Mark 9:30-37

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35

I remember my time in seminary fondly, and one of the best parts of being there – much like being here – is that we had so many kids of different ages.  Each year we’d welcome a couple of babies into the community, delighting in all of their cuteness and passing them around during our weekly chapel service.  On one of those Wednesdays when we were gathered for worship, a classmate was holding his infant son facing outward so the little one could see what was going on.  Our friend Ben walked over, looked directly into the baby’s eyes, and said to him with mock seriousness: “Get a job.”

We all laughed, of course.  (Seminarians are not the best-behaved people in worship.)  It was funny because it was so ludicrous. Babies aren’t supposed to have jobs. They are just supposed to sleep and to eat and to fill up diapers and to be their adorable baby selves.  We don’t expect them to be productive or to earn their keep.

But how long do we allow babies that freedom? It’s not long before the pressure is on. Pretty soon we’re measuring their height and weight against the national percentiles, and we’re looking carefully for signs that they’re ready to crawl…or pull themselves up…or take those first steps.  Will they do it early?  Right on time?  What if it takes longer?

And it’s not long after that before they’re in school and taking standardized tests to see how they size up against other people in New Jersey and in the country.  We blink, and they’re scrutinizing college rankings and filling out applications, worried about how they’ll stack up against all those other applicants.  The best education is supposed to lead to the best job and the best life and the best of everything so they can provide the best for their own kids when the time comes and the process starts all over again.

This focus on achievement even fills our popular culture.  Think of how many reality competition shows have emerged in the last decade.  Whether these shows are trying to name the top chef or the final survivor or the woman who will receive a proposal from the bachelor, there can only be one winner.

The comparisons and the competition don’t ever seem to go away.  They just take different forms over time.  And the underlying message remains the same: We are only as worthy as our capacity to produce, to compete, to perform, to earn, to outdo, to outrank, to outlast. It’s exhausting.

That’s why I love the central contrast in today’s gospel.  Over here we have the disciples arguing with each other.  And what are they arguing about?  How they can feed the most hungry people?  What their ministry priorities should be?  Are they debating the finer points of scripture?  No.  They are arguing with each other about who is the greatest.

And over here we have Jesus sitting them down. He’s caught wind of their argument, and he’s not having any of it.  He tries to make them understand that if they were hoping for fame and glory and popularity and power when they became his followers, they have missed the point.  Discipleship is not about the achievements and accomplishments that the world values. Jesus flips the script entirely: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  To follow Jesus is to care more about serving others than celebrating ourselves.  To follow Jesus is to seek humility, not glory.

Remember that this whole mess started because Jesus has told the disciples that he will be put to death.  It’s not the first time he’s told them, but they continue to avoid the difficult truth that he is headed to the cross – maybe because deep down they know they may not have the strength to follow him there.

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.  And what does Jesus do to bring this point home?  He takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  It’s tempting to sentimentalize this moment, and plenty of artists have, depicting Jesus holding a cute kid, often surrounded by other cute kids.  But remember that the ancient world of Jesus did not treat children very sentimentally.  Unlike our more child-centric culture, the children of Jesus’ time were regarded as having little value or status.

So Jesus is basically saying this: When you follow me, you not only give up caring about status and power, but you make a commitment to caring the most about those who have nostatus and power.  That child in his arms represents all of the most vulnerable members of society – from the prisoner in his cell to the person battling addiction to the homeless veteran on the street corner to the victims of violence in all its forms.

It’s not about what any of those people deserve or what they can accomplish.  It’s not about what we deserve or accomplish.  It’s about what God can do working in us and through us entirely apart from notions of deserving or achieving.

Think about Ella, whose baptism we celebrate today. She doesn’t have to do anything to earn or deserve the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness that she has received in baptism. God’s love does not depend on when she begins to crawl or when she learns to read or what her SAT scores are or what career she pursues.  Ella doesn’t even have to be cute, although she really is.  The water has been poured over her head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She is forever claimed as God’s own, and nothing – absolutely nothing – can change that.

It’s not how we’re used to thinking about things. Can we even function without comparing ourselves to everyone else?  Are we prepared to experience God’s grace as something to be received rather than achieved?

I hope so – because that would mean we also understand that we are enough.  Just as we are.  God’s own children.  Forever. Amen.


S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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