Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don’t think it speaks particularly well of human nature or our current discourse, that we seem to take such glee in seeing arrogant people hoisted with petards of their own hubris. Schadenfreude is not, as the youngsters say, a “good look.” I am not immune. I took some perverse pleasure in watching one of the recent documentaries about the Fyre Festival, the 2017 music festival “planned” (to use the word very loosely) my con-man Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. It was, I confess, rather cathartic seeing shallow people with more money than sense having to go through some discomfort and knowing that McFarland was sent to prison. So, I get it. I get how people feel giddy about Michael Avenatti getting locked up or watching Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes moving toward the same fate. This is understandable, but it is not good for our souls, I assure you. Schopenhauer thought it was the worst trait in human nature, “an infallible sign,” he said, “of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness.” If you’re not a fan of Nineteenth Century German philosophers, I’m not either for what it’s worth, but you should be a fan of Scripture, which says essentially the same thing in Proverbs 24:17 and 18

Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth, lest the Lord see it, and it displeases him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

I say all this as a way to caution us as we consider Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples for their argument about who was greatest.

When we read Scripture, I think it is important to take note of whom we are identifying with. This is one of those questions that, at least in my day, ordinands were often asked by bishops and Commissions on Ministry and Standing Committees and the like. “With whom do you particularly identify in the bible?” I suppose one is asked this question to weed out those whose God complex might be revealed by answering “Jesus, of course.” It’s worth asking ourselves, too. With whom did you identify in the Gospel lesson we just heard: Jesus, the petulant disciples, or the child whose simple faith is sufficient to inherit the Kingdom?

If our immediate response is “boy, I really loved how Jesus took those disciples down a peg!”, as it usually is for me, we’ve got to be really careful. I’ve got to be really careful, because probably most of the time I’m more like the haughty disciple than I’d like to admit. Most of the time, probably, I’m the one who needs to be taken down a peg.

We might not recognize the full force of this “take down” in today’s Gospel because of an important cultural difference between contemporary culture and that of the First Century. We tend, these days, to both romanticize and privilege childhood. We wish we could see the world through the curious eyes of our kids, and we appreciate that they need support to grow, and parents (I’ve been told) can spend a great deal of time, energy, and money curating the early years of their progeny. This is neither altogether good nor altogether bad, of course, but it is certainly very different from how a bunch of first century Palestinian Jewish dudes would have seen it. To them, and to most people until relatively recently, children would have been seen as little adults who weren’t terribly good at being efficient members of the household; they might well die, so one shouldn’t get to attached, but eventually the kid might grow into a good farmer or fisherman or whatever. I’m not making a normative claim here; that’s just how it was. If I were to make a normative claim, I might suggest that there is a happy medium somewhere between the putatively benign neglect of the ancient world and the helicopter parenting of some contemporary societies, but not having children it is very easy to get dangerously out of my own lane here.

The point is that when Jesus pulls the child into the scene, his audience, the disciples, would not have been been put in mind of some idealized view of innocence and simplicity. Instead, they would have seen a figure whose place is society was considered rather marginal and who, at best, had merely the potential of being considered useful or important. And even that’s a long shot. Jesus, I think, is saying, this kid has so little social status that it wouldn’t occur to him to be arrogant or presumptuous. That’s what a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

You’ve all heard me say that it’s not our job to build the Kingdom of God; that presuming we can is like the hubris of the disciples or, for that matter, of Billy “Fyre festival” McFarland. Thank God, because I was promised mansions and feasts and King David leading the choir, not FEMA tents and cold cheese sandwiches and rock bands that cancel last minute. Even so, as a people set part, whose primary citizenship is in heaven, we are called to try to live a little bit like we’re already there. I think Jesus is telling us today that this means trying to live without hubris and the will to power and everything that makes us feel like we might somehow be greater or more important in the grand scheme of things than the least of our brothers or sisters. St. Gregory of Nyssa put it this way:

Let vanity be unkown among you. Let simplicity and harmony and a guileless attitude weld the community together. Let each remind himself that he is not only subordinate to the brother at his side, but to all. If he knows this, he will truly be a disciple of Christ.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.