Texts: Mark 9:30-37, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Recently I came across one person’s list of things a Mom would never say:
1. “How on earth can you see the TV sitting so far back?”
2. “Yeah, I used to skip school a lot, too.”
3. “Just leave all the lights on … it makes the house look more cheery.”
4. “Let me smell that shirt – Yep, it’s good for another week.”
5. “Go ahead and keep that stray dog, honey. I’ll be glad to feed and walk him every day.”
6. “Well, if Timmy’s mom says it’s OK, that’s good enough for me.”
7. “The curfew is just a general time to shoot for. It’s not like I’m running a prison around here.”
8. “I don’t have a tissue with me … just use your sleeve.”
9. “Don’t bother wearing a jacket, sweetie – the wind-chill is bound to improve.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Moms lately. Many of you know that my mother died in mid-August two months shy of her 94th birthday. I’m still amazed that in spite of declining physical health and dementia that left her knowing immediate family but not much else, Mom was sweet, cooperative, and funny until the morphine she needed distanced her from us less than two days before her death. She left us with some good quotes and funny stories that we cherish, several about her increasing memory issues. Some of you have heard that she once told me “her retentive mind was not retenting.” Another time she said to my niece, who is a physician, “I need a pill for my memory.” When Kristin replied, “Grammy, you’re taking a pill for your memory,” Mom’s retort was, “It’s not working.”
Another gift Mom left us was plans for her funeral service. We didn’t get every detail from her before the dementia set in, but we got the majority of what we needed to create the kind of service she desired. This is because shortly after my dad died in 2005, she wrote down the songs she wanted sung at her funeral. Most of her choices were sacred music I knew, but she named one piece she wanted her Minister of Music to sing. It’s a song recorded by Steve Green, a contemporary Christian musician. Knowing that her church is staunchly Southern Baptist, I cringed a little at the time. But the title of the song was “Find Us Faithful,” which seemed appropriate for my Mom. So I set the notes about the funeral music aside.
Ten days before she died as I tried to get things in order before our trip to Coventry, I went to YouTube to find this song she had chosen and was I pleasantly surprised. No male names for God. Not much conservative faith language. No individualistic “me and Jesus” theology. Just wonderful lyrics every word of which fit my mother’s life. The entire song reflected her ardent hope that she had set a good example for her children. Here’s a portion of it:
After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone,
And our children sift though all we’ve left behind,
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find
May all who come behind us find us faithful. May the fire of our devotion light their way…
In the weeks since Mom died I have often relived her service and the words of that song. “May all who come behind us find us faithful. May the fire of our devotion light their way.” As these words have continued to run through my mind, I’ve found myself asking some questions. So I would like to explore them with you this morning alongside our texts from Mark and James. To what are we devoted? What kind of devotion will be a source of light for those who follow us? What will provide the kind of example we want to be for the children in our nursery and in Children’s Worship this morning, and for the children and youth sitting among us in these pews?
Our text from Mark catches Jesus and his disciples in a teachable moment. They are returning to Jerusalem through Galilee not for a new mission, but for a time of instruction. The disciples have recently failed to exorcise a demon and admitted that they do not know how to pray. So Jesus judges this to be a teaching opportunity. First, he tells them again that he will die and be resurrected. They don’t understand this either, but no one is bold enough to ask for an explanation. Instead they have been arguing over who is the greatest among them. They are quite confused about a lot of what he says. Yet they understand Jesus well enough to know that he wouldn’t like the topic of their conversation. But Jesus knows more than they think he does. He repeats a fundamental principle of his ministry that “the last will be first” and he draws a child into his arms to demonstrate. “If you welcome a child like this one, you welcome me,” he says. “And if you welcome me, you welcome God, the one who sent me.”
Now it’s really hard for us to understand what a radical notion this was in the first century. Says scholar Pheme Perkins, “Our social conventions have exalted childhood as a privileged time of innocence, and this romantic view is usually imported into these passages. However, the child in antiquity was a non-person. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students. To say that those who receive Jesus receive God does not constitute a problem. A person’s emissary was commonly understood to be like the one who sent him. But to insist that receiving a child might have some value for male disciples was almost inconceivable…This example treats the child, who was socially invisible, as the stand-in for Jesus.” In other words, they may be on the bottom of the pecking order socially, but those at the bottom, especially the children, matter to Jesus. And I know they matter to us.
These young people are the ones who are coming behind us. The ones whose way could be lit by our devotion. Now I could make a long list of values I want to pass on – many learned from my mother – and I’m sure you could, too. But let me highlight several that seem very important if we want to provide a bit of light as our young people travel in what can be a very dark world.
First, I would name the importance of devotion to a God of love. We’re all devoted to some kind of god, and for many of us, probably more than one. My guess is that a quarter to a third of network television air time is devoted to all of the things the advertisers want you to worship. They don’t use that language, of course, because they know it would offend us. But fundamentally we can’t get away from this incessant urging to devote ourselves to the god of acquisition of more and more stuff. Nearly all of it is designed to appeal to our need for status, recognition, or comfort. The commercials are uncanny in how they can tap into our insecurities and perceived needs. In fact, in our culture, it’s nearly a miracle if you aren’t to some degree bowing down at the altar of consumerism. The approach works because at a deep level many of us have not absorbed the reality that our God is a God of love who loves us regardless of who we are or what we do. And our God is a God who loves every other person and all of creation in the same way.
James spends a number of verses addressing the problem of “envy.” “Bitter envy and selfish ambition” is how our translation describes it. According to this writer, the desire for something one does not have leads to “discord and wickedness of every kind.” Now we don’t use the term “wickedness” much around here, but I believe the writer of James is on target. Wanting something we do not have – a person, a possession, a position, recognition, influence, control – leads us down a road that is too often destructive. Jesus warned his disciples about this. The greatest person, he said in Mark’s gospel, is the one who serves others – not the one with power and privilege. It’s why one of the ten basic rules given to the Israelites was “You shall not covet.” The ancient Greeks described envy as an “ulcer of the soul” and Socrates called it a “certain sorrow.” Why sorrow? Because envy identifies being with having. To have less is to be less this reasoning goes, and one grieves for the absence of whatever seems missing. So there is light to be found in a soul-deep belief in the loving nature of the Holy One who created us. It might put a dent in our national economy, but God’s economy would thrive if each of us understood that we don’t need things to be lovable.
Now this doesn’t mean the Holy One isn’t calling us to be more than we are – more loving, more forgiving, most patient, more honest. Loren Mead, a church consultant, once said, “God is always calling us to more than we have been.” This applies to churches, but it also applies to individuals like you and me. The tricky part is finding a balance in all of our relationships between accepting one another as beloved children of God just as we are, and encouraging each of us to become all that God has created us to be but we not yet become. Unfortunately, the church has often been unable to find this middle place – it has either insisted that we are all horribly depraved and implied or claimed outright that we aren’t loved as we are, or it has told us we’re loved without expecting us to change and grow. Neither is healthy and neither, I believe, reflects the nature of God’s love. James reminds us that when there is a hole where that nurturing, all-encompassing love was meant to reside, we will try to fill it with something else. So perhaps the most important thing we can demonstrate for those who follow us is that the God we worship is fundamentally and thoroughly a God of love, one who wants us to reflect that love in everything we are and do. We can’t buy that love and we don’t have to earn it.
At this moment in history, I believe a second object of our devotion must be truth. I mean here not only factual truth, which seems in short supply these days, but also universal truth. Truth has become relative in our culture and to some degree it always has been. We all have our personal “truths” and I’m not criticizing that. We are all products of our genetic make-up and our life experiences, which teach us truths about ourselves and our world. But too much emphasis on our personal “truth” becomes a problem when our private perception of things becomes in our minds all the truth there is. There are times when what feels like hard-earned personal truth is wrong. Many abused children grow up absolutely convinced that adults can never be trusted. It’s a logical, understandable conclusion to draw from child abuse. But it’s wrong. Some adults are trustworthy. One of our foundational Baptist beliefs is bible freedom, meaning we have both the right and the responsibility to interpret scripture for ourselves without the interference of church doctrine or a church leader. But this freedom was never meant to give us license to go in a closet and interpret scripture all alone. This individual interpretation was always intended to be done in the context of a community. That’s where we find the “wisdom that comes from God” that James talks about.
I believe this is how we were meant to discern the truth as well. Most of us are turned off by people who proclaim to have “THE truth” whether it comes from a pulpit or a podium. Rather it’s when we come together and I share my truth and you share yours that we get a glimpse of the larger truths we need in order to keep from killing each other and destroying our planet. Yet in this pre-election political environment, truth may be the biggest casualty. There’s a book out there by Dennis McCallum titled “The Death of Truth”- which could be the theme of this election season. But the book is mostly a critique of postmodernism from a conservative Christian. That’s not what I’m talking about, although there is some value in his critique. What I’m talking about is not only the ways we are dishonest in our public discourse, but also the challenge we face in being honest with ourselves. Rationalization, self-justification, kidding ourselves about what our true motives are – these are equally dangerous challenges to an honest, authentic life and a healthy community. God forbid that a politician should admit he or she made a bad choice. In fact, I hear a lot of people these days complaining that our leaders refuse to admit their mistakes. But how willing are we to do this? Honesty and a devotion to the truth seems to be lacking in our public and our private lives these days. So right now devotion to the truth is essential for a faithful legacy we can pass on to our children.
Finally, I think our young people need desperately for us to practice what we preach. As James reminds us in last week’s text, faith without works is dead. If we polled the parents here, I don’t know what response would win if we asked, “What is the hardest part of being a parent?” But I’m guessing that many who spend time with young people would name some version of this as a major challenge. We want to pass on wholesome values to children and we can probably name what those values are. It’s the living of them that is so difficult. We demand honesty from our children and can’t stand it when they lie to us. Yet at work or in social settings, we “fudge” when called upon to explain our actions so we don’t have to take responsibility for choices we’ve made. We try to teach our children to be considerate of others, yet we keep others waiting for us all the time. A commitment to non-violence is important to us, but when pressed, our words become aggressive and hurtful.
None of us is consistent in matching our actions to our values 100% of the time. But it’s how we live our values that really matters, not what we say they are. How many of us here are committed to assisting the poor because of what we saw our parents do to help others who were in need? It made a much greater impression than what they said to us. Certainly there are occasions when we adopt particular values because we saw glaring examples of their absence in the adults around us. But most often I think it’s seeing moral, community-building behavior in action that forms those values in us. I once heard this compliment given from a child to her father: “You didn’t tell us how to live. You lived and let us watch you do it.” Our devotion to the embodiment of loving, justice-seeking behavior toward others – devotion to living our highest values – is a light for all. We know this. Actually doing it is the challenge.
The book of James has a checkered past. Purportedly written by the brother of Jesus, most scholars believe someone else penned it. Its authorship and theological vigor was so weak that James wasn’t accepted into the western canon until the end of the fourth century. Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw.” Yet “its focus on acquiring wisdom; its attention to problems related to social class; and its emphasis on deeds of mercy serve as an important corrective to the notion that faith and faithfulness are purely personal and internal,” says Perkins. What James demands “is a commitment to simplicity of heart and integrity of purpose that is extraordinarily rigorous.” Are we devoted to simplicity of heart and integrity of purpose? I sure hope so.
Bumper sticker wisdom abounds these days. I’ve come to love the series that began, I think, with the one that says, “Less bark, more wag.” Last week I saw another one: “Less hiss, more purr.” Today I am reminded of one I saw years ago: “Less heat, more light.” In a time when conflict over religion generates violent demonstrations in a dozen countries, the young people among us and those we don’t even know need light from this faith community and from each of us as individuals. They need us to be devoted to a God of love. They need us to be devoted to the truth. They need us to be devoted to actions that reflect our highest values. May the fire of our devotion be so bright that those who follow us can find their way. And maybe it will even keep us from stumbling. That’s what Mom was trying to do through the way she lived her life.