Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: The Greatest

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2015, Ordinary 25B
James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37

The Greatest

Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee
I am the greatest!
Muhammad AAAAA-LI!
I remember this distinctly from my youth; a younger child than I, at my elementary school I think, mashed up these Ali quotes and started chanting/shouting all over the playground. This was well into the 1970s, mind you, significantly after that boxer’s controversial early career and well into that period where he was simply the best boxer, and one of the most popular athletes, in the USA. The distinctive timbre – slightly raspy but highly animated, tending to rise in pitch, with a cadence that must have inspired a few early hip-hop artists…it was hard to miss or to mistake for anyone else.
For someone of that generation, though, the image of “The Greatest” that crashed into the public consciousness some twenty years later was a harsh and rude awakening. At the torch lighting ceremony for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the man who had driven opponents crazy with his brashness and cheek, the man who had fairly danced around the ring, was revealed at the climax of the event as a man mostly immobile, gravely stricken by Parkinson’s disease after all those years of pummeling and being pummeled, seemingly straining mightily to lift his arm to bring the torch to the igniting wire that would set the Olympic flame ablaze. The price Ali had paid to be “The Greatest” proved to be a particularly sharp and cruel one.

It isn’t always so physically evident or debilitating as Muhammad Ali’s decline, but human quests for greatness have a bad habit of ending up in a similar condition. Napoleon meets his Waterloo, Richard Nixon meets his Watergate. Designs on power, or wealth, or status, or fame – the usual ways we tend to measure “greatness” in this human world – flounder on the basic and inescapable fact of our human, fallen nature and its pronounced tendency to cause us to betray ourselves if somebody else doesn’t do it first. And even those who seem to make it to their moral finish line still at a peak of human “greatness” end up discovering that they die just as dead as everyone else, and that in fact the one who dies with the most toys does not win. With so many millennia of evidence, you have to wonder why anyone even tries.
And yet we are as a human race addicted to greatness, or the pursuit of it. If you have any doubt about this, you have a little more than a year’s worth of presidential campaign to remind you of this. If we’re not the ones who are maddened by the quest to be the greatest, then we have this awful habit of glomming on to such figures as if they are our saviors.
Not all such dreams of greatness are quite so grandiose. We just want to be the best in our office or at our job, or on our softball team or whatever. We want to root for the greatest team (or for our team to be the greatest), dine at the greatest restaurants, and so on. We are somewhat unhinged by our urge to compete. And sometimes, as is the case with the disciples in today’s gospel reading, it keeps us from hearing what we need to hear.
Earlier in this chapter Peter, James and John have witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, and then they came down the mountain to witness a fiasco in which the rest of the disciples have been unable to cure a small boy. This would seem a strange time to be arguing about who among you is the greatest, when none of you have been at your best recently. As they are traveling, finally having found a way to escape the crowds so Jesus can teach his disciples in private, those disciples are confronted – for the second time, the first having come in chapter eight – with Jesus deeply disturbing claim that he was going to die. More specifically, he told 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.” No one quite reacts as badly as Peter in the previous case, telling Jesus that it must not be so only to be rebuked with the stinging reproach “Get behind me, Satan!” Still, their response wasn’t great. They didn’t understand, but they didn’t dare ask. Any teachers among you, or any one-time students for that matter, know that is never really the best answer.
Apparently, the disciples then fell into the argument about who was the greatest.
Now it’s not hard to imagine how any of us might have reacted to a group like this if we were the ones tasked with leading or teaching it. It’s not hard to imagine going on a tirade to put Jim McElwain to shame, and feeling quite justified in doing so. At the very least it would be hard to hold back from ripping into these obtuse clods something fierce.
Jesus, though – master of the “teachable moment” – had a different reaction in mind. All this time he has been trying to show the disciples what it meant to live in the “kingdom of God come near” – that thing he proclaimed back at the very beginning of this gospel, calling on people to repent and believe the Good News. He has been perhaps besieged at times by the crowds who know him as a healer and exorcist, and maybe at times hasn’t been able to teach as much as he would have liked. But now he has the disciples together, and in their moment of great ignorance, he sees the opportunity to show them, in a clear and vivid way, what that Kingdom of God is like.
First he tells them, then he shows them.
The one who would be first, he says, must be “last of all and servant of all.” It takes us no effort to see just how backwards that is. First isn’t last. First is first. No one is going to give your Gators credit for finishing first in the SEC East if they lose all the rest of their games this season. We know that’s not how it works, and if that’s where Jesus had left it, we’d frankly understand their continuing to be confused or maybe even put off by such talk. Life doesn’t work that way.
But then he shows them.
From the crowds that had either followed them to, or gathered around them in Capernaum, Jesus pulls aside a small child.
At this moment, for us moderns, the temptation is pretty strong to switch into “cute mode.” You know, the way we tend to react by default when children are put before us in pretty much any setting, but particularly in the church. We “oo” and “aww,” silently if not out loud. We might chuckle if they do something cute or funny, even if it wasn’t necessarily meant to be so. It’s that mode of approaching children that might cause us, in person, to pat the child on the head or pinch the child’s cheeks. Some of you might know it as “being a grandparent.”
This is, to some degree, a pretty modern way of viewing children generally. It isn’t widespread before say, the nineteenth century. At other times in history, a child might have been viewed simply as an extra hand to help with the household labor, or (negatively) as another mouth to feed. In the Greco-Roman world in which Mark’s gospel is disseminated, a child was, to be blunt, not much. A child would be a figure of absolute minimum social importance, superior only to slaves who would have held no such status at all. Children were nursed by nurses, raised by the equivalent of nannies, taught by tutors, and generally kept out of sight.
So socially, it’s a radical enough thing for Jesus to call attention to a child in such a public setting. But for Mark’s readers, this only scratches the surface of just how topsy-turvy Jesus’s instruction is here. To welcome one such as this child in Jesus’s name, he says, is to welcome him, and to welcome the One who sent him.
Welcome. It’s a loaded word. Welcoming is (as you well know) far beyond merely saying hello or inviting someone in. There is, in welcome, a depth of listening and hearing, of not clutching onto the power of being the host but sharing and making all well for the one being welcomed. It’s not just about physical comforts, though providing for those is certainly a part of welcome, but also of being fully open to the guest, not lording it over them or treating them as lesser. It’s a radical concept, and Jesus is here telling his disciples that the one who welcomes “the least of these,” as he puts it in another gospel, welcomes him.
Who is that for us today? In our society, children have been (in some circles at least) idolized and romanticized so that they might not exactly fit into this category. But who does? Who is it out there that is so status-less, so bereft of any standing or fame or stature or power in the world that we may well not even see them there?
Whoever they are, wherever we see them finally, that is who Jesus is calling us – challenging us – to welcome, and in so doing, to welcome Jesus himself.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Hear the Good News of Salvation” (PH 355); “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” (PH 357); “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!” (PH 341); “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” (GtG 727)

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