The following sermon was preached by Christine Wenderoth, Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, September 26, 2012.
9:30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 9:31 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." 9:32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
9:33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" 9:34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 9:35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 9:36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 9:37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
"But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him." OK, so picture this: I'm on one of my frequent trips between here and Oshkosh. [My husband's doing an interim up there.] This time I'm traveling with my teacher and friend Jesus, and just past Milwaukee he says to me, "Hey, the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." I'm not sure that I would be able to make a great deal of sense out of that. And I must confess that once I heard such words, and knew I didn't have a clue what they meant, I'm not sure I would be inclined to ask my friend to clarify. Knowing what a temper he has? yeah, I'd be "afraid to ask him". Afraid of what he thought he meant (is my pal Jesus a candidate for the mental wards?). Afraid of what it would mean for my nice predictable world if those words really made sense. [Death is, after all, a fairly safe bet in the normal scheme of things. I can count on death and lots of things don't have to be pondered thanks to it.]
And, of course, I'd be afraid to reveal my ignorance. I mean, after having seen healings by the dozens, miraculous feedings, calming of storms, walking on water, and a mind numbing transfiguration, to admit that I still didn't get my friend's turn of phrase would be more than my pride could take. How many of us like to admit before our teacher that we don't get it? Wouldn't we rather sit Very Still in our seats and hope the teacher doesn't call on us?
So, my first reaction, quite honestly, is to be rather defensive on the disciples' behalf. Big deal, these disciples aren't PhD's in scriptural interpretation. Big deal, they don't understand the finer points of theology and they're not keen on admitting their ignorance. Being a bit thick isn't a sin. Being timid isn't a sin.
And besides, Mark depicts the disciples as a pretty dense bunch. Back in the early chapters, they follow Jesus immediately and do the things Jesus does. They are privileged witnesses to Jesus power. They heal, they teach, they cast out demons. They're pretty much a What Would Jesus Do? crowd. All in all, pretty good guys. But as the story goes on, the disciples become increasingly troublesome. They misunderstand his teaching and his miracles. By the 14th chapter, even the best of them, Peter, denies ever having known Jesus. We're supposed to notice their emerging cluelessness and estrangement, and roll our eyes. What dolts! What cowards! But being a bit thick or timid isn't a sin. It's human!
Alas, being arrogant is a sin. And it turns out these guys have been blowing their own horns and volunteering themselves for the "I am the Greatest!"Award. This is when Jesus says "enough is enough," sits down (the body language which declares: I'm going to teach you something now), and tells it like it is: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all; Whoever welcomes one child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not just me but the one who sent me." This is the stuff the disciples—er, we—would rather not hear, thank you very much.
But I wonder if we don't want to hear this stuff for the wrong reasons. Might we have misunderstood Jesus on a couple of fronts? The first is this confusing matter of children. Jesus takes a little child into his arms and admonishes us to welcome him [that is, Jesus] as we would welcome this cherub. Jesus cajoles, "Let the little children come to me, do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God truly belongs....whoever does not receive the kingdom as a child will never enter it." And we all go, "Ahhhh. The sweet, innocent little children. This is who we must become in order to truly follow Jesus. We must trust Jesus with the perpetual, childlike wonder of an innocent. We must regain that naiveté of the guileless, guiltless, blameless child we once were so long ago. Ahhh." Trouble is, Jesus never says that. Because Jesus doesn't have the same romantic notions about childhood that we do.
Our pining after childhood and attributing freedom and innocence to it is a rather new thing, actually. As recently as a hundred years ago, children were either worked as adults (if poor) or completely ignored (if rich). Charles Dickens has given us portraits of the poor, abused, overworked child in many of his novels. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, orphaned child of lesser nobility, wrote in his autobiography of the rich kid's plight. He recounts how he was neither to be seen nor heard and of how he had to knock about Pembroke Lodge on his own without opinions or voice. In a particularly poignant passage, Russell remembered a lunch when everyone (all adults) except him was given an orange. There was an unalterable conviction that fruit was bad for children. Little Bertie knew he must not ask for one as that would be impertinent, but as he had been given a plate he did venture to say, ‘A plate and nothing on it.' All the adults laughed, but the lad did not get an orange.
No, childhood has not been a state to be desired until very recently--and between revelations of child abuse and psychoanalytic theory, we know it's no time of bliss in this day and age either. Childhood has ever been as Jesus saw it: a time of utter powerlessness and vulnerability. So for him to ask that we welcome the child, or more radically, that we become as a little child, he is asking us to welcome the powerless, the weak, the wounded, the poor, the sick. He is asking for us to identify with the abused and not the abuser, with the cancer patient and not the healer, with the disenfranchised and not the politician, with the servant and not the master. He is asking for us to deny praise and control over our futures which we have "rightly earned" and welcome instead a future chosen for us. He's not inviting us into the playpen. He is asking us to "be last of all and servant of all."
Well, that's one reason I don't wanna hear what Jesus is saying. I don't want to hear Jesus' stuff for another reason, as well. While I can agree that boasting and self-aggrandizement are unseemly (and so, the disciples had it coming to them), to be asked to move to the back of the bus is a little unnerving. Whoever wants to be first must now be last? I got enough self-esteem problems and I've endured enough power problems as a woman without being told that, not only am I a doormat, I should be a doormat everybody tramps on! I can go with the humility thing. But Jesus seems to be asking that we all be humiliated, and that's something quite again.
But is he? Is Jesus is asking for our humiliation? Or is he placing himself within the Hebrew biblical tradition which time and time again describes the Kingdom of God as the reversal of the old patterns of certitude, privilege and domination that the world has created, loved and expected? In that Bible, God chooses Jacob over Esau and denies the privilege of the older over the younger. God grants David victory over Goliath and denies the domination of the physically powerful. God opens Hannah's womb and denies the inevitability of barrenness. God liberates Israel from the behemoth empire Egypt, and later Babylon, and denies the power of empire and hopelessness. Time and again the exiled are brought home, the sick are healed, the powerful are brought low, the barren are made fertile. Nothing is certain, not even death and taxes. God's power upends all, and this is good news.
Yes, when Jesus says "the first must be last of all," this is, in the first instance, a descriptive statement. God's Kingdom will reverse the expected as God has so faithfully done in the past. "The first must be last" because the corrupted world must be reversed for the Kingdom truly to embody justice. We have the biblical witness which attests repeatedly to God's faithfulness in bringing us the Kingdom…and the Kingdom reorders the expected.
But this is also a prescriptive statement, a command, as well: We must live into the Kingdom, Jesus is saying. We must embody the Kingdom in so far as is possible as a demonstration of our faith in its coming. Our lives should reflect Kingdom values, however imperfectly we can manage this. Disciples should be slaves to grace. This does not mean we must be doormats or slaves to the desires of all others. It means, rather, that elbowing our way to the top will not do. Relying on the old patterns of power and prestige will not do. Current notions of power or wealth or beauty or health will not hold. All will be changed. Poverty and abuse, sickness and even death will be reversed. God has promised this, and God's promises are utterly reliable. We must be doormats to the desires of God.
To follow Jesus into God's Kingdom, then--to be a disciple--is to attempt to live our lives as though we actually trust in God's intention and God's power to free the captive and raise the dead. God has shown God's faithfulness. Now we must demonstrate our faithfulness, and live as if we know that all people are God's children--vulnerable and deserving of God's care. Such living: this would be a mark of Jesus' disciple!
It would be an interesting exercise to enter this election season as though we are Jesus' disciples. As Christians, how do we evaluate the words and actions of candidates? How do the candidates and their platforms and pronouncements embody old patterns of power and, how do they embody Kingdom values? Do the candidates show any inclination of getting the message that "the first must be last of all and servant of all"? Or are they only interested in arguing about who is the greatest? Maybe such an evaluation is asking too much of our politicians and political process. Maybe elections and the pursuit of power are by definition incapable of comprehending Jesus' vision and welcome. But it is not too much to ask that we pretend we're Christian!
Because doggone it, this story gives us hope. This is an honest portrayal of the disciples. They're real human beings.
In fact, the weakness and failure of the disciples should encourage all of us who have failed in the face of complexity and difficulty. Though Peter denied the Lord, he nonetheless became the rock of Jesus' church. Despite being denied by this man, Jesus empowered Peter to become a witness, an evangelist and a martyr. Just as surely, I reckon, Jesus can conquer the weakness and betrayal of all of us, his lesser lights, and empower us to become witnesses to the truth found in Jesus, even as we stagger to the voting booth.