by Ellen Sims
texts: James 3:13-4:6; Mark 9:30-37
In elementary school there was a fitting punishment for line-breakers. When the big kids, the fast kids, the forceful kids broke in line and pushed their way to the front to be first on the playground or in the lunch line, an observant teacher would collar the rule breaker and send him (sometimes her) to the END of the line. That repositioning might have meant that the lunch ladies would have given out of the Rice Krispie treats for by the time the offender came through, and he’d be stuck with a banana for dessert. Sometimes this world metes out Jesus Justice, and the first goes last.
Of course, that kind of Jesus Justice is served more often in school lunchrooms than in boardrooms and courtrooms. But if the Jesus Way holds sway–and we pray it will someday–the first will be last and the last will be first. Actually, what I really imagine is that eventually there will simply be no pecking order once God’s realm is ushered in. Any just system or community or social/economic/spiritual reality will have evolved beyond a pecking order and surpassed acquisitiveness and conquered self-aggrandizement. In fact, if humanity is NOT able to become self-restraining and self-giving, our lease on Planet Earth may be up soon.
I don’t believe there is a divine Plan B for humanity. I don’t mean That Which We Call God is limited to this planet. I don’t rule out the possibility that a portion of humanity might at some point, in a sci-fi scenario, escape to another habitable part of the galaxy. But our only chance to save the world where we’ve been planted is by inverting the “me first” ethos in the way Jesus did — by putting the last first.
But my goodness that’s rare to see. Just a few of those who are standing right now at the end of the line (but who should be moved to the front) include:
• Hurricane victims whose plight is still being ignored in Puerto Rico and whose situation is still unfolding in the Carolinas
• The 99% victimized by a federal student loan forgiveness program they trusted so they could afford to be educated for public service in low paying jobs
• LGBTQ+ people around the world who are persecuted and, even in this country, are now being threatened with the revocation of recently gained rights
• Victims of sexual assault who are not believed
• Animals whose habitats are endangered
• People struggling for mental health
• People whose bodies are sick or weak
• Children abused by priests, preachers, and other church leaders
• Children separated from their parents and held in detention centers, some of whom may never be reunited.
• Children who are malnourished.
• Children being poorly educated.
• Children Unloved. Unseen.
• Children. The children. The children.
Jesus taught about the kingdom of heaven by bringing a child into the disciples’ midst—-not as a cheesy stage prop but as a demonstration of genuine tenderness. He did not USE the child but elevated her and her needs and showed us the way, the Jesus Way. In a minute Phoebe is going to come forward to help me retell this story. It begins:
Jesus was walking along teaching his disciples about some hard things they’d have to face. And the disciples started to argue about who was the best, the greatest, Jesus’s favorite. And Jesus said, “I can’t even believe y’all are arguing about such things! I’m disappointed in you.” And the twelve disciples must have hung heir heads. Jesus said, “Y’all, we need to have a serious talk. It’s like this: Whoever wants to be first has to come last and has to serve everyone else.” “What is he talking about?” they muttered to one another. So Jesus told them to sit down. Just then he spotted a little child nearby in the crowd and invited her to sit beside him. (Phoebe, would you like to come up here and sit in this special chair next to me?).
Jesus put his arms around the child in a way that made her feel safe and special. She’d been traipsing after the older kids all day with no one paying any attention to her—-and Jesus had just put her in the spotlight! I think she began smiling, beaming. But the disciples might have looked . . . confused? insulted? angry? They wondered why Jesus was telling them to be more like her. So he explained, “Grownups, you need to welcome the little children, because when you welcome them, you are welcoming God.”
Open Table, let’s welcome God this morning by saying a big welcome to Phoebe, our youngest here today. ALL: “Welcome, Phoebe!”
Phoebe, thank you for reminding us how to follow in the way of Jesus. You may return to sit with your family.
Friends, remember that the early Christians were called the people of “the Way,” followers of “the Way.” Listen for a key phrase repeated in verses 33 and 34 when Jesus asks the disciples: “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.”
They were “on the Way” trying to follow Jesus, and they must have thought they WERE following him, but while “on the way” they were arguing with one another. And then they grew silent, “for on the way they argued with one another about who was the greatest.” So they really were NOT on the way, were they, but in fact were headed in the opposite direction. Jockeying for power and position over others is not the Jesus Way. As our Epistle Reading for today concludes: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6b). The WAY of Jesus is, after all, the humiliating Way of the Cross. When we are truly walking that way, we will resist oppressive systems and restore human relatedness. And we may face suffering.
The Jesus Way is for those who, like Jesus, will be great by being “the servant of all.”
This brief pericope teaches us The Way of Jesus in three ways:
1) One is through a negative example the disciples represent, which I’ve just described. The disciples are literally “on the way” in the sense that they are traveling with Jesus. But they are figuratively and spiritually going in the opposite direction: he toward the little child, the sick, the poor, and eventually the cross. They, down the path of ego and greed and self-promotion and competition. They are arguing about and seeking to be “the greatest” even though their teacher is trying to show that their notions of greatness are the opposite of God’s. When Jesus explains that greatness comes with being “the servant of all,” the word translated into English as servant from Mark’s Greek is diakonos. “Although diakonos eventually evolves into the name for a specific role in the Church (deacon), it originally referred to the menial work done by slaves. The true Church – and true deacons – take on that humble attitude of service because Jesus redefined greatness. (1)
2) The second way we learn about the Jesus Way in this pericope is from a theological explanation. In v. 30 we hear Jesus explain, “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.” The Gospel writer here is telling us that Jesus’s Way to true “greatness” will come by enduring betrayal, humiliation, suffering, and death. But God’s confirmation of his greatness through humility and love was revealed when God raised Jesus from the dead. Resurrection becomes a theological affirmation of the Jesus Way.
3) Finally, the Jesus Way is understood metaphorically through the unassuming, needy, humble child he welcomed. Jesus held up a picture to the disciples of real greatness: a ragtag child who wordlessly tells us at once what’s wrong with the system and who invites us into caring relationships. If we welcome the child, our spirits and our societies will be transformed. Commentator Mark Davis claims Jesus’s welcoming of this child is perhaps “the most scandalous of scandals in Mark’s gospel. By identifying so radically with a child (at a time when children were not even really considered fully human), by embracing the road to rejection . . . Jesus is redefining both greatness and Godness. It is not in the glory and honor of the Caesars but in the vulnerability of a child that we encounter God.” (2)
May the words to this hymn guide us in how we greet the children in our midst and in our work to create a compassionate world for all. May these words also speak to the child within you who perhaps long ago endured hurts and pains from which you continue to heal:
SONG: “Strong, Gentle Children” by Dan Damon
(I don’t have permission to print the lyrics. I can summarize this powerful hymn by saying the words urge hurting children to express their longings, woundedness, and vision for a healed earth.)