Homecoming Sunday, September 19, 2021 • Rev. Michael Livingston
No more dumping on the disciples. Let’s give them a pass this week. We’re routinely accustomed to thinking of them in two ways and those “ways” correspond to before and after the resurrection. Before, they’re bumbling and misunderstanding, clueless, resistant, impatient, possessive and protective of Jesus. They’re ineffective and powerless, can’t heal, cast out demons; they don’t get it. They don’t have vision, can’t see where Jesus is going, what he’s really up to. They’re like water boys, mascots, caddies, travel agents and road managers. They have no real agency. They are eager though, in this incarnation, we have to give them that. They hunger for something, for more, for the hope they see in Jesus. This movement, this “way” Jesus talks about could be something transformative, maybe even revolutionary. And they’re all in.
After the resurrection they are transformed. They’re smart, focused, powerful in speech and action. This is Popeye after a can of spinach (for the elderly among us, my demographic). This is the Hulk after you make him mad and he becomes this enormous one-man army. For a more contemporary image think of the Dora Milaje, those powerful women warriors in The Black Panther surrounding T’Challah, they are fierce and courageous. But does this before and after picture have to be the way it is? The way it was? Does it make sense to see them is such stark terms? Is it even realistic or fair to think the same group we see as impotent before the resurrection could somehow be capable of martyrdom afterwards?
There are people who made remarkable transformations: Malcolm Little, a hipster, drug dealer, thief, convict, becoming Malcolm X, the prophetic voice of the Nation of Islam championing black liberation from oppression by the white man, the white “devil” only to transform again into a visionary leader. Reviled by some he became beloved by many. You will remember what Ossie Davis said of him, “And we will know him then for what he was and is—a Prince—our own Black Shining Prince, who didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us so.”
That could be the case for the disciples, this wondrous transformation born of tragedy, but it doesn’t have to be. We can just as easily see them in a better light even before the resurrection. What if, instead of misunderstanding, as is the traditional interpretation of this text from Mark, we see them as contending with Jesus, not clueless, rather—contradictory. They’re hesitant about it—he is after all—Jesus. Their leader, teacher, the prophet extraordinaire, the one who has come, long awaited, incarnate in their midst. They don’t speak when he questions them, and that doesn’t have to mean they don’t understand. What if this is not a cozy cadre of docile followers sitting at the feet of Jesus thirsting for every syllable, parsing every sentence—what if they have a point of view, an idea of their own, individually and collectively, about where this movement ought to be going and how it ought to get there. What if?
What if they disagree with Jesus about greatness, what it looks like, what it means? The traditional interpretation tells us they were arguing about the chain of command, the greatest among them. The passage follows one where none of them could help a boy with demons. Then comes this exchange, this confrontation with Jesus about greatness. “What have you been talking about? They are silent, he is challenging. Do we have to believe they were that petty? That small minded. God knows we know people in movements who are. Did Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, Pauli Murray, Bayard Russell, Fannie Lou Hamer, sit around arguing about the pecking order, the chain of command, who was next in line? Or were they partners planning a movement with goals bigger than all of them put together?
We translate the Greek text assuming they were arguing about who among them was the greatest. But the Greek phrase “has no verb just a pronoun and an adjective” (scholar D. Mark Davis writes). It could be translated “Who is the greatest?” or “What is greatness”? Jesus said I’m turning my face to Calvary, I’ll suffer and die if I must because some folks just can’t accept the broad embrace of all, especially the children, the least among us, the made-poor and kept-poor and those left behind.
Maybe the disciples wanted a triumphant Messiah rather than a suffering servant. Maybe they wanted a giant slaying prophet, not a gentle man willing to die. The text says “he asked them what they were arguing about.” The word is stronger than “ask,” more like “interrogate.” There may be real tension here. This follows not only that failed attempt at healing but also Jesus calling the generation “faithless.” Remember that? Was he including them in that sweeping accusation? Is that what they signed up for? What they left their families, their work, their lives for?
I woke up at 4:17am Wednesday morning and these words were running through my mind: build, occupy/inhabit, celebrate. For several days I had been trying to get this sermon on the paper, well—in the computer—and I didn’t have the time, just couldn’t get to it. I’m thinking every day: Homecoming, church anniversary, #91. Friends, this pandemic blew up our 90th anniversary, last year remember? Remember—we weren’t in here. Anyway… homecoming, church anniversary, 9/11, climate change, this passage from Mark about (the meaning of greatness, about embracing children, these disciples, our discipleship. I’m thinking all these things about this sermon I’ve titled Welcome, but haven’t written a word. What do these words have to do with Welcome? Build, occupy/inhabit, celebrate. What is going on here? Didn’t make sense. Riverside is built, Rockefeller did that. One rich man, or as Chris Rock would correct me to say, one wealthy man had this building constructed. “Put it there 490 Riverside Drive. Make it tall. Magnificent. That’s done.
But here we are at a moment when new building is possible since the purchase of McGiffert and our ownership of two full city blocks. And we already occupy this building (I’m reserving “church” for the people, not the building). The mid-14th century root of the word occupy means “to take possession of and retain or keep.” Check. We’re doing that, but do we inhabit, live in, make-as-our-home this building? The pandemic raises that question, challenges that notion.
We’re having hybrid worship now, hybrid community now—we’re in the building and online. You’re here in the Nave and you’re there, in that camera and I have to remember to look at you and speak to you where you are, most of you at home, but you could be in the park or on your terrace or in the backyard. You could be watching this at some restless moment after midnight and before the dawn.
We’re challenged to be the church, to be the body of Christ, in ways unthinkable before this moment in this century, this pandemic, this MeToo moment, this struggle for democracy in the face of the bold-faced disenfranchisement of people of color and people made and kept poor and the proud assertion of white supremacy and white privilege, this desire of reactionary forces to force back into closets kinfolk who embrace their orientation as queer/non-binary/fluid; this moment when the earth is screaming at us, taunting us—the Mother of Nature, of all creation shouting I’ll end the earth if you keep this up. Disrespect me, despoil me at your everlasting peril.
Those disciples may have been doing the same things we do as disciples today—asking the right questions, debating among ourselves about what to do, which way to go. Resisting the radical demands Jesus places on us because they’re just so hard. Apparently. Civility, humanity, forgiveness, community, peace through justice; loving other as self. What ought to be basic, elementary education in humanity, seems post-doctoral, and the scholarship money has dried up.
On the first anniversary, 1931, or homecoming near the 91st, the question is still before us—what does greatness require at this moment? And the answer is still the same: embrace the vulnerable, make a home for all, inhabit in holiness, create community, resist injustice, end oppression. Love one another through the brokenness, past the suffering, “…until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. AMEN.