A letter from Jesus’ brother, a powerful image from Jesus and the story of an effort to help some of the most vulnerable in Madison – they all weave together into stories of service.
Almost 20 years ago, I was cleaning out some things at my mom’s house in Marinette, up in the northeast corner of Wisconsin. She had moved into an assisted living apartment as her age caught up to her. My job was to sort out things in the house we had lived in for the past half century.
As I gathered things on the shelves in the closet in her bedroom, I noticed a cardboard box in the back corner of one of the shelves. It was tied shut with twine. I opened it up to see what was inside.
It was a box of letters from 1947 and 1948, covering the nine or ten months my mother and father were courting each other. She was working in Los Angeles, he was living in Marinette. The letters were hardly steamy. They were pretty matter of fact. Updates on their lives. Plans for the next visit. Later, plans for a wedding.
Occasionally, something romantic would slip through. A favorite song. A wish to be together.
It was an amazing find for me. It was the form of communication that stretches back to ancient Egypt, ancient India, Rome, Greece, China. A letter. One person taking the time and the thought to convey a thought, an emotion to another.
I know that when I was at camp, I wrote letters – well, maybe postcards – home. When I was at college, I got letters from my mom – and sometimes she got letters from me. Now emails often play that role.
But letters are more than personal conversations. They can also be a way to communicate ideas, to express pleasure or displeasure, to challenge the recipient of the letter.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was in jail in Birmingham for his work to end segregation in this nation, he wrote a letter to the white clergymen of the city defending his actions and challenging their complacence.
When Pope Francis wanted to get the world to focus on the threats to our environment – and the threat that poses to the poorest among us – he wrote a letter – it’s officially called an encyclical.
When The Fitchburg Star ran a wonderful piece last month about Orion’s journey of gender identity, people wrote letters to the paper. One praised Memorial UCC for “creating an environment that allowed Orion to share the news of his journey.” Another prayed that I might “seek to truly know Christ and refrain from leading others into error.”
All of this is to set up the context for the portion of the letter from James that we heard today. The New Testament of our Bible has 21 letters in it. Most of them are from Paul – we’ll delve into his life and writings next month in a series of Wednesday evening sessions.
The letters in the New Testament helped shape the early Christian community’s understanding of Jesus, the way the community should be formed and the way they should live as individual followers of Jesus.
That’s what James’ letter is about – how to live.
We think the author was the James who was the brother of Jesus, a dominant leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem – or at least someone writing from his viewpoint.
And what he said to those earliest Christians still speaks to us today, because, it turns out, as human beings, we are still prone to “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition,” to “bragging and living in ways that deny the truth.” There is still conflict among us, there are still murders and thefts.
In some ways, what James says is obvious. We need to act with wisdom, with understanding, with humility. We need to stay near to God. And if we were really good at that, maybe we wouldn’t need to be reminded. And if we could really live peaceful lives, maybe we could sow the seeds of justice.
But just as the letters between my parents helped them deepen their love for one another, just as Martin Luther King’s letter from jail and Pope Francis’ letter to the whole world challenge us as individuals and as a society, so too James’ letter is intended to call us back to who we say we want to be.
The little story from the Gospel according to Mark that we heard today puts all of this in fairly graphic form.
First Jesus once again tells his closest followers that the road ahead is going to be rough for him – and for them. So what do they do? They start debating with each other about who was the greatest among them.
If only they had Mac Davis’ song from 1980 to sing as they walked;
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror.
Cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can.
UW band fans know that song.
Jesus was not impressed by their preening and their status-seeking.
But here’s the thing. He did not dismiss them as a bunch of losers. He did not tell them they were fired. These followers of his seemed to get things wrong a lot. But each time, he gathers them together, gives them that sad, do-you-really-not-get-it look and then grabs another teachable moment.
We all have our own teachable moments. So many times in my life, I have thought I understood something only to find that I really misunderstood it. Experience, the gentle – or sometimes not so gentle – persuasion of another helped me to rethink my understanding, to even change my behavior.
“He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first of all must first be the least of all and the servant of all.’ ”
What Jesus did then probably had more staying power than all his words or all the words of James. He called a child out of the crowd, embraced the child as say to his followers: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but the one who sent me.”
This wasn’t about cute kids. This was a recognition that in Palestine in the first century, kids had no status. They were property, easily cast off if not useful. Those in power had no need to pay attention to children. They were the least of those among them.
You want to argue about who is the greatest among you? asks Jesus. It’s the one who opens their arms to the weakest, the most vulnerable, the ones without status.”
That’s what Linda Ketcham and the folks at Madison-area Urban Ministry do on our behalf every day.
They stand with the returning prisoners, the children of those in prison, the people left in the dust in the governmental budget crunches and the men and women living on the streets or in their cars or – if they are really lucky – in a homeless shelter.
MUM is starting a new project to help some of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable – homeless men and women coming out of the hospital.
It’s called Healing House. It’s a place where through the workers there, we help open our arms to the one who sent Jesus. Linda will tell you a bit about that.
(Linda Ketcham outlined the vision for Healing House and the need for money for their $1 million capital fund drive. Our loose plate offering today went to support Healing House.)