September 23, 2018 – Pentecost 18 B

Mark 9:30-37

30[Jesus and the disciples went on] and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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I don’t know about you, but I always find it a little encouraging to see the disciples bumble around like I do sometimes. I love the image of the start of our gospel. Jesus is telling them something really important, I mean really important. He’s laying out for them what will happen to him. He’s telling them something which will literally change the course of human history…and they just don’t get it. Maybe it’s a bit of a modern stereotype that a group of men are confused but just won’t ask for directions, yet here we have it. They didn’t understand, didn’t want to look dumb, and so they probably just nodded and muttered a half-hearted “uh huh” and carried on with their journey. To further prove that they didn’t understand what Jesus had said, they go from hearing about Jesus’ death and resurrection to arguing between themselves over who was the best. I’m guessing they had all sorts of ways of measuring this – some insisted their money made them the best, others claimed their wit and intelligence gave them the edge, perhaps one or two of them had an Instagram worthy physique, while others may have argued that their hearts were purer than the others.

They’re arguing about this until they arrive in Capernaum and Jesus finally asks, “So…what were you guys talking about?” And, like a group of childish kids, they grow quiet. They seem to vaguely know that they messed up but don’t understand why or how. So they are silent before their teacher who, let’s remember, just told them he would be killed. They know he’s the Messiah (they told him so in last week’s lesson) and he immediately tells them about his death. This tells us something about Jesus and how God works in the world, even when you and I (or the disciples) don’t always understand it. Namely, that the Kingdom of God and the power of God is not shown in wealth or status or prestige or power, but rather in serving and in humbling ourselves. It doesn’t look like living your best life, but actually looks like sacrifice. When we assume God wants us to be rich or powerful or in first place, we’re missing something; we’re misunderstanding. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

James points this out to his readers, too (James 3:13-4:3,7-8a). He warns the newly converted Christians to serve, rather than to be served. He encourages them to live a life marked by peace, mercy, and gentleness, rather than a life marked by jealousy, anger, and division. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Martin Luther, in his 1521 publication The Freedom of a Christian, says it this way: “The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Our lives as Christians, it seems, is marked not by upward, power-grabbing ambition, but in humble servanthood.

To drive this point home, Jesus takes a child and brings it to the disciples. This is usually seen as a sweet, even cute, gesture, but it’s actually a radical reorientation of the disciples’ worldview. In that culture 2000 years ago, children were not nearly as precious as we see them now. Jesus is not lifting this child up as the epitome of innocence or purity. Instead, children were considered second-class citizens. Notice how we don’t get a gender or name, but rather the child is referred to as “it.” They, like the women of the time, were entirely dependent on the men in their lives to provide for them. They weren’t given a voice in public. They weren’t revered and upheld as the future. It’s harsh to say, but in that time, children didn’t really matter. This makes it even more powerful that Jesus would take a little child in his arms and says to them that, if they want to be first, they must be the servant, even of people who they see as lower than themselves. If they want to participate in the kingdom of God, they will serve even the powerless and the outcast and the ignored. I wonder who Jesus would bring into our midst and ask you and I to serve if he were preaching here instead of me. Certainly, there are a lot of people who have felt the hand of oppression and have been told, consciously or unconsciously, that they don’t matter. Perhaps Jesus would bring among you and I someone of a different religion or nationality, a teenage mother or an addict, someone with a different lifestyle than you or someone who votes differently than you.

We can easily forget that, at any given point, we are both the child and the disciples in this story. We, like the disciples, so easily forget to serve. The loudest voices around us tell us to earn on your own, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and take care of yourself and let others take care of themselves. It’s often seen as weak to give up power, even when we see our Savior doing it. We also tend to forget that we are that child. This child Jesus takes up in his arms didn’t do something to earn the attention or love. This child was claimed and found by Jesus not on their own merit, but by the love and grace of God. In the same way, you are claimed as a daughter and son of God, not because you are worthy, but because you are loved. We get a chance to see this miracle in the baptism we’ll have later today when we see a child welcomed into the Kingdom through water and the Word of God.

Sawyer will join us in the family of God. This family is marked not by prestige and power, but by service and generosity. The Savior who claims us shows us his love by sacrificing himself on the cross and shows his power by walking out of the grave. This is the example we follow. The love that is shown for you is not shown by winning the lottery, but in winning for you a victory over death and sin. The grace of God is not seen in propelling you to greatness, but rather in meeting you where you are, as you are, and telling you that you are enough. Right now, you are enough. In baptism, we see the miracle that the Creator of the cosmos would bend and take on the form of a human, who would suffer rather than rule, and would claim daughters and sons without condition or merit. You are loved, beyond your wildest fantasies, and it’s not because of what you’ve accomplished. You are loved because you bear the image of God; you were created for love. Eternal life is yours, changing the day-to-day activities of our lives, because God’s love for you and for all humanity and for all creation is not based on what you’ve done right or wrong.

We see in Jesus a savior who sacrifices and calls us to sacrifice, not because it is the way to Kingdom, but rather because it is the way of the Kingdom. You have been given eternal life. You are saved in the cross and empty grave, you are claimed in the waters of baptism, you are fed by the body and blood of Holy Communion, and you are taken up in the arms of Christ and told, again and again, you are loved. Because of this love, we love. Because of this sacrifice, we sacrifice. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Our Savior, the servant of all, loves you. Amen.

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