Sermon by Rev. Tim Woodard
September 20, 2015
“Who Wants to be First?”
Hear now these words from Mark, chapter 9, verses 30-37:
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;
31 for 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.”
32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
36 Then 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.”
Allow God to open your hearts to a deeper understanding of these ancient writings.
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We all want to be first! First in sports, first in line, first to be promoted; we want our favorite football team, or baseball team to be first. In business the goal is always to beat the competing company to market with the latest technological advancement. This desire to be first, it is that drive, that spirit of competition that pushes us to compete in virtually everything we do. To come in second or third is to be the loser. Isn’t it sad, that society has pushed this whole concept to the point that if you are not first, you are considered a failure?
When I was in High School, I tried out for the track team. I loved it. I worked out with a group of fellows after school. We ran through the woods on winding and interesting trails. We sprinted up a set of bleachers and up and down a pile of sandy gravel. We did all types of body building exercises. I got into the best physical shape I had ever been in. I associated with other young teens in a healthy meaningful way. When the day of the tryouts came I was so excited. I had practiced with the others on the two and half mile cross country track. It winded back and forth behind one of the schools and around some shade tobacco fields that were prevalent in that part of Connecticut during that time period. I remember the feeling as I ran across that finish line, it was the very first time I was able to run the distance, without stopping. I was overjoyed with inner pride. It was short lived however, as I was the very last boy to cross the finish line. Everyone had already left. I was last. When I walked the two miles back to the High School, by myself, I cleaned out my locker knowing I was a loser and certainly did not make the team. Hopefully, others who don’t make the team are not pushed aside so harshly in our schools today.
We encourage our children to become part of their community, as they enter school, and one of the ways this is done is by joining a team, like tennis or baseball of basketball; depending on what is offered at their school. As time moves on, they learn that the overall driving force about being part of a team is to win! Win! Win! Win! This is what the coach’s stresses to them. They push them to become better and better and if your son or daughter, your grandchild, if they do not meet the standards being pushed forward they are cut from the team. So, so sad. And here my parents thought it was all about fellowship and teamwork. Sure, striving for excellence is good, but being told you have failed because you weren’t the fastest or the strongest, is this really what we intended for our children to learn when we encouraged them to join in?
Back in 1956 Elvis Presley even wrote a love sung telling his girl he considered her “First in Line!” As I brought the lyrics of that song ‘up’ on my smart phone, I was surprised that in the ending line – the song lyrics put out this more inclusive thought – stating or at least inferring that the girl – the focus of the song, is: “the first, and the last in line,” at least in the eyes of the man singing the song. Perhaps, the writer was concerned about this scripture passage from the gospel according to Mark that we have lifted up this morning; therefore he found a way to say to her “you are special to me whether you are first or last in the line.”
Our gospel lesson this morning has a lot in it. Jesus is telling the disciples of what is to come. He is foretelling of his death and resurrection, yet the disciples did not understand him and did not ask for clarification. They had been traveling to Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and were staying in a house in that area. Once there Jesus asks them a question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” /verse33b/ They were stunned by his question, as they had not realized he heard their argument amongst themselves as they walked together that day. They had argued about who was the greatest. Have you ever been caught in a dispute by someone you looked up to? Perhaps a parent or a guardian or even your spouse or worse yet your boss? Embarrassed their tongues are tied and before they can come up with an answer Jesus tells them the most confusing thing.
David Ewart wrote, while discussing this passage, “…once again Jesus is challenging us to reverse long-standing, ingrained, human habits. To set aside our common human understanding of how to win fame and glory, and instead learn from Jesus God’s deep hospitality and honoring.” Jesus is telling us that to be first in the eyes of God we shall need to let go of all that we have learned, from societies urgings, and give up our places as first in line and first in whatever social situation we find ourselves in, and step to the back of the line to reach out and help those that we find there. We must stop thinking so much about victory as seen through human standards; standards set by other humans! Try to grasp this concept and just for a moment imagine that being first wasn’t all that important. Kind of hard to grapple with and come to grips with isn’t it? Easy to say, but not so easy to put into action. It wasn’t easy back at the time of Jesus and it still isn’t easy in the Twenty-First Century.
OK, I get it, I know what many of you are thinking as you listen to this dialogue. “Yeah, Pastor, Jesus was just trying to get a point across, not to turn everything upside down and totally disrupt our social system.” If you think about this long enough you will be saying how our capitalist system would not even function if we did not try to get up front and be first. OK, I hear you, but just for a moment at least, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus was asking us to do it a different way? Haven’t you ever been invited to someone’s home and been treated really special? I have. I have gone to the home of a very successful person actually in awe that I was invited and they stun me by treating me like I was the head of their household. I was given the best chair, sat at the head of the table etc. It was so humbling. I really felt they cared about me! This is exactly what Jesus is talking about!
One author asks this rhetorical question: “What would our lives look like if we really believed and acted on these words of Jesus?” /Daniel B. Clendenin/ I am not asking you to throw away common sense axioms that we thrive upon in our society. I understand capitalism and so do you. This discussion is not meant to change the basic order of things. We still need competition as we all know it is what moves technologies forward and controls pricing so that consumers actually have access to these modern technological miracles. I am, however, siding with our author and asking you to reflect on how this concept of reaching out to the back of the bus, the back of the line, and daring you to cross the social boundaries that artificially separate one from another.
The phrase “I AM” was a name God is quoted as declaring, from out of the writings within the Old Testament, when Moses first encountered the living God from out of a fiery bush! You and me, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the great “I AM” at the head of the line; that name belongs to our God! We need to think more clearly about ‘who’ our neighbors are and ‘how’ we can serve them – so that they will have an equal opportunity to share in all of God’s creation; as God intended!
Of course, I cheer for my favorite team, or player, when watching a sporting event. And yes, I want them to come in first. Jesus, of course, was putting a point across in a way we all could understand. We all realize what being first means and surely we know the feeling of being way back, possibly even, last in something. The heart of the illustration, that Jesus is making, is saying to his disciples, and to all of us whom wish to follow his example and his teachings, is simply that the goal is not necessarily to be first in anything. And Jesus also wants us to know, “When we come in last, or when we are lost, that is precisely where our Lord meets us, on our home turf, to change the direction for our good.” /Michael Hoy/
Jesus was the first to reach out for the lost soul at the back of the line! Jesus constantly looks to the plight of the marginalized and strives to cause his disciples to acknowledge those that Jesus reaches out to. Surely, this is why we so often hear about the lost, the hopeless and the marginalized within the gospel lessons. Imani Jones shares with us in “The African American Lectionary”: “As we reach out and draw children from the margins of society to the center, we welcome them as Jesus has graciously welcomed us…” It is by welcoming all of God’s children, especially the young children, into our circle, allowing them to be drawn from the back of the bus and sit up front. It is when we make sure that they have an equal opportunity to share in the richness of our culture, share in the wealth of information that we have gathered; it is then that we are truly responding to the examples and teachings of Jesus.
In the end Jesus has presented yet “one more paradox” for us to struggle with when he confronted his early disciples that day. “While they want to find their way to the top, to claim greatness, he’s telling them to lay claim instead to the last and lowest place, to be the servant of all, to be first in caring for others.” Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey sees it this way: “While they (the Disciples) want to find their way to the top, to claim greatness, Jesus is (he’s) telling them to lay claim instead to the last and lowest place, to be the servant of all, to be first in caring for others.” C.S. Lewis once said: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Praise be to God!