9/20/2015 Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Mark 9:30-37.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen”
In today’s gospel, Jesus extends a welcome to all who will listen as he gathers his disciples and teaches them. In the shadow of the prediction of his death, one more time, Jesus lays out the logic of God’s kingdom – a logic that is lost on most of us who are looking for whatever rewards and treasures we can amass – as God’s kingdom is like nothing we have known or will experience in our everyday life. In God’s kingdom, “the first will be last.” In God’s kingdom there is a place for everyone. God’s kingdom is not filled with the mansions of the rich and famous, for it is not the exclusive domain of a lucky few. It is a kingdom in which wealth is based on following, rather than on possession; on faith and dependency upon God, rather than on outward appearance and self-sufficiency. Suffering and service are the signs of greatness. And to welcome a child, one of lowly status and incapable of greatness on the basis of merit, is to welcome both Jesus and the one who sent him.
Now, I know this doesn’t seem logical…not by the world’s standards, anyway…but it is God’s way of making everything right in us and in the world around us. If we take Jesus’ words to heart, they will have a great impact on how we honor our Lord in our living. Perhaps the story of a palace servant found on sermons.com (Mark 9 for the sermon titled “The Way Up Is Down! “) can help us understand it better. The story goes like this:
There once was a palace servant who longed more than anything else in life to be a knight. He yearned to represent his king and vowed within himself that if he ever had a chance to be a knight he would serve his king as the noblest knight who ever lived. His dream came true. His great day came. At his knighthood ceremony, the former servant, now a knight, made a special oath within himself. He vowed that from that day forward he would bow his knees and lift his arms in homage to no one but his king.
As a knight, he was assigned to guard a remote city on the edge of the kingdom. On the day he took up his duties standing at attention in full armor at the city gate, an elderly peasant woman passed by on her way to the market. In a rickety cart, she carried some vegetables she had grown and hoped to sell. As she passed the knight, her rickety old vegetable cart hit a bump on the road and turned over. Potatoes, onions, carrots, and peas spilled everywhere. The peasant woman scurried to get them all back in her cart to no avail. She looked toward the knight in hopes he would help her but already he had forgotten what it was to be a servant. The knight stood there, unmoved, holding his pose. He would not bend to help her. He just stood at attention keeping his vow to never again bow his knees or lift his arms in homage to anyone but his king.
Years passed, and one day an elderly one-legged man hobbled by on his old crutch. Directly in front of the knight, the old man’s crutch finally gave out and broke in two. “Sir knight,” the old one-legged man begged, “please reach down and help me to get up again.” The knight, unmoved by the old man’s predicament, made no response. He held his pose proudly and remembered he had vowed that he would neither stoop nor lift a hand to help anyone but his king.
Decades passed, and the knight grew older. One day his granddaughter came by and said, “Papa, pick me up and take me to the fair.” But, even for his own granddaughter the knight would not stoop, for within himself he had made a vow to bow only to his king. Finally, the day came for the king to come. This was the day for which the knight had longed since the day of his knighthood. As the king approached to inspect him, the knight stood proudly and stiffly at attention. As he did, the king noticed a tear rolling down the proud knight’s cheek. “You are one of my noblest knights,” said the king, “why are you crying?”
“Your majesty,” the knight replied, “I took a vow that I would bow and lift my arms in homage to you alone, but now that you are here I am an old man unable to keep my vow any more. The years of standing here stiffly at attention, waiting for you to come, have taken their toll. The joints of my armor are rusted and I can no longer lift my arms or bend my knees.” The wise king replied, “Perhaps if you had knelt to help all those people who passed by you, and lifted your arms to reach out to all the people who asked for your help, you would have been able to keep your vow to pay me homage today.”
There’s an old saying that says, “pride goes before a fall.” But it isn’t just pride. Anything that prevents us from reaching out, serving and welcoming the least of all people in the name of Christ puts a stumbling block in our path. For, Jesus Christ says, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Yes, this flies in the face of everything we have been taught. From childhood onward, we have been taught being first, being numero uno, is what counts. The logic of God’s kingdom reverses all this. The logic of God’s kingdom reverses all worldly categories of power, prestige and merit. It is a radical teaching of vulnerability. So, rather than seeking the number one position, Jesus invites us to be as vulnerable as a child, because when we are that vulnerable we become open to the power of love and loving.
My friends, our God doesn’t care whether we are rich or poor, fat or thin, tall or short, famous or unknown to the world around us. Jesus just wants us to follow him and his example of self-sacrificing love. Jesus encourages us to deny ourselves so that our friends and neighbors can be rich in spirit. Jesus invites us to trust him and to follow him so that we can do what is right, what is good and what is holy.
The disciples of Jesus’ time couldn’t understand this. They could understand a God who gave favored places to those who followed, as long as following did not mean sacrifice, self-denial and yes, even death. However, they couldn’t understand a God who found greatness in vulnerability and service. They could accept a God who could performed miracles and had power to raise the dead, but they couldn’t comprehend a God who would be find glory in his suffering and death on a cross. The disciples during the time of Jesus failed to understand the logic of God’s kingdom which called into question their dreams of greatness and triumph.
So, think about it the next time you’re in the grocery store, standing in a long check-out line. As you stand, last in line, and see a frail grandmother type carrying a basket with a couple of items, ready to take her place in line behind you, do you invite her to go ahead of you, knowing that she will be checked through before you’ve unpacked your cart? And what will you do if along comes another, this time a pushy type breezily saying, “Mind if I go ahead? I’m in sort of a hurry.”? I’m willing to bet that you’ll want nothing better than to let that shopper earn the title of “greatest” by being stuck at the back of the line.
Remember, my friends, in the end, God reverses the order of things in this world. Being last isn’t always a bad thing…especially when that position is the result of trusting God above all things and following the way of the Lord. May you find strength for your service and patience in your suffering through Jesus Christ who will be with you always. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.