For and Against and With

Passage: Mark 9:38-50
Date: September 30, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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For and Against and With

Mark 9:38-50

This seems like the wrong week to speak about being in community with those we disagree with. The confirmation hearing for Judge Kavanaugh has unearthed, once again, the deep divisions among us: divisions along the lines of gender, along the lines of use of power, along the lines of he said/she said, reporting sexual assault, getting even, truth, lies, politics.It’s reminded us of all the currents flowing around the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, full of all those divisions plus divisions along the lines of race.

We live in an ugly time. Those who are not for us are against and are therefore suspect, wrong, or morally bad. Last month, two of my friends told me they were taking a break from the Roman Catholic churches where they have worshiped for their whole life, maybe a permanent break. The scandals and cover-ups were too much for them.

The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have ardent supporters and opponents. So do MSNBC and Fox News. I go back and forth between fighting vehemently for my side, because I believe I am called to speak up for justice, and trying to listen to those with whom I disagree, because I believe Jesus calls me to be a peacemaker. All that does is give me an acidy stomach and a restless sleep.

Jonathan Haidt and Brené Brown are among the many authors who are writing to help us find clarity and a way forward. Haidt is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. Some of you participated in last year’s study of his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and found that rewarding. I’m boiling down a complex book into something more simple than it deserves, but in essence Haidt challenges our conventional ways of thinking about morality, politics, and religion.(New York: Vintage Books, 2012.)

He says that as individuals our morality can be organized in five “foundations”: the foundation of care; the foundation of fairness; the foundation of loyalty; the foundation of authority; and the foundation of sanctity.

A very extensive survey showed that people who identify as politically conservative tend to value all five foundations equally, and their most sacred value is preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community. Those who identify as politically progressive tend to value the care and fairness foundations more, and their most sacred value is care for victims of oppression.Haidt does say that most of us have a desire to live morally – it’s how we understand morality that differs.

That brief recap does a disservice to the book, so I urge you to read it, preferably with at least one other person. I think he’s on to something that helps us to take a step back and understand a little of why we are in this ugly place we find ourselves.

This summer I read Brené Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. (New York: Random House, 2017.) Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and has spent the past sixteen years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

In Braving the Wilderness, Brown looks at the psychological concept of differentiation, how to be a unique self within a community, and how becoming well differentiated might help us understand those who are unlike us and disagree with us. As she begins she sets the tone for the book in this quote from James Baldwin: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

She devotes a chapter to each of these four actions: (1) People are hard to hate close up [so] move in.(2) Speak truth to baloney; be civil.(3) Hold hands – with strangers.And (4) Strong back, soft front, wild heart.

Her premise is that if we are to move forward, away from differences that divide toward differences the deepen us, we must be firm in who we are, be willing to be vulnerable with others, and be courageous to listen to those with whom we disagree.I would love to be in conversation with anyone else who’s read this book, so let me know.

Both of these books are helpful in thinking about conflicts in family and church and society, but I have also found that putting their teachings into practice is hard and requires a faithful devotion which I don’t have more often than I do.

But we are here in church this morning, so perhaps it would be a good thing to see what our holy scripture has to say about all of these things.I think this story from Mark’s gospel provides another opportunity for understanding.

This week’s passage follows on the heels of last week’s, where Jesus told the disciples whoever wants to be first must be last and the servant of all, and whoever welcomes a child welcomes not only him but also God.The setting for this week’s story is the same: Jesus and the disciples are in a house in Capernaum, and as Jesus speaks, he is still holding a little child in his arms.

Holding a child in his arms, he tells the disciples not to fret about someone outside their own cozy group doing good things in his name. Holding a child in his arms, he tells them that whoever is not against them is for them. Still holding that child in his arms, he reminds them of the consequences of an immoral life. Holding a child in his arms, he warns them that when they feel tempted to do something immoral, it would be better to cut off their own offending part than to hurt that little one.

So taking into account this scripture lesson, and taking into account the teaching of Jonathan Haidt and Brené Brown and so many others, and taking into account all the news we’ve dealt with just this week, I wonder about two things: what ever happened to the virtue of humility, and what kind of world, society, church we are leaving to our children.        

I believe our excessive pride is at the heart of so much of our trouble, so I look to some of my personal sages for wisdom. I found these words from Maya Angelou: “Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.” 

What if every single decision we faced was decided in humility, with a realization that the people affected by our decision are as equally worthy, valued, and treasured by God as we are? What if every time we recognize a blessing, we reminded ourselves that it was not received because of our own accord, but because others did something that allowed that blessing? What if we walked through our lives with the deep understanding that we are no more important in God’s eyes than anyone else – anyone else?

Oh man, that would be cool; and oh man, that would be nearly impossible.Because one way we differentiate ourselves from others is by judging if we are better or worse than someone else. What if we stopped doing that? What if instead of saying, “I am Beth; I’m better at baking than Gregg, but I’m not as good at singing as Laurie” – what if I said, “I am Beth; I love to bake, and when I’m alone I sing loud and don’t care if it’s good or not. I love it when Gregg cleans up after I’ve baked, and I love listening to Laurie sing.”

This summer our family watched an eight episode TV show called “Makin’ It,” a craft competition hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, who were both in Parks and Recreation, another show our family watched. Each week the contestants were given a three-hour craft to make, and a days-long craft challenge.Each week someone would be eliminated.

Near the end of the season, our daughter Sarah said, “Why does anyone have to be eliminated? Everybody’s so good – why can’t they just all make everything for the whole season?”What if it’s not about the competition but about the beauty that is made.

Our children are watching and waiting.I think often about the world we are leaving them. I think about that in terms of climate change, and a national debt in trillions of dollars, and political divisions that I fear will take generations to mend.I wonder if when our children are adults, if our society will be more or less polarized. I have hope that when our children are adults, our nation will have more racial equality and greater awareness of individual and institutional racism.I hope there are more women in leadership then too.

Even if all these things happen, will our children know about Jesus? Will they know that the best decisions we made were not based on our political leanings, or by our moral foundation of fairness or loyalty or care, but based on Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor as self?

You all have stuck with me through a sermon that’s pretty dense, and I thank you for that. For those who might have wandered off: I would have too. So let me attempt a summation that might give you something to think about or act on this week.

Jesus taught many things. He taught that we are to love, we are not to judge, and we are to live in service to others. He also taught that we who are grown up, and we who have some power because we are grown up or because of other things, have a responsibility to care for and even protect those who are not grown up and those who do not have power.

We have a responsibility to them, and we have a responsibility to each other.Jesus never de-humanized anyone else; the one time he called a woman a dog, he immediately atoned for the insult. We have a responsibility to give each other a fair hearing and not to dismiss each other out of hand for whatever reason “they” are not like “us.”

We also have a responsibility to ourselves, to act morally in faith. If we are tempted to behave in an immoral way – to abuse our power, to take advantage of the weak, to be violent, to hoard wealth or opportunity – we must be ruthless with ourselves to stop that immoral behavior.

Jesus calls us to live as humble servants in all that we do. And that’s hard.As Maya Angelou said, “What I pray for is humility, to know that there is something greater than I; and I have to know that the brute, the bigot and the batterer are all children of God—whether they know it or not—and I’m supposed to treat them accordingly, and it’s hard and I blow it all the time.”

We live in an ugly time. Most of us want to add some beauty to the world, a beauty based in love, but it’s hard and we blow it all the time. But the good news is that we believe in a God who loves to give second chances. To you. To me. To us. To them.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Beth Neel

Westminster Presbyterian Church

September 30, 2018