Sermon, 9/19/21. SIC: Strong Internal Candidate

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17 Pentecost

Psalm 1; Proverb 31:10–31; James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a; Mark 9:30–37

Then he took a little child and put it among them.  Mark 9:36

Not only eternal forces, but also internal discord plagued the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  Miracles and declarations of faith in Jesus as the Messiah of God notwithstanding, human nature held still sway over his team.  As leader of the group, it was entirely within Jesus’ purview and essential to know the cause of dissension in his group, which he had observed.  So it was, that Jesus asked the question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mk. 9:33b)  Their bickering could sabotage his effort to change hearts and minds.  Had he chosen his companions correctly?  How should he have gone about choosing those who were to take his message forward?   Or rephrased, what basic quality of character, should his team have.

A well-known university, that, in a previous era, was privileged to count me among its student population, sought to resolve this issue of who was qualified to join its faculty or its administration through the use of “SIC.”  When I first read this constellation of alphabets in the student gazette, I thought, “How odd!”  You see, “sic” is used by writers when quoting material to indicate there is a grammatical mistake in the quote, original to the quote, and not a mistake of the current writer. 

However, in the legend of the student newspaper, I learned that “sic” was to indicate a “strong internal candidate.”  This three-letter signal served to discourage outside candidates, many of whom were equally qualified, perhaps even more highly qualified and of a temperament for the advertised position than the internal candidate.  It took external social and political pressure to force the university to change its approach to hiring.  Could Jesus of Nazareth have considered “SIC,” in choosing his team?

Prior to the pandemic, when one still sat in waiting rooms to see a physician and reading material was provided, as I waited, by chance, I picked up a magazine, a religious tract, actually, that someone had left behind.  In leafing through it, I stopped at an entry that caused the cynic in me to think, “Oh, what kitsch!” Even so, I share with you, in summary form, what I read, for it illustrates the problem that plagued Jesus’ ministry then.

The author, who is unknown, imagines taking a look at the disciples through the lens of a modern-day consulting firm:

Memo to: Jesus, Son of Joseph

The Woodcrafter’s Carpenter Shop

Nazareth 26544

From: Jordan Management Consultants

Re: Search for disciples

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for management positions in your new organization.  All of them have now taken our battery of tests, and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologistand vocational aptitude consultants.  The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study them carefully.  As part of our service, we will make some general comments.  These are given as a result of staff consultation and come without any additional fee.

It is the staff’s opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking.  They do not have the team concept.  We recommend you continue with your search.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper.  Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership.  The brothers, James and John, place personal interest above company loyalty.  Thomas has a skeptical attitude that would tend to undermine morale.  It is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau.  James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus have radical leanings and show a high score on the manic-depressive scale.  Only one of the twelve shows great potential.  He has ability, resourcefulness, a business mind, meets people well, is ambitious and highly motivated.  We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man.  (Author unknown; previously published in hardcopy, available now in The Nugget, an on-line publication)

This brings me to the lectionary for today, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.  When first I read the Letter of James and Mark’s gospel account, I thought they were raising the question of balance: self-interest versus selfless interest.  In rereading both the gospel and the letter, I had to ask myself a further question, “Is it really a question of balance?”  Or, “Is it possible that selfless interest can result in the attainment of a self-interest goal?”  I concluded this is too complicated for me to resolve alone, so I put the questions to you: It is possible that selfless actions can actually benefit self-interest?

I suspect that many, if not most, of you were reared by parents, aunts, uncles, guardians, who may have used the following cliche: “Pride goes before a fall”, which is an abbreviation of Proverbs (16.18) that reads: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Then, of course, none other than Jesus himself admonishes us not to assume a seat at the head table of a banquet, but to stand back and be invited by the maitre de to the appointed seat, which may be at the head table.

And then there is that other, more realistic human pull, that inner urge to demonstrate that we are, individually, number one.  Every coach and every athlete want to be number one, even if the idea is not verbally expressed.  When I played Monopoly with friends, I maneuvered not to acquire Park Place and Boardwalk, but other properties, because I knew that I had a far greater chance of accumulating wealth and of winning, i.e., of being number one, if I had more properties in a less high-rent district.  The fact that I learned about diversification of investments and assets for later in life and the fact that I would not always win the game, was not the point at the time.  I wanted to be the winner, the greatest, number one!  And this was the argument between the disciples on the way.

And those fateful words, “I want to be number one,” bring me first to the Letter of James.  James has called us back to the covenant that God has made with us, and which we call The Ten Commandments.  More precisely, James directs us to what my now late seminary professor dubbed “the odd commandment,” the Tenth Commandment: “Thou shall not covet.”  It’s odd because it is not like the other commandments in the social section of the contract, which are crystal clear: Do not murder, steal, bear false witness, or commit adultery.  The wrong addressed in this odd commandment resides within the mind and the heart.  James, millennia prior to our 21st century, knew that to honor or to ignore this commandment would determine whether we have an imbalance of wealth and extreme poverty, or peace or terrorism and war.

When what I want is not in accord with what God wants for me, that all too inner human pull causes me to create a god who has less a claim on my life.  James embraces a different way, a wisdom from beyond the constraints of our narrow vision: pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good works, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  When what we desire overlaps with what God desires for us, we are in line with God’s way and God’s will, and that beautiful litany of wisdom’s fruit becomes ours.  James presents a very simple diagnosis of the problem.  Do things God’s way – peace.  Do things our way – conflict.  If you want to avoid the ills of conflict and disputes born of covetous desires, “submit yourselves to God . . . draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” (Jas. 4. 7- 8)

The problem is that this selflessness is easier in theory to achieve than in practice.  Today’s gospel and to the disciplines who were being interviewed for Jesus’ imaginary management team give us historical evidence.  To be sure, they were not seated around a table in an air-conditioned conference room, set up for a power-point presentation.  Yet, in its essence, the discussion which Jesus had, sought to bring focus.  Jesus presented lofty ideas about how God’s kingdom would evolve and expand on earth.  But there were real actions steps to be taken, his death and resurrection being two of them.

However, those men heard, but did not hear, for they were too concerned about where they ranked, where they would sit around the table, and who would sit on the right or on the left.  Who, among them, was to become Chief of Staff?  Who was going to be number one?  That coveted first position so preoccupied their thoughts, that they paid scant attention to the message of being servant to others, of being willing to lay their individual interests aside for the good of the whole. 

While they argued, the multitude needed to be fed.  While they argued, lepers needed medical attention.  While they argued, the moneychangers were exacting high prices for inexpensive turtle doves.  While they argued among themselves, the status quo remained unchanged, indeed, becoming all the more entrenched.  They squandered valuable time and energy, which necessitated a review of team expectations and procedure.  And so it was that as leader, Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk 9:35)  While we, you and I, nod our heads in agreement, we also question, do we not, how or whether this mandate can be actualized.  Yet, that is exactly what we are called to do.  Could discipleship, being a member of Jesus’ team, be that simple and obvious?  Did Jesus set up his immediate disciples, and consequently us, to fail?  I think not! 

“Simple” does not mean “easy” and it surely does not mean that we become subservient and suffer human indignities and tout that as the Christian way. Servanthood is not to be equated with servitude.  The Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark teach us that we are destined for a lifelong struggle between our desires, which will collide with the desires of others, and with God’s will which demands that we take into consideration the desires and needs of others.  But they teach us further that that tension will be played out in small things, in actions to the greater good.  Simple things can have consequences.

You will have your own examples of how a simple act of serving others can make a difference, and how “simple” does not equal “easy.”  A simple act of servanthood, where love met haughtiness and ultimately love, comes readily to my mind, an act that had far-reaching consequences for the United States and for the world.  Mrs. Rosa Parks, deceased but not forgotten, a diminutive woman who was returning from a hard day’s work, refused to rise and give her seat to a man who, by accident of birth, was born of a different pigmentation and, out of self-interest, sought to use that accident of birth to his advantage, as he had undoubtedly done many times prior. 

That simple, but not easy confrontation set into motion a nation-wide search of consciences.  Her example gave and gives hope that even seemingly insignificant actions, things we do on a day-to-day basis, can build community and change the course of history and transform society.  Seemingly intractable behavior meets its match and is defeated.  By placing that child before his disciples, and by extension before us, Jesus has brought new meaning to “SIC.”  No longer does “SIC” designate “Strong Internal Candidate,” but rather “Strong Internal Character.”  And with “Strong Internal Character,” with “SIC” supported by God’s spirit, we can make a difference in all the places where God has called us to serve.  We lay aside our zeal of becoming number one and seek instead to become one with The One who is the true One.  Amen