Wisdom 2:12,17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Turning Over Stones

Here are some stones I have overturned to see what ideas are underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots.

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them -- The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise. But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.

After witnessing the less than composed interchange between Peter and Jesus regarding the first prediction of his persecution and death, apparently the disciples are a bit apprehensive about visiting this topic with comments and questions. Perhaps they are scratching their heads figuring out how it is that they are supposed to think like God and not like man. At least, I would have.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.

Capernaum is the fishing village that Peter most likely worked out of and it is also where his Mother-in-law lived. Because Mark maintains a secretive aura around the identity of Jesus, Jesus does not begin to question his disciples until they are in the house (in perhaps the house of the mother-in-law of Peter. The word -- arguing -- struck me as significant. Evidentially Jesus could not make out the particulars of the conversation between the disciples as they walked; however, the tone, volume, body language, and the occasional outburst must have painted a picture of a heated debate -- rather than small talk about the weather or the current price of fish.

The contrast between the prediction of the passion and the debate between the disciples which follows should feel a bit outlandish. After all, Jesus has just confided in the disciples for a second time what his future looks like and all the disciples can think about is who is the greatest.

Perhaps the disciples realized this bad timing, or perhaps they instinctually know that the contents of their debate would not have been smiled upon by Jesus. As a result they kept Jesus out of the original interchange and now they will not even answer his simple question -- What were you arguing about on the way? Instead the author of the narrative has to provide the answer to the question of Jesus.

Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all." Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.

For me, this is what is preaching this weekend. First, it should be stated that there are a triad of challenges here. That is, if you want to be the greatest then you must (1) put yourself last, (2) be the servant of all, and (3) receive the seemingly insignificant human being with great love.

The first two challenges are obvious, but the third illustration of Jesus is lost with cultural changes. In the time of Jesus a young child is to kept out of the way; that is seen and not heard. It is as if a child might be seen as more of a liability than an asset until they are old enough to provide labor and income for a family. They would definitely be kept out of the way of the visiting rabbi. W.C. Fields would have fit in well in First Century Palestine. In short, Jesus could have embraced a leper or a beggar to achieve the same effect.

What I am most intrigued about this week is the how this challenge of Jesus can be sold. If it was easily sellable everyone would be doing it -- everyone would be falling over each other to put themselves last. Everyone would be attempting to be the servant of all. Everyone would be reaching out to embrace the marginalized and the forgotten. However, we know that this is not the case.

Part of the reason for this is that our culture is so reward based that the rewards to be found here seem elusive. Why do these things that Jesus says? What is the motivation? Where is the payoff? The promotion? The recognition? The raise? The new title? The pat on the back?

The truth is that sometimes it does not ever come in this life. We all know the Eleanor Rigbys in this life who put themselves last, who served the rest, and who embraced the marginalized and yet they died with little recognition. We trust that their reward is in heaven as promised in Matthew 25. And it is a reward that clearly outshines any earthly reward.

On the other hand we have all been witnessed one of those wonderful earthly-reward moments where an individual is lifted up and exulted against their will -- and we can not help but to leap to our feet with applause and smiles. We feel the electricity generated by the recognition, for example, of a Catholic elementary school custodian who has put in 45 years of humble, quiet, saintly, service and is about to lock the doors for the last time in his career. He always wore a smile, he always had a song in his heart, he worked hard to provide for his family, he is known and loved by 3 generations of school kids, he treated each child as special, he never wanted the spotlight, he kept a low profile, but he held his head up with dignity and pride for the work he provided for almost 5 decades. And when hundreds of people who he has served secretly gather in the gymnasium to surprise him with a going away party it is a moment that one never forgets. It gives us goose bumps because in the moment of the adulation and applause we know that this attention is the last thing he seeks -- and that is what makes us applaud and whistle, and cheer all the louder.

Sometimes people are lifted up in this life and made first. Sometimes not. Being in the presence of God for eternity is the ultimate reward. Sometimes that is hard to sell in this life -- as bizarre as that sounds. Still, we all have known the joy of recognizing the servant of all, the one who made himself last, the one who constantly embraced the marginalized. We know the peace that comes with that action of recognizing that person. We know that warmth. We know that joy. We know that yearning.

What makes us do that? If we like to be part of the occasional earthly reward for others, perhaps we can also learn to focus on the heavenly reward for ourselves. It is time to think different.

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