Proper 20, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
I remember when I was a child, when I was in elementary school, there was one thing more important than anything else. Only one aspect of my time truly mattered, truly had the power to make or break any day I was there. It was always the fateful few seconds right after the teacher told us to line up for whatever journey we were about to take…and who she would name as ‘line leader’. Oh to be the first, the line leader, the one with all the power and prestige…or so I thought. I’m sure it’s part of the cosmic humor of humanity that I can remember that feeling of desire, but I certainly can’t remember if I did ever get to be the line leader, or what that was like. Now before any of you with training in psychology start diagnosing me, let me assure you that I wasn’t the only one! We all wanted to be the line leader. If the teacher didn’t choose quickly enough, it was sure to result in contestation of the throne, elbows, jabs, not-so-subtle pushing for the crown. Though more subtle than when the sons of Zebedee get their mother to ask Jesus who is going to sit at his right hand, this is in part what the disciples are doing in the Gospel lesson for today.
Imagine, you are the incarnate deity, you are explaining to your disciples how things are going to happen when it comes to your end, you are trying to teach them what comes next, to make sure that they aren’t going to hide and scatter and collapse when you are captured, tortured, and executed, but they just don’t seem to be getting it. You heard them talking a lot on the walk to Capernaum, sometimes very heatedly, so you want to know what part of the future they are trying to figure out. Nope. It turns out they are arguing about who is the greatest amongst them. Nothing more than that. Jesus doesn’t throw his hands up and pick out another batch of disciples to train, he doesn’t even chide them for trying to determine who’s highest ranked. Instead he offers a very poignant object lesson. He’s good at those.
Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first, to be the greatest, or considered the wisest, must be servant of all. This person must lift up others. Much later of course Jesus will exemplify this in the washing the feet of his disciples. In order to drive home the point Jesus takes a child, who happens to be waiting around to be used as a prop for Christ’s messianic teachings, and tells them that they should welcome, or treat this child as though the child is Christ. One important point that adds depth to this passage in Mark is understanding how this would have been heard by the First Century, Greek speaking audience that this was intended for. The Greek word being used for child in this passage has its root in the same word as servant. This is very intentional. In the societal norms of the time, children have less value and say than most servants or women. They are property, and not very valuable property at that. Now, I’m sure they are valued more than say a leper, but the point here is that this child was probably serving the guests of the house, and is seen more like furniture than a valued person, so Jesus takes the child to illustrate the reversal of power that the way of Christ demands of us.
When it comes to what you are supposed to do as a follower of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark is very clear: follow. While arguably the Gospel of John is more about believing, the Gospel of Mark wants action. Mark is about taking up your cross, living out the values of the Kingdom of God, doing as Jesus did…even if that means to the very end of what he endured. Knowing that the point is to act, and having Jesus tell his disciples to welcome this child as they would Jesus or even God in their midst, then it becomes clear what Jesus is fully saying here. These disciples, these men who are vested with a moderate amount of worth, who as men in this first century society get to have a voice and opinion, to take action, and to expect to be listened to, are being told to use their privilege to turn the values of society on its head. The values of the kingdom of God are clear: those that others regard as most low, those that society deems as more a burden than a value, those who have been denied a voice or the benefit of the doubt are the ones we should be most using our own position to uplift, as we would if they were Jesus himself.
There is a lot that can be said about sociological conditioning, about intersectionality, about systemic racism and sexism, about dominant cultures that attempt to cover up their own atrocities by pointing to the horrors of others. These things are not just an issue here, but everywhere. This is a part of the human story across the Earth, and that is why the words, the work, the life, and ministry of Jesus Christ is so incredibly radical, even today. We are called as Christians to speak up for those who are refused a voice. It is our duty to welcome any who walk through those doors, or any doors in our life as though they were Christ. We are called, through the values of the Kingdom of God to lift up the least of these and show the world by our own example that these are not JUST children, or servants, or people who have been deemed to be less because of their race, or their education, or their economic standing, or their gender identity, but in them all are the face of Christ.
There is no glory in being the line leader, there is no greatest disciple. Jesus sets an impossible goal with the important work of welcoming the most vulnerable as Christ. What God offers in the values of the Kingdom, what we will all one day come to in the reconciling moment of the eschaton, is that moment of grace where we are all as welcomed as Christ. Notice the little people in your life. Who are the least of these around your days and weeks? How are the servers at your favorite drive-through treated? How are the wait staff at your favorite restaurant received and treated by their customers? What about the folks struggling to work enough hours at Walmart to achieve a coveted status of full time with benefits? There are a lot of people out there in this world who are constantly on the edge of losing hope that it can be a better place. Take the Good News out to them. Show them who we are, as followers of Jesus Christ. It’s true what that hymn written in the 1960s says, they will know we are Christians by our love.