Be Great?

Be Great?

“But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

So, hands up: who would like to be first among us? Who aspires to be great? Who is willing to be the servant? Who is willing to be the slave?

This is the teaching that is at the heart of the reading that Marilyn presented for us today. It’s a reiteration of a theme we have been following through Mark’s Gospel over the past several weeks: it’s Jesus’ repeated predictions or announcements about what lies in store for him, and for those who follow him—that he will be betrayed, and killed, and after three days, he will rise again. Marilyn read for us today the third and final of these predictions.

In each of the three instances, the pattern is the same: Jesus announces what will happen; the disciples misunderstand or reject what Jesus is saying, or they change the subject; and then Jesus refocuses them on what it means to be his disciple.

All of this happens while the disciples are on the road, on the way, traveling with Jesus. The first time they are way up north in Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus asked the disciples, Who do you say that I am? And Peter answered—correctly and incorrectly—you are the Messiah. He got the label right—Messiah—but he got the content totally wrong. Peter thought messiah meant a strong and powerful leader who would overcome all obstacles and deliver on a particular agenda: the agenda of those who were poor, and downtrodden, and excluded.

And Jesus says the messiah will deliver on that agenda, but not in the way you think. The messiah will deliver on that agenda by his willingness to innocently suffer, and to undeservingly die, to expose the moral bankruptcy of the way things normally work in the world.

Peter and the disciples revolt at hearing this, as we would. As we so often do.

And Jesus teaches them about discipleship: that it’s about taking up the cross, and losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel.

The second time, the disciples have moved south into Galilee. You can start to see the pattern: in moving south, they are getting closer to Jerusalem—the seat of power, the site of Jesus’ death; Jerusalem is the black hole at the center of the story.

The second time Jesus tells the disciples what will happen, they argue amongst themselves. It turns out they are arguing about who is the greatest. You see the strange contrast that’s emerging: every time Jesus talks about his humiliation and death, the disciples talk about getting ahead and climbing the ladder. It’s this reflexive rejection and shunning of what Jesus has just told them.

It’s like hearing bad news, and the first thing we want to do is to go shopping, to somehow shield ourselves from unpleasant realities. When the ground’s about to give way beneath us, we want to scramble up that ladder a few more rungs, to wrap ourselves in some kind of security.

And Jesus teaches them that being a disciple of the crucified messiah means to stop scrambling up the ladder and reaching for the top, and instead to aim for the bottom and reach down to the lowly. He tells the disciples that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and he welcomes a child, and tells them that whoever welcomes a child welcomes Jesus, and welcomes God.

This reaching for the bottom is really hard for us; almost impossible. It’s counterintuitive; when the ground is giving way beneath us, of course we want to scramble in the other direction. It’s a survival instinct. But that’s just saving our life only to forfeit our soul. Jesus tells us that we have to reach down to meet God, and to really save our lives. That’s where our real life is.

And then the third time—today’s reading. Now they are going up to Jerusalem, heading into the dark shadow of that place of destiny. And that strange contrast between Jesus’ talk of death and the disciples desire for security reaches its climax. Once again, Jesus announces what will happen to him, and James and John say, “Hey Jesus, we want front row seats to your glory!”

They don’t seem to see that Jesus’ glory will happen on the cross, and that the places to his right and to his left will be occupied by two other crucified men. Jesus asks them if they can drink his cup or be baptized with his baptism; once more, these are references to the way of dying and rising that Jesus has been showing them, over and over again.

In this last of the three episodes, Jesus and the disciples have moved as far as they can in opposite directions. There is more squabbling amongst the disciples, and Jesus once more teaches them. He tells them that the way of the world is the way of power and domination. It’s the way that leads to the crucifixion of the innocent.

“But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

This is the last of the three episodes. Jesus has made it as plain as plain can be. What more could he say to convince his disciples? What more could he say to convince us?

He’s telling us that the way we structure our lives, the goals we set, the things we aspire to, are often aiming in exactly the wrong direction. Rather than aiming for the top, we should be reaching for the bottom. Rather than desperately trying to save ourselves, to secure our lives, we ought to spending our lives in service of the gospel. Rather than feathering our own nests, we ought to contemplate the birds of the air, who neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns.

So what do we do with this? Well, on a personal level there’s a lot to reflect on here. We can ask ourselves about the extent to which our lives align with Jesus’ teachings. Are we piling it up for ourselves, or are we giving it away?

In what do we place our ultimate trust—our possessions, or God? What do we think makes for a good life—a desperate scramble up the ladder, or choosing to free-fall into a life of solidarity with those at the bottom?

We can also think about these teachings from the perspective of the church. How are we as a church living in response to these teachings of Jesus? A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to the UCW General Meeting about an article I had shared with the congregation, about the church and Millennials. Millennials is a term like Baby Boomers; it refers to a generational cohort, in this case people born after 1980.

If you haven’t read this article yet, I really recommend it. There are copies on the table outside the office.

The women had prepared some excellent questions for me to respond to. You can find their questions, and my responses on the Trinity website. What I want to say about this now is that conversations like this are very important for us; they are crucial for us as a church.

The UCW conversation focused on the future of the church and the purpose of the church. Why are we here? What are we trying to do? What are we called to do? What calls might we be resisting, because they are uncomfortable for us? It was a great conversation and I am very grateful to the 45 or so women who contributed to it.

The women courageously confronted questions about the “death” of the church as we know it, and we wondered together about what we are trying to hold on to, and what we might let go of. We contemplated the question of just giving up on the effort to reach younger people, and making things more comfortable for those who are already here.

These are natural and normal questions to ponder, and feelings to have, in the circumstances we face. As the ground appears to give way beneath our feet, we are tempted to retreat to the safety and comfort of what we have known and loved. It’s a form of self-preservation. It comes naturally to all of us, and perhaps more so to us as we get older, and have a harder time dealing with so much change and uncertainty.

We are in good company when we seek our comfort in the face of uncertainty and fears about the future. We are in the company of the twelve, Jesus’ beloved disciples.

I told the women that in the ancient world, in the time of Jesus, in the Roman culture, they had groups known as “burial societies.” These were voluntary groups that people joined and contributed to, so as to be sure to have a decent burial when they died. The groups met for fellowship, and shared meals, they elected officers to keep things going.

But a burial society is not a church. They are actually headed in opposite directions. A burial society turns inward, tends to the needs of its members, and is oriented towards death. A church looks outward, seeking to share the good news and its resources with new conversation partners and friends, and is oriented towards life.

It’s not quite as simple as that, I realize. But as we ponder these teachings of Jesus, they remind us that seeking after our own comfort and security will only take us so far.

And if we follow the thread of Jesus’ teaching here, seeking after our own comfort and security tends to take us in the opposite direction to the direction Jesus is headed in. It takes us further away from Jesus and from God.

Our challenge is a challenge of trust. We need to be able to trust that what Jesus is saying is true. That as we let go, we will find life, not death. That our security lies not in protecting ourselves, but in our radical openness to others. That the more we do that, the closer we will be to God, and the richer our life will be.

Let me say that this is as much a challenge for me as it is for many of you. Radical openness does not come easily to me, and I long for security, too. I’m not up here giving orders, I’m up here asking questions, allowing myself to be cross-examined by the Gospel on your behalf. Which brings me back to the questions I asked at the beginning: who would like to be first among us? Who aspires to be great? Who is willing to be the servant? Who is willing to be the slave?

Well, that is a part of my calling as your pastor. To be your servant. I can’t quite get the word slave to roll off my tongue as easily, but perhaps we’ll work on that. It is my calling to love you and to serve you, to be as Christ to you. To witness to my own discipleship, and to seek always Jesus’ guidance in my practice of pastoral ministry with you.

It’s my calling to patiently pay attention to your fears and worries and concerns. And to dream with you as well. It’s a job that is beyond my limited abilities so I pray daily for God’s grace.

I have a long way to go as a servant, so I’d like to ask for your prayers, too, that I might be able to serve you well. Thank you. Amen.

Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2015. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.