Rev. Marilyn Washburn

[]Jesus calls the disciples together as they have returned from their journey and says, "What were you arguing about?" They were stunned. The Scripture says they were silent. They didn't know what to say because what they had been arguing about was which of them was the greatest. You can imagine some of what they were saying. Peter was saying, "Jesus always turns to me and I'm the leader here." Of course, James and John were saying, "Well, we're pretty prominent. So which one of us is the best, which one is the greatest?"

Jesus very quickly squelched that and said, "Wait a moment here. It's not who is the greatest that is the most important. You're arguing about the wrong things." They'd really hit a low point because they had not 'gotten' it yet. Actually, the disciples did not fully get much of it until the day of Pentecost. They really didn't even get it after the resurrection. But Jesus is very patient with them and he's trying to help them understand what it's all about. "Greatness," he's reminding them, "is not what you think it is. It's not the best, the highest, the one with the most money, the one with the most prestige, the one with…whatever."

As we think about this passage, we begin to get a little piece of understanding of what it is that we need to set our minds on as we think about our relationship to God. It's not strictly our spiritual meditation, it's not just our prayer, it's not just the ways in which we come to worship and the things we do here. It's not any of those things in and of themselves. They're all pieces of the puzzle. But what Jesus is reminding the people of, as he does again and again, is that it's not what you do with your spiritual life in the sense of your prayer life as much as it is how you live out that life in the world, how you touch the lives of other people, how you live out your faith.

He brings a little child into their midst. And we think of that as a wonderful, delightful little story. But one of the interesting things that we forget about is the concept of the child in Jesus' day. In our day in most of our churches, children are very special. We love them, embrace them, laugh with them, rejoice with them, we hold them, we nurture them. But in Jesus' time, they did not do that very much. They gave the children, of course, the basic things that they needed and that were necessary for the continuation of the human race. But they were very far down on the list of important people, very unimportant. So it was very startling to the disciples to have Jesus bring this little child that they had very little to do with and say, "This is what is important."

One author put it this way: 'Children, in the culture that shaped the disciples' world view, weren't the only ones who were devalued. They shared space on the margins with many others in their society who were both powerless and vulnerable. Those who didn't count included those who were old, handicapped, sick, illiterate, cast out as unclean. This group included peasants, farmers, shepherds, widows, slaves, the unemployed, aliens, immigrants, prisoners, homeless.' Sound a little familiar with some of the things that we do today? How many of those people don't count in our own society? What a wonderful illustration that Jesus gives us this morning that someone literally small and probably not terribly aware of all of the things going on around him or her, someone that small is raised up as being of great importance to God. And that is what they are to shape themselves to be like, that little child.

We all know that, in the world in which we live today, the powerless are not up at the top; they're at the bottom. In our society we argue constantly about things like this. We hear a lot of it, especially today. I get very tired, frankly, of hearing about some of these so-called celebrities who in many cases, I think, are famous for being famous and not much else. And yet the news is full of stories about these people. Are they really that good in the way of influencing our society and our world when they abuse drugs and alcohol, are killing each other or doing other things? I don't think they are the ones that Jesus would hold up as being the greatest just because they were celebrities. And some of our politicians, what are they thinking with some of the things they say and do? They try to make themselves sound like they are better than others because of what they think and that the other person's opinion is not important.

We can come up with a long list of people at the very top. But Jesus would say, "No, they are not the ones who are most important. It is the ordinary people. Let's stop arguing and bickering with each other about who is the greatest and get out there and do something to make people's lives better. Let's look less for the powerful and more for the powerless. Let's not argue among ourselves as to who is the greatest, but let's just do what needs to be done. Let's not put the sports figures and the celebrities and the politicians up there, but let's look at those who may have no fame at all."

As usual, Jesus has turned everything upside down. He reverses all of the understandings that many of us have, and it can make us very uncomfortable, make us squirm just like the disciples were squirming in their seats. They were embarrassed. One author puts it this way: 'The disciples wanted to know who was the greatest, so he showed them: twenty-six inches tall, limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, nobody, God's agent, the last, the least of all.' If we want to welcome God into our lives, then there is no one whom we may safely ignore.' Harsh words.

None of us is that much better than anybody else. We simply have more. We live comfortable lives, and that's a very good thing. But we are called to share it, to reach out, not to be overly concerned about our own success, our own strength, our own overconfidence sometimes, or maybe even our own fame. But we are called to be humble, to extol those who have less, to raise up those who are in need. If there are homeless around, we are called to help them find homes. If there are hungry people around, we are called to help feed them. If there are people who are struggling with illness, mental or physical, we are called to reach out and help them. If there are those who have physical or mental handicaps, we are called to take them under our wings. If there are people who are struggling in whatever way, we are called to say, "I care, I love you," because one of the messages of the Gospel is that selfishness is not what God wants us to embrace, but selflessness, caring for others, doing whatever we can for other people. And it's not always the marginal that we reach out to. It may be a lonely person in our neighborhood. It may be someone in our church who is struggling with an issue who needs a listening ear. It may be somebody who has recently experienced a death that needs a helping hand. It may be somebody right in our own neighborhood that we don't even see because we are so busy doing for ourselves.

So Jesus calls us to be those who are gentle, merciful, faithful, sincere, loving, peacemakers. Those are the ones who are entering the kingdom of heaven. The righteous are those who care about others. The righteous are those who live out their faith. The righteous are those who hear the cries around them. It makes us uncomfortable in many ways. I know that. It makes me squirm from time to time when I see all of the good things I have and I look about me and see how many do not have that. When we realize that more than fifty percent of the population of this world live in poverty, it gives us pause to think about what we have and what we can share and how we can make this a better world, a richer world, a richer faith for us.

Discipleship isn't easy. Discipleship isn't simply saying, "I believe in God and Jesus Christ." Discipleship is far more than that. It is reaching out to those who are different, those who are struggling. It is sharing ourselves. It doesn't mean that we always get rewards for it either. But when we realize that we are called into a life of humility and we humble ourselves, just as Jesus did, we re-order our priorities and we re-order our lives. We see that there are those who need us, who need the gifts of our faith, who need the gifts of God, who need the gifts that Jesus offers of healing and wholeness, that need the gifts of love and peace and hope. All of us are called to this. Difficult? Yes. Does it knock us down a notch sometimes when we think about it? Yes. Does it help us to know that God is with us and that Jesus is there for us? Yes. One of the most important things that I always remind myself of is that even while Jesus is talking this way to his disciples, he still cares about them and loves them deeply. Even when he knows that they haven't 'gotten' it yet and they can't figure out, he still says, "I care. Here is another piece of the puzzle. Maybe you can begin to put it together. God will care and God will still love you because I love you and give you new life." Remember, Jesus moved through the cross and into the resurrected life, a newness of life, and so we do too. That gives us hope as we reach out to share the gifts that God has given to us. If we keep them to ourselves, what good are they?

So, my friends, be reminded that arguing about who is the greatest, whether it's in the church, in the community, or in the world is not what God wants for us. God never forgets those who are rejected, and we are called to not forget them either. That is the story that Jesus wants us to learn today. It is not arguing about who we are in relationship to being better to others, but who we are in relationship to being a disciple of Jesus Christ, working together as he did to provide healing and wholeness to the world and new life and new hope and, most of all, peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

September 20, 2009

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