Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 11:1-9 and Mark 9:33-37
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Why Jesus? Why are we, over 2,000 years after the life of this poor Palestinian Jew, why are we paying him any mind? Why are we singing and praying to him? Around the time that Jesus lived, there were other healers. We are not here for them. There were other prophets. We are not here for them. There were other would-be messiahs. We are not here for them. There were other miracle workers. We are not here for them. Why Jesus? When you think of how long ago Jesus lived and in such a different world, it’s almost bizarre that we even know that he ever existed. Why Jesus?
I have three ideas to suggest that give some account for why Jesus stood out in his lifetime and continues to do so today. The first is the new vision that
Jesus offered. In his preaching and teaching, Jesus imagined a different reality. The stories he told turned the reality that people knew on its head. We heard an example in the scripture lesson this morning. The disciples are having a conversation that seems entirely natural. Who’s on top? Who does Jesus like the most? That’s hierarchy and competition just as we all see it each and every day. And the response of Jesus in the story? The first will be last; the first will be a slave to all. He completely upsets the apple cart.
Then, Jesus talks about a child. A child? They were not thinking of a child as
someone naive, innocent, impressionable, and eager. In that context a child was of the lowest social standing and worth. Think of the images we have seen recently of the virtually abandoned, helpless, powerless children that are coming here from Central America. They have nothing. They are completely at the mercy of others. Vulnerable and dependent. That’s the kind of child Jesus was referring to. Become like children and you will experience God. There you have it again. Jesus offering a teaching that reveals a completely different reality.
Jesus deconstructs the default settings of the people in terms of their assumptions about the nature of reality including economic identity, hierarchy, patriarchy, religion, racism, gender, and culture. Jesus exposes all of these things for what they are: social constructs. These are all things that we use to categorize, to define, to stratify, and to divide people. In his teachings, Jesus shows that these things don’t have to be accepted. He deconstructs current assumptions and offers an alternative reality.
Jesus shares a vision of a reality in which all people are of equal worth and value as human beings. It is an egalitarian vision in which everyone has a significant role to play. There are no haves and have nots. No privilege. Money does not talk in Jesus’ new vision of reality. Jesus portrays a reality of egalitarian social relationships, material simplicity, non violence, and harmony with nature.
In his new vision, Jesus does not convey a God that keeps score, careful accounts, or maintains a pecking order. Jesus does not teach about a God that punishes. He does not portray the classic warrior God. Jesus does not give us a “Santa in the sky” keeping track of who’s naughty and nice. Jesus deconstructs that God and reveals a God that is forgiving, creative, trusting, vulnerable, and self giving. Jesus shares a new vision of reality based on a new vision of God. He turns the world upside down.
Here are just a few examples from the Gospels that show Jesus revisioning the
social and religious constructs of his time. The widow’s mite. Someone on the
bottom lifted up as a model for those considered above her. The Good Samaritan. The wrong person does the right thing. The prodigal son. Shouldn’t he have been punished for his sin? The workers in the vineyard. The people who work a short time are paid the same as those who labored all day. The sower profligate with the seed. What farmer would waste precious seed on the path, on the rock? There are many other examples which show Jesus challenging the power structure, economic system, the social definitions, and the religious assumptions of his time showing them for the imperfect human constructs that they are and offering a new vision of how life can be.
There were other would be leaders of Jesus’ day who simply worked from the constructs that were there. There were those seeking armed rebellion against the Romans. There were those promoting religious orthodoxy to purify and strengthen religious devotion. There were those who were trying to exercise power within the context as it was. Jesus was changing the game, offering a different reality.
That is one reason Why Jesus? He frees us from the social constructs that produce victims and injustice and oppression and offers an alternative reality that is life-giving and joyful.
Why Jesus? Here’s a second idea that I think explains Why Jesus? Jesus had integrity. His words and deeds, his teaching and living, his saying and doing were consistent. His ideas and visions were completely integrated into his behavior and action. And this is how it was in the Jesus community. In many other leaders, we see their high ideals, their charisma, and it’s compelling, but their actions fall short of those ideals. They say one thing and do another. This undermines the power of their message. But in Jesus, the tradition that we are given shows someone who is completely walking the talk. His message and his lifestyle are in complete alignment.
Jesus didn’t just talk about serving, he served. He didn’t just talk about God having concern for the sick, he had concern for the sick. He didn’t just talk about God’s compassion for the lost, he sought out the lost and invited them in to community. I think that is a second explanation for why his legacy lives; why he is still revered today.
Here’s a third thought about Why Jesus? The tradition that we have about Jesus shows us someone who is completely self giving. He is concerned about others. He is concerned about that state of the world. He is concerned with creating egalitarian community. In the legacy we have of Jesus’ life and ministry and teaching, there is no indication of self interest, of self absorption, of individualism, or entitlement. We get no sense that Jesus is seeking popularity, notoriety, power, or wealth. According to the ways of the world, there is nothing in it for him. As we heard this morning, Jesus is remembered for teaching, the one who is the greatest is the one who serves. Jesus didn’t get a palace, a security detail, a bank account in Switzerland, a private jet, none of it. He got the cross.
While people may not feel a personal desire to emulate Jesus, even those outside of Christianity find Jesus noteworthy for his integrity and his self giving service for no personal gain.
In the community gathered around Jesus, people had an experience of an egalitarian world, where the default settings of status and worth and expectation no longer applied. The message of Jesus ennobled the poor. It was freeing to the rich and those with privilege and status. Everyone was released from the status quo and invited to find new life in self giving service, generosity, justice, and compassion. All were beneficiaries of the love and generosity of God in the very gift of life itself. They experienced an amazing life giving freedom. In the new reality lived out by Jesus and his followers, people experienced divine transcendence and joy.
And people were so moved by the experience of Jesus that they left home, family, job, and even religion, to be part of the Jesus movement. To give themselves to the life of the world. It was powerful beyond anything they could have hoped for or dreamed about.
The three things combined, the new vision, the consistency of words and deeds, and the embodiment of self giving, I think help explain Why Jesus? then. I also think they account for Why Jesus? now, for us.
We, too, need a new vision for a different future. This need comes home to us in the situation of children around the world and in our midst. Yes, there are the vulnerable children like the ones from Central America, the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, the children of Israel and Palestine, and those in poverty areas of the US. Their situation is a travesty. We need a new vision of a world that is safe and nurturing for all children. And at the other end of the spectrum are the children of mainstream American society. They have their own TV channels. There are ads specifically directed at babies. Children are treated as a lucrative consumer market because they have the power to get their parents to buy them things. We have given children immense control and power though not over themselves. This situation, too, is a travesty. This reflects the values and social constructs of our society.
Children today are the product of a society that is individualistic and that has all kinds of matrices of status and place and position and power. Of a society based on hierarchy, privilege, domination, and competition. Do before you get done to. Our society is rife with constructs that define and divide.
And a brief walk through Toys R Us shows us the warring madness of our society. There are rows of toys, games, and video games that encourage and promote violence. You must kill to win. Again, this reflects the values of our society.
We look at our kids and we see that we are consumed with violence, greed, individual entitlement, and self absorption. This is just the kind of world that Jesus deconstructs. His teaching points out the false assumptions that we labor under. We are shown the truth of our folly. We see how we are controlled by social constructs that maintain the status quo for good or ill.
Jesus also offers a new vision for the church. In the church, we have over 2000 years of interpretation, theology, and tradition, that stresses certain themes and perspectives, and that privileges some concepts and people over others, usually to serve human power constructs. We have religious default settings about God, Jesus, Christianity, and other religions. Jesus’ new vision frees us from all of that as well. Our faith tradition challenges us to critique, to examine, to be open, to grow. To be born anew.
Why Jesus today? Because we, like the people of the context of the historical Jesus, need to be confronted and challenged by a teacher who would deconstruct our default settings, our definitions, our carefully constructed economic, religious, and social arrangements and assumptions. The social constructs of our setting cry out for transformation. We desperately need new visions of a different reality. We need freedom from the shackles that bind us.
I get several emails a day from a certain political party. It doesn’t matter which one. And every day, it’s another battle. There has been another attack. There is another call to fight. It is all so antagonistic, polarized, negative, and violent. There is no attempt to create another reality, to change the game, to work for transformation to another model. The names change but the game keeps going. Jesus changed the game. He exposed the reality he saw and offered something else. So, why Jesus? He offers a new vision that recasts reality.
Why Jesus today? We, like the people of Jesus’ day, need leadership and models of integrity. People who don’t just talk, but who act. People who don’t just come to church and sing and pray, but who offer themselves for the life of the world. And we need clergy of integrity who don’t take advantage of others and who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. We need leaders who don’t just speak about peace, but who take the radical risks necessary to create peace. We need leaders who expect more of themselves and people who hold them accountable.
How many politicians today wave the banner that they are Christians, but then have no sympathy for those Central American children? They see no need to help those kids. In their default setting, these children are poor and high maintenance. They drain resources. They are not our responsibility. They are a distraction from the needs of our own kids who are US citizens. So much for their Christian faith and values. They are more interested in being re-elected than in humanitarian concern for these poor, brown children. Why Jesus? We need to aspire to integrity.
Why Jesus today? In our setting of give me, give, me, give me, we need to create a culture of service, giving, and communitarian values. Children should grow up asking themselves How can I serve? What can I do to better the world? What can I do to help someone? Generosity and helping others needs to be valued with no expectation of gratitude or payback. Jesus’ model of giving and service is the antidote we need to the tyranny of the self.
Why Jesus today? Because we still need exactly what Jesus offers. And this is what the church has to offer the world: Communities in which people experience the ministry of Jesus in an intense, transforming way as they did in the first century. Communities that make a powerful witness to new visions for society in which all people are treated equally and deserve to be treated with love, compassion, and respect. Faith communities that are living what they say. Congregations that are oriented to the common good, the needs of the world and not simply self preservation. Communities that are dedicated to service.
In that kind of faith community, people have intense, compelling, transformative experiences of the divine within themselves, each other, and the world. And it is worth giving your life to.
There was a bright spot in the news this week. Amidst all the scrambling around to figure out what do to with these children crossing our southern border, Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, offered two locations in his state to house the children and provide for their needs while the situation is being sorted out. He explains the reasoning for his offer:
I have come down where I have for two main reasons, love of country and lessons of faith.
We are a great Nation. Unlike any other superpower, America’s power, to paraphrase a great man, comes from giving, not from taking. America, and this Commonwealth in particular, has given sanctuary to desperate children for centuries. We have rescued Irish children from famine, Russian and Ukrainian children from religious persecution, Cambodian children from genocide, Haitian children from earthquakes, Sudanese children from civil war, and New Orleans children from Hurricane Katrina. Once, in 1939, we turned our backs on Jewish children fleeing the Nazis, and it remains a blight on our national reputation. The point is that this good Nation is great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children, and diminished when we don’t.
The other reason I have offered our help is more personal, less about patriotism and more about faith. I believe that we will one day have to answer for our actions — and our inactions. My faith teaches that “if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him,” but rather “love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34). We are admonished to take in the stranger, for “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these,” Christ tells us, “you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:43, 45). Every major faith tradition on earth charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated.
I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t and won’t turn to it in moments of human need. And I thank Cardinal O’Malley, Bishop Borders and the many other faith and lay leaders I’ve spoken with for reminding me of that.
This man has experienced Jesus. And he is so moved by that experience of a new reality embodied in service, generosity, and self giving, that he is offering what he can for the well being of these children, poor, vulnerable, defenseless, of little worth or status, regardless of the cost – personal, political, or economic. That’s what happens when you follow Jesus. That’s what it means to be the church. That’s Why Jesus? Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Amen.
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