Scripture - Mark 9:30-37
Mark 9:30-37 (The Message)
30-32 Leaving there, they went through Galilee. He didn’t want anyone to know their whereabouts, for he wanted to teach his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?”
34 The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.
35 He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”
36-37 He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”
Hymn - Make Me a Servant (FWS 2176)
About two weeks ago, a picture went viral on Christian social media - made famous thanks to a Christian comedian by the name of John Crist. The post said this: I was handed this card at church today, a few laugh emojis, #MajorShade #CheckUrHeart - and it was a picture of a card with the church logo blacked out...and the card said this:
“Thank you for being committed to being in church with your child. In order to allow those seated near you to engage in the message, please enjoy the remainder of the service in our lobby….A Connection Team Member Will Assist You.”
Naturally, a statement like this sparked all kinds of outrage of what kind of church would allow this and subsequent defenses of people and parents who find such practices helpful during worship and some even thought that this card must be satire. Lots of people weighed in on the children in worship debate.
And here in the passage we heard this morning we have Jesus, taking a child in his arms, embracing them, saying “whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me - God who sent me.” It seems kind of cut and dry to me.
But contrary to how it might first appear, Jesus isn’t making any kind of argument about whether or not kids should be in worship or about the inherent value or worthiness of children to a church community in this passage. Jesus is making a statement aimed directly at the heart of a debate the disciples were having as they traveled along the road to Capernaum….an argument that when Jesus casually asked them what they were talking about, the silence spoke louder than words. What had they been arguing about? [response] They had been arguing about who was the greatest.
I find it interesting that the disciples don’t want to tell Jesus about this conversation - this is the second time in this short passage that they don’t want to talk to Jesus about something -- the first being when Jesus told them about his death and resurrection...they were afraid to talk to Jesus about this news he had shared with them. And now, here we have the disciples, again not wanting to talk to Jesus about this conversation - this argument - they were having about who is the greatest.
We don’t have warm and fuzzy Jesus here - we have harsh reality Jesus, who lovingly but pointedly gives the disciples a lesson about what the greatest looks like in the kingdom of God….because it doesn’t look like what we think it looks like.
We don’t realize how much our culture shapes our understanding of what it means to be great. As I was talking about with the kids, we regularly have conversations around who’s the greatest ball player, the greatest actor or actress, or any number of things. Our standards of what makes a person great is measured in dollar signs, professional success, academic degrees or natural talent. All of it routes through our ability to get one leg up on the others around us...to find the best ways to meet our own needs and wants - usually at the expense of others. Even in our own lives, we play this comparison game, ranking ourselves against others in all sorts of arenas - parenting, career success, volunteerism, smarts - even who’s a better Christian. In the end, regardless how altruistic our goals, it is second nature to us to define ourselves, to rank ourselves over (and even against) all those who are around us, and to base others’ needs, wants, and even worthiness along that same spectrum. Who is greater than whom? It’s a very self-interested question.
We’d be in the same boat with the disciples around this conversation; I can imagine their argument about “who is the greatest” went much in the same way - who was the smartest, who had cast out the most demons or taught the best when Jesus had sent them off two by two - who had brought the most followers to Jesus, perhaps.
Jesus, on the other hand, flips the whole conversation around and redefines this cultural definition of what it means to be great. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” Want to be great? Then take the place of those who are used to having their wants and needs ignored. Want to build yourself up? Take the time to serve the needs of those around you, and build them up first.
Jesus then takes a child in his arms. Children in those days weren’t valued in the same way children are today. In Jesus’s culture, children had no rights, were considered property and inferior members of society - much like women and slaves, and weren’t regarded as worthy of time and attention by those outside their family, especially not by religious teachers. Jesus uses the image of welcoming a child - treating them as one whose needs mattered, being open to hearing them and entering into their world, serving them and loving them - to talk about what it meant to truly welcome him...and welcome God.
It’s in serving others as opposed to serving yourselves...especially serving those that are accustomed to being ignored or dismissed, those who are hurting or pushed to the side, those who have been told that they don’t matter...it’s in serving those outside ourselves...that’s where true greatness lies in God’s kingdom….that is where Jesus is...that is where God is.
Christ was never about serving himself - later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” As his disciples, we take up that same mantle. Discipleship is a downward path of service and humility, one that places us on the level with those who are forgotten and hurting...the marginalized and suffering….those who the world considered less-than or worthless...like the children and women and slaves and lepers and tax collectors and sinners of Jesus’s day. (Incidentally, those were most of the people Jesus hung out with). Discipleship is learning to put our own wants and preferences aside for God’s desires and learning how to live with Jesus as Lord of our lives and follow his way of being in the world….not with our own notions of greatness.
Here at the church, one of our values is inclusivity. We say that “We affirm the sacred worth of every human being, and so we welcome you. No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are loved and a child of God.” To be sure, when we talk about that value, we’re certainly including those of us who gather here on a Sunday morning for worship and Sunday School. That each of us here is loved and a child of God, that we’re all at different places in our relationship with Christ, that we all have worth and are welcome here. But when we talk about welcome….we’re not primarily talking about those of us here in this room. We’re talking about how we as a church are welcoming to others...being open to the needs and wants of those outside our doors...being able to serve the needs of our community first and foremost before our own, and fully embracing that value extends to everything we do as a congregation - from our times of worship to our times of business, from how we use our buildings to how we spend our money.
In the example of our unnamed church I spoke of earlier, I think it’s pretty easy to figure out whose interests they were serving in that particular aspect of their life together. But it’s not always so clearcut, especially when we’re talking about the congregation that we call home.
We talk a lot about wanting to be a great church - we’ve had these conversations about our values, we’ve adopted a mission and a vision statement that describe what we dream of being and how we want to get there, we’ve spent time and energy talking about financial sustainability, both in the present and for the future, and certainly we want to see our pews filled each and every Sunday morning. And it’s good to take the time for self-reflection to understand who we are and how God is calling us into the future together - but would that be how Jesus defines a great church? In our conversations about our life together - how we talk about worship or our building or our financial life, are we primarily serving ourselves, building ourselves up, focusing on our own wants and preferences, seeking to be great - or are we pouring out into others, seeking the good of God’s kingdom, looking out for those hurting in our community and our world, and taking a back seat to the needs of those around us?
Discerning our unconscious biases can be hard and challenging work. It can be painful to examine the practices that have held meaning for us and consider where they fit in the larger context of following Jesus as a church together. It can be uncomfortable to move to the back of the line when we’re used to being in first place. But Jesus gives us a way to reframe the conversation when we’re thinking about our life together as a church: when we find ourselves preoccupied with our own preferences and needs, with what would best serve us (both as individuals and as a community)...consider instead what would best serve others. What we do together is ultimately not about us, but about Jesus and welcoming those whom Jesus welcomed. It’s not about what we like or don’t like, whether we were served or fed for our own sake, but about the lost and the hurting...about those who don’t know God’s love and encountering Jesus when we as a community seek to welcome him.
Where might Jesus be calling us to serve with open hands? What would it mean for us to be a truly great church - a church that seeks first God’s kingdom, a church that looks first to the hurting and broken in our world? What would it look like to be a church where in our conversations, in our decision-making, in our finances, in our worship, in the use of our space - the primary purpose centered around being a blessing to those outside our doors?
If you want to be first, get to the back of the line. Be the servant of all. This week - let us be in prayer for ourselves and for our church, that we might together find ways to build up God’s kingdom - to seek God’s purposes for us and for this island - and to live into that together. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.