Sunday September 20, 2009 Proper 20 B
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Mark 9:30-37
Theme: Opening the Circle
I once saw a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “God does have a plan for your life and it is very, very difficult.” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be comforted by that or afraid? Jesus seems to know that there is a plan or trajectory to his life. He speaks openly about his coming betrayal and death and enigmatically about his rising again for the second time in this gospel. His disciples are struck silent, afraid to ask any questions. They are not like the children in my life who seem willing and able to ask the most penetrating and difficult questions with relative ease. At the same time it is interesting how we adults protect ourselves from seeming ignorant or uninformed by losing the voice of curiosity.
While the disciples are fearfully silent about Jesus’ strange speech, they evidently had no problem arguing openly about their status and pecking order in the group. Seizing this teachable moment Jesus calls the twelve to him and in characteristic fashion sits down to offer a rabbinic teaching. The task of wisdom is to know the right time to tell a story. Jesus delivers a wisdom speech steeped in paradox. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Desire is still at its center, “whoever wants to be first,” is not eliminated, but it is desire transformed by God’s upside down hilarious ways.
When I read this passage, I have a fantasy about our Christian community and in fact all Christian communities. I wonder what life of the church would be like if we were engaged in a seriously playful competition to outdo one another in acts of service? What if we embraced the crazy competitive nature of our world in this entirely unorthodox way? What if competition did not mean winners and losers but who could actually pull-off the most surprising act of kindness? Who could listen the most deeply to another’s pain? Who could show up first with a meal when a loved one went into the hospital? Who could find the most joy in teaching children about the love of God in creative and connective ways? Who could sneak 12 cases of Tuna into the food pantry over the weekend without anyone else knowing? What if in doing so we discovered that or normal ways of keeping score, our social competitiveness, our economic superiority, our tendency to run from deep service was actually keeping us from understanding the gracious presence of God in our lives?
Jesus teaching does not end with this paradoxical wisdom. It continues with an enacted parable. Jesus places a child in the center of the circle of disciples, picks them up and continues his teaching. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” One could easily make this passage into an extended meditation about hospitality toward children. While I do believe that there is literally a blessing from God for all who work with and care for children, the symbolic action of the parable suggests something more to us.
Childhood in the ancient world was a very different reality than how we moderns think of it. There were no chore lists, popsicles in the freezer, play dates, and Saturday soccer outings. Children were held in low-esteem in the Greco-Roman world and considered the lowliest, least and in fact were the servants of all. Understanding this background the parable and in fact this passage opens up in an unexpected way. The child placed at the center of the teaching circle becomes symbolic of anyone in need of help, of anyone on the outside of the circle, those on the margins, the powerless, the invisible, the untouchable, the at risk, the vulnerable, the fragile, or the easily exploited.
In Galilee, a symbol for the place from which Jesus calls us to follow, Jesus’ answers to the question of greatness by placing the most vulnerable of human beings at center of the conversation. The picture is one of the circle of disciples being broken and reformed around one from the margins. Is this what it means to be the servant of all? To be willing to put someone who is outside the circle into the center? To allow our community to become permeable to the vulnerable?
This parabolic action of Jesus suddenly becomes very challenging and interesting. Servanthood is not always about scrubbing toilets or taking care of the sick though is certainly can and does mean those things. Becoming a servant of all could mean inviting whatever or whoever we are tempted to try to keep on the margins into the center of the conversation.
Consider the current national conversation about healthcare. When we as one of the most powerful and prosperous nations admit to ourselves and to the world that 45 million of our citizens lack adequate healthcare and begin to place them at the center our national conversation becomes very interesting. It is a fascinating attempt to serve the least, those on the outside of the circle and of course it is quite messy. As Christians we struggle to keep the moral issue of caring for every person’s bodily health at the center of the conversation. This is a teachable moment and a difficult one at that. What does it mean to say as people of faith called to respect the dignity of every human being that healthcare is important for every person in our society no matter what their social or economic status not because they deserve it or are entitled to it but simply because they are children of God? Sometimes the only way to become open to this kind of servanthood is to listen to the stories for whom this debate really matters and you don’t look far. You can find these stories here in this place of worship. The business person who let their health coverage lapse in the midst of this economic crisis and now cannot get accepted again because of something in their medical history.
Perhaps the action of moving something from the margins to the center is a more personal form of servanthood for you. What is it that you are tempted to leave outside the circle of your life, to push away from you, forcing it out of view? Is there something that you know needs to be brought into the center of the conversation of your life that is hurting you or others? Is there someplace that you know you are stiff-arming God? Servanthood may mean taking a hard look at your life? It may mean admitting that the demands of your career, the hours you are working are slowing killing you and your family? It may be admitting that you have unhealthy ways of living that are putting you at risk? It could be the uncomfortable realization that you are enabling another’s addiction and have been for a long time? It could be that you become aware of others around you that want to belong to this community but somehow after months or years of being in the church still do not feel at home? It might mean coming clean to the fact that you’ve lost control of your schedule, gotten stuck in one of your old ruts, or really just lost track of your own priorities or calling? Perhaps what really gets pushed to the margins of your life is time to listen and pray and really discern where God is leading you, urging you into joyful service?
This spiritual task of listening to your life of becoming attentive to one’s fears, to those things outside the circle calls to mind a poem by Wendell Berry that seems to fit today’s text. So I want to invite you to get quiet for a moment. Close your eyes and listen to this call to Sabbath servanthood.
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
- Wendell Berry
I’m still not sure that God actually has a plan for you life that is very, very difficult. What I do know is that Jesus wants you to be the greatest but it is a rather peculiar and at times difficult path toward that goal. You must be willing to look outside your own comfortable circle and haul some unusual characters into the center. You are called to believe that among the most vulnerable God is waiting to be discovered. You may need to do some circle busting of your own to haul your own issues into the center so God can really get to you, to heal your soul. In the end what is important is hearing the song of servanthood, that you can just hear whispering through the trees and swirling around the chalice and paten on this holy table. And once you’ve heard it, to being to sing it, no matter how halting your first notes may be.