Pastor Ingrid C.A. Rasmussen’s sermon from September 20, 2015
Listen along here.
The gospel according to Mark, the ninth chapter:
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
It was 2010, and I was completing three years of hard work at Emory University’s theology school in Atlanta, Georgia. The student body was preparing to gather on the lush campus green for graduation. We all knew there would be lots of bagpipes; there always were. We knew the heat would intensify during the outdoor ceremony; it always did. We were just waiting to hear who would be chosen to address the over 20,000 people expected to attend. Whoever it was would find him or herself in good company; former speakers had included the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, and Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop who worked tirelessly against apartheid in South Africa.
The email announcement came. Imagine our surprise when we opened it and read: “Emory University is pleased to announce that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be delivering the commencement address.” Deliver it he did, beginning with what he knew people wanted to hear—that is, his most famous movie lines, beginning with “I’ll Be Back” and closing with “Hasta La Vista, Baby.” Thereafter, he gave a highlights tour through his self-made body-building career. And he closed strong with a discussion of his advantageous relationship with the Kennedys. And, then, just like that, the twenty minute lesson in personal greatness was over, and Arnold’s big, burly bodyguards cleared a path for him through the sun kissed crowd, and he drove off in his shiny, black SUV.
You giggle. My classmates and I did, too. The commencement address was a blatant display of wealth and beauty and esteem and accomplishment and recognition and pride and rightness. It was easy for the divinity students to write Arnold’s speech off—to joke that’s what the university’s Board of Trustees got for refusing to pay their commencement speakers. But, tucked in-between our laughter and overpriced robes and sense of superiority, we quietly knew that we were witnessing something as true as it was silly: in a world that admires the strong, the conversation of greatness is never far away.
Some gospel stories surprise us; Mark 9 is not one of them. Jesus and his eager apprentices are just getting started—just getting into their itinerant grooves, so to speak. For having virtually no experience in the Son of God enterprise, they’re doing pretty well: They’re busily feeding the thousands. They’re healing any sickness they can get their hands on. They’re bringing the dead back to life. They’re taking mountaintop transfigurations in stride. They may not know exactly what they’re doing; they do know they’re Jesus’ great insiders.
You and I are well-qualified to do some Midrash here—to fill in the gaps left by the gospel of Mark’s restrained writer. The conversation about greatness probably began quietly. For these dudes, it wasn’t about celebrity, fortune, or biceps. No, no, they were far more nuanced than that. They quietly wondered about the current direction of Jesus’ favor. They relished in their professional victories. They may have slipped in comments about their children’s accomplishments. And they dreamed of promotions [though we might note that in a company of thirteen with no middle management, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for upward mobility]. It was all relatively innocent—that is, until Jesus reminds them that their destination isn’t success; it’s death. And death doesn’t tolerate the veneers of put-togetherness and greatness that we so carefully tend.
I usually write funeral sermons in my living room. Seated in my favorite spot on the couch, I begin by spreading my notes around me like a fan. Yellow legal paper, scraps of white paper, and an occasional napkin scrawled with words legible only to me. Each of these treasures represents a fragment of the deceased life—her elementary school kickball prowess, her cookie jar collection, her prayer hanging above the kitchen table, her epic failures at forgiveness, her final words to those she loved most; one of my jobs, as the preacher, is to stitch the pieces together into someone we recognize.
I love the days when I am able to do this—not because I relish in loss or am hungry for grief—but because I am reminded that what shows up time and again in the paper trail of someone’s life isn’t magnificence or wealth or greatness. What shows up in death are the familiar fragments—smiles and tenderness, quirks and wrinkles. It’s on these sermon-writing days, cradled in the cushion’s divot created by years of faithful use, that I see clearly that our lives are made up of many fragments—projects and sentences left unfinished. I see that our lives are less like Michelangelo’s David and more like a mosaic in a Rain Garden. The beauty is found in the fragile pieces that come together imperfectly.
Had there been a sick or dying person around during Jesus’ object lesson, I like to imagine that Jesus would have used her and let the child keep playing. But he and his crew had healed everyone already, so he had no other choice than to take the child, and asked his disciples: “Can you love this little boy? Can you accept his fragility? Embrace the beautiful pieces that make him who he is? Can you hold him, though he won’t advance your place in the world? Good, because the truth is that he’ll slow you down. The life we’re leading isn’t about retirement savings and beauty and esteem and accomplishments and rightness and Facebook likes. This gospel has no time for greatness. Are you still with me?”
Of course, it didn’t need to be a child at the center of that circle. It could have been you. It could have been me.
And after the initial embarrassment at being outed by their mentor and the initial disappointment that they weren’t fast-tracking it to success, Jesus’s words must have felt like freedom—the kind of gospel freedom that Nadia Bolz-Weber says “sets ordinary, screwed up people free to be who we are: beloved children of God filled to the brim with inconsistencies.”
It’s one of the marvelous gifts of intimate relationships, of marriage—that is, to trust someone enough to share the fragile pieces of one’s life, and to be entrusted with the fragile pieces of another.
When I first met Anne and Cori, then had just moved into the neighborhood. Their apartment windows overlook the church building. When they looked out the window and saw Holy Trinity, Anne says that she remarked, “We get the hint, God.” They’ve gone from no formal relationship with a faith community to active involvement here in a matter of months. Cori’s been instrumental in the mosaic, she is part of the writer’s group, and she comes in twice a month to send handwritten notes to all of our homebound members. Anne volunteers in the office each week and sings her little alto heart out in the choir. They’re both poets.
I’ve learned a lot about the life of faith from Anne and Cori. Most notably, they are incredibly honest about their fragile pieces, saying that they met on a psychiatric ward, and have accompanied each other through sadness and exhaustion, therapy and hospitalizations these past twenty-three years. They came to Holy Trinity with a level of vulnerability that most of us take years to cultivate. It’s been a gift to be invited into it. And today, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to bear witness to the public promises they make to one another after decades of partnership.
Yes, it must have felt like freedom to the disciples arguing on the way, to hear that God wasn’t interested in their well-tended veneers of greatness. It must have felt like freedom to be forgiven for their vanity. It must have felt like freedom to acknowledge that this life is not grounded in strength and greatness, but, rather, in weakness and grace. It must have felt like freedom to be told that beauty was found in imperfection. It must have felt like freedom for the disciples to hear that God loved them and all their fragile pieces. It must have felt like freedom.
What does it feel like for you?