The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday September 23, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

From time to time when I’m shopping I will see a kid have a complete meltdown.  Maybe they are tired, or hungry, or bored or maybe they just really, really want the toy that their parent has said they can’t have. Whatever the reason, they are done, and they express their feelings with tears, loud cries, and flailing limbs.

And usually when I witness this sort of meltdown, one of my main thoughts is, “Wow. I wish it was still socially acceptable for me to behave like that.”

Because I still feel like that sometimes – done. At the end of my rope. And I wonder if I might just feel a lot better if instead of using the more “adult” coping mechanisms the world has insisted I develop as I’ve gotten older, I just had a full on meltdown and then dusted myself off instead.

I wonder about it, but I’ve never had the courage to test the theory out.

At least not in public.

In our reading from James we learn that wisdom that comes from God, and not the world, will lead to mature behaviour, and that the same is true if we decide to be friends with God, instead of with the world. So, perhaps, it’s not that I’m too afraid to see what would happen if I had a public meltdown, perhaps I’m actually a wise friend of God.

This morning I was preaching at the church that I attended when I was 17. I haven’t been back since then, and it was a bit disconcerting to imagine a group of people who, if they remembered me at all, remembered me at 17.  It had me thinking a lot this week about growth and maturity.

I also re-read a sermon series I wrote on James about 15 years ago thinking I could re-cycle some of that material, only to find that I couldn’t.  The way I preach has changed a lot since then.

Feel free to thank me after the service for the fact that my average sermon clocks in at about 14 minutes these days, not 45.

Today’s lengthy passage from James and our gospel reading from Mark both contain themes of wisdom, growth and understanding.  James asks “Who is wise and understanding among you?” and Mark tells us yet another story of Jesus trying to teach the disciples, and the disciples not understanding what he is trying to tell them.

Is it wisdom that keeps me from throwing myself on the grocery store floor crying, “I have had a horrible day and now they are out of my favourite kind of chips? Whhhhhy?”


Or maybe I don’t have temper tantrums in grocery stores because I have found other ways to deal with those feelings.

Because as cathartic as screaming in a grocery store might be, I can also just log into one of my social media accounts and update my status.

I can post my temper tantrum online and get instant gratification.

People will click “like” and write kind words and I’ll feel so much better.

My status will determine my mood.

In our gospel reading, the disciples are also discussing how their status will affect them. Not their Facebook status, of course, but their status in the new kingdom that Jesus is going to bring about.

Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Galilee and Jesus is explaining to them that he is going to be betrayed, die, and three days later, rise again.

He isn’t speaking in riddles or parables this time either; he is laying out the facts as clearly as he can.

And they still don’t get it.

And they argue about which one of them will have the most privileged positions in the new kingdom.

Jesus is trying to teach them what true greatness looks in the counter cultural kingdom he has come to bring about.

He is beginning to challenge their notions of greatness, of what kind of Messiah he is, of what kind of kingdom he has come to usher in. He is teaching them about how this new kingdom will be established and extended.

These are challenging teachings. The disciples don’t get it. Years later, the people who James is writing to still haven’t fully grasped them, and when I look around the world today, I don’t think we have fully grasped them either.

Although it is not always the case, on this day, the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus questions so they argue about status, about which one of them is the greatest instead.

Do you ever do this? You encounter something troubling and rather than deal with it directly you change the subject. Or you hear something you don’t understand, but you’re afraid to ask a question? Possibly because you do not want to look dumb in front of someone you admire. Possibly because you’re also afraid what the answer to your question may be.

Just this week I heard a story about a person who lived for over a decade as if they had HIV/AIDS because they were so afraid that they might have it, that they didn’t want to go to a doctor.  It was just too scary to think about.

I also talked to someone else, who, when faced with a serious problem, will quickly and subconsciously scan the situation for the piece they feel the most comfortable with and focus exclusively on that.  Their boat is sinking and the latch holding the cabin door in place is coming loose? Time to bail water or jump ship? Nope. Time to grab a screwdriver and fix that latch.

Maybe it’s easier to argue about who will be the greatest in the new kingdom Jesus has come to bring about than to think about all of the things that will have to happen in order to establish that kingdom, including the death of someone they love.

At the end of the day, Jesus and the disciples are inside a house and Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about on the road, and they are silent. (33-34)

This is the silence of shame. The silence of a kid who has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

It seems like the disciples know that they should be embarrassed about arguing about their relative status, even if they might not be able to fully articulate why that is.  Their silence seem to indicate that they know their talk of greatness is out of step with who Jesus is, with where he is going, and with where he wants to take them.

When they argued about who was the greatest, they were still thinking about worldly categories of greatness. They were still thinking as the world thinks, valuing what the world values.

We can see this in the fact that they are setting themselves up for greatness through self-promotion.  Presumably when they are arguing about greatness, they are setting themselves up as the greatest. It’s not clear, but I suspect that their argument on the road didn’t look like Matthew arguing passionately that Peter was the greatest and Peter arguing with equal vehemence that, “No, no, Matthew, I’m not the greatest, you are!”  I don’t think it looked like that. I suspect it looked more like self-promotion. Like boasting.

And what felt right and natural as they were walking during the day feels uncomfortable when Jesus questions them about it and so they fall silent.

Jesus doesn’t chastise or rebuke them, rather he continues to teach them about his definition of greatness, a greatness that is not reflective of the world’s values.

In the world’s eyes, greatness is often determined by how high up you are on the chain of command. If you have more people serving you than you have to serve, you are on the road to greatness.  If you don’t need to serve anyone and everyone is required to serve you, you have achieved true worldly greatness.

But Jesus says that in his kingdom, that order is reversed and greatness is determined by how many people you serve. Greatness is shown in humble, self-sacrificial service to others.

James will put this in the context of a binary. You can either be friends with God or the world, not both. (4:4) You can either choose earthly wisdom or the wisdom that comes from above, not both. Earthly wisdom leads to envy, selfish ambition, disorder and wickedness of every kind. (3:15) Wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (16)

The disciples fall silent at Jesus’ question. And then Jesus takes a child from the margins of the group and moves that child not only to the center, but into his arms as well saying “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (37)

Three years ago when Jamie preached on this same passage, he noted noted: “A child in that world had no status, no rights, really no claim on a role until they hit the age of 13 when the moved into adulthood – as sons or daughters of the Torah.

Yet Jesus takes the status-less child – property of the parents – and he says “now treat this child with dignity, welcome this child in its full humanity and when you do that you are welcoming me, and not only me, but the God who sent me.

Live that way, do that, see people that way and the lie of selfish ambition and self absorbed striving is unveiled.” (Jamie Howison)

I think I have heard this part of the story and seen images of a gentle blonde Jesus surrounded by rosy-cheeked children so many times that it’s easy for me to just gloss over this story.  Jesus loves sweet obedient children, this I now, for the Bible tells me so. I should try my best to behave like one.

I have heard this so many times that it doesn’t have a lot of impact anymore and so this week I have tried to imagine the story from a few different angles to see if there is something new it might have to teach me.

I would, for example, love to know what this experience was like for the child in question. One minute you’re playing quietly in the corner, and the next minute your parents’ houseguest has picked you up and plunked you on his lap in the middle of the assembled adults.  What did that feel like?

Last week at our 4pm service Jonny was telling the story and lovingly holding his son throughout and then, Jonny suggested that maybe Jesus gave that child didn’t just lovingly hold that child, maybe Jesus was also a bit more playful and gave him a noogie.

That’s also a spin on the story I’d never thought of before and it got me thinking more about that child’s actual experience and less about their role as passive object in an object lesson.

So what if, what if, that child hadn’t been playing peacefully in the corner? What if part of the reason Jesus picked up that child was because the child had started to throw a full on temper tantrum and it had distracted Jesus?

What if the child Jesus has chosen as an illustration of greatness is actually a sobbing, snotty nosed kid mid meltdown?

What does that do to our understanding of this story?

Does it, perhaps, say to the disciples that they don’t have to get stuck in a shame cycle or worry about asking foolish questions of Jesus because greatness can sometimes look like a bit of a mess?

Does it open up an invitation to help us realize that what Jesus is calling the disciples to– and by extension each one of us to – is full participation? It’s a call to bring all of who we are, and not just the nice, well behaved bits.

Does it help us to recognize that while, perhaps we shouldn’t throw temper tantrums in grocery stores we also shouldn’t push past the thoughts and feelings that make us uncomfortable?  We don’t need to repress them or be afraid to bring them to Jesus?

Maybe. I hope so. It did for me this week.

It was also helpful to be chewing on these ideas from Mark while also reading James’ call to grow and mature by making wise choices.

Because, when it comes down to it, I don’t think I actually want to throw temper tantrums in public. I like to think I have matured past that type of behavior, but I also want to find ways to healthily acknowledge the sorts of feelings that could lead to a public meltdown.  To honour them, not just repress them or feel ashamed of them. That’s what I’m actually looking for.

I’m likely not going to get it right on the first try, but I know I’m in good company. The people James is writing to and the disciples usually follow a pattern of trial and error and error as well. In the next chapter of Mark the disciples will be turn away little children who are being brought to Jesus (10: 13) and James and John, still focused on earthly status, will pull Jesus aside to ask if they can sit at his right and left hand. (10:37)

Even with Jesus’ patient and consistent teaching, it is hard for the disciples to let go of their worldly paradigm. It’s hard for them to begin to think and act differently than they have been taught to think and act their entire lives.

I do believe that some of Jesus’ message is starting to sink in, but it’s sinking in very, very slowly and it will result in slow change, not instantaneous transformation.

Which is encouraging.

Jesus is trying to tell the disciples, and by extension each one of us, to welcome those who do not have any status in our culture.  People who, like the child on his lap, have no status, nothing to offer, nothing to bring to the party. Why should we waste our time on people like that?

Because in God’s kingdom all are valued and are valuable.  (Paul White)

And that goes for each one of us. Later Jesus will tell us not only to welcome children, but to be like children. (10:15)

And when Jesus is calling us to be like a child – he doesn’t just mean the nice bits of being a child. Jesus is calling all of us.

The quarrelling, squabbling versions of us that James is finding so frustrating. The continually missing the point and wondering who is going to be the most important bits of us.

The too afraid to ask the questions parts of us.

Jesus welcomes all of us, sees us, loves us, embraces us.

May we learn to do the same – for ourselves, and for others.