Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Who Is Great?

Mark 9:30-37

The poor disciples … they just can’t seem to get it right. They just don’t quite “get” Jesus … something’s not clicking … not computing … Jesus’ message seems pretty straight-forward … embrace suffering … sacrifice your self for the sake of others … pick up your cross and carry it gladly.

Nope. It’s not getting through. Jesus tells the twelve what any cub reporter could have predicted … you can’t go around poking both Rome and the Jewish religious establishment in the eyes without expecting them to come ‘round and see who’s doing the poking. These were the types who both got mad AND got even.

So Jesus predicts his death … it’s the price he knows he has to pay for showing the powers-that-be just how seamy and corrupt they were. He tells his followers that he’s going to be murdered.

I stood this summer in the bookstore at the Martin Luther King National Monument in Atlanta … and they were playing a tape of King’s last sermon … perhaps his best known sermon. It was April 3, 1968 … it was the eve of a protest march for striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a darkly prophetic speech:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The next day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

When Martin King tells his listeners that he knows his young life could come to an end at any time, there is a knowing tone in their “Amens” and their “My, my, Lords” …

But when Jesus tells his disciples that without a doubt he will be murdered, there is only confusion and bewilderment. Peter has already been boxed around the ears for trying to get Jesus to stop talking about his pending death. Jesus even calls him Satan for being so obtuse. And with Jesus having now predicted his death for a second time … the disciples just don’t know what to do.

If Jesus really was the messiah … God’s chosen … God’s anointed … if the Spirit of God really did blow through Jesus, wouldn’t he have the power to resist his enemies? Wouldn’t he be able to claim life out of the trash heaps of death that were all around???

And mind you, Mark is shaping his narrative—his story—at a time when Rome was marching against Jerusalem and when Judaism and Christianity were being cleaved apart by the brutal sword of historical reality. What God had joined together was being torn asunder by the march of history.

So if the original disciples didn’t “get it” … certainly Mark’s audience … disciples of the next generation “got it” … in fact like the sad inhabitants of modern day Iraq they were “getting it” all the time.

But the disciples are too bound up in how they think the story should end. They are not open to a new ending … a new outcome.

Now Jesus goes on to say that if death—his death even—is the predictable old ending, there is yet another ending beyond that they need to believe in … that from the old deathly ending will come life again.

Well … it’s not getting through. And now they’re too frightened … too intimidated to even ask a clarifying question. This was, of course, before the saying was invented: “The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.” Obviously Jesus was not a modern elementary school teacher. But apparently the other saying the disciples abided by had been invented which was: “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

But … perhaps there’s another possible reason the disciples were “afraid” to ask Jesus any more questions … might it been because they were afraid that they in fact DID understand and didn’t like what they thought they understood? That they didn’t like the answer they thought they’d get? Perhaps among the disciples was the dawning but terrifying awareness that the coming kingdom of God … the reign of God’s Spirit … was not as they imagined. It would not protect the son of God from being killed. It would not dismantle the lethal energies of the principalities and powers like Rome. It would not end human suffering and oppression or reverse all hatred and greed. Whatever else Jesus’ life and ministry and his announcement of the nearness of God’s realm meant, it did not mean the peaceable kingdom was about to spring into full earthly reality any time soon.

Well, questions or no questions … and … answers or no answers, the journey continues. And the disciples decide they may as well clear up the burning question of the pecking order among themselves. I know that’s what I want clarified when all else is going to hell in a hand-basket around me.

You know, these journeys by foot … even within the cozy confines of Palestine … still took a long time. The disciples had a lot of time to talk … and Jesus had a lot of time to listen. And apparently Mark wants us to understand that Jesus gave free reign for their traveling conversation to devolve as absurdly as it did. And possibly we hear echoes of later controversies where the early church begins to line up behind this apostle or that apostle and the early hairline cracks of schism and church splits are beginning to show.

Certainly to our modern ears, arguing over who is greater than whom sounds ridiculous. Jen, my hermeneutical theory kicks your hermeneutical theory’s booty. Trevor, you alliterate far better than I do—in your dreams! Jodie, you’ll never be as tall as I am.
See how ridiculous it all sounds?

But if we’ve learned anything in our modern day, we’ve learned how to preserve the old behaviors, the old realities … but without being so crass about it. Our possessions … our vocations … our bright shining children … our toys … our travel destinations … the books we read and the plays we attend … there are so many ways to subtly, but unmistakably show our “greatness”.

Or perhaps it’s our tendency to feel better about ourselves when we see how miserable someone else is … do you remember the Pharisee’s prayer? 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.
How about our unspoken prayers? I thank God I’m not like that street person … or like that person who is emotionally troubled … or that person who is going through a difficult time … or that person who is driving their smoking, battered heap of a car next to my glistening late model masterpiece of automotive technology.

When we are practicing the subtle art of self-elevation, we cease to become useful building blocks in building “a house where all may come” … we cease to become useful building blocks in building a new world of peace with justice … we cease to become useful building blocks in building Shalom.

And then … JESUS SAT DOWN … uh, oh … the rabbi has sat down and we know he’s not happy. Here comes a “teaching moment” … the kind of “teaching moment” you know you’re going to wish you hadn’t somehow deserved.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” It is the great reversal of the gospel as simply put as it could be.

Martin Luther King had a way with words and expanded Jesus’ thought just a bit:
Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness … recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.… it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Too bad Martin King wasn’t standing by to help elucidate matters for the disciples. So … fearing the disciples deepening denseness, Jesus chooses to make it even simpler for them. He puts a child in their midst and clutches the child in his arms.

Coming as it does in the middle of this very difficult teaching about discipleship, Jesus’ drawing a child into their midst puts the child in a dangerous place and should create a lot of dissonance in our thinking about what he is trying to say to us about being a disciple.

To be sure, this is not a pleasant little teaching about “let the little children come to me” … you know, the one where Jesus is depicted as a smiling, Mr. Rogers in a beard and a robe who lets the little children crawl over him like a living playground sculpture.

If painters portrayed this passage on canvas, the child would be wide-eyed and terrified … pulling away from Jesus’ grasp and not at all happy at being the center of this moment of attention.

Once again, children are caught in the crossfire …

Talk of death and difficulty and painful sacrifice are in the air and it’s not a conversation that a child would want to get caught in … and this child is probably more than a little sorry that she’d been caught listening in. And who knows? … maybe this child’s participation in this dramatic demonstration of the ways of Jesus will help her “get” and “remember” what the older, male disciples just can seem to comprehend.

With the child clutched in his arms, Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” and these words are meant to convey the same message as “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus has in his arms what is surely, by anyone’s definition, “the least of these” … children who have, perhaps the least power, are the most voiceless, have no status to speak of. … and I have to wonder if this is a parallel teaching with Matthew 25 where Jesus speaks of the “least of these”. Whereas Jesus’ story in Matthew 25—the separation of the sheep and the goats in the time of judgment—paints a word picture for his listeners, in Mark, it is a wide-eyed child thrust into their midst that tells the whole story. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40) becomes in the graphic urgency of Mark’s gospel: “Whoever accepts one such a child—THIS CHILD—in my name, accepts me …”. (Mark 9:37) In short, “greatness” is defined as service to “the least of these” … which clearly begs what Martin Luther King claims is: “life’s persistent and most urgent question” which is, simply: “What are you doing for others?”

Perhaps this changing definition of “greatness” … or the “reward” for your faith and faithfulness … represents a significant shift in religious understanding. God’s “blessing” is to make YOU a blessing for the world. As one of my favorite hymns not to be included our hymnal tells it: “blessed to be a blessing, privileged to care. God’s “blessing” is to make YOU a blessing for the world not to materially reward you in this world and/or the next. But very sadly, a rapidly increasing number of American Christians don’t see it this way at all.

A recent TIME magazine cover story told about the burgeoning “Gospel of Wealth” in U.S. churches. In the gospel of wealth version of Christianity, God doesn’t want you to be poor … God wants to bless you with great material abundance. But certainly God doesn’t want ANYBODY to be poor, NO ONE! So why would God want you to be rich which might condemn someone else to be poor? Remember the teeter-totter … see-saw … in this inter-connected world, I defy someone to prove that the extreme, excessive wealth of the so-called first world nations is not directly related to the extreme excessive poverty of the so-called “developing nations”. Maybe not right at this instant … maybe not this crassly, but take the past 100 years … when the wealthy powerful nations of the world were establishing their claims to greatness, they were, in fact, dooming the rest of the world to servitude and suffering. While our star was ascending, the stars of other nations were descending. We’ve been globally interconnected as a world for longer than we think … it predates satellites and computer technology and cellular communication.

So maybe you have no burning aspirations for greatness … maybe you don’t “need no stinking gospel of wealth” … but Jesus says that you can, nonetheless be great by his—and by God’s standards. And it’s a “greatness” that matters greatly to our world … our world which God so loves.
I leave it to Martin Luther King to articulate that vision … the vision of a greatness that matters.
Standing in that same Atlanta bookstore, I not only heard parts of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, I also heard snatches of King’s sermon preached some two months earlier … two months before he was killed … where King referred to himself as a “drum major of justice”. In the sermon, he ponders aloud about his inevitable death … and what might be said at his passing:
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically (Yes, sir) about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that's all I want to say.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.
Amen … and … AMEN!

A sermon by Rev. Greg Ledbetter