Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 12th March 2017
May all I speak and all that is heard be breathed into by your loving spirit O God
Mark Chapter 10.
One reason for taking big chunks of the gospel to reflect on is because if we read the gospels in chunks it gives us a chance to see how Jesus’ message hangs together. Reading the gospels over and over in big chunks can make us wilfully deaf and blind people hear and see a little better. So we continue our gallop today through this most breathless of gospels
This chapter starts with Jesus talking to a group he engages with regularly, the Pharisees, the holders of the law. Jesus talks to them on their own ground, challenging them on the technicalities of their beliefs. Jesus never refuses to talk anyone, only surprises and challenges with his answers.
Noticing that Jesus talks to everyone is relevant to the next bit of the chapter which is, at least partly, about Jesus’ message being for everyone equally. The New Testament church learned a tough lesson later about not needing to be Jewish and circumcised to be part of the way of Jesus. The Gospel is for everyone.
We talk a lot about inclusion at All Hallows. We are quite quick to feel excluded and even to say so. But one of the questions I am asking myself at present is, when does my inclusion involve or threaten to involve the exclusion of someone else. The Pharisees included themselves but they excluded others, those who didn’t observe the law. I want to be included – but I have to be careful and humble not to be excluding of others in order for that to happen.
Who does Jesus include next? A group of children. Children, unlike the Pharisees, had no status, and were some of the marginalised and vulnerable in society. Their mothers brought them to Jesus – women and children, two ‘lesser’ kinds of being in all sorts of ways. And the disciples rush over and start saying hey you can’t do that, he’s got better things to do than talk to kids, like perhaps talking to needy adults! True the adults are needy – but including the adults like this means excluding the children.
So Jesus rounds on the disciples and tells them off. He scolds them for daring to say who he will and won’t talk to. No one has an exclusive right to the attention of God. Interestingly not long before Jesus has already explicitly said to them that anyone who welcomes a child in his name welcomes him – and the disciples still don’t get the message. (Another theme – how blind and rubbish at listening the disciples were, – just like us).
Not only must the disciples welcome children, Jesus says, they must be like children in their acceptance of him and the Kingdom he is bringing and is still bringing.
Children are lots of things, and we could linger here for a long time. Children are trusting. They recognise and respond to kindness and attention and they know when they are being fobbed off. In response they are generous lovers. Children don’t question love, they accept it. And they are not afraid – or shouldn’t be – to speak the truth about themselves and their experience. They don’t respect worldly power, they ask daft questions and are often totally astute about people – it was a child who said clearly that the Emperor had no clothes.
But as we are socialised we learn caution and we get hurt and all our child – ness disappears – and we are lucky if it doesn’t happen too soon.
For each of us there is almost always a little child behind the big adult front who usually has some hurts which have built the adult mask. Often it’s about feeling unimportant in some way, or unworthy of something whether that be a job, or being loved or even having food. Or the child may feel ignored or frightened. That child is what Jesus wants us to bring to him to be loved, the child who can, with Jesus, cry, be open and honest, not pretend to be other than we are. We come as children and children are included. That may be the most precious bit of us to God.
Later in the chapter we hear how Jesus calls the disciples his children – can you imagine the twinkle in his eye as he does this, the smile on his face as he lovingly labels them what they have despised? What does Jesus have to name that we despise in ourselves and need to acknowledge and bring for God’s gentle healing? Are we proud? Greedy? Dominating? Selfish? Whatever…the child can be loved and healed.
The theme of upside down inclusion goes on as Jesus meets a rich young ruler. Let’s pay attention to each of those words. This man was young, full of hope and energy. He was rich – and presumably had grown up rich. He was a ruler – again inherited, we presume. He was a fabulous young man, who Jesus loved. But he was used to power – note his question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do ……
Jesus in his infinite perception says to him you cannot do anything at all – and yet you have to do everything. Eternal life isn’t a contract. You have to come into a relationship with me which gives up all your attempts to control. You have to give up being your version of being adult and become my child and walk with me. And it’s not possible and the young man was sad.
Why did this lovable rich young ruler not want to give up his wealth? It may have been for very good reasons about the family. We can’t imagine him as a greedy or avaricious or anything else. Maybe he needed the money to keep his parents as they deserved? To look after his orphaned nephews and nieces? Or whatever. But there was one more step. Money is power. It lets us feel we control our lives, and Jesus says no you can’t come with me and do that.
This is such an amazing story. Two people who really like each other go their separate ways, Jesus to die, the young ruler to go on ruling in wisdom and in kindness and in power and without the kingdom. Jesus is uncompromising, even though he loved him.
How can it be possible to give up our wish to dominate, to be exclusive, to control, the disciples ask, under the guise of talking about rich people? The killer line of this chapter is here: the seriousness of it is underlined by the phrase ‘Jesus gazed at them’. ‘With human resources it is impossible but for God everything is possible’.
With God it is possible. The young ruler could have given up his wealth. Our screaming inner child can be loved. How often do we say to Jesus I can’t do that and it makes us sad and dissatisfied – but we don’t do it, because we want to hang on to our illusions of control, to exclude part of us.
I confess this is where I stumble again and again. I want desperately to feel that I’ve done all I should for God, that I won’t be scolded for not being perfect. There is a child in me who was always made to feel guilty about not having done enough – the expectations were always there. I’m a psychologist, I’ve had therapy had wise spiritual directors and still that nagging little voice says Jesus won’t love you if you don’t work hard. It’s not true… Jesus is always trying to break down our adult shells, to get us to trust him. With God it is possible…. not easy, but possible.
Peter, another man who Jesus loved, stands up for the disciples. I love people who argue with Jesus – Debbie’s sermon a few weeks back talked about the woman who demanded a crumb from Jesus…’’We have done that, we have left everything and trusted you’ he says. And Jesus says yes I know and you will get your reward including persecution. I’m going to show you how to do that too, I’m going to be killed. This is the way – walk in it. And trust me. With God everything is possible.
Much of Jesus’ ministry was about showing the nature of the upside down Kingdom, through his way of being, because the disciples are so slow to catch on. Here he’s trying to tell them and they are walking to Jerusalem and he wants friends who will walk with him. And what do they do in response to the teaching about giving up power and control and being trusting like children? They have an argument about who is going to be tops in the kingdom. It’s unspeakably hard for Jesus.
So he went back, at the end of the chapter, to patiently and lovingly showing them how things are.. He gave Bartimaus his sight, as much as to say to the disciples look look look this is how it is. The despised are included in the healing….the kingdom of God’s love is for everyone who has faith, who trusts me completely, and I will exclude no one, not the clever, not those who think they are right, not those who have worldly power, not those who are marginal in society, not those inner bits of you which you are ashamed of. And in return we have to follow Jesus to Jerusalem and be willing to let his love really really hit us, to know we too are not excluded.