Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
September 23, 2018
Great Small Things
Mark 9: 33-37
I went to my first basketball game at 8 days old. Perhaps my early introduction to Cardinal tribalism is one thing that so distorted my sense of what was important. Distorted I say because until I was a teenager, I cried every time the basketball team lost. And then let the loss color the next day in school over the course of which I knew I would have to endure the claims of UK fans that the Wildcats would not play us because we were not of their caliber. What a waste of tears!
In our reading from Mark we are told the disciples of Jesus are also, like me, and maybe all of you? vulnerable to being drug down unnecessarily by a distorted view of what is important. After they arrived to the house where they were staying in Capernaum, the text says, Jesus asks the disciples what they had been arguing about on the way from Galilee. The disciples decline to answer. Perhaps because of their realization, after Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, that the pecking order among followers paled in comparison to the reality of the fate he faced.
Whatever the reason for the silence of the disciples, the text makes clear that Son of Man’s question had been a device for leading his followers into a teaching moment. Jesus knew they’d been arguing about who was the greatest among them. He had probably even overheard why each one of them thought he deserved the honor. But his subsequent attempt to turn upside down their view of greatness suggests he thought it was off the mark. Great, Jesus tells them, is the person who is “servant of all.” That is, the one in that society on the lowest rung of the totem pole. The one who was allowed to eat only what was left after everyone else had eaten their fill. And then Jesus goes on put a little child in their midst and embrace her, telling his disciples that to do that was to welcome not only Jesus himself, but also the God that sent him. To understand the flabbergasting, offensive nature of this claim, we have to understand that “children were regarded as non-persons, or not yet persons in that society. They were possessions of the father in the household.”[i] So for Jesus to hold up paying attention to a child as a mark of greatness, and to make the lowly child a stand in for himself, and thus the living God, was nothing less than totally upsetting the cultural standard of what greatness consisted. What would he say about our views of greatness?
Recently I saw a view of God’s final judgment of each of us human beings that very much intrigued me. I can’t remember where I came across it, but this the gist of it was that what we will be judged for as we stand in line waiting at the pearly gates to come into God’s presence is all those times we could have really enjoyed someone or something, but failed to. I don’t know about you, but this notion strikes more fear in me than almost any other story of the last judgment I have ever considered. Historically I have thought of judgment in terms of what we do, or fail to do on God’s behalf. But what if it is about a review of who or what of the gifts God puts in my path I even noticed, much less enjoyed?
As disjointed, busy and distracted as my life often feels, I have come to realize that I miss out on a whole lot of grace that God tries to slow pitch into my life – just because I am too tired, or too anxious, or too worried about climate change, or the Supreme Court, or immigrants on the border, or how things are going at work to pay attention to the children, the God bearers, the grace, that Jesus brings before me and asks me to notice.
And so this week I have been wondering about how my distorted view of what makes for greatness, which I understand as what impacts the big picture, the macro, is causing me to miss? And I wondered if I recognized that I was missing many small but very important things because of my views of how much the macro framework of this country mattered, if you might be too?
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not chastising any of us for caring about public policy, or who gets seated on the Supreme Court, or immigrants, or how our efforts at work are going. I am not saying those things are unimportant or saying that they should be neglected by conscientious human beings. I am simply confessing that what this passage spoke into my life was the question of what I might be missing of God’s service of me, how I might be failing to “enjoy the grace of my life”, failing to love God and enjoy God forever because I am “distracted” as Martha was in our first reading from Luke, by my own mistaken view that the macro situation we live in is so important and worrying that it takes precedence over what is happening on the micro level?
Sandra Cisneros, the Mexican American writer whose work gives voice to the day to day struggles of the working class says, “the older I get, the more I’m conscious of ways very small things can make a change in the world. Tiny little things, but the world is made up of tiny matters isn’t it?” In other words, the big political, environmental and economic picture is important, but should it be allowed to take precedence over, or perhaps better said “drown out” our enjoyment of gifts that could allow us to bask in the presence of God herself? My answer, after much wrestling with this text this week, is a definitive no. That my concern over the big picture should not be allowed to drown out the ongoing beauty of my life and the world God is showing us day by day; the quick laugh of a child, the energy of a puppy, the flitting of a beautiful monarch butterfly tripping over tired, late summer flowers; the sound of a central Kentucky summer night.
So think for just a minute with me. In the off chance that you too in this time of political upheaval and division have become anxious enough over it that it is hard to notice the small daily miracles that make life worth living. Perhaps the resistance to all that is not right with the world includes pointing the way toward hope for the future by noticing and celebrating what is right with it, thereby refusing to let the “facts” rob us of joy. So who or what is the child God may be calling you to embrace that you are too anxious, too grief stricken, too angry, or too distracted by the busyness of your own life, to see? I ask this because what we cannot see we can neither serve or be served by. And I include be served by because service in God’s Kin-dom it is not a one way street. True service brings about a deep mutuality and joy in giving and receiving, love that is, that is the finest thing there is in this life.
So maybe the beginning of the uprising against the darkness starts by making room for those people and things that do not make the evening news, but which do much more than the evening news does to nurture our souls. Maybe Jesus was so intent on correcting the disciples’ mistaken view of who and what mattered because he knew that getting that wrong could keep them, and us, from doing what we are on earth to do, which is to love God and enjoy her forever.
Wendell Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things, shows us one way to combat the fears that what matters is beyond us. In Berry’s poem, he goes back to his first love, the grace in creation which is close at hand, and allows his gratitude for its simplicity to become his escape from the soul killing fear that reasons to hope may have run out. Listen to how Wendell Berry puts the big macro fears that can cause us to miss the small great graces of life in their proper place.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I pray that freedom from fear, anger and despair could and would come to you and to me, as we recognize anew the small great things, gifts all from God, that give our lives meaning, purpose, hope and joy, in spite of all that would conspire to rob us of all four. Amen.
I sing the mighty power of God, which is often made manifest in an overwhelming myriad of small things. Let your resistance to the darkness this week consist of your insistence on gratitude, your determination to recognize and celebrate the small great graces of your daily life.
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
September 23, 2018
[i] Eds.Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009.