Thursday, September 20, 2018

Clamoring for Comfort

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 9:30-37), Jesus speaks to the disciples after they've finished a journey. "What were you arguing about on the way?" he asked. Mark lets us know that they kept silent because they had been arguing with one another about which one of them was the greatest. They were embarrassed to have their childish behavior called out, but how uncommon was that behavior?

We argue with one another about who is the greatest all the time, but we rarely notice. Few of us take a Muhammad Ali approach: "I am the greatest!" Instead, we play a game of one-up, trying to outdo the other person with our own impressive status. Whether it's parents bragging about their children's accomplishments on Facebook, golfers recalling funny moments from the past, executives complaining about the challenges of managing a rapidly growing company, or clergy complaining about how busy they are, we all play the game. We compete to see who is the greatest. The game never ends, so there's never a clear winner. It just keeps going and going. Why?

We need to be loved. We need to know that we are loved. We need to convince ourselves that we are lovable. Of course, we confuse lovability with accomplishment, which is why ego plays such a strong part in the game. We wrongly believe that if we have the funniest joke, if we have the most talented child, if we have the fullest calendar, if we have the most beautiful marriage, if we have the most vibrant faith, we will be first in line when love is being dished out. And that sort of rivalry--the implicit argument about who is the greatest--comes from a place of uncertainty, of faithless vulnerability. We compete for the love when we aren't sure we will get it.

As a pastor, this seems clearest to me when a parent dies and siblings begin competing with one another during funeral planning. All of the childhood roles come back, and siblings compete with one another in the same way they competed decades ago. One child, often the oldest, takes charge and begins to make unilateral decisions about what mama wanted. Another child, often the youngest, walks in late, refusing to be on time in order to refuse to play by the other child's rules. Yet another child, usually one in the middle, tries to make peace as the other children fight over which hymn would be most appropriate. What they're really doing is competing for mama's love. "She loved me the best," they don't actually say with their lips but say clearly with their actions. When the apple cart gets turned over, when the status quo gets shaken up, when we lose our bearing and begin to doubt that we are loved, we grab for it, competing for who is the greatest, who is the most loved.

As the gospel lesson begins, we hear that Jesus has been spending time alone with the disciples. He has been teaching them that the Son of Man must suffer and be killed, that their master will be taken away from them. Jesus knows that this teaching will be difficult, so he spends time closely with them, dismissing the crowd. But everyone needs some time to process this challenging prediction. Like children whose parent has received a difficult cancer diagnosis, the disciples begin to argue with one another about who is the greatest. What did that sound like? Human nature hasn't changed at all since then, so I'd be surprised if Peter actually said, "You know...I'm his favorite." Instead, I think Peter started by saying, "I think I'm going to try again to take Jesus aside and talk some sense into him. If he'll listen to anyone, he'll listen to me." And then John said, "You don't know what you're talking about. You never understand what Jesus is really saying." James looked at his brother and said, "Mind your own business--like you've ever been a good listener." And the conversation continued, each of the disciples asserting his identity, his role, his relationship with Jesus.

It isn't easy to hear that the road ahead will be one of suffering, pain, and loss. Divorce, illness, diagnosis, death. Those things happen to God's people every day. What will they mean to us? How will we response to the struggle? Do we allow the struggle to define us? Is it a sign that shakes our confidence in our lovability? Do we react by asserting ourselves, clamoring for affirmation? Or do we know behind it all that God is with us, that God still loves us, that we don't need to compete with others for status in God's eyes? The truth of the gospel is God's limitless, unending, unmitigated, unqualified love. It is the foundation upon which faith is built. We are not asked to believe that everything will be good, easy, or painless. We are asked to believe and trust that God's love persists especially when things are difficult. Seeing that and knowing that gives us peace and enables us to be the free, unburdened people God created us to be.

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