September 19, 2021

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

“Debates and Other Distractions”

I only have a vague memory of the grade in school (I think it was grade 7 or 8) when we learned how to engage in a formal debate. I remember that the topics were assigned, and we didn’t even get to choose whether we would argue “pro” or “con.” But we did our research, made our lists of convincing points on our side,  anticipated the other side’s points, and planned our rebuttals. And then the competition began.

Debating wasn’t my favourite experience in school. It was stressful for a pretty shy kid. And it never felt like the process got us to a good conclusion on the topic in question. The most skilled and confident debaters always won, even if they were arguing for something ridiculous.

I have to say that I felt even worse about the so-called debate between the federal party leaders that took place last week. Like the disciples arguing on the road, there was a lot of attention given to which one of the leaders was the greatest (or definitely NOT the greatest), and there was very little light shed on the policies and priorities of the parties to help us make our decisions on how to vote.

It’s not that I’m adamantly opposed to debates. I mean, I engage along with others in the debates and discussion in the decision-making bodies of the church all the time. In the right context, I’m up for a discussion about politics too, and I’ve even been seen to wade into a debate on social media when I felt like I had something important to add to an online discussion.

But my reading of the Scripture passages for today tells me that as Christians, we must be careful about how we participate in debates with each other and with our neighbours. We must be determined not to lose sight of what is most important. We must “argue” with one another in ways that maintain loving and respectful relationships, and always keep in mind the goal of seeking the truth together, rather than aiming to win the debate.

The Book of James invites Christians to aim for wisdom, but that means more than just knowing the right answers, having a store of excellent knowledge, or even a talent for winning arguments. Wisdom, as the Apostle James describes it, is demonstrated in gentleness and a life marked by good works (not only good words).

He warns against envy – the desire to have what others have, whether material things or power and status. And he calls us to pay attention to our motivations when striving for wisdom. Selfish ambition will lead us away from wisdom and towards “disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

In contrast to debates that aim to determine who is the greatest, the goal of our conversations should be to discover truth and goodness. James says that the wisdom from above (from God) is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

How many arguments that you have read or participated in on Facebook could have been described like that? Peaceable and gentle?

Have you ever seen a political debate with any of those characteristics? Willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy?

How about the discussions we have in our committees and groups and the courts of the church? Do we draw upon that wisdom from above that empowers us to be full of mercy for one another and to sow peace even when we disagree? I have witnessed that kind of respectful debate that involves real listening and the openness of mind and heart to actually be convinced by someone else, but it’s still pretty rare.

I do think it’s what Presbyterians are talking about when we say that when we meet together, and pray, and seek God’s will together, that the Holy Spirit can guide us towards wisdom, towards God’s will. Whether it’s at a General Assembly or a local Session meeting, we must not arrive with absolute certainty that we know what’s best or with the goal to win the debate. We must open ourselves to the Spirit speaking among us in our meeting so that true wisdom can be found.

Of course, Jesus didn’t shy away from debates during his ministry. The religious leaders often put questions to him in the public sphere, and he never refused to answer. Somewhat like the tricky questions our political leaders had to face last week, they asked Jesus unfair questions intended to trip him up, embarrass him, or get him to side with one group over another.

And every time, with gentleness and patience, Jesus answered. He was an excellent debater – not just because he was smart, but because he loved and cared for even the ones who tried to trick him. His answers were full of mercy and grace.

But Jesus was not impressed by his own disciples when they began arguing with each other about which one of them was the greatest. When he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” they were silent. They must have known that he would have been disappointed in them.

Their conversation was most certainly marked by envy and selfish ambition, just like the time some of them asked to sit at Jesus’ right hand and left hand in the Kingdom to come.

But rather than berating them for their selfishness, Jesus chooses to teach them what true greatness really looks like. The greatest among them will not be the one who wins the argument or convinces the most friends that he is the best. The greatest will be the one who serves. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus tells them.

Very much like what James said, Jesus makes it clear that wisdom is not shown in winning arguments and debates, but it is demonstrated in loving acts of service for the least and the lost.

Sure, Jesus did well when he was put on the spot by adversaries who wanted to put him down with their smart arguments. But Jesus showed that he was the Holy One of God in the way that he lived, loved, healed, helped, served, and gave his life for the sake of the world. And it is his way, and his wisdom, that we as Christians and disciples are called to follow.

Jesus didn’t yell at his friends, telling them to quit arguing over unimportant and self-centered things. Instead, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”

In other words, “Stop being distracted, friends, and pay attention to what is most important. Remember your mission. Focus on loving and welcoming the least and the lost, and let go of your desires for greatness and recognition.”

You may know that in Roman society children were viewed as socially inferior and thus could be largely invisible, if not endangered. The child may represent a vulnerable person in general, and we could think about who, in our time, is vulnerable. And where, in our time and context, is Jesus calling us to focus our attention.

But even now, even in our country, children themselves remain vulnerable. In a reflection on this text, Mark Stamm notes that, “Children remain among the most vulnerable among us, perhaps with more rights than they held in the first century, but such rights are notoriously difficult to defend, especially against domestic abuse, dysfunction, and outright parental incompetence, not to mention predators of all types.

“Opting for parenthood can still be perceived as a bad career move. In the main, church positions dedicated to the teaching of youth and children are not among the most highly coveted and esteemed. Day-care workers are in high demand, but often poorly paid… Some of the clothing sold in our department stores has been produced by child labor. Many children have been enslaved within the sex industry. If we are willing to hear it, this pericope can help us come face to face with such realities, leading us to active repentance and the resistance of evil.”

Imagine Jesus, taking a child and placing her among our provincial health and political leaders. Have you noticed how many children are getting sick with Covid-19 in our province now? They are the ones who cannot get vaccinated. Can’t we set aside our political positions and ideologies and just do what is needed to protect them?

Imagine Jesus, taking a child and placing him among our federal candidates and leaders. Don’t you see that there are children going to school without breakfast every day, and First Nations schools functioning without the basic resources that other schools have, and communities full of families still struggling without potable water to drink? When are you going to move from debate to action?

Imagine Jesus, taking a child and placing them among us, among his disciples today. Remember the children who attended the residential schools that you ran? Remember the ones who died, and the ones who lost their languages, culture, and family ties? Remember the ones who continue to be harmed by the intergenerational impacts? How are you going to keep your promises and commitments to the children?

Jesus says to us all: “Please, oh please, don’t let your debates and arguments and desires for greatness distract you from what is most important.”

I think that Jesus understands when we get off track and argue with each other while we are on the way. After all, his first disciples did that too, and he taught them, and guided them, and showed them where to focus their attention.

The advice of the Apostle James is helpful too, as we strive to be guided by Jesus as churches and societies. He says, “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

Let us draw near to God, even now, as we offer our prayers for the church and the world.