Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Seeking greatness


Many aspire to greatness. And even if we do not aspire to greatness, without ambition few of us would achieve very much. This morning’s gospel offers practical lessons in ambition and the goals for which we should be ambitious.

James and John seek Jesus out in private.[1] They begin, I suspect, somewhat abashedly, by asking Jesus to grant any request they make.[2] In this they are like children with a parent, or a sailor with a chief, when the requester knows that the request isn’t quite right and is likely to be denied. You know the feelings I’m talking about, I am sure. We have all tried this technique at least once or twice.

Matthew reports that James and John were even more subtle. They did not go by themselves to see Jesus, but went with their mother and had her ask Jesus.[3] Some scholars suspect that Matthew’s account may reflect an effort to make James and John look less ambitious, less political, instead portraying them as saintlier.

In any case, the gospel seems a clear rejection of “office politics.” The path to true greatness does not consist in networking, currying favor, having more “face time” than anybody else, or in changing our attitudes, values and opinions to match the prevailing wind. If honest, most of us try “politics” to get what we want from our parents, our spouse, our co-workers, our boss, and our friends at least some of the time. The twinge of conscience which I hope we feel when we use these tactics is God reminding us that these tactics are wrong and are not the path to greatness.

More surprising than Jesus’ rejection of politics as the path to preferment is Jesus’ rejection of advancement on the basis of achievement. Once James and John have asked Jesus to sit at his right and left, Jesus asks if they will be able to drink from the cup from which he is to drink and to be baptized with the baptism with which he will be baptized.[4]

From the vantage point of the twentieth century, these are clearly allusions to Jesus’ crucifixion. James and John do not seem to have grasped what Jesus was talking about. The word used for baptism in this verse means submerged. In other words, Jesus asks James and John, are you able to be submerged into my life? Are you, are we, able to face every test and trial which Jesus faced?

James and John glibly reply, “We are able.”[5] Jesus acknowledges that they indeed are able to drink from his cup and receive his baptism, but that this does not qualify them for preferment in God’s kingdom.[6]

With God, we know that selections for preferment or promotion are not capricious. We know that God loves us too much to arbitrarily choose one person over another. And while the criteria for selection remain mysterious, we know that they are neither based on spiritual politics or ability, skill, accomplishments or merit. God chooses whom God will favor.[7] We also know that humans have a role in determining what happens. Apparent capriciousness or blatant unfairness point to human actions, not to what God has done or is doing.

While God has chosen those whom God will favor, the path to greatness is clear: the one who would be great must be the servant of all, and the one who wishes to be first among all must be the slave of all. This is diametrically opposed to the prevalent notion that the path to greatness consists of positions of prominence, prestige and power.

To seek to be the servant of all is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. God could have responded to sin in many different ways: by destroying all creation, wiping the canvass clean; by abandoning creation, throwing the partially finished canvass on a cosmic trash heap; or by patiently, lovingly reworking the details until each part was perfected, creating a living masterpiece. This was the course God chose. Jesus points the way to perfection, the way of sacrificial love which takes God as its center and finds fulfillment in others.

During the terrible Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of this century (the leaders were so nicknamed because they practiced gymnastics and calisthenics), the “boxers” captured a mission station, then placed a flat cross on the ground. They gave instruction that those who trampled the cross as they came out of the building would be set free; those who walked around the cross would be executed. The first seven students trampled the cross under their feet and were released.

But the eighth student, a young girl, knelt beside the cross and prayer for strength. Then she slowly walked around the cross to face the firing squad. Strengthened by her example, every one of the more than ninety other students followed her to death.[8] This young student’s ambition of faithfulness brought her true greatness. May God grant us the same courage and faithfulness.



[1]Mark 10:41.
[2]Mark 10:35.
[3]Matthew 20:20-23.
[4]Mark 10:38.
[5]Mark 10:39.
[6]Mark 10:39-40.
[7]Mark 10:40.
[8]Erwin W. Lutzer, Where Do We Go From Here? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), 45.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Preventing sexual assaults


An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me some comments and questions about preventing sexual abuse:

With so much going on about sex assaults, it is time for the church to get involved. Since few parents talk about protection, evidently, then having the church offer classes on behaviors and power may make all congregants wiser. Including how to protect both men and women would be a good start. The classes need to definitely include going Dutch when going out and not trusting others buying you drinks, food or gifts. Would discussing what to do if encountering a potential situation in which assaults might occur avoid assaults from happening?

These lessons may not stop determined assailants but might lessen the probability of it happening.

Churches, frequently under the auspices of local ecumenical or interfaith groups, used to offer sex education classes. In the 1960s many school districts refused to conduct sex education classes. In some areas, churches and other religious congregations banded together to offer these classes. Participation by the Roman Catholic Church frequently depended upon whether the classes would address issues on which the Roman Catholic Church’s position differed markedly from mainline Protestant and Jewish groups. These issues included abortion, artificial birth control and pre-marital sex. Fundamentalist Protestant groups usually refused to participate for their own reasons.

When sex education became part of the curriculum in most school districts, the courses offered by ecumenical and interfaith groups ended. Another factor that contributed to the decline were a spreading confusion about sexual ethics, e.g., when if ever is pre-marital sex moral. Nevertheless, a few congregations still offer sex education classes, especially fundamentalist congregations.

The Ethical Musings’ reader is right. Churches and other religious groups need to resume offering sex education classes. Among the topics these classes should cover are:

·       Debunking cultural stereotypes such as “boys will be boys” for the shams that they are

·       Exploring what it means for people of different gender and gender orientations (i.e., all people, whether heterosexual or LGBQT) to respect the dignity of one another in general and when in an intimate relationship

·       Learning to see the image of God in each person, especially one’s partner

·       Basic physiology and sex education (subjects no longer taught in many schools as a consequence of the culture wars)

·       Alternatives for birth control (abstinence may often be the best option but presuming that sex will never occur is absurd; this may also be good information after formation of relationships in which sex is appropriate)

·       Responsibilities to one’s sexual partner, including informing them of any sexually transmitted diseases one may have and mutual responsibility for birth control

·       Setting and maintaining boundaries, both emotional and physical

·       Steps to help ensure one’s safety in romantic relationships (dating, hooking up, online dating, etc.)

·       Why is abortion so controversial? When does life begin? Is abortion ever moral? If so, when and how should an abortion be performed?

Sex is basic in a human’s life. Sexual drives are powerful (Freud got this right, even if he was wrong about the details and much else). When the Church is mostly silent about sex, why should we expect young people, for whom sexuality looms so large, to attend?

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Whoever is nor against us is for us


A Sunday School teacher was describing how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt when a boy interrupted, “My Mom looked back once while she was driving,” he declared triumphantly, “and she turned into a telephone pole!”[1]

Jesus has been described as the most tolerant person who ever lived. His words are striking: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”[2] Biblical scholars regard this as an authentic teaching of Jesus because his disciples preserved it even though its openness would have assuredly made them uncomfortable.[3]

The disciples’ discomfort is understandable. Humans share an innate proclivity to belong to well-defined groups such as a family, clan, nation state, sports team, or religious body. It’s unsurprising that the Church gradually shifted away from the openness so clearly expressed in the gospel, constricting “into a rigid, restrictive and exclusive system of belief.” Every question had only one right answer.[4] Commitment to doctrinal conformity was a primary catalyst for eastern and western Christianity splitting and for innumerable efforts to root out heretics: Gnostics and Manicheans in Christianity’s early years, the Inquisition’s persecution of Cathars and other dissidents, and burning Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the first Book of Common Prayer at the stake as a heretic.

In the reading,[5] the disciples complain to Jesus that someone else had cast out a demon in his name. Jesus did not soothe their angst. Instead, he responded with an unexpectedly inclusive vision of Christian community and identity: “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Jesus scandalized his contemporaries by eating with Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and, most notoriously, the dirty, non-religiously-observants peasants. One contemporary echo of this “deed of power” that welcomed everyone to the table is rejecting contemporary social polarizations, for example, by numbering both Republicans and Democrats among your friends

Jesus outrageously heeded not only the pleas of Jews but also of non-Jews for healing. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is learning to see God at work throughout the cosmos, lovingly healing, guiding, and empowering Episcopalians, non-Anglican Christians, non-Christians, and the non-religious.

Jesus shocked people by respecting and valuing women, treating them as humans rather than as chattel, talking to them and befriending them. A contemporary echo of this “deed of power” is the Church removing gender and gender orientation as barriers to ordination and/or marriage. Another echo is to stop treating anyone, especially women, as sex objects instead of as humans. Every individual incarnates God’s image and is worthy of respect and dignity.

Jesus sent his disciples into the world with only the clothes on their backs, confident that the persons to whom the disciples ministered would generously support the disciples out of gratitude for the acceptance, love, and spiritual gifts received from the disciples. An echo of this “deed of power” is discarding our traditional reliance upon fear to motivate people to commit, at least superficially, to Christianity and then using guilt to manipulate believers to give of their time, talent, and treasure to the Church. The Church will truly thrive only if it faithfully lives into Jesus’ teachings, helping people connect with God.

The human Jesus surely enjoyed his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But Jesus recognized the fallacy of trusting his desires for the future, praying to God not my will but yours be done. He trusted God’s leading. An echo of this “deed of power” is our looking inward and seeing that we are works in progress. We may be less honest, less humble, less just, and less courageous than we think. Our most cherished theological and political beliefs may be wrong. Our self-image as a person who honors the dignity and worth of all may clash with deeply held prejudices of which we may be only dimly aware. Listening to the stories of women, members of the LBGQT community, and the marginalized underscores our need for humility and seeing ourselves as works in progress.

The notion that salt might lose its saltiness can easily puzzle us. First century Palestine was a poor area. People often obtained their salt from Syria, buying a cheap, chemically unstable form of salt that when exposed to rain and sun, or stored in a damp house, lost its saltiness. Jesus commends the more expensive, chemically stable salt, a metaphor for people who by their values and examples consistently heed his teachings.[6]

In an old eastern fable, a man possessed a magic ring set with a wonderful opal. Whoever wore the ring became so sweet and true in character that everyone loved him. The ring was always passed down from father to son, and always did its work. Then the ring came to a father with three sons whom he loved equally. What was he to do when the time came to pass on the ring?

The father had two identical copies of the original ring made. On his deathbed, he called each of his sons to him in turn, told each he loved them, and to each, without telling the others, gave a ring.

When the three sons discovered that each had a ring, a great dispute arose as to which was the true ring that could do so much for its owner. They took the case to a wise judge. He examined the rings and then spoke. "I cannot tell which is the magic ring," he said, "but you yourselves can prove it."

"We?" asked the sons in astonishment.

"Yes," said the judge, "for if the true ring gives sweetness of character to the man who wears it, then I and all the other people in the city will know the man who possesses the true ring by the goodness of his life. So, go your ways, and be kind, be truthful, be brave, be just in your dealings, and he who does these things will be the owner of the true ring."[7]

May we be good salt performing deeds of power, quick to offer a cup of water to the thirsty, quick to embrace neighbors near and far, ever mindful of Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Amen.



[1] Source unknown.
[2] Mark 9:41.
[3] Cf. Edward J. Mally, “The Gospel According to Mark,” §59, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, et. al. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968).
[4] Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby and Stephanie Spellers, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition (New York: Seabury, 2010), Kindle Loc. 249-52.
[5] Mark 9:38-50.
[6] The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), pp. 819-820.
[7] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: Mark (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), Vol. 2, p. 12.