or “wife of noble character.” Sometimes, she is “excellent” (from the Bill and Ted translation?) and at other times, as in the Orthodox Jewish translation, she is a “woman of valor.”

Perhaps my favorite, though — for it’s direct approach and just all around down-to-earth language — is Eugene Peterson’s Message translation: “A good woman is hard to find!” Hmmm…well, there you go!

Psalm 1

Hard to say it any plainer than Psalm 1 says it. You can go two ways in life — the way of the LORD, which results in happiness (satisfaction, wholeness, peace/shalom — symbolized by the luscious fruit trees that bear year-round) or the way of the wicked, which results in getting blown away like chaff (dry, scaly seed coverings — a byproduct of wheat production that produces no value for human consumption.)

Yummy!

Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22

A pretty grim image here, too. The ungodly, in the end, have only one friend: Death.

Jeremiah 11:18-20

The prophet here highlights the fact that serving God is not always what we might have thought we were signing up for! Like lambs to the slaughter…wow! They don’t print that on the bottom of your seminary degree or your baptismal certificate, do they?

Psalm 54

A great prayer to keep handy for those troublesome times (see above.) God is the “upholder” of our lives. Any repayment of evil — or sustaining of God’s servants — is totally and completely up to God. Our part is to trust, and to do so willingly and freely.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

“Any wise guys here?” James is good at asking the leading question, isn’t he? This is actually a great passage delineating the results of the “gentle wisdom” that comes from God. A good life, good works, peaceableness, gentleness, mercy — these come from God. When we rely on our own wisdom, we are much more likely to reap the fruits of envy, bitterness, selfish ambition, disorder, and wickedness.

I’m loving v.8 as a good old-fashioned memory verse: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

Mark 9:30-37

We don’t like the hard stuff — at least, not when it comes to the depths of discipleship.

The fellows following Jesus were having a hard time wrapping their minds around the whole killed-and-buried-and-rising-again-in-three-days thing. They didn’t really get it, and they were too embarrassed to ask Jesus what he meant. They are in good company, aren’t they? We often don’t get it when it comes to the things of God.

Also, like the disciple/puppies who were trailing along behind the Master, we tend to spend a lot of time pushing and shoving to get to the front, so we’ll be sure to get the best seats, the best blessings, and the approbation of God. Being great in the God’s kingdom sounds like a great idea.

And it’s easy to get there, according to Jesus. Just learn to be the servant of all. Oh, and take care of the kids. That helps, too!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” James 3:16

“These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James 4:1

“But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”  Mark 9:30-37

Over twenty years ago I was driving down an avenue in a large southern city when I saw a church sign that almost made me run off the road I was laughing so hard.  “Free for All Baptist Church.”  I know the intended meaning of the church’s name was a good one.  It meant God’s love is “free, for all.”  God’s grace is “free, for all.”  God’s salvation is “free, for all.”  But, all I could think about was the other meaning of “free-for-all” – a group fight, a melee, a no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out, last-one-standing-turn-out-the-lights, spill-out-into-the-streets fracas.

So, whenever I think about “Free For All Baptist Church,” I envision rotund and graying deacons in their Sunday best, wrestling around on the floor, punching one another with the Broadman hymnal and calling each other names like, “Pre-tribulation, post-millennial heretic!” or “Doubtfully baptized Methodist convert!”  Far-fetched, I admit, but it amuses me.

The truth of the matter is – the people of God have always been and probably always will be a contentious lot, given to occasional eruptions of disagreement, argumentation, and theological free-for-alls. This is not always a bad thing.  I once heard retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon say that it at least shows that we care.  We, generally speaking, don’t often fight about things we don’t care about.

The trouble comes when the church not only fights, but fights dirty, and over the wrong things; when we find ourselves scheming behind others’ backs, plotting and conniving over things that are not ministry but are rather about prestige and position and ego.

There are two types of conflict that the Biblical writes describe using the word “agon.” It is the word from which we get the English words “agony” and “agonize.”  One use is to describe the disputes and conflicts between human beings – everything from a lover’s quarrel all the way up to World War II is an “agon.” The second use is internal to the individual.  It is the personal struggle to overcome temptation, to control ones negative emotions or rein in one’s harmful behaviors.  To have an internal conflict is to have an “agon.”

James teaches us that conflicts between us are most often the result of conflicts within us. Most of the time when we are fighting with each other, the real battle is an internal one that we have lost and taken outside ourselves.

“These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James 4:1

Thus, sometimes in church life, disagreements about spending plans and missional priorities and who should have made the coffee are escalated out of proportion by our individual failure to deal with our own internal struggles with envy or ambition or one of the other seven deadly sins.

For example – in our Gospel lesson for today, there is a dispute among the disciples about “who is the greatest.”  This argument follows on yet another attempt by Jesus to teach the disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah – betrayal, death, and resurrection.  And, they still don’t get it.  Verse 33 is, to me, one of the truest and yet oddly funny lines in the Bible, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”  (That pretty much summarizes my whole first semester in Modern Poetry 301 with Dr. Morton at Guilford College.)  And, as if to prove that they don’t understand, in the very teeth of Jesus’ attempt to explain it to them, they start arguing about greatness.  At least they have the grace and good sense to be ashamed of themselves and fall silent when Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about?”

Jesus knew, yes, he knew.  He also knew what his beloved but somewhat behind disciples needed to work on. The real conflict here is not between the disciples, it is within each disciple. They fight because of their ambition and ego and status needs; their selfish wants and desires.  Jesus turns all this on its head when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a child into his lap and adds, “This, this child, is the most important person in the world.  Look no further for “the greatest,” for here it is right in front of you. For if you welcome the child, you welcome me; and if you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me, who is God.”

But the disciples still don’t get it.  And all too often, we don’t get it. That’s a pretty grim diagnosis of our all too human condition.  What’s the cure? How do we dig ourselves out of this predicament?  How do we quit being so centered on self and become lovingly centered on others?  What must we do to be saved?

Well we must go back to the beginning, to the part the disciples didn’t understand; the part most of us never fully understand either.  The answer is in what the Eucharistic Prayer has traditionally called the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 109) Or in the words of Jesus “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Mark 9:31

Because it is a great mystery, it is okay that we don’t totally get it.  It’s not the sort of thing you understand only, or mostly in your brain.  It is the sort of thing you understand with your life, in your living, in your day-today experiences within family, your community, and your church.  Jesus has modeled it for us, shown us the way; and we are invited to follow his lead.  We are invited to die a little to self each day, we are invited to become a little less centered on our self every time we do something truly generous for someone else.

And eventually, we will know, deep within, that God’s love really is “free, for all.”  Free for me, free for you, free for everyone, free for all people, for all time, for all needs.  Yes it’s free.  But it’s not cheap.  It cost Jesus’ his very life.  And it will and does cost us ours.  We are invited today to die to envy and selfish ambition, to pride and privilege.  We are invited today to become great by becoming small, to become a leader by becoming a servant, to grow into the fullness of Christ by becoming as a little child.

Amen and amen.

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