Sunday November 10, 2019

Ordination/Installation - 2019c

Old Testament – Psalm 19:1-10

New Testament – Mark 9:30-37

Greatness

INTRODUCTION: In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples, well, they don’t really come off as being the sharpest set of knives in the drawer. 

 

Nope. For some odd reason, which has long puzzled scholars, the disciples in Mark’s Gospel are more dimwits and buffoons who are hard of hearing than anything else. One would think Mark would want to dress the disciples up and put a nice shine and polish on ‘em, but that is hardly how they get portrayed.

 

First, they lack the ability to see what is right in front of their faces. Jesus performs one amazing feat after another, only to have the disciples fail to grasp such wondrous deeds are a sign his divinity. Peter eventually gets it, but that hardly prevents him from being a turncoat later. 

 

And then there is their ability as students. The disciples, it turns out, don’t grade well when it comes to comprehension. Again and again, Jesus offers his counsel on what it means to be a follower only to have them miss the point entirely. 

 

He talks, for example, about the need for his disciples to deny themselves and take up their crosses, and James and John promptly announce they’re really only into the discipleship thing for themselves. “Hey, Jesus,” say the two brothers, “forget all this talk about denying ourselves. When you’re finally running the show, we want the seats of power closest to you.”      

 

Perhaps that explains why John Lennon could famously say: “Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.” Well, we read Mark’s Gospel, and we can see what John Lennon means. For the disciples, based on Mark’s picture of them, really did have a way of twisting things around.   

 

Of course, our reading for today is just one more example of the disciples’ inability to understand what Jesus was trying to teach them.   

 

Walking through the Galilee while making their way to Capernaum, the disciples end up in a heated debate about who among them is the coolest and bestest.   

 

Whether it was because of just plain old pride, or that their heads were starting to get a bit big because of Jesus’ ever increasing fame, the disciples have grown into a pretty confident bunch by chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel. So much so, they feel the need to debate and wrangle over who among them is the most important in the group.

 

Woody Allen is famous for once saying, “I've often said, the only thing standing between me and greatness is me.” Well, the disciples hardly seemed to lack such self-assurance and confidence, did they?  

 

In Shakespeare’s comic play Twelfth Night, a character finds the bravery to engage in all sorts of bizarre and hysterical behavior after reading the following words in a letter: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

 

And so it went for the disciples. Unafraid of greatness, they charged headlong into an extended and, apparently, heated discussion over who among them was, in fact, the greatest.

    

Well Jesus, after overhearing their conversation, gathers his followers together for yet another lesson about the true nature of discipleship.

 

Knowing they’ve been arguing about who is the greatest Jesus sits them down and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

 

And then taking a child into his arms he concludes, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”         

 

While such remarks to us might sound quaint and saccharine, for Jesus’ followers they were highly evocative. You see, in the ancient world, who one associated with was a pretty big deal. Prestige and social status and honor were very much related to the social circles people ran in.

 

If a person hung out with the well-to-do and the powerbrokers of society, well, they were also considered to be powerful and important as well. Needless to say, people spent a lot of time trying to make sure they were running with the right crowd and the hippest circles. Think “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and other such shows.

 

But children? Well, children were about as low on the social scale as one could get. In fact, the only group that ranked lower than children were slaves. While we romanticize and preen over our children, in the ancient world children were basically seen as property.

 

Today, in our world, children are protected by assorted laws and even have various rights. There are laws to protect children from abuse, working too much, and to make sure they’re properly educated. Why, we’ll even take children away from parents who aren’t treating them properly.

 

But in ancient Palestine, that was far from being the case. Children were closer to being like cattle than people with rights. So in a world with a strict social pecking order, children inhabited one of the lowest levels possible.

 

And so ironically, according to Jesus, that’s where his disciples are to find true greatness. Following directly on the heels of his remarks about greatness being found in serving rather than being served, Jesus’ words about children are linked to that idea. It’s not in striving for worldly recognition or honor that greatness is found, but rather in seeking to become lowly and meek like children.

 

The preaching professor David Buttrick draws the following rather blunt conclusion from Jesus’ teaching on the matter: “Disciples [of Jesus]” writes Buttrick “should give up striving for social status and become like children, who have no social status.”

   

There is a story about Paul Cezanne and his great humility despite eventually becoming one of the world’s most famous painters. 

 

Apparently, as often happens with painters, Cezanne spent the first 35 years of his career living in total obscurity. Unbeknownst to the world, Cezanne was producing one masterpiece after another, which he unwittingly gave away to friends and neighbors who were just as clueless regarding what had been bestowed upon them.

 

But since Cezanne simply loved painting for painting’s sake, and since doing it to achieve recognition and fame was the farthest thing from his mind, he just kept right on painting totally oblivious to the fact that he would one day be considered the father of modern painting.   

 

The fact that Cezanne would eventually become famous for his paintings is reportedly due to a Paris art dealer who, after coming across several of the obscure painter’s works, gathered them together into an exhibit.

 

And so on the opening night of the exhibit, Cezanne arrived with his son to gaze in amazement at a gallery full of people captivated by his paintings. But what really struck Cezanne the most was what the Paris art dealer had done to his paintings.

 

Turning to his son, he purportedly said, “Look, they even framed them!”       

   

Well, we can almost hear Jesus’ words in the background about what true greatness really means, can’t we?

 

Of course, Jesus uses children as a teaching moment in yet one more way, right? For along with seeking to be like children who have no social status, we’re to also be especially attentive to the vulnerable and exposed around us.

 

In welcoming children, who were social nobodies lacking any status or power, Jesus was modeling the kind of hospitality he wanted his disciples to also emulate Like Jesus, who welcomed the most vulnerable and exposed, we are to seek to do the same. 

 

In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey tells a wonderful story about a very unusual party reported on by the Boston Globe.

 

According to the article, an engaged couple had made reservations with the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston for their wedding banquet. They met with the Wedding Coordinator, selected the menu, picked out the china they wanted used, and even decided on the flowers.

 

To make everything official, they had to leave a deposit of $6,000 dollars to cover half of the bill. With that done they headed home to wait for the big day and to pick out wedding announcements.

 

But when it came time to send out the invitations, the groom started having second thoughts. “I’m not so sure,” he said to the bride. “This is a big step. I think we should think it over for a bit longer.”

 

Of course, when the crushed bride returned to the Hyatt to cancel their reservation, she got even more bad news. The Wedding Coordinator, although incredibly sympathetic, informed the woman the contract was binding and that she was only entitled to $1,300.00 back. So the jilted bride had two options, she could forfeit the remainder of the down payment, or she could go ahead with the party as scheduled.

 

Well, the more the woman thought about it the more she liked the idea of having the party anyway. So that’s just what she did. She kept the reservation and then sent invitations to the rescue missions, homeless shelters, and nursing homes throughout the Boston area.

 

So on a warm summer night in June several years ago the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston found itself hosting a most unusual party. People who were used to eating out of dumpsters and trash cans found themselves feasting on chicken cordon bleu while senior citizens hobbling around with walkers and crutches found themselves being served hors d’oeuvres  by waiters decked out in tuxedos.

 

Now I have no idea if the woman who threw the party is a person of faith or not, but Jesus would surely have approved, right? 

 

CONCLUSION: So in my younger days, well, I used to think Jesus had an issue with greatness in general. I used to think he was just fundamentally opposed to the very concept of greatness.

 

But now? Older and more aware of my own personal cravings for social status and prestige, I realize Jesus isn’t opposed to greatness per se. 

 

Nope. Jesus, it turns out, isn’t opposed to greatness at all. It’s just that he thinks we find it in very different places than the rest of the world does.

 

And so perhaps his disciples weren’t as thick headed as Mark makes them out to be. For maybe they too understood what Jesus really meant by greatness. And if they did, well, no wonder they were so hard of hearing.   

 

And blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.