September 9, 2018

Cover: Verlat, Charles. Bethlehem Girl, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved September 9, 2018]. Original source:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind only a few.”
-Shunryu Suzuki

Rachel Carson
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful,
full of wonder and excitement.
It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision,
that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring,
is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.
If I had influence with the good fairy
who is supposed to preside over all children,
I should ask that her gift to each child in the world
be a sense of wonder so indestructible
that it would last throughout life.”

Fifteen Quotes of Wisdom by Imam Husayn Ibn Ali, 625-680 CE
1. The most generous person is the one who offers help to those who do not expect him to help.

2. Whoever seeks the satisfaction of people through disobedience of God; Then God subjects him to people.

3. Wisdom will not be complete except by following the truth.

4. To me, death is nothing but happiness, and living under tyrants nothing but living in a hell.

5. Those who worship God for the hope of gaining, they’re not real worshipers, they’re merchants. Those who worship God out of fear (of punishment), they’re slaves. And those who worship God to be grateful towards their Creator, they are the free people, and their worship is a real one.

6. Beware that the need of people to you is among the blessings of God to you. So do not scare away the needy people when they come to you, as God’s blessings will return and go elsewhere.

7. One who reveals your faults to you like a mirror is your true friend, and one who flatters you and covers up your faults is your enemy.

8. Hastiness is foolishness.

9. Among the signs of ignorance is arguing with irrational people.

10. Among the signs of a learned man is criticizing his own words and being informed of various viewpoints.

11. Being thankful for a grace of God makes God reward you with another grace.

12. Beware that the need of people for you is among the graces of God, so do not neglect the needy as the graces will turn into difficulties. Do know good deeds bring you people’s respect and praise and God’s rewards. If you could personify and visualize good deeds as a human being you would see him as kind and good looking, whose sight is pleasant for everyone to see. And if you could picture evil acts, you would see him ugly and disgusting, hearts detesting him, and eyes closing to his sight.

13. Best of wealth is that with which one protects his fame and dignity.

14. Avoid doing that for which you might later be asked to apologize! Because the believer does not harm and does not ask for apology, while the hypocrite always harms and apologizes.

15. When you are frustrated and do not know a way out, only flexibility and moderation towards difficulties will save you.

Mark 9:30-37
They left there and started going through Galilee, and he did not want anyone to know. You see, [Jesus] was instructing his disciples and telling them, “The Human One will be turned over to his enemies, and they will kill him. And three days after he is killed he will rise.” They didn’t understand this instruction and they dreaded asking him about it.

And they came to Capernaum. When he got home, he started questioning them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And they fell silent, because on the way they had been bickering about who was greatest.

He sat down and called the Twelve and says to them, “If any of you want to be ‘number one,’ you have to be last of all and servant of all.”

And he took a child and had her stand in front of them, and he put his arm around her, and he said to them, “Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name is welcoming me. And whoever welcomes me is not so much welcoming me as the one who sent me.”

How important is reputation?

How important is it in general and how important is your reputation to you?

That is the focus question for this morning.

How important to you is your reputation?

I would hope it is important. My reputation is important to me. What we say, what we do, what we support, the values we hold and live by form our reputation. Our resume of accomplishments are part of our reputation. If we feel we have a good reputation, we do things or avoid doing things in order to keep that reputation. Reputations have a way of rubbing off, so many spend time climbing that ladder of reputation building by gaining favor of others who have good reputations. Where you went to school. Where you work. With whom do you vacation and drink wine, and so forth.

Reputations are a lot of work. A lifetime of work. Even after death, reputation is important. Obituaries are read, monuments are built, narratives are created so history remembers reputations of reputed individuals in a certain way.

Accomplished parents start early instilling the importance of reputation in their children. Get your child into the right pre-school, do the right things, meet the right people, take the right lessons, and maybe she’ll get a scholarship to Brown or Dartmouth or Harvard.

Let’s come back to that. Reputation.

This passage and its parallels in the gospels of Jesus using a child as an object lesson is popular. Jesus welcomes the children. He puts his arm around them and blesses them. In today’s lectionary reading in Mark, the setting is Jesus overhearing his disciples bickering over who is the greatest.

This bickering occurs after Jesus has told them that the authorities are going to kill him, or kill the Human One, but Jesus appears to be speaking about himself. Then Jesus offers the cryptic prediction, “and three days after he is killed, he will rise.” The disciples are not in the mood for any of this kind of talk.

So they bicker. They bicker about who is the greatest. They compare resumes. Who has done the discipleship duty best? Who is Jesus’s favorite? Who will become executive vice president of the Apostles? Who will become CEO of Jesus Inc. when Jesus retires? Each is concerned about his own reputation.

I imagine Jesus is amused. Frustrated perhaps, too. Jesus did not call them to his movement to prepare them to climb the Roman Corporate ladder. But they still speak in that language and hold those values. So he has to remind them again of what this movement is about.

But Jesus doesn’t dismiss the metaphor of greatness, of reputation. He uses it and he defines it by presenting to them a child.

“If you want to be number one, you have to be last and servant of all.”

This of course makes no sense. Being last and being a slave does not lead to becoming emperor. What Jesus says is tongue-in-cheek. It isn’t as if Jesus is offering career advice. He isn’t telling people to be interns. He isn’t saying, “If you want to be number one, you have to be last and servant of all, for a little while.” He isn’t saying, “Spend a few years working with the poor, then put that on your resume and folks will be impressed and your reputation will shine and you will be on the way to that corner office.” I am not judging that. I wish more people worked in those kinds of settings before they embarked on their careers.

I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at. He is getting at something more. I think he is saying, “What is that corner office worth to you? What is your reputation worth to you? Is it worth your soul? Look at this child. What reputation does this child have? How great is she? Can you be this?”

In October I and Josh Townsley will be going to Iraq. We are going as pilgrims to the shrine of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. He was a person of great reputation. This reputation arose not just because of his family connections but also because of his own leadership capabilities.

Husayn refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, the Umayyad caliph, because he considered the rule of the Umayyads unjust. He was beheaded by Yazid’s army in the Battle of Karbala in 680. In a sense, “after three days he rose” in that metaphorically speaking, his memory and legacy is inspiring to Shia Muslims to this day as a spiritual leader who gave up his reputation for truth.

On Arbaeen, which means forty, the fortieth day after the anniversary of his death, pilgrims visit his shrine in Karbala, some walking hundreds of miles. They have done so for 1400 years, even in times of great risk. Husayn is a fire that is not extinguished Husayn is quoted as saying:

“Whoever seeks the satisfaction of people through disobedience of God; Then God subjects him to people.”

I found that saying to be quite chilling, actually. If we please people, if we do whatever we do and avoid doing whatever we avoid doing, to secure our reputation among people, to please people, that is fine…until it comes in conflict with Allah, and you can define Allah how you will. I think of Allah or God as Truth and Goodness in an absolute sense. Or simply put, that which is true. That which is just. That which is good. That is the Caliphate. The Authority. The Gospel.

When seeking the satisfaction of people by throwing Truth and Goodness under the bus, then we get what we seek. We become ruled by the people we seek to satisfy. That is my paraphrase of Husayn.

“Whoever seeks the satisfaction of people through disobedience of God; then God subjects him to people.”

This is also from Husayn:

“And surely the aim of my stand is not inspired by vain exultation and it is also not for the quest of kingdom, neither it is to cause dissension and corruption nor it is to wrong anybody unjustly. The purpose of my stand is the reformation of my grandfather’s nation. I intend to enjoin goodness and forbid evil. I want to emulate my grandfather, the Holy Prophet and my father Ail bin Abu Talib. Whosoever accepts me by accepting the truth, then Allah is higher than the truth. and whosoever rejects me then I will bear patiently until Allah judges between me and them and He is the best judge.”

How important is reputation?

How important is your reputation to you?

Who is it for?

Jesus, Mohammad, and Husayn were on a similar path. Early Christians called it “The Way.” Shia means “The Way” as well. These wisdom teachers were on a path of truth as Husayn also said, “Wisdom will not be complete except by following the truth.”

It will be a few weeks before I preach again, as we have guests for the next three weeks. So I leave you with this, again from Husayn:

“If you do not believe in any religion,
and do not fear the Day of Resurrection,
then at least be free in this world.”