September 23, 2018 – 18 Pentecost B, Proper 20
Wisdom 1:16-2:1,12-22; James 3:13-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
“But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”
Sometimes in life what we have said or done hits us in the face and it’s like the whole world stops for a moment to ask us to consider more deeply and more honestly who we really are. As we are humbled by our words or deeds, we are silenced and invited to let humility sink through a few layers of our façade.
A while back I got a phone call from the church’s security alarm company. It was about 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon. I had just come home and changed clothes and was getting ready for lunch. Earlier that morning one of our regular homeless people had been hanging around. Richard has caused us a lot of trouble over the years. He’s a crackhead and is in and out of jail constantly. He’s always asking for money but never very much, just enough to get a sandwich or, more likely, a hit of crack cocaine. When I was leaving, Mike Jarrell told me he had a feeling Richard was hiding in the building but he couldn’t find him. So, when the alarm company called and told me there was movement in the building, I figured it must be Richard. One of my favorite police officers was here when I arrived and we started looking through the building. I told him about Richard. He knows Richard all too well. We walked down a hallway and I hollered out, “Hey, Richard, we know it’s you. Come on out, boy.”
All of a sudden the world got really quiet. Richard is black. The police officer that I like so much is black. And out of my sophisticated and progressive mouth had slipped that pejorative term “boy.” The silence lasted only about ten seconds. The black police officer didn’t scold me or even look at me. He just kept pulling doors and looking for Richard. But that silence obviously is still ringing in my ears. Where did that come from? I haven’t even heard that term used in 20 years even by people I considered hugely racist. But it fell out of my mouth and there’s no telling how much harm that did to the black police officer who heard me say it or Richard himself. The harm it did to me, however, is a very good thing.
Sometimes in life what we have said or done hits us in the face and it’s like the whole world stops for a moment to ask us to consider more deeply and honestly who we really are. As we are humbled by our words or deeds, we are silenced and invited to let humility sink through a few layers of our façade. I will be made less prejudiced and more sensitive by virtue of that word sliding out of my mouth. The power of God’s love for us is revealed more in our sinfulness than in our righteousness. That love is given to the world not just to make us feel good but to transform us and make us a new creation. That love of God says, “I love you as you are and I want you to be made new. I want you to grow into the person I created you to be.” The love of God wants us to be better than we are and makes us better than we are.
Imagine being one of the twelve, hearing Jesus speak of his impending suffering and death, and then looking at each other and arguing about who is the best disciple. Imagine the humility they must have felt when they realized what they had said. And remember what that humility eventually led to: people who came to lay down their own lives for the good of others, people who were changed from being frightened of death into people who came truly to live. That hard silence led to new and different lives. That hard silence led to spreading the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth. That hard silence led the disciples to take up their cross and become martyrs for Christ.
God has built such teachable moments into the fabric of our lives so that we may grow and so that the entire creation may be made new. “I don’t know what to do with my teenage daughter,” a friend of ours said to Mary Ward and me recently. “Listen to her and don’t say too much,” Mary Ward wisely replied. “Ask her some questions; she’ll figure it out.” Sometimes we want to cover up that hard silence in our own lives rather than listen to the painful growth that we are called to go through. Sometimes we want to cover up that hard silence with others and pile on a bunch of advice or clichés. We tend not to trust the power of those moments in the context of God’s love for us and everyone else. These moments aren’t tests to see who’s right and who’s wrong. They are times for God’s love to change us into who we are created to be. They are times which tend to cause panic but, if we will let that humility sink through the layers of our façade, those times lead to our healing and salvation.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Our best response to that is to admit a little more honestly just how far we are from unselfishness and how much we push others down to feel better about ourselves. Our best response is silence, honest and confessional silence. The power of confession is not only to remind us of how sinful we are but to allow a humble, quiet place for God’s love to make us new. Sometimes we just have to live with something we have said or something we have done. As hard as those times are, they serve to bring us into the kingdom of God.