Sunday, September 23, 2018
Lonely Places (Sermon)
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.”
32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”(NRSV)
Introverts usually crave them.
Extroverts usually fear them.
In lonely places, flying solo with our daydreams and nightmares, we can come to fresh understandings and energies, or we can come undone. The irony is that fresh new understandings and energies often require a certain degree of undoing. Therapists, tribal elders, the Holy Spirit, and other teachers often guide individuals or groups into lonely places for coming-undone experiences that lead to growth, transformation, and healing.
Led himself by the wisdom pulsing at the heart of creation, Jesus seems to know that when his disciples face their rabbi’s death, they will, in some way, come undone. So, he keeps their journey through Galilee a secret. He shepherds them through remote places because coming undone is much more effectively and healthfully accomplished beside still waters.
Jesus learns this for himself at his temptation. He goes into the wilderness alone and faces all the selfish possibilities lying at his fingertips. It takes everything he has to push through the seductions of pride, and for his temptation to become a beneficial undoing.
I think that when the disciples begin to imagine that Jesus may actually die, they face temptations similar to those that Jesus overcomes. They begin to imagine who gets to be in charge after his death.
“What were you arguing about on the way,” asks Jesus. An embarrassed silence surrounds them. Out in that lonely place, confronting the reality of life without Jesus and the hope he represents, the disciples have already begun trying to fill the void of uncertainty, to wrangle their way into ascendancy. As Jesus leads his followers through the valley of the shadow of death, they turn this terrifyingly gracious, lonely-place experience into a childish political primary.
And Jesus shakes his head saying, Have you guys heard nothing I said? To lead others, one must have a servant heart. True greatness is about humility.
Then, Jesus picks up a child and says, Listen, how you welcome a child reflects how you welcome me, and not only me, but God, who sent me.
The image of Jesus holding a child is meant to scandalize first-century readers. Children represent a responsibility that lies well beneath the concerns of most self-respecting men. Jesus is leading his followers into yet another lonely place where accepted arrangements are breaking down. And he illustrates the difference between humiliation and humility. Humiliation shames and devalues other people, usually for the purpose of dominating them. And humility recognizes, intentionally, the image of God in others. Humility values self and the other equally.
“For by the grace given to me,” writes Paul, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” (Romans 12:3) Paul goes on to say that we’re all members of one body. Only in humility can we accept, appreciate, and love one another as unique and vital members of the same body. To live humbly requires an often-painful transformation. Biblical literature uses the stark metaphor of death to describe that transformation. And virtually all deaths, metaphorical and literal, include some kind of lonely-place sojourn – if not for the one who dies, then for those who feel the loss.
Many primitive cultures created lonely places. One day during my grandfather’s experience with terminal cancer, he told his daughter, my mother, “Now I understand why the Indians used to take their old people out into the woods and leave them to die.”
While those heart-breaking words reveal the weight of one man’s suffering, they also reveal how burdensome good intentions can be on someone in the midst of suffering.
We often surround those who suffer with food, small talk, attention to household chores, flowers, Helen Steiner Rice, and expectations of a valiant fightagainst disease or grief. While we may intend such things as expressions of love and grace, they can become attempts to control and avoid. They can become ways to argue with mortality about who is the greatest. Sometimes the most comforting presence in the face of suffering is that friend who sits silently and patiently with us, that friend who resists the temptation to cloak suffering with layers of words, that gifted friend who, like the angels and wild beasts of Jesus’ temptation, simply waits on us. They wait while we, as the old spiritual declares, walk that lonesome valley by ourselves.
Any argument with mortality, like any argument about relative greatness, is the stomachache that follows a feast on the poisonous fruit of pride. Pride may be the seminal offense from which all other sins arise. I say that because it seems to me that all transgressions germinate in a person’s or a group’s attempt to assume superiority over others, over circumstances, or over God. Pride’s opposing virtue is humility – the gift of seeing and celebrating the equal beauty and value of all people. So, it makes sense for Jesus, while holding a child, to tell a bunch of prideful, first-century men that to be truly great, we must first learn humility.
Ravenously competitive and fearful cultures make pride a virtue, so, humility does not come easy. It requires a spiritual death. And nothing can bring pride to its knees, nothing can make pride come undone like experiences of acute loneliness and vulnerability.
In foretelling his death, Jesus prepares his disciples for an experience of dire poverty. They will need each other. And they will not be able to carry on Jesus’ work without humbly depending on fellow servants, whoever they may be.
It comes as no surprise that in the very next story in Mark, we hear the disciples complain to Jesus about a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name.
We tried to stop him,they say. He wasn’t one of us.
And Jesus stuns them with a rebuke:Why in God’s name did you do that? Why are you still trying to argue about greatness? Whoever is not against us is for us! Humbly welcome their help!
When confronting our limits as human beings, when realizing that we’re not so great as we’d like to think, the Spirit leads us into a lonely place to die a healing death. As often as we find ourselves striving for greatness, victorious “rightness” over one another, we must die that death.
Lonely journeys into humility and service reveal the indescribable value, the wholeness, and the purpose unique to ourselves, to those around us, and to the communities which God creates through us.
May we all enter places of transforming loneliness through which we become one body, a body who does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly with God and with God’s son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.