Monday, September 24, 2018

Who's the Greatest?


Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2018

Jesus was just explaining to the disciples again
about how he will be arrested and killed and rise again.

But the disciples are arguing about
which one of them is the greatest.
We don’t know exactly the content of the argument,
maybe it was about who cured the most evil spirits,
who did Jesus like the best, who did he pick first.

In the Gospel of Mark, mostly
the disciples have nothing to brag about.
They’re not models of courage or wisdom.
Even here it says they didn’t understand what Jesus
was talking about and they were afraid to ask.
But still they feel the need to compete with one another.

Human beings are a competitive lot.
It’s in our nature, DNA, it orders our society,
our lives, our days, our politics.

To be the greatest, the smartest,
the most successful, richest, smartest
world’s greatest bowler, world’s greatest dad,
the next American Idol, the gold medal winner,
the next senator or representative,
 whatever it is, there’s something about winning and humans.

It seem sometimes like winning is the only thing,
at any cost, even if the cost is your integrity.

But Jesus tells his competitive disciples that for God,
if you want to be first, you should be last of all. Servant of all.

Church people have heard this
and somehow we’ve made humility into a  competition in itself.

There was a story around my home church in New York
Communion was only once a quarter and people were told they
had to be right with God before they took communion.
So on that one Sunday every three months,
church ladies would go up to the rail and
make a big show about refusing communion.
To show people that they didn’t think they were good enough.
They were competing to see who could
be the greatest at showing the most shame and repentance.
Which is just silly and complicated when you think about it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with competition.
it’s natural, it’s even healthy to a point.
It often makes us improve and inspires us to be better.
But there’s one major problem with competition
about who’s the greatest.
That means someone is the worst.
Whenever there’s winners, there’s losers too.
When someone is at the top, that means someone is at the bottom.
Which is not really a problem when you’re talking about sports
or other manufactured competitions,
but it is when you’re talking about life.

We know this in our own Capitalist society.
While our form of economics has provided excellence
and unrivaled wealth for some,
it has left many, many people behind.
When only the most successful win,
the unsuccessful have been left out
of the running all together.

The world of competition and greatness,
calls those who never win undeserving,
leeches, burdens on society,
the world is more inclined to lock them up instead of help them.
And sometimes we believe the stories the world
tells about those who don’t win,
even if they’re talking about us.

So when Jesus hears the disciples talking about
who is the greatest, he’s not just annoyed
by the disciple’s personal lack of humility
he knows that this is a reflection of their whole world view.
And Jesus wants to change it.

Now Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples not to
try for greatness, he doesn’t even tell them
to stop competing with each other.
He doesn’t tell them to give up trying.

What Jesus tells them to keep striving for greatness,
but he reframes what greatness means.
Jesus says our greatness is not in gaining
more for ourselves, but in being a servant to all.
Jesus and the Little Child
James Tissot

Jesus then gives what could be a confusing little clarifier
he takes a child  and he says
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”

It almost seems unrelated in a way.
But that’s because of the way that we understand children now.
We love children, we value children just because they’re children.
Of course some people don’t, but the prevalent view of society today
is that children should be valued just because they’re small
and vulnerable and can’t take care of themselves.

But in the first century, children weren’t valued.
They were actually treated with disdain, annoyance, even hatred.
And often by their own parents.

Producing children was, of course, encouraged.
They represented the future—they would carry on the family name,
help provide help or income when they got older,
support their aging parents, and produce the next generation.

But actually having children was a liability.
Especially small children.
For the first 4 or 5 years,
they couldn’t help out much
and they were another mouth to feed.
And if they got sick, like children do, then forget it.

Abandoning children,
giving them away, or even killing them
was a fairly common practice.
This actually was a reality up until the 1800’s
Think of how fairy tales like Snow White and
Hansel and Gretel start out.

In ancient Rome, they estimate that 20-40%
of children were abandoned.
Even more were actually killed by their
parents without many repercussions.
More died as a result of accidents meaning
they weren’t being watched.

Children were seen as a burden and
Treating children nicely was seen as a weakness,
especially for men.
And if you welcomed a child you could
end up being responsible for them.
Feeding them, clothing them, caring for them, watching them.

And what they could give back couldn’t be counted.
Welcoming someone else’s child was not an advancement
to anyone’s status or lot or station in life.
Welcoming a child was a burden, a liability.
Welcoming a child, cost the welcomer.

So when Jesus said,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”
it meant something very different than we would understand it now.

So being a servant of all is not just about doing a good deed,
but it is about giving your status and privilege away to others.
It’s about letting others be a burden to you.

So welcoming a child now may not mean the same thing now
but Jesus meant welcoming the least,
the least successful, the least able to repay,
the least able to give back.

Who would that be in your life now?
Would that be welcoming an illegal immigrant
a refugee,  a person of a different color,
a poor person, maybe a rich person,
maybe a democrat or a republican,
an atheist or a fundamentalist Christian,
a prisoner, a juvenile delinquent, a drug addict?
Who would we be burdened by?
Who could we help and give our greatness to,
even if we only have a little greatness in the eyes of the world.

Our world says Greatness is about status, wealth, perfection,
purity, achievement, it’s about winning.
But Jesus says it’s found in losing status, losing wealth,
losing our own perfection, our purity, our achievements.
It’s about losing, for the sake of others.

Jesus says, if you want to be great in God’s Kingdom.
don’t worry about the status of yourself,
worry about the status of someone else.

When it comes to God’s kingdom,
Having all the money in the world is no good
unless it can go to help someone else.
Having all the power in the world is of no use
unless it can be used to give someone else power.
Having all the food in the world can’t fill you
as long as someone else is hungry.
No use getting to the top of the ladder
unless everyone is up the ladder before you.

Ghandi, who often understood Christianity
better than Christians said,
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it
treats its weakest members."

What if all the celebrities in the world were
celebrities not because they were successful in movies or TV,
or how many followers they had on social media,
or how many touchdowns they were able to make,
or because they flaunted their riches,
but what if they were celebrities
because of how they helped people?
  
What if churches didn’t compete over
who had the flashiest or most beautiful worships
or who had the best programs,
or who had the most people in the pews
What if we defined the greatest churches by how
many people they served, and how many lives were made better?

What if we didn’t judge the greatness of companies by
how much profit they made and how well their CEO’s
were paid, or how many customers they had
but by how well they treated
the employees on the lowest rung?

What would our world be like if the
greatness of a country wasn’t based on
our stock markets, or our Gross Domestic Product,
or how many billionaires we had,
or how many rock stars or TV stars we had,
or how big our military was
but on how we treated the least among us?

What if our world wasn’t about the survival of the fittest,
but being the greatest was about
how we elevated the poorest, the sickest,
the most different and difficult?

Then everyone would be a winner.
That’s a world I would want to be a part of.
A world like the Kingdom of God.

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