Proper 20b 2012: On being insignificant

Mark 9:30-37

“I am the greatest!”

Who is the iconic figure who said that?  That’s right, Cassius Clay, from Louisville, KY, later known as Mohammed Ali, a great (“the greatest”) heavyweight champion boxer.  “I am the greatest!”  (“Here is the legend of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today”)

In a media spotlight and in light of today’s readings, what might Jesus say?

“I want you, my disciples, to be … insignificant!”  We could stand up proudly, fighters that we are and shout: “I am nobody!”  Yay! … incredibly awkward silence would fill the room.

Jesus has told us that in order to be first we must be last.  We have no idea what living in such an insignificant manner would look like.  We do know that we want no part of such a life.  We want glory, glitz, and movie cameras.  We want iPhone 5s and new cars and to go viral on YouTube.  That’s greatness.

What we do not hear this morning is how we got to this specific story about Jesus and his disciples.  Last week we heard the story of Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea of Philippi.  Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do the people say that I am?” and then he got more specific – “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus tells us that we have to take up our crosses and follow him.  Today Jesus and his disciples are in Galilee, and Jesus is telling his disciples for the second time about his about his death and resurrection.  The disciples aren’t listening, however; they are arguing about who is the greatest.  I don’t think that Mohammed Ali was with them.  The whole thing sounds like a family vacation to me, with Mom and Dad showing us great wonders of the world while my brothers were arguing about who got the window seat in the car and I was wondering how come I always had to sit in the middle.  Okay, now it’s a story to which we can relate.

The gospel of Mark does not actually take us from the first event to the second one; there are two huge stories in between.  After being at Casearea of Philippi for a time, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him to a high mountain, and Jesus is transfigured before them.  Now who might they say that Jesus is?  Jesus is made known to those three disciples in a whole new way.  Again, this strange Jesus person says not to tell anyone who he is – how could they keep such a spectacular event secret?

In the meantime, the other disciples have been trying to cure a boy of epilepsy and they are unable to do so.  When they ask Jesus in private how come they could not cure this boy – remember that the disciples have been out in the world healing people, Jesus tells that that “this kind requires prayer.”  In other words, when we are out in the world doing work in Jesus’ name, we must remember whose work it really is, and from where our resources come.  Our discipleship (everything) is of God, in the name of Jesus/the Holy Trinity and by God alone.

Now we move to this conversation about who gets the window seat or who is the greatest.  The disciples’ debate comes after a spectacular glorification of Jesus (remember, keep it secret), and after the disciples fail to heal a boy with epilepsy.  The disciples keep failing – to understand, to heal, to listen.  Jesus keeps teaching us.

Jesus picks up a child, and our modern tongues say, “aww, a precious child.”  Our ancient tongues say “put that insignificant creature down.  There is nothing to be gained by holding a child, a voiceless nobody.  I don’t know why you’d bother.”  Jesus tells us and shows us what servanthood and hospitality look like.  Servanthood is not about who is the greatest; servanthood is about serving those with no voice.  Servanthood is about reaching to the depths of ourselves and beyond ourselves and seeing the insignificant creatures that no one else bothers to see.  Hospitality means reaching out to everyone, even and perhaps especially, to those who have no standing in our lives.  Servanthood is not about glory; it is not about being the greatest in the eyes of the world.  Servanthood and hospitality are part of our faith in a whole new way in a world in which we walk with Jesus.

It is in the context of failure – the failure to understand, the disciples failure to accomplish what they were sent out to do, that Jesus teaches us about faith.  “Faith,” Jesus tells us, “is not about doctrine or power or privilege in God’s sight.”  Most of us will not ever be a world-renowned athlete or a world-renowned anything.  “Each one of us every day will have the chance to show our neighbors how the sacrificial love of God in Christ can bring reconciliation to this strife-torn world.  We can do this clearly only with the greatest of humility, as Jesus did with the little child he set among the disciples.”  (Rev. John Shearman  Once again our lives are turned upside down by Jesus.  We are taught again not to look for life in the ways of the world around us.

In order to be first, we must be last.  Why would we seek to live such an “un-heralded” life?  In Christian striving, we do not seek the spotlight and yet we are given the gift of illuminated God on a mountain top.  We provide a meal for someone without food, and we find a fullness in Christ that no food will ever give us.  We embrace a child and remember that our Savior came into the world as a baby; maybe, just maybe, this is what it was like, is like, to hold Jesus.  We weed our flower beds and think of creation and of caretaking what God has given to us.  We hear the whisper of the One from whom everything comes.  Our Christ was born in a barn, had a feed trough for his bed.  Surely the food in our lives is more than enough.  Our Savior was hung on a cross.  We can be certain that he knows all of our burdens, has lived every moment of our trials.  We are given life beyond measure.  “I am the greatest” starts to sound a little strange.

Give it a try, my friends.  “Welcome one such [child of God] in Jesus’ name,” and welcome God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Welcome to insignificance, through which we have everything.

To God be the glory.

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