In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
God only wins if we lose. That’s the take home message for this sermon- God only wins if we lose. Now I don’t mean that there is a contest between you and God, but rather that in the life of discipleship, God’s victory is more important than our own. And paradoxically, if we lose ourselves so that God wins, we too will share in the victory. The rest of the sermon will expand upon that phrase- God only wins if we lose.
Along the way, we’ll explore the themes of servant leadership and true wisdom. There is a wonderful word that is often used in the gospels to talk about Jesus’ walking from place to place- peripateu. In means to walk about in a literal sense, but metaphorically means to conduct your life or take advantage of the opportunities that you have in front of you. So this morning, I’d like to peripateu through this reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark.
Remember last week, Jesus and the disciples were at Caesarea Phillipi, and Jesus tells them that the Messiah must die and be raised up in three days. Peter then tells Jesus that isn’t how it’s supposed to work, and Jesus responds “get behind me Satan.” Then Jesus talks about taking up the cross. The lectionary then skips the first part of chapter 9, which includes the Transfiguration, and then Jesus healing a boy whom the disciples were unable to heal of the demons that plagued him. Our passage today begins with the second of three predictions of the Passion.
The text then says that the disciples were ignorant of what Jesus was saying to them, and they were afraid to ask him about it. Why do you think the disciples were afraid to ask him what he meant?
Perhaps they didn’t want to consider death. Peter had already tried to ask Jesus about this new understanding of the Messiah and he got put in his place. No one wanted to be chastised by the teacher for not getting it. And the disciples loved Jesus. In the same way that sometimes family members go into denial when their loved ones get a terminal diagnosis, maybe the disciples didn’t want to think about the death of Jesus, so they didn’t ask about it.
Or maybe they agreed with Peter, that Jesus was wrong about the Messiah. They rather liked the idea of a strong Messiah who would lead them against Rome. They weren’t very interested in this servant leadership stuff that Jesus seemed to be talking about. They were unwilling to see the world in a new way; they didn’t want the discomfort of changing their worldview. If this was God winning, they didn’t want it.
And this is something that we all struggle with today. Once our minds are made up, we don’t really like to have to change our minds, or consider the fact that we might be wrong in our assumptions. I have a feeling that we’re going to see this played out from both sides in the upcoming presidential debates. Ronald Heifetz is the co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the JFK School of Government at Harvard. He is widely considered to be an expert on leadership, and in one of his books he writes that people and institutions fail because they refuse to change.
This can be said of churches, of political parties, of nations, of universities, of businesses, or of you and me. St. James addresses this very point in the portion of the epistle we read today. He begins “Who is wise and learned among you?” I’m sure a lot of us think that we’re smart, that we’re well informed, so we’re tempted to raise our hands and respond “I’m fairly smart.” But he pushes us further and says “for where jealousy and selfishness are, there will be disorder and all bad things. But the wisdom from above is first pure.” Essentially, if we think we have a monopoly on wisdom or truth, then evil is sure to follow. We put our emphasis on winning, instead of making sure God wins.
So we’ve considered why the disciples were afraid to ask. And in not asking, they missed a great opportunity. We need the questions in our lives of faith. Many a teacher has said that the questions are more than the answers. By not asking the question “Jesus, can you explain this?” the disciples stayed with their assumptions. By not asking the question, they avoided what could have been a very rich dialogue about what the Messiah is, about what it means to be betrayed, to be a servant leader, to be raised after death. But these questions went unasked. There is a great value in communities, whether it’s the twelve disciples or this church, when they work together to ask the questions and wrestle with responding to them.
A great preacher I know often remarked that the reason why it’s so important to come to church is that in worshiping with others, we challenge our assumptions about God. But when we stay home or otherwise avoid conversation, all we’re doing is reaffirming our own suspicions about God. And it is exactly this wisdom that we need to reclaim as people. St. Francis, our nation, our community all need us to challenge our assumptions. In this divisive and toxic election climate, we need more listening, more candidates saying “you know, I learned something today and I’m going to have to rethink my stance on the issue of the day” instead of people digging their heels in and holding irrational and indefensible positions, simply because that’s where they started. They refuse to lose, and so they’ll do and say anything to win, even if that means preventing God’s winning. But God only wins if we lose.
One of the things that I love about the Episcopal Church is our diversity. A lot of churches tend to be rather homogenous in their views and makeup, but the Episcopal Church maintains that all are welcome and we struggle to remain a big tent. Doing so means we have some disagreements, but it’s worth the price. Martin Luther King once remarked that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America; that is a tragedy, because without people who are different than us being here, we lose something- we lose the ability to challenge our suspicions about God. I love the fact that many of you are not going to vote for the same candidate that I will. Because, to be honest, if I knew that you all agreed with me 100%, I’d probably feel free to make some comments about things from the campaign trail this week. And you’d all agree with me, we’d all feel good about ourselves, and we’d be smug. And as James notes, we’d be damned for it. I hope that I challenge your assumptions, because you all challenge mine. And I thank you for that.
I was recently talking to a friend’s parents about his return to church. They commented that they were so glad that he was finally going back to church, even though he left the church he grew up in for a much more evangelical church that lined up with his similarly conservative social views. I agreed that the renewed interest in spirituality is a wonderful thing, but I wasn’t so sure that going to church that simply reinforces what he already thought about God and world was such a good thing. Worship is good, but unchallenged faith isn’t. It’s not good for violent people to worship where they hear radical sermons. It’s not helpful when bigoted people attend churches that preach hate.
When I have Sundays off, I really enjoy going to other churches; churches that I’d never join in a million years. But every time I go, I learn something new about my assumptions. I have to think through my own beliefs and challenge my assumptions.
This is also why interfaith dialogue is so important. In college, I did a lot of coursework in world religions, talking to people that had very different understandings of God. And I didn’t always agree with them in conversation, but was always enriched by them.
One of the most interesting parts of my trip to Israel earlier this year was being in the minority. Christianity is the assumption in America, and especially in south. But in Israel, Christians make up about 2% of the population. Hearing the Islamic call to prayer throughout the day was a new experience, but I learned something about my prayer life in that experience.
There was a professor in seminary that, on the first day of theology classes, said “my job is not to teach the right theology, because only God knows that.” We all fall into the trap of reaffirming our own suspicions instead of challenging them. Let these readings be an invitation to changes sides of the fence, knowing that losing for God is victory. Because if we’ve never changed our minds about anything, then we probably haven’t done much thinking.
So as our story continues, the disciples and Jesus arrive at a house and Jesus begins to interrogate them. He says “as we were walking, what were you debating?” And there was a dead silence, because they had been debating about who was the greatest. Jesus probably knew this, because he speaks right to it, but he gave them the chance to come clean first. I can’t help but wonder what that debate sounded like. Did it go “okay, listen, if Jesus is going to die, this is why I should replace him as leader”? Perhaps because they didn’t understand Jesus’ comments, because they didn’t ask questions, they were arguing about what he meant. They probably all were fighting over their own assumptions, trying to win, instead of listening to what Jesus had told them. Either way, they fought.
And this is exactly what James expects. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” We covet winning- whether it’s a game, an election, an argument, a lane change in traffic, we don’t like to lose. So we do whatever it takes to win; because we’re right, our assumptions are more correct than theirs. We’ll fight, we’ll sue, we’ll scratch and bite, we’ll lie, we’ll cheat, steal, murder. When we do these things to try to win, God loses, and our victory will seem rather shallow. God only wins if we lose.
Jesus then begins the object lesson with the disciples. He takes a child and places it among them and says “If anyone wishes to be first, they will be last of all and a servant of all. The one who receives or welcomes such a child in my name, I receive and welcome.” Or in other words, God only wins if we lose. And when we lose, God wins, and when God wins, we win. It’s simple logic, but not the sort of logic that governs our dog-eat-dog world.
In Jesus’ world, children were viewed differently than they are today. Children today are cute, sweet, and innocent, but 2,000 years ago they were seen as somewhat pitiful. Children were powerless, defenseless, and completely dependent on others. If someone was keeping score, children would lose. And it is exactly this sort of “loser” that Jesus calls us to welcome, or in Matthew’s version of this passage, to strive to be. Jesus realizes that these things are all illusion anyway. As much as we’d like to think we have power, we don’t. We can’t control the weather, we don’t control accidents, we don’t control stock market crashes. Power and security are illusions that become idols which prevent us from trusting in God. So Jesus says, receive the child- rejoice in not having to worry about everything.
Today, of course, children are viewed differently. We praise children for their questioning nature, for their lack of inhibitions in being themselves, for their innate sense of fairness, for their ability to play, for their sense of wonder. One of my favorite parts of my job is handing the Communion bread to children. I absolutely love the sheer joy and mystery on their faces. I am jealous of the way they grab for the bread like it’s their lifeline. I am inspired by the way they shout “I got God!” They don’t care much about winning, but they focus on living.
Jesus confronts the disciples with a very challenging lesson about betrayal and death. And the example that he gives on how to respond to death is to welcome and be like the child in their midst. In the face of death, be helpless, because that’s really all we can be. In the face of betrayal, be the servant.
Servant leadership is the way of discipleship. Instead of arguing about who the betrayer is and how to subdue them, instead of fighting with each other, instead of trying to win first place, Jesus says go to the back of the line and serve. CS Lewis, in a letter to a friend, wrote “we are not kings, we are not senators. Let us beware lest, while we torture ourselves in vain about the fate of Europe (and today you might change this to America or the economy), we neglect either Verona or Oxford (their hometowns and neighborhoods). In the poor man who knocks at my door, in my ailing mother, in the young man who seeks advice, the Lord himself is present: therefore let us wash his feet.” That is servant leadership, serving those in need instead of fighting over the answers about how to fix them.
We, of course, know the line from Isaiah, that in the Kingdom of God “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” The child will lead them not because they speak eloquently, or because they have been properly trained. The child will lead because they are lost in the mystery of God, because they aren’t concerning with winning.
As we go forth from this place today out into the world, let it be with the mind and heart of a servant. Let us remember the lessons from Jesus and the disciples: that community is important because it challenges our assumptions. May God give us the strength and grace to confront our assumptions. Let us welcome and receive the child and the child-like: the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, the abused. Society might call them the “losers,” but in their losing, they are blessed to be free from the game of trying to win at the cost of our soul and sanity. Before we seek to claim truth, or power, or prestige, may we heed this call towards servant leadership, remembering that we are entrusted to build the Kingdom of God, not our own kingdoms. Our world needs more losers, people who are willing to get lost in the wonder and grace of God. God only wins if we lose.