Sermon for Proper 20, Year B September 23, 2018

Jeremiah 11:18-20                            Psalm 54                              James 4:13-4:3, 7-8a                       Mark 9:30-37

In our reading from the letter of James, we are asked, “Who is wise and understanding among you?”  A couple of weeks ago we read in James that faith, without works, is dead.  Today, he says, “Show BY your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”   The wisdom James speaks of is the wisdom that comes from above, from God.  According to James there are two types of wisdom, that which comes from above and that which is “earthly, unspiritual, [and] devilish.”

He calls upon us to “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”  I don’t hear many Episcopalians personifying evil as the devil, but James does here and so do many Christians today.  Despite the fact that I believe that God is within, and a part of, every human being, I cannot deny the fact that we all face temptations.  We often think first of ourselves and seek to satisfy ourselves at the expense of others and our relationship with God.

I like what James writes because he acknowledges this internal struggle that occurs within each of us, and then he challenges us to do what God created us to do – to be a part of something which is greater than ourselves.  We often struggle because it is difficult to look past the moment when we are tempted by things that make us feel good – money, food, power – earthly things.  James reminds us that wise decisions are made with God’s will for us in mind.  These are spiritual decisions that make our lives holy.

Last week someone shared with me a definition of sacrifice that I really like.  We tend to think of sacrifice as doing without – often for the benefit of others.  Thus, when we talk about sacrificial giving, we think that it means we do without something we want in order to give money to help others, or support a cause that is important to us.  Sacrifice, I was told, means to “make holy.”  With this in mind, sacrificial giving takes on a far greater meaning.  When we give of our time, talents, or gifts to the church or another chartable cause, we are making these things (our time, talents, and gifts) holy.  And what is holy?  That which is OF God is holy.

If you believe as I do that God is a part of all of creation, it means that our gifts are not only a way of acknowledging this, it is a way of focusing our lives on Christ.  Remember, James suggests that we use what we have wisely when we use it for the greater good.  Giving of ourselves is a spiritual discipline that enables us to transcend our earthly wants and desires.

Now, we need only read today’s gospel to see just how easy it is to be tempted into following our own desires.  The disciples argue about who among them is the greatest.  Jesus says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says more.  He says, “Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (20:28).”

Mark’s gospel continues with Jesus taking a child into his arms and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  Again and again Jesus demonstrates to us what it means to view ourselves as being a part of something that is greater than ourselves.  When we care for a child, when we welcome the stranger – truly welcome them by inviting them to share in our lives, then we are making a sacrifice of our lives, making our lives holy by giving of ourselves to God. We welcome both the Christ is others and the one who sent Christ – God, the creator of us all.

Please note that this passage begins with Jesus telling his disciplines that he will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again.   Mark tells us they did not understand what he was saying and then, they began arguing about who was the greatest.  Jesus tells them the greatest is the one who is a servant to all, then Jesus picks up a child and says that whoever welcomes the child, “welcomes me . . . and welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

What Jesus says, that welcoming a child, welcomes him, and the one who sent him, is one of the reasons I believe that God is intimately a part of all creation.  Jesus is a part of the child and Jesus is a part of us – just as Jesus is a part of God.  We were not created and abandoned, God is within each of us – but it is up to us to nurture that part of ourselves which is of God.  James speaks of it as spiritual and earthly wisdom, and calls upon us to submit ourselves to God.  He tells us that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  And, a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

One of my favorite stories has a number of variations, but they are all about a Native America Elder sharing the internal struggle he faces.  He says, “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time.” When asked which one wins, he answers simply, “the one I feed the most.”  If we wish for a harvest of righteousness, one that yields peace with our neighbor, then we need to feed the good dog within ourselves.  We need to seek the wisdom from above.  We need to serve others, and we need to welcome others into our lives – sharing what we have with them just as Christ shares himself with us.  These are the lessons of the day for me.  Seek the wisdom from above by feeding Christ who is within me, and care for others by welcoming them into my life – thus making my life holy – a sacrifice unto God.

Let us pray.

          Loving God, your blessings for us are without number.  Help us we pray, to feed the good that is within us, our faith, our hope, and our love, that we might have wisdom from above and work for peace and justice in this world.  Help us to resist the temptations that fill our lives with anger, hatred, greed, false pride, envy, and regret.  Help us then, to use the gifts you have given us to do you will.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.