“bitter envy & selfish ambitions”

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 19, 2021

Mark 9:30-37

I come to you in the name of one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All of our lessons today seem to be pointing us to this basic reality: we’re not very good at the whole “living a life of faith” thing. We too often lean into those things that distract, detach, lead us astray. We too often forget to turn our focus onto God, and keep it there.

I guess that’s sort of the point though, isn’t it?

If we were good at living a life of faith, even in the historical sense, then God as Christ would not have needed to be incarnate, walking amongst us, as us.

If we were good at living a life of faith, we wouldn’t be here at church, attoning, praying, learning, seeking connection with God and neighbor, trying each week to be a little bit better in a world that tempts and challenges us to be a little bit worse.

But, it must be said, this life is definitely messy.

We are messy.

We give into our bitter envy and selfish ambitions.

I’m certainly not innocent under those charges. Our whole society is built upon a stratification that celebrates bitter envy and selfish ambitions. It is what we teach our children from an early age: to be “successful,” to achieve the “American (material) Dream.”

And, in giving in, we often lose sight of God.

We definitely lose sight of our neighbor, sitting next to us, working towards the same broken dreams propped up by our envy and selfishness.

The brokenness of the world encourages us to lose sight. The brokenness of the world encourages us to covet and hoard our successes, forgetting our neighbor, forgetting God, forgetting that we can use all that we gain in this life to make this world a better place for all, that we can use all that we gain in this life to tear down the systems of brokenness and advocate for a different world based solely on the relationship with God that is founded upon the understanding of what it means to be of creation that God knows through the experience of Jesus Christ being made one with us in creation.

Last week I had an interesting encounter that I think helps illustrate this point.

Now before I begin I want to be clear up front, I’m going to be talking today about the “defund the police” movement as an example to help illustrate the larger point I’m trying to make in my sermon today. I know that those three words, “defund the police,” are highly controversial in our modern discourse, and regardless of my personal stance (which is not hard to discern if you follow my social media accounts), I want to be clear that if you are preparing yourself now to respond in anger to this sermon because I would dare speak those three, quite politically charged, words from the pulpit, I ask that you pause your anger and open yourself to hearing this sermon in its entirety today.

So, last week I had an interesting encounter.

I had the necessity to call the mental health crisis hotline to help with someone that I knew and was having a mental health breakdown at the time.

When you call the mental health crisis hotline, they reach out to police dispatch in order to have (at least one) police officer on site as back up in case the person having the crisis becomes violent towards themselves or others.

The police officer was the first to show up of the two (officer and mental health counselor), and I struck up a conversation with him as we awaited the crisis worker.

The officer mentioned that he knew the individual and started sharing how the individual was a dangerous person.

This struck me, because I only have ever known this person to be a quiet individual, who was helpful and respectful (at least with me).

When I shared that, the police officer was legitimately surprised, and I realized (and mentioned to him) that he likely only knew the individual on his absolute worst days, since those are the times when authorities are called in to help.

In reflecting on this interaction, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat hypocritical in the encounter. Arguing to defund the police, but then desperately needing their presence to peacefully resolve a potentially dangerous encounter. And, feeling heartbroken that we don’t have the community resources to prevent this type of event from even happening in the first place, if we had easily accessible mental health care, stable housing and food for all, much of the trauma that sends someone down a spiral would never be encountered.

I think this feeling of hypocrisy points to a larger issue though, the “defund” movement, as it were, is really an acknowledgment that we’ve allowed systems to build up in our society that are founded upon suspicion and brokenness. The inherent racism in our criminal justice system is a symptom of this reality. And, it’s not hard to see with the eyes of a police officer why every encounter feels dangerous, in need of a forceful response, because they are regularly, day-in and day-out, being called in to deal with people on their absolute worst day.

“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.”

It is this reality, the reality of disorder and wickedness springing up from earthly, unspiritual, devilish “wisdom,” that “makes” the police a perceived “necessity” in our society (even if you’re so inclined to call their presence a “necessary evil”).

But, if we as Christians, all Christians not just Episcopalians, tooks Jesus’ words today to heart, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” would we still be living in a broken world with broken institutions built up through our unspiritual wisdom, built up through our unsound reasoning?

This is where Christian leaders who champion the defund and abolition movements ask the question. It is a question that tries to see a better reality lived in and through Jesus Christ. It is a question that tries to see a better reality where we are drawn in close to God, leaving behind our bitter envy and selfish ambitions to embrace God in love, to embrace one another in the love that God has shared with us.

The challenge before us then is to remove our own hang ups around language to consider the bigger reality of the world that is being called into question. The challenge before us is not to see movements like “defund the police,” as “naive,” or “radical,” and instead ask the question of what the world could look like if we lived into the hopes of those movements, and not the fears against them.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

For, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

We’re not very good at living into this “life of faith” thing.

But, that’s why we come here each week.

That’s why we read from and reflect on scripture each week.

To be reminded that we can be better.

That there exists a different reality that we can work towards in this creation.

That while our institutions and systems may be flawed, even broken, they are flawed and broken because we are often flawed and broken, giving into our bitter envy and selfish ambitions.

When we recognize this in ourselves, name it, repent for it, and turn our focus to God, to loving our neighbor in practice and not just word, we begin to heal the brokenness that is present in this creation.

This is part of our call as Christians.

To name, provide space for healing, to rebuild in the image of love that God has shown us.

When we do this, we are making our best attempts at living into the life of faith.

When we do this, we welcome the child, we welcome Christ, we welcome the Spirit, we welcome God the creator, here, with us, now.

Amen.

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