Trinity 16 – James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8 and Mark 9: 30 – 37
Where does the real power lie nowadays? As I am writing this, the government is in the middle of a cabinet reshuffle, and my phone keeps giving me updates about who is in and who is out. Does being in the cabinet confer power upon a person? We tend to think so, but I have spoken to people who have been elected into various offices – not at cabinet level, but certainly to Parliament, and the one thing they have all agreed upon is that once you get there, you quickly realise how little you can actually do.
On the other hand, I find it quite alarming the amount of power that seems to be available to the media, big businesses and social media, particularly as they all seem to be able to choose how much they actually tell the rest of us, taking away our chance of weighing up the evidence for ourselves, and forming our own judgement.
James is quite clear about the wisest course of action, and he doesn’t find it in the seeking of power. As he says in our reading today: if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom ….is earthly, unspiritual, devilish’.
If we look at our reading from the gospel, we can see a development in the story. James, Peter and John have just returned from the mount of the Transfiguration with Jesus to find the other disciples have been unable to heal an apparently epileptic boy who was brought to them by his frantic father. Worse than this, their failure has been witnessed by a large crowd and the religious leaders. As they move on from there, Jesus, for the second time as is recounted in Mark’s gospel, teaches the disciples about what is going to happen to him when they get to Jerusalem, and again they are unable to grasp it. It is easy for us, as we know how things work out, but for them, to be told that the leader whom they have followed and learned from for two or more years is to be executed must appear like a waste of effort. Surely that is not how the story is supposed to end? And what does he mean when he says ‘…after three days he will rise?
The one thing we can say for sure about Jesus is that he never tried to fit in. He was not overtly rebellious, and did not appear to mount any challenge to the powers that be, and yet all his actions went against the norms of society at the time.
When they arrive back at Capernaum, he asks them what they have been talking about on the road. This must have been one of those moments when nobody wants to catch anyone’s eye in case they are put on the spot. They realise that squabbling over who is the best does not show anyone in their best light. The three who went up the mountain with Jesus might have some justification in feeling superior, but you will remember from that story that Peter did not exactly cover himself in glory then either with his well meaning but misguided outburst.
Jesus then explains to them what is really important. First of all, anyone who wants to be great must put themselves last and seek to serve everyone else. In the social hierarchy that the disciples would have understood, Jewish men came at the top of the pile and were definitely way above gentiles and women, while children did not count at all. And yet Jesus is saying that we must put the most insignificant ahead of ourselves if we are to align ourselves with the values of God’s kingdom.
Both James and Jesus are teaching about true power, but neither the disciples, nor probably James’ readers, nor I suspect we have ever really managed to grasp this teaching. It is relatively easy to understand, until you leave the church and go back into the world to see how it works – and it doesn’t work the Jesus way. And yet earlier in this reading Jesus has told us exactly where true power lies – and it is power that is available to us at any time we choose to use it. When the disciples ask him why they were unable to heal the boy Jesus tells them that it only works with prayer.
I wonder how often we pray about the really big things that worry us. Things like world peace, famines, global warming. How often do we pray for our government, or for world leaders in general. How about captains of industry, owners and editors of the news media, sellers of fossil fuels or arms manufacturers and traders. Do we pray for those who are completely beyond the pale – people smugglers, owners of sweat shops, or trafficers of child labour or sex workers? We do mention many of these things in our intercessions in church, but do we remember them in our daily private prayers?: Do I?
Jesus didn’t ever say it was going to be easy, he never said that following him would make us popular. He did say that it was the only way to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom – the one we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Are we brave enough to be different? Or should we continue to be British, to keep our ‘ heads down and hope not to be noticed? Should we accept that things are as they are and there is little we can do to change the whole world?
Two short stories to end with. One of my favourite quotes is ‘If you think you are too small to have an impact, you have never shared a bed with a mosquito’. It has been variously attributed to the Dalai Lama and Anita Roddick, but the origin seems to be an African proverb that both of them have at some time quoted. The second is the story of the small girl who was seen on a beach where thousands of starfish had been washed up and stranded by a storm. One by one she was picking them up and throwing them back into the water. A man on the beach stopped her saying ‘There are thousands of starfish here – you can’t possibly make a difference’ Her only reply was to pick up another starfish, and having thrown it into the sea she said ‘I made a difference to that one’..