Sermon: An Attempt to Articulate What Wants to Be a Howl
Texts: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37
Date: September 30, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
My preaching professor years ago said this day would come—when what’s happening in the world requires you to shred what you previously prepared to preach and start over. Personally, I prefer to preach out of a simmering stewpot of sorts, low heat, with adequate time for ideas about current events to blend with theological ideas. Preaching out of a pot boiling over, a pressure cooker on the verge of exploding is not my style. But I feel like we need to bring the drama and pain rising out of the Supreme Court hearing process into the sanctuary today, put those events in dialogue with the scriptures, and explore together how we might find hope and a path of healing. I kept the same texts and the worship series theme about pride, but have shifted the focus.
Our worship series theme today is about healing pride. The early Roman Catholic Church regarded pride as being at the root of all human sin. Do you think that’s so? It is definitely a very powerful force, and it is wonderful to ponder how we might be healed from it.
I see pride coming up as a spiritual issue a couple of times in our brief gospel reading today. The first time is in verse 32: “But they [the disciples] did not understand what he [Jesus] was saying and were afraid to ask him.” This took me immediately back to my graduate school days. I had a very prominent and well-regarded theologian as one of my advisors on my Doctor of Ministry project. I had asked him to play this role mainly because I wanted Famous Theologian John B. Cobb’s name to be associated with my project, to make me look good to potential future employers. There’s some pride at play there for sure. But that’s not the worst of it; I actually had some one on one time with Dr. Cobb but I did not want to ask him any questions because I didn’t want to look stupid. I wasn’t afraid of him; there has never been a more brilliant, genuine, gentle, humble white man in my orbit. I had seen him in class handle the most obtuse students with patience and compassion. No, my lack of questions grew out of being afraid I wouldn’t look as smart to him as I wanted to look. That’s always been one my bugaboos actually; as a younger person I almost never asked questions in a public setting because I didn’t want to appear as someone who didn’t understand. Pride.
I don’t know if that’s what was behind the disciples being afraid to ask Jesus any questions; it could be they just didn’t want to hear any more about betrayal and death; they didn’t want Jesus to spell it out. But they certainly weren’t immune from the kind of pride I’m talking about; pride shows up again in the next scene. Jesus asks, “What were arguing about on the way?” “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” At least their silence indicates the grace to be a little embarrassed. But I guess someone leaked the subject of the discussion to Jesus. He probably wasn’t all that surprised. A great deal of human chit chat is taken up, in one way or another, with establishing who is the greatest. Who is the brightest and the best, who is the leader of the pack, who is the fairest of them all? Who is the cream of the crop, the champion, the shapeliest, the world’s strongest man, the smartest person in this room or any room? Who made the world’s best cup of coffee, and which one is the best little whorehouse in Texas? We humans are continually arguing about who is the greatest. No great shock that the disciples would pass their time on the road in such talk. While we don’t get to overhear what they said, I assume that pride was a factor as they presumably each made a case for themselves being the greatest.
Since the disciples are portrayed as the “everyman” in Mark’s gospel, neither better nor worse than the rest of us, let’s not be too hard on them. If we back up a step or two and look at them in their cultural context, we can see that they are behaving quite normally in a male dominated patriarchal system. Men are socialized to compete in such cultural systems, to always be “one up” so that they don’t end up “one down.” They are expected to act like the winners their patriarchal, hierarchical social system has declared they are; not to compete would be shameful. They would look weak if they were not striving for the position of Top Dog.
I believe Jesus fully comprehends why they were participating in this normal pattern of talk and behavior. He was brought up in the same culture. But he is here to challenge that way of being. You can tell he has something important to say now because he sits down; that’s what teachers did in his day when they were about to begin a lesson. “Whoever wants to be first,” he says to them, “must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he brings a little kid into the midst of them. For maximum effect, suppose it was a little girl. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Please understand that this would have been quite astonishing to these men. Biblical scholar John Pilch sheds light on the customs and culture reflected in Jesus’ actions and words. Whereas a child in our culture is deeply valued and put first in our priorities (so we say, anyway), in the time of Jesus, a child was lowest on the priority list (no “women and children first” here). Even in medieval times, Pilch writes, Mediterranean cultures put a low value on children: Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child.” The child Jesus puts among the disciples is the lowest of the low, mostly invisible, practically worthless in the eyes of that society. Welcome this one as you welcome me, Jesus says. Whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me. In other words, this is how you let God into your life: not by striving to wind up on the top of the heap, but by becoming the servant of the little, the least, the last.
When Jesus makes this gesture and says these things he is not just calling out his followers on their garden-variety pride, he is contesting the codes of their hierarchical, patriarchal civilization. I believe he is asking them to set aside the advantages they have been handed as men in a patriarchal system, to unlearn the habits of entitlement, ambition and one-ups-man-ship. It’s a tall order. They must have been rather stunned. But this reversal of patriarchal values being proposed is a seed of the realm of God being sown; a harvest of righteousness is hoped for.
The reading from the epistle of James dovetails beautifully with the gospel lesson, contrasting earthly wisdom with godly wisdom and calling ambition out on the carpet. “If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Oh, selfish ambition—you’re a nuisance from way, way back. As the CEV translation of that last verse says “Whenever people are jealous or selfish, they cause trouble and do all sorts of cruel things.” Ain’t that the truth?
Selfish ambition is, of course, like mother’s milk in American culture. It’s what we were brought up on. Men especially. Men are socialized to be providers, winners, dominators. Always “one up,” lest you wind up “one down.” It would be hard to escape the rip tide of selfish ambition as a way of life in our culture, especially for men. Yet even if it is an organizing principle in our culture and economy, it’s not the only way to live. James calls this earthbound thinking unspiritual and devilish; a few verses on he calls on Christians to resist the devil.
Speaking of the devil… I normally only like to mention the devil in connection with eggs—like the deviled eggs some of you bring occasionally to coffee hour, causing stampedes at the kitchen counter. I am not a great believer in the actual Devil in the way some folks talk about him, as a supernatural demon independent of and opposed to God. As a metaphor for the endurance and persuasive power of evil, though, the devil can be a useful concept. I was looking over a book on white fragility the other day, when I was planning on speaking about white privilege this morning. There was a quote on the devil that caught my eye: Charles Baudelaire’s admonition that “the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Or, as an alter ego of the character Keyser Soze says in the film The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world that he didn’t exist.” Michael Eric Dyson uses these quotes as he is making a case that the power of Whiteness hides in plain sight in America, dwelling in invisible visibility. The same could be said for male dominant patriarchy. The norms of the patriarchy bedevil all of us while people pretend we live in a land of equal opportunity and freedom. Albert Schweitzer once noted, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.”
I think one of the most galling things about Thursday’s judicial committee hearing was the sniveling and defensive tone Judge Kavanaugh used when speaking about how he went to Yale, and he didn’t have any “connections” there, and he got to go there because he worked his tail off. As if rich preppy male whiteness had nothing whatsoever to do with his success. “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.” The belligerent bully behind the microphone on Thursday, affronted by the very notion of being called to accountability, using his privilege to portray himself as a victim, seemed to me (and a bezillion other women tuning in) the very essence of entitled, ham-handed patriarchy. That he was backed by a raft of other furious rich and powerful men with an overwhelming tone of “how dare you!” was maddening.
There was plenty of political gamesmanship going on on both sides of the political aisle. Nobody looks good in this process, with the exception of the woman who braved the storm to tell her story. Dr. Ford’s explanation for why she hesitated to come forward is heart-wrenching. “I was … wondering whether I would just be jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway, and that I would just be personally annihilated.” But she did it anyway, and I believe her courage should be honored. Her courage has been contagious. So many stories of abuse and assault that have been hidden for years and years are being unveiled, at considerable cost to those who tell them as traumas are revisited. The Seattle Times yesterday reported that calls to the King County sex-assault hotline have tripled since the start of Thursday’s hearing, with calls that begin “I never told anyone about this” prevalent. Mostly women in their 60’s and 70’s, and at least one call from a woman in her 80’s. Some stories of assault I had never heard were revealed this week in my own close circle of friends and family. That’s why I ended up titling this sermon “An Attempt to Articulate What Wants to Be a Howl.”
What is the driving force behind so many painful, wrenching revelations? Victims of assault want and need to be seen and heard. You might have seen on the news some footage of a woman who confronted Senator Flake at an elevator after the testimony. Her words, I thought, were telling. As she was trying to make the point that ignoring such testimony as Dr. Ford’s was like telling women they should just stay quiet because they don’t matter, she insisted, “Look at me when I’m talking to you! You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t matter and that you’re going to let people who do these things into power! That’s what you’re telling me when you vote for him! Don’t look away from me!”
That is one aspect of the really difficult and life-giving work to which we are called again this week. To look at those who are caught and too often crushed in the gears of entitled power in all its guises. Not to look away. When Jesus brought a little child—a human being that really didn’t matter in that first century society—to the center of the circle of disciples, he was pressing them not to look away from the little, the least, the overlooked and seldom heard. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Another aspect of the work we are called to do is remember that another world is possible. We can look at the norms of the patriarchy, what Walter Wink calls the Domination System, and challenge them. James Garfield once said, “A brave man [sic] is a man [sic] who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil.” I quote this not regarding looking an individual in the face and telling him he is a devil, but challenging a way of operating in the world that is, in the words of James, “earthly, unspiritual, devilish;” a domination system steered by selfish ambition. James contrasts this earthly “wisdom” with “wisdom from above,” which he describes as “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” That phrase “willing to yield” is especially thought-provoking. This is not a word for those who are too frequently compelled to yield or forced to yield in the face of the powerful people who want what they want when they want it. This is admonishment for those who are never expected to yield; a contrast with business as usual where backing down or apologizing or asking for consent is considered a sign of weakness.
Those who are fighting for the soul of institutions or nations cannot, in truth, yield to the powers that be. One of the commentaries I read on the James text says, “The kind of unshakeable integrity that James describes is the furthest thing from passive acceptance of evils; contrariwise, the arduous commitment to persevere in the perfect freedom of a disciple who loves heavenly wisdom more than earthly power requires determined activism. This commitment to the truth will oblige disciples to make themselves inconvenient to the wealthy players of power games…” It has been encouraging this week to see numerous people determined to make themselves inconvenient to the players of power games; we may go and do likewise.
Remember, another world is possible. Our office administrator and companion on the spiritual journey, Jennifer Merrill, took her angst this week and plowed it into an articulate letter she sent to the New York Times. It’s an imaginary scenario in which Judge Kavanaugh proves himself willing to yield, and steps down. She gave me permission to share it here.
In an alternative universe it could play out like this:
In a heartening and healing about-face, today Brett Kavanagh made the following statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee:
“I come before you to declare: Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth. I am withdrawing my name as a Supreme Court Justice nominee.
“I do this with a heavy heart; I very much wanted to serve on the Supreme Court. But, reflecting upon my emotionally volatile behavior in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, I realize I have moral and spiritual work to do that takes precedence over serving as a Supreme Court Justice.
“I have been living for decades under the weight of a falsehood. On Thursday the weight of that falsehood shifted just enough for me to actually see it: While under the influence of alcohol and/or entitlement and privilege, I may do whatever I want, and I will not be held accountable.
“I now recognize now how hurtful that falsehood has been–to Christine, to other women, to my wife and daughters. I apologize to Christine and to all the women I have hurt. I am sorry that alcohol indulgence and a sense of entitlement and privilege have caused me to behave solely selfishly.
“Bringing to light this falsehood–making this confession–while extremely humbling, has also freed my heart and soul. I am looking forward to nurturing a more honest relationship with my colleagues and associates, with my family, and with myself.
“Thank you. And, again, I am sorry.”
I like the way Jennifer’s composition begins: “In an alternative universe.” Really, at its core Christianity is about creating an alternative to the often-devilish human cultures we have inherited. I like the way Judge Kavanaugh is portrayed in this imaginary scenario as a person who manages to overcome his pride and humble himself. I like the way Imaginary Brett recognizes that his heart and soul are freed by this confession and repentance.
There’s a bit of James the lectionary skips over, the quotation of a proverb saying “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The text goes on then to say “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hearts, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and God will exalt you.” Since Dr. Ford’s testimony mentioned the men’s laughter as a particularly searing memory, I find the epistle’s exhortation to “let your laughter be turned into mourning” powerful. Of course I prefer the psalmists’ promises that those who sow with tears will reap with joy, that mourning will be turned into dancing. But sometimes those who have laughed off the grievous injuries of others need to lament, weep, repent.
I call this morning on all of us to repent of easily accepting unearned power and privilege and acting as if it is only what is due to us. Let us repent of every kind of pride that leaves us unwilling to admit any fault or failure, or yield an inch of our territory. I call upon men especially to model masculinity that eschews violence, coercion, pugnacious defensiveness and unending competition, but rather to model masculinity that employs gentleness and a will to create peace and security for all of us. I call on men and women alike to live in hope, tough as it is sometimes. St. Augustine’s insight is apropos: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” May God use our anger and courage as instruments to bring healing to all of us and to our nation.
 The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B From <http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_23_2018>
 Dyson, Michael Eric Introduction to DiAngelo, Robin White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, p. ix
 A.K.M Adam From <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=404>