The sounds of drumming and chanting, and the sight of a golden processional cross recently caught my interest of an evening as Ozzie and I strolled through Rittenhouse Square. A group of worshipers from a nearby church of another denomination had gathered in the Square to bear public witness to their faith. To be honest, it felt a little like being in a foreign land. To begin with, such religious expression is not often part of the landscape in the Square. Also, these Christians, who I assumed from their music mostly shared a common heritage, maybe from someplace in the Middle East, were dancing and singing, and seemed completely at ease with these public displays of religion. As I say, these were not Episcopalians.
The group had naturally gathered in circle, and when the music ended, a young man came to the center of the circle. Ozzie and I stood off beside a tree and listened in. The young man began to share his testimony of a life of frustration, unhappiness, and misguided choices. I take it from what he said that he’d had a difficult childhood. He’d been lost, without even knowing it, but when he found Christ his life turned around. This is actually a common story: it writes itself, really. You might call it a cliché: I once was lost, but now I’m found.
Anyway, I sort of got the gist of the story, and it brought a smile to my face. But I spend a lot of time in church (and so does Ozzie), and so we turned to go on our way. As we did, we passed by a young mother and her two young children who were making the same decision as we were, but I guess for different reasons. For I heard the mother say to her kids, “OK, you guys, let’s go. This guy is talking too much about Jesus.” My heart sank a little.
Now, it’s entirely possible that the young mother and her kids are already committed in their faith, and that it’s a faith that has nothing to do with Jesus. OK, I understand that. But I am going to guess, that, actually, any talk of religion would have been a bit too much for them - no matter what their background. And from this moment forward, I am no longer really referring to that particular woman, and her particular children, I am asking you to use their anonymity to allow them to serve as stand-ins for a thousand people at that moment who might have said the same exact thing to their children, their friends, their spouse, their siblings, or to any passerby: “OK, let’s go. This guy is talking too much about Jesus.”
Talking too much about Jesus is perceived in many quarters of America as a foolish thing at best, or a dangerous thing at worst. Jesus, after all, has been assigned as the poster-boy for all manner of campaigns. Jesus hates gay people. Jesus is against a woman’s control over her body. Jesus is probably suspicious of women in general. Jesus hates communists. Jesus was a communist. Jesus is against immigration reform. Jesus is the reason for immigration reform. Jesus doesn’t want you to drink, or dance, or have fun in general. Jesus wants your money. Jesus wants you to get rich. Jesus wants the rich to be taxed more. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Wherever there is a lot of talk about Jesus, not all of it is helpful. But I have to tell you, that although his delivery lacked style, I’d have a hard time objecting to the message I thought I heard from the guy bearing testimony in the Square. I once was lost and now I am found: and it’s Jesus who brought me home. What’s so bad about that? I know a lot of people who need to hear this message. In fact, I need to hear this message over and over again; because the world is big, and complicated, and vicious, and it is way too easy to get repeatedly lost. It’s good to remember that we can be lost, but then found. And it’s good to know that Jesus is always going to be looking for us.
In the passage we heard from Mark’s Gospel this morning, Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. In the church, we refer to this important sequence as the Paschal Mystery: the mysterious and saving expression of God’s love in the suffering, death, and resurrection of his Son. Saint Mark tells us something very important about how the disciples received that teaching. He writes, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
Now, it’s not unreasonable that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying. He was talking about the mystery and the power of God’s love in ways that they had never heard of before. The story of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus is well-known to us. But to them it must have sounded like a bit of craziness. But the issue here isn’t only that they didn’t understand, it’s also that they were afraid to ask him.
It’s telling to see what Saint Mark reports takes place next among the disciples, in the aftermath of their anxious incomprehension of Jesus’ teaching. They begin to argue about who among them is the greatest. I’d call this over-compensation. We don’t have any idea what you are talking about, Jesus, so we are just going to spend some time nattering about which of us is the greatest. The greatest at what, exactly, we might ask. Missing the point?
We should not for a moment think that the church has learned too many lessons from this little episode, enshrined, as it is, in holy writ. In the face of their confusion, instead of turning to Jesus, or even talking about him, the disciples avoid Jesus and talk about themselves. Interesting. I’d contend that the church repeats this pattern over and over in our larger collective life. We do not understand Jesus, and we are afraid to turn to him and ask him. So, instead, we talk about ourselves. And if we don’t understand Jesus, and if we don’t want to turn to him and talk with him, how in the world can we expect others to understand him, or to want to turn to him and get to know who he is?
You might call this situation a quandary. The disciples did. Jesus asked them to tell him what they were talking about, but they were embarrassed and ashamed of themselves, so they said nothing. We can assume that their silence spoke for itself. It did not help much when Jesus delivered one of his pithy paradoxical watchwords: “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Say what?
I see a kind of parallel between what happened among the disciples when Jesus was a bit too much for them, and what happened in Rittenhouse Square for that mother and her children.
In both situations, Jesus was just a bit too much for everyone involved. And so the answer was to get away from Jesus and make it about us! Too much Jesus, not enough us! Or, to put it another way, me first, Jesus, me first. Well, we already know what Jesus has to say about that.
Trying to show what he means by teaching that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus finds a child who happens to be hanging around nearby - some kid, I suppose, who had just been dawdling on the perimeter of the discussion in the house where they had gathered - maybe one of the neighbors’ kids who’d come over to play and found all these adults in the way. Jesus calls the kid over and has her sit by him, his arms around her. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Which brings me back to Rittenhouse Square. I wonder what those children in Rittenhouse Square would have made of the young man telling his story if they’d been allowed to listen. Would they have thought ill of him? Would they have thanked him for trusting them with something that was difficult to share? Would they have picked a flower for him and given it to him, as their way of telling him they are glad his life is happier now?
And I wonder what would have happened if Jesus had stepped out from the circle gathered there, and called those kids over to him. Interestingly, Jesus would not, it seems, have insisted that the conversation have centered on him. He’d have been happy to let it be about the children, especially the smallest, or the neediest, or the weakest of the kids - the least and the last of them. I think Jesus might have explained to the kids that the adults don’t really understand him, and are afraid to ask.
But you understand, don’t you, children, what it means to be promised that you won’t always be last, even though it seems you are ignored, unimportant, and in the way? You understand the promise that some day you won’t be last, some day you’ll be first in the heart of God.
And I pray that we all understand why, for us, there can never be such a thing as talking too much about Jesus.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
23 September 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia