Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 9/23/18
Ministry was not going well for the disciples. With their efforts thwarted, their attempts frustrated, their labors futile, they no longer felt celebrated for their good deeds. Without the pats on the back and their names in the paper, the disciples turned to infighting, jockeying for position among themselves.
Hearing the mutterings on the way to Capernaum, Jesus stops the twelve to ask about their argument. Knowing that what we fight about often reveals what we care about, the disciples are caught in their complicity. They had been competing for the top step on the podium, elbowing one another out of the way to sit in the gilded thrown, fusing about who would win the ultimate disciple contest.
While the twelve must have made a calculation early on that if they dropped their nets to follow, and if they healed the lame and fed the famished, then, when it came time to hang up the tunic of ministry, the first in line would be first for a big payout. Not in money, but in eternal prestige.
Even though Jesus had taught them everything, revealing the very character of God and the ways of the kingdom, he didn’t lash out with an angry retort or a harsh lecture. Instead, he responded by cradling a child. In this instructional moment, what do the disciples still misunderstand?
Mark 9:33-37 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “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. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
That Christianity gets you a cross to carry, not a promotion to flaunt.
Faith isn’t a competition to be won.
Church is the last place practice superiority over a fellow believer.
It’s a 354-mile drive to Plains, Georgia. On Saturdays, 400 tickets are handed out, first come first serve, by Maranatha Baptist Church to attend Sunday school. Around 7am the next day, bomb sniffing dogs sweep through the crowded parking lot, the secret service conducts a security screening, the throngs of people line up by number, and a few hours later, peanut farmer turned President of the United States, local Jimmy Carter, walks into the sanctuary to teach the morning lesson. One attendee, after making the trip to hear the President, decided to stay for worship and picked up one of the church bulletins. Flipping it over, he noticed a rotating task list for the less than three dozen members. To his amazement, it read, “Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery.” After leaving the White House as arguably the most respected Christian to ever hold the office, even despite his low approval rating, Jimmy Carter could have indulged in one endless tour of self-congratulations and aggrandizement. Instead, he strapped on a tool belt to start Habitat for Humanity, inserted himself into the violent peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, and signed up to push the lawn mower.
Greatness, as defined by the disciples, has nothing to do with yard chores and everything to do with an achievement of distinction that requires not just being set apart but being set above. An obsession with power and position that renders everyone else unremarkable. To achieve team captain, someone ends up as the water boy; to be first chair in the orchestra, someone has to play stage left of the spot light; to be lead disciple, someone has to be the assistant apostle.
In all of their angling, what the twelve most misunderstand is that service can only be Christian if it is done without an agenda of return or rank. There’s no faithful way to follow a selfless Jesus, and be personally ambitious.
With only a resume of afternoon naps, tearful outbursts, and soiled diapers, a toddler wanders into the living room. Scooping her up, Jesus wraps his arms around the truth of the Gospel for all of his followers to see: we are called to the humble and holy work with those who can never return the favor; we are called to care for the little ones who can’t accelerate our upward mobility or inflate career status; we are called to be on our hands and knees playing rather than plotting tomorrow’s promotion.
For much of the Church’s history, faithfulness has meant maturing into the adulthood of Christianity. But for those of us confessing our need to turn even our most sacred missions into a competition, the deepest invitation is not growing up, but down. Not getting older, but younger. Not coming of age but ministering among the children of God until we become one too.