Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
[Jesus and his disciples] went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Who Is the Greatest?
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then 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.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Have you ever avoided a difficult reality with a meaningless disagreement? Have you ever been in an argument and wondered, how did this start? Or, have you been the object of an unprovoked attack that you eventually realized wasn’t about you at all?

The irony in our gospel passage, which Jesus eventually exposes, is that in their desire to attribute greatness unto themselves, the disciples were avoiding confrontation with the reality that would cement Jesus’ greatness among followers, skeptics, and critics alike. 

Their silence–both to Jesus’ revelation and questioning–exposes a vulnerability in their relationship. There is a profound lack of trust on the part of the disciples who might follow him in the moment or align with him day to day, but retreat among themselves when confronted with a future that is uncertain or undesirable.

This is true even when promised a happy ending. In each prediction of his death, Jesus informed his companions of the full story. The passion was always followed by the resurrection. Yet, it seems that his contemporary followers were as singularly focused on his death as believers have become today. It makes me think of that line from the musical, Hamilton, when General George Washington says to his young and eager protege, “Dying is easy. Living is harder.”

Like Alexander Hamilton, the disciples want greatness. Perhaps, they heard Jesus’ pronouncement as a call to arms, and like many when faced with the possibility of death, they began to consider their legacy. How will they be remembered, if they would be remembered at all? Or, they might have been working on a chain of command. Who would pick up the mantle of leadership once Jesus was killed?

At the same time, we should consider that this teaching also comes after Jesus has instructed the disciples that they too will be called upon to pick up their cross and follow him.

The cross was not invented for Jesus; it was already an established instrument of state execution used as much for public display and deterrent purposes as for punishment. This warning did not hold any ambiguity for the disciples even as they clung to ignorance and confusion as a self-protective measure. 

It’s much easier to have a spat over who’s greatest among them. In doing so, however, they limit themselves in the same way they attempt to ignore the greatness of Jesus. Jesus does not allow that to continue.

Jesus addresses more than their superficial argument (although he squarely confronts that too). His response expands and extends his teaching about his own journey. Mark’s narrative is full of movement. He recounts the action almost as if each moment overlaps another. It’s a choppy read giving little room for transitions or segues from one passage to the next. Even these conversations and teaching seem to occur while they are moving from one place to the next. As a result, these three conversational focal points (passion prediction, greatness argument, and child welcoming) may seem disjointed. Yet they are connected in the statement, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” You want greatness, seek servitude.

Jesus continues to illustrate the point of re-ordering by reorienting their understanding of children according to the kindom of God rather than prevailing cultural norms.

In contemporary culture, we might view the disciples’ behavior as “childish” as they attempt to conceal their bad behavior from their teacher and guide. Truthfully, it’s immature, and there is no age limit on such behavior. We betray our own condescension toward young people when we categorize unacceptable or unreasonable actions as characteristic of childhood rather than an inability or unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths. Jesus repudiates any form of devaluation of children.

In fact, Jesus exceeds that by identifying with the child and identifying the child with Godself. In doing so, Jesus seems to encourage real “childish” behavior.

Remember when you were first deemed old enough to make your own bed or help put away dishes. There was an eagerness that came from the ability to contribute. Maybe you still love to do those things, but there’s a reason that the word “chore” is synonymous with burden. But, a child has to learn that; the first and innate response is delight and pleasure in service. That’s childish behavior.

If you spend any amount of time on social media, you likely have seen memes of young children of diverse identities embracing one another. That diversity may stem from distinctions in ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, or religions. It may also reflect differences in physical ability. Our nature a children, in fact, is not to demean, denigrate, or destroy. Until we are taught that difference is somehow deficient, children accept one another and have no need to overcome diversity. That’s childish behavior.

Maturity comes when our response to experience does not diminish our childishness–our ability to play, to explore, to wonder, to accept, and to love without needless and harmful impediments. That’s greatness that doesn’t require any jockeying for position or divisive arguments. It’s the greatness inherent within the child crafted in the divine image who hasn’t been burdened with conflicting perspectives on their appearance.

There are three separate occurrences that record a variation of the same conversation. All of them result from Jesus revealing the plan for his passion and resurrection to those he invited to follow that forged path. Each time, the disciples respond in an unfavorable way, and Jesus provides a correction. One was a call to pick up their own cross. This time, Jesus charges them to welcome the child.

And maybe the child they really needed to embrace was the child within. Certainly, Jesus is affirming the worth of every child. 

  • The child within questions everything. 
  • The child within looks with fresh eyes and expects new discoveries. 
  • The child within hasn’t learned to fear the unknown but anticipates it. 
  • The child within still plays, has fun, and isn’t afraid of embarrassment. 
  • The child within hasn’t learned to be less than all that the Creator has molded them to be.

Want greatness? Welcome them. Nurture the child within. Embrace them. Let them free.

Speaking of childish behavior…one of the things I love about the 2 weekends a month GSLC serves breakfast at First LC downtown is the that people of all ages can serve. When we bagan doing the 2nd Sunday it was originally for youth and their families to serve together. That worked well when we had more youth but now we just have 2 groups and whoever can serve each weekend does.

I served breakfast a few times this spring when we recorded our service and showed it on Sunday mornings. It was different from when I had served a few years ago on a Christmas Sunday. You want to talk about a child-like joy, that morning was absolutely amazing and joyful as we shared a meal with those who were gathered.

These were two completely different events with the effects of Covid but we managed. We prepped meals on Saturday, and took them down on Sunday. We were with people who were like children in the times of Jesus…vulnerable, expendable, in the peripheral children of God.

But while we are there they are seen, acknowledged, and treated as the child of God they are regardless of the reason they may be taking part in the meal that morning. Because the reason doesn’t matter. They are there and they are loved like the children of God they are. That’s what joyous, child-like service looks like…and our young people ought to see it any chance that they can.