Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Greatest

Mark 9:30-37 (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
September 23, 2012

            A Toddler’s Property Rights
            1.  If I like it, it’s mine.
            2.  If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
            3.  If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
            4.  If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
            5.  If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
            6.  If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
            7.  If it looks like mine, it’s mine.
            8.  If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9.  If you are playing with something and put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10.  If it’s broken, it’s yours.  (Unless you find a good way to play with it, then it’s mine again.)
            For those of you who have ever raised a toddler, currently have a toddler, once were a toddler or know a toddler, you probably recognize and affirm the truth in these property rights.  I’ve spent a lot of time with toddlers, my own and others, and these property rights manifest themselves with every toy and in every game they play.  If you know someone who is anticipating a toddler in the near future, please pass on this piece of advice – batten down the hatches of their home.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride. 
            It’s not that toddlers aren’t delightful.  They are.  They are fun, they’re silly.  They’re joyful.  It’s just that I’ve yet to meet a toddler who knows how to share.  In fact, I’m not convinced that any one of us is born knowing how to share.  We have to be taught.  While it may be hard for children, it’s equally hard for adults.      
            We have to be taught how to share.  And it seems to me that the people who share well are the people who have also learned to put the needs of someone else first before their own.  They are the people who are aware of their own desires, but know that sometimes the needs of others come first. 
            The disciples are struggling with this concept when we meet them in this particular passage from Mark.  Jesus and the disciples are on the road again.  They are traveling away from the crowds who had gathered around Jesus after he, Peter, James and John had gone up a high mountain for the transfiguration.  They passed through Galilee, and as they did Jesus taught them again that the Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands.  He will be killed.  After three days he will rise.  But the disciples, who heard this same message in our passage last week, still don’t understand the reality Jesus is trying to communicate, and they are too afraid to ask him to explain, so they remain silent.
            Then they reach a house in Capernaum.  After they’re settled in, Jesus asks the disciples about the argument they were having while they were traveling.  Again the disciples respond with silence.  They don’t answer him because they were arguing about who among them was the greatest, at the top of the disciple heap.  Which one of them would win the prize as the greatest disciple of all? 
            For Jesus this becomes a teachable moment.  He doesn’t rebuke them for their argument or their ambitions.  He doesn’t roll his eyes and tell them they just don’t get it.  Instead he sits down and calls the disciples to him.  He picks up a little child and sets it among them.  Then he takes the child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and who welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
            Jesus took a child, a being with no power, no wealth, completely dependent on others for its very existence, and placed that child among them.  Not only did he bring the child into their midst, he equated himself with that child.  Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me.  And if you welcome this child, if you welcome me, then you also welcome the One who sent me.
            Jesus likens himself to a child which ultimately means that the child is likened to God.  The least one becomes the greatest.  The disciples can argue and posture and dispute all they want.  The least one becomes the greatest.
            How do you think the disciples felt about that?  Not only were they informed that none of them was truly the greatest, they were also told and shown that they would have to be willing to share their visions of glory with a lowly child.  In fact, from what Jesus is telling them, that child will rank even higher than they will, his disciples, his followers, his best supporters.
            I imagine that this was a bitter pill for the disciples to swallow.  But no matter how it stuck in their throat, they were forced to be accountable for their selfish ambition.
            Selfish ambition.  Aren’t those the same words James uses in his epistle?  In fact he uses this particular phrase twice.  In verse 14, “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.”  And again in verse 16, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
            Were the disciples engaged in selfish ambition?  Was it selfish ambition that drove them to debate their hierarchy of stature?  Who was the greatest among them?  Was it Peter?  James?  John?  Thomas?  Andrew?  Who?  Who would be the right hand man to the right hand man?  Yet it seemed that their spotlight must be shared with a child!  Quite a blow to their selfish ambition!
            The disciples, in their very human nature, wanted there to be a pecking order, with one of them clearly at the top.  That pecking order would never have included a child.  They were practicing selfish ambition, and according to James it is our selfish ambition that gets us into trouble; that keeps us from sharing.  Disorder, wickedness, and evil of every kind come from this selfish ambition.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to demonstrate in the most tangible way possible that the disciples’ selfish ambition would not earn them the glory and greatness they desired and thought they deserved. 
            But is it wrong to have ambition?  It is our ambition that drives us.  It is our ambition that pushes us to strive, to reach for goals and to seek higher ideals.  It is our ambition that pushes us to succeed.  How many of us were told directly or indirectly that a little bit of ambition will get us ahead? 
            I certainly have ambition.  My ambitions have changed and refined over the years but I still have them.  I doubt that I’m alone in this.  What are your ambitions?  Are they career oriented?  Are they about family, your children, your grandchildren?  I find myself becoming more and more ambitious for my children, which I know can lead to a whole bunch of trouble if I don’t keep my desires for them in check. 
            I think though that our ambitions are a lot like our priorities.  I think that’s the point James is trying to make.  Just as we often have to reprioritize our lives to align them with God’s priorities, we also have to align our ambitions.  Is ambition by itself wrong?  I don’t think so.  But when our ambitions become selfish, if they drive us to use people in order to reach them or if they pull us away from God instead of drawing us closer, then our ambitions do lead to the disorder and the wickedness and the evil that James writes of so emphatically.
            A few years ago the theatre department at the college in Decorah, our town in Iowa, put on a production of Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.  I knew very little about the play before I went to see it.  I’m not entirely sure I understood it any better when I left.  But I did understand this:  Peer Gynt was an irresponsible, arrogant, self-centered yet charming young man.  And at the end of the play, at the end of his life, he was an irresponsible, arrogant, self-centered but not so charming lost and lonely old man.  Peer Gynt did nothing for anyone unless it served his own purposes.  His own needs, his own desires came first – always – above friends, above family, above loved ones. 
At one point in the drama he finds his true love, and for a moment you dared to hope that he would at last become the caring, devoted, giving man he had the potential to be.  But even this great love could not hold him or ground him, and he went on his way, hurting others, hurting himself.
            In one scene Peer Gynt finds himself at the center of a community of trolls. They are repulsive creatures, and Peer Gynt wants nothing to do with them.  He is tricked by the Troll King’s daughter into an engagement and he looks for escape.  The Troll King threatens him and curses him and shares with him the trolls’ motto and creed, “To thine own selfish be true.”  But Peer Gynt rebuffs the Troll King and dismisses his motto.
            Years later he meets the Troll King once more.  Now the King is old and stooped and living out his last years in misery.  He tells Peer that he is one of them, he too is a Troll.  Peer protests, “I am nothing like you!”  But Peer has spent his life fully living out the troll’s beloved creed, to thine own selfish be true.  Peer’s ambitions, his desires, his lofty illusions and dreams have been nothing but selfish.  And at the end of his life he dies alone, his selfish existence having driven away all others who might have comforted him and loved him in his last hours.
            To thine own selfish be true. 
            Generosity, sharing may be a virtue that we must be taught, yet I also know that we don’t all adhere to the creed “to thine own selfish be true.”  We rise above that creed.  The ministry and work of this congregation, including the Community Meal that we will serve this afternoon, continues because so many of you reject the idea of “to thine own selfish be true.”  Yet selfish ambitions have a way of sneaking up on us, even when – especially when – we think we’re doing something strictly for the glory of God. 
            I suspect that could have been the original motivation for the disciples’ argument on just exactly who was the greatest.  They were trying to follow this humble teacher, this man they believed to be the Son of God.  And they wanted to be the greatest at that following.  Yet how did Jesus respond to their ambitions for greatness?  He didn’t scold or argue or labor through one more lecture.  He took a child, a being who in that time and culture was barely seen as a person.  Jesus took this child, a helpless, powerless, defenseless little one and said, “See this child?  Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.  And when you welcome me you welcome the One who sent me.”  This child, this least one, is truly the greatest.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”  

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