New Testament Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Show and Tell:

Have you ever wanted something you didn’t have? How did that feel?

It’s not usually a very good feeling for me. It can make me grouchy, sad, even a little bit scared. The scripture reading just told us something very hard – but very true – about wanting something we don’t have: it can make us do things we know we shouldn’t do.

Here’s someone who has that trouble: Chick Hicks, from the movie Cars. Chick is Lightning McQueen’s biggest rival, and all he wants is the big Dinoco sponsorship that the legendary racer The King has. He’s decided to win the championship at all costs, but for Chick Hicks that means racing dirty and making other cars crash so he can get his way.

Well, he finally wins the big race by making The King crash, but can you remember what happens next? Lightning McQueen helps push The King across the finish line, giving up his own chance to win the big race. He loses the race, but he wins something much more important: respect from his friends and himself.

I think we have both of these abilities within ourselves: the desire for things we don’t have (and probably don’t need); and the grace to help someone else, even at our own expense. I don’t have to tell you which one is better, and I give thanks for the grace that points us in the direction we know is truly best.

Gospel Reading: Mark 9:30-37

Meditation:

The Gospel story caches up with Jesus just after the very climax of his ministry. He’s taken three of his followers up on the mountain to reveal his glory, and he’s shown the power of God in healing a boy. Now he starts talking about his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection, and no one dares to ask him what he means by it. I think they’re just too uncomfortable to ask about this teaching.

Well, I have uncomfortable questions too. Questions about how God could display the power to save by submitting to human judgment and vindictiveness. Questions about why it can be so hard to see God at work in the institutions that purport to serve and worship. Questions about how the world can be under God’s control when there’s clearly so much wrong with the world as it is. But those aren’t the hardest questions I have. In some ways, they’re actually relatively easy, because they can become a shield for me to hide behind, to defend myself with a wall of cynicism.

The hardest questions are the ones I dare not ask myself. Questions about how hard I work to meet expectations that I know aren’t reasonable – and questions about what I would do if I did meet those expectations. Questions about what I’ve done today, if anything at all, to really walk with Christ. Questions like, “If you really knew me, would you take seriously anything I’m saying here? I have questions that call my own self into doubt: why can’t I be the person I want to be?

Writing with a deep Christian wisdom, James gives us the answer: our jealousy, bitterness, and selfishness all come from our cravings for what we don’t have, whatever it is we happen not to have. And like Chick Hicks, we’ll often stomp all over anyone who gets in the way of what we want, especially if that “anyone” is small enough or far enough away. Need we ask where that comes from? It comes from imagining that we actually need whatever we don’t have, from imagining that we’re not already enough, in ourselves, as God created and loved us.

I see this in myself. Adding another child to our family has been like learning all our identities all over again. I knew I was a good dad with Ian, but now that I don’t have all the time and attention I used to have for him, that self-image is unsettled. Now, no matter who has my attention, someone feels left out. I cope with this by getting impatient with anyone who wants my attention, and you can imagine how poorly that works. When I’m led by my insecurity, I don’t take the time to just respond to the needs that are really necessary.

Of course you knew this, but insecurity is just plain uncomfortable. That’s why we run from our self-doubts toward power and status. We might seek self-justifying anger, or a particular position in society, or freedom from others who would tell us who and what to be, or a tough distance from others who would get too close to our vulnerabilities. Insecurity is no fun, so we try pride instead.

That’s the same kind of pride Jesus’ followers resorted to instead of asking him about the “death and resurrection” teaching. They used their own question: “Which of us do you suppose is the greatest?” That’s when Jesus turns to the really hard teachings about service and becoming the least you can be. This is the upside-down world we’re called to live in, and it’s much harder than any of the questions we’ve been avoiding so carefully.

That’s what Jesus ultimately demonstrates in the path he’s talking about. He gives himself to powerlessness and death on the cross, and then he walks through death into life. The cross reveals God’s ways in the world far better than any of our self-serving ideas.

So I seek to follow Jesus, and I place the sign of the cross on my sons’ foreheads every night, and I wonder just why I do that. Do I really want this path for these boys that I love? Do I really want the way of the cross for any of us? Am I willing to walk that way myself? And that’s the only truly faithful question. The way of the cross existed with or without Jesus, and the only proper response to that reality is to choose it for yourself, just as Jesus chose it on our account.

James gives the same challenge in his advice to “submit yourselves to God.” I hear that, bearing in mind just how much of myself resists doing it, and acknowledging that any ability to trust God is God’s gift to me.

We live this out, in our admittedly limited ways, when we serve our neighbors at the Salvation Army supper club; when we listen and understand when our children of grandchildren seem our wisdom and comfort; when we vote, not for our own personal self-interest, but for the ideas, policies, and leadership that we truly believe will be best for this nation and all the world’s people; when we set aside our own ideas and listen to someone else whose vision of the good is different from our own; or when we choose to do without something because we know that it would ultimately get in the way of our best understanding of God.

We live it out when we trust in the One who set aside eternal power for the sake of eternal service, who set aside immortality so that his path through death could lead us all into eternal life, who calls us to put ourselves last and follow him. Thanks be to God.

Amen

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