Sermon September 23, 2012 Mark 9:30-37 “And the Winner Is…”

It’s been a wild week but given the ongoing tensions between Romney and Obama, continuing and escalating conflict between the United States and major Middle Eastern countries, like Egypt and Libya and the import/export question with regard to products from China, claiming any one week, wild, could be judged as stating the obvious. Let’s face facts: we, because we are human, like to be on top. We want to come in first, win, rather than place or show. We want our way to be the way, our guy to beat the other guy. That’s just how we are so it’s a bit disconcerting to hear Jesus admonishing his disciples for bickering over “Who, among them, is the greatest?” I figure you can’t argue with human nature, right?

But, Christ did just that. As the gospel writer Mark reports it, Christ is aware that his followers are grumbling among themselves, arguing foolishly about the positions of authority they will assume when Christ, the Messiah, rules. Somehow they had misinterpreted, yet again, Christ’s teaching that following him will not bring special favor; it will only bring the same kind of suffering and shame Christ himself will ultimately have to suffer. He points out to them that it is the least among them who will inherit eternal life, not the greatest. They are to be servants, not masters…to live their lives like children who have no status or power. In the minds of the disciples, none of this makes sense. That’s not the way things are supposed to work, so once again, the disciples find themselves at odds with this man they have committed their lives to follow. And once again, Christ wonders if he has put too much faith in these human vessels who have one too many holes to plug up before they can take on the work they will be called to do when he leaves them.

In fairness to the disciples, we can certainly understand their confusion. It would be ours too – in fact, we suffer the same sense of bewilderment when we try and explain our faith to someone who doesn’t share it.  How do you define a faith, which requires its adherents to accept their role as servant rather than master? To be like a vulnerable and weak child rather than a strong and powerful adult? How can we put ourselves aside for the sake of another?

I grew up as an American citizen certain that because I was American, no one would dare touch me. My government would lay siege to any who might try. I carried this foolish and superior notion into my interactions with people of other countries. I was certain, simply by citizenship as a United States born and raised native, I was better than them. The first time that notion was rocked and my faith in my own superiority was shaken, I was traveling on tour in the Holy Land…Israel…walking the very places where Christ had walked. We had been visiting sites and walking the streets just outside Jericho all day and we were tired. Our tour guide gave us a few minutes to sit, take a few photos and relax before we would again board our bus. I wandered off from my group and found a stone step to sit on and was enjoying the sun and the crowds of enthusiastic tourists all reveling in their visit, when I became aware that someone in a turban was gesturing wildly at me. I didn’t understand what he was saying but since his gesturing and the words he was saying didn’t register, I did what I thought best and attempted to ignore him. He couldn’t be talking to me…so I shut him out until he walked up to me and in broken, yet decipherable English, he spouted angrily at me, “don’t you understand English? Move…I take picture!” It was only then that I realized, this Palestinian was a tour guide; he had a group of tourists with him and he was trying to get them placed on the stairs so he could take a photo of them. I was in his way and in theirs. In that moment, I realized one, this man didn’t like Americans and two, there were probably lots of people in this country, who for their own reasons, did not like Americans. I also realized, maybe they had good reason.

I’ve thought a great deal about this moment seeing it as God’s opportunity to teach me something about my life and my faith. It hasn’t been easy accepting the reality that my status as an American citizen does not give me special privileges or a favored place in the larger political world. I think we are all struggling with sense of loss as countries around the world challenge us on the military, political and economic stage. My decision to follow Christ calls me to come to God as an innocent child powerless in the world arena, as powerless before God as any of God’s children who hold any citizenship or religious or political persuasion. If we, as God’s creation, stand equal in anything, it is in the reality that we are equally powerless and that is confusing to us. We don’t understand or accept fully that we are equally needy. We stand in need of God’s grace and love. We can’t do much without God guiding and helping us learn more about the gifts we have been given. Everything that makes us who and what we are is ours by grace and grace alone. We don’t own it. We didn’t create it and like little children, we have to learn each and every day of our lives how best to use what God has so willingly shared with us. And learn also how best to share ourselves willingly and generously with others. Like a child, we come before God in need and we find love.

It’s only through God and by Christ’s action on the cross that we find our place, our purpose, the meaning for our lives. It doesn’t come to us because we deserve more than someone else. It doesn’t come because we are somehow superior to another. There isn’t room in this picture for a superior attitude or a sense of entitlement.  Does that confuse us? It certainly confused the disciples. They struggled with this notion. They had hoped that somehow following the Messiah of their dreams would grant them a superior place and position in their world. In the ongoing war between Christians, each claiming superiority and a special knowledge of God, we endanger not only our souls but also our world. As Biblical commentator Tom Wright puts it:

“This lesson resonates out into the centuries of church history in which so many have thought that being close to Jesus, even working full-time for him, made them somehow special. Those who have really understood his message know that things aren’t like that. As Jesus goes to the cross, turning upside down everything his disciples had imagined, he is also turning upside down the way people, including Christians, still think. If we feel sorry for the disciples in their confusion, we should ask ourselves just how confused we ourselves still are.” [1]

So, what can learn from this passage in the gospel of Mark? What can we learn from our time on earth? What can we learn from those who share this world with us? An amazing assortment of truth splayed out for us to embrace about God, about life, about love and generosity, about Christ the source of hope. We can learn so much more when we come to God with the fertile mind of a child, when we approach one another with the giving attitude of one, who having received so much, now wants only to serve others in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake. Christ reminds us as he held a small child up before us all, this; “If anyone welcomes one child like this in my name, they welcome me. And if anyone welcomes me, it isn’t me they welcome, but the one who sent me.”[2] Amen.

[1] Tom Wright,  “Mark for Everyone”, Westminster John Knox Press. 2001, 124.

[2] This translation is by Tom Wright, “Mark for Everyone” Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, 121-22.