Unlearning What We’ve Been Taught

Mark 9:30-37


Let’s be honest.  Sometimes Jesus says things that we really don’t like.


It happens in today’s scripture reading – right there in verse thirty-five.  “If anyone wants to be first, they need to move to the back of the line!”


We don’t like that. 


Those who are last are called losers in our society – in virtually any society. 


Those who are last are seldom heard.  When they do get a hearing, their views are typically put-down and disrespected.  They are poked fun at and teased – not in some fun-loving, good-natured way – but manners that are cruel and lacking in any sense of mercy


So, when Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be first, they need to move to the back of the line!” we don’t like it for several reasons!


First, our society teaches us just the opposite.   Nobody says to the Washington Redskins, “Your ambition for this season is to lose all of your games.”  Oh, it might happen, but that’s not what the team aims for.  In sports, at work, at school, in life – we are taught to be number one and to look out for the interests of number one.


Second, if Jesus is serious, it means that we have to change our opinion of those at the back of the line.  We have to change our opinion of those who are poor, weak, strange, and odd.  We’ve got to realize that these are kinds of people – these people that we don’t think so much of – these are the very people whom Jesus lifts up as significant. 


We don’t like that too much. 


Thirds, we don’t like what Jesus has to say, because it means that if we are truly going to be about the business of the Kingdom, we are going to have to put ourselves up and move to the back of the line.


That means we have to give up any pretense towards greatness.


That means we are going to have to give up on the notion of always getting our way.


That means that we are going to have to give up our possessions. 


That means we are going to have to own up to our vices and dishonesty.


That means that we have to give up our stubborn pride.


That means we are going to have to befriend people we’d normally avoid.


That means we’ll stop shrinking away from suffering and injustice.


That means we won’t be afraid to go into dangerous and dark places.


That means we will need to stop our obsessions with what is trivial.


That means we will need to get over ourselves.


That means we will have to die to self.


Let’s face it; we don’t like this kind of talk. 


Here’s the thing.  Jesus’ statement is clear and unequivocal.  There is no sense of nuance or any hint of fine distinction.  Jesus says what he means in no uncertain terms. 


“If anyone wants to be first, they need to move to the back of the line!”


The disciples didn’t like it much.  In fact, there is a long stretch of scripture here in the middle section of Marks’ Gospel that the disciples didn’t like very much at all.  It’s all this talk about Jesus being betrayed, arrested, beaten, abused, and murdered that really got to them.


They had this idea that being Messiah meant you were the big cheese, the top dog, large and in charge.  In fact, this is what seemed to prompt their traveling.


As you listened to the Gospel lesson from Mark, I imagine that you might have developed an immediate sense of what I might preach.  It is a familiar text and I know that when I first read it in preparation for this sermon, I had an immediate sense of the direction in which I would be preaching – probably the same direction that you would from today’s scripture. 


Jesus and his disciples are walking from village to village, making their way toward Jerusalem and toward the cross.  Jesus has previously told them as much.


In Mark 8, Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to suffer and bleed and die – and on the third day rise again.” 


Today he says, “In today’s lesson he says pretty much the same thing:  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”


Mark reports to us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying.  I am sure that’s true, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they did not want to understand.  They were looking for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem, drive out their Roman oppressors, and establish himself as King.  That was the common assumption the culture carried as to what the “Messiah” would look like.


So, they didn’t understand – – they didn’t comprehend – they couldn’t really accept the notion that the Messiah would be betrayed, killed, and then rise from the dead.  It did not fit into their template. 


“I’m going to be betrayed and murdered and then raised from the dead!”


“Huh?  We don’t get it!” they thought to themselves, and then they started arguing about who would be the greatest, the most important, the most influential among them when they arrived in Jerusalem and Jesus set up his Kingdom. 


They traveled down the road a bit till they arrived at Capernaum.  They probably stopped at Peter’s home for a day or two of rest.  When they arrived, Jesus asked, “What were you fellows arguing about?”


They really didn’t want to tell him.  They might not have understood – have comprehended – everything Jesus was saying, but they knew enough to know that Jesus didn’t like this kind of talk.  Still, they couldn’t help themselves.  There was something in them – something in us – that wants to be at the front of the line.


We hate it when somebody jumps a place in front of us, don’t we?


Somebody jumps in front of us in the lunch line.


Somebody pushes their way in front of us in the checkout line.


Somebody swerves in traffic to get the spot in front of us at the traffic light.


We hate it.  It bugs us all day.  That was our rightful place.  We belong at the front of the line.  We feel like we’ve earned it.  We’ve put in our time.  We’ve worked hard.  We’ve paid our dues.  Now it’s our turn to shine.  That’s our spot up there.


That’s what Peter thought!  “Jesus calls me ‘The Rock.’” Peter said.  “ He knows I am loyal and faithful and that he can trust be to be right at his side to the very end.  I am the greatest!”


That’s what James and John thought.  “When Jesus comes into in glory, he’s going to two strong personal body guards.  We’ve been with him from the start and we will be with him to the end, one on his right hand and the other on his left.  We are the greatest.” 


That’s what Judas thought.  “Jesus is going to need a general for his army, and who better than a battle tested zealot like me.  I am the greatest.”


That’s what Matthew though.  “Setting up a new government is hard work.  Jesus will need somebody who knows how to keep the books, collect taxes, and take care of administrative tasks like that.  Jesus is going to need somebody like me!  I am the greatest.” 


Folks still act that way today.  Folks want to move to the front of the line. 


“A good education is the foundation prosperous society.  That’s why educators are so very important,” say the teachers.


“We provide release and relaxation from stress and strain of life, that’s why we are so very important to the well-being of our society,” say the entertainers.


“Without us, you’d not have the freedom’s you enjoy.  We are the brightest and the best,” say those who serve in military.


“When you are sick or injured, who provides treatment and healing?  It is me, the doctor!  Try to get along without folks in the medical profession for too long and you’ll see that we are the most important segment of society.”


“Everything else in society is meaningless without some sense of morality and an understanding of the deeper spiritual life.  What everyone else does is important, but what we preachers talk about is ultimate meaning,” say the clergy.

 Jesus replies, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  


Yes, yes, we get that.  Be a servant.  Do some good deeds.  When you find yourself at the front of the line, don’t forget where you came from.  Do something nice for all those poor souls you’ve left behind, just not too much.  Don’t do so much that you lose your position or privilege and prominence at the front of the line. 


No, Jesus doesn’t let them (or us) slip by so easily.  He illustrates exactly what he means with actions and words. 


“And then Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”


I wish I could show you some pictures.  There are dozens of pictures illustrating this scene.  There is Jesus, every hair combed neatly in place, his beard trim and tidy.  Then there are the children.  He is surrounded by children.  Fit young people who appear to be the perfect picture of good health and good hygiene.  Jesus grabs one of these children up in his arms, hugs them, and places them in the center of the room.  Then he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”


I wish I could show you these pictures because I don’t think they really represent how the scene played out. 


Have you seen those pictures that come to us from time to time in mission magazines or news broadcast from remote sections of the world where are unkempt and unclean?  Have you seen those pictures of children who are hungry and malnourished, victims of poverty and injustice?  I want you to put those children in your mental picture of what happened in the text because it is much more accurate and meaningful than the pretty pictures we so often see and paint in our minds.


In the days of Jesus, more than half of the children born never lived to become adults.  Many were killed at birth (particularly girl children).  Others were simply put out in the field to starve to death.  In times of shortages of food, children were fed last. 


It was not a good time to be a child.  They were viewed as chattel – as unproductive, burdensome, and simply another mouth to be fed.  Among the religious elite of the day, they ranked right below tax-collectors.  That’s a pretty a pretty low ranking in any society. 


It’s a child who looks like this that Jesus swoops up in his arms.  It is a child that poor, hungry, starving, needy, abuse, misused, forgotten and considered of little or no value.  That’s who Jesus sets in the center of the room where the disciples sit after arguing about “who’s the greatest” and “who’s the most important.”  Then Jesus looks at the disciples and says:


“Whoever receive a little child like this, receives me and the one who sent me.”


I heard a fellow speak recently about reading the Bible.  This young man is a fairly new convert to Christianity.  He said, “The more I read the Bible the more I feel I have to unlearn everything I’d previously learned.”


Would that those of us who have been around Christianity for a while to read the Bible that way.  We’ve domesticated the Bible.  We’ve smooth out the rough edges.  We read it in such a way that it confirms what we already know, believe, and do.  We read it in such a way as to allow it to politely inform and educate and education.  I don’t think that’s why God gave us the Bible.  The Bible is there to help us unlearn everything the world teaches us about what valuable and important.  The Bible is a radical book that challenges our assumptions and seeks to lead us toward total life transformation. 


We see that in this story.  When Jesus lifts up the child and places it in the center of the room, he is calling his disciples to a radical new vision of what the Kingdom of God is all about.


The disciples were busy arguing over who would be the greatest!  Who has time for such bickering in God’s Kingdom?  There are people to be loved, a gospel to be preached, and ministry to be done.  There are hungry folks to be fed, orphans to be cared for, homeless to be sheltered, elderly to be visited, and poor folks who need justice and a job.  Who has time to argue over whose more important in a world such as ours? 


We are drawn to the argument because it allows us to escape responsibility and avoid action.  Jesus wants his disciples to have nothing to do with such foolishness. 


Jesus embraced a small child and said, “Whoever receives on such child receives me and the one who sent me.”  Most people would overlook a child, but not Jesus.  If we want to receive the kingdom, we must receive the King.  If you want to receive the Kingdom, you must embrace the poor and needy and neglected and forgotten.  That’s where you’ll find Jesus.    That’s where you’ll see the image of God in this world.


“Whoever receives one of these little ones receives me and the one who sent me.” 


I don’t know about you, but when I read this story, it brings to minds some things I need to unlearn.  It teaches me that the greatest act of worship comes when we reach out to the down and out.  It teaches me that Christian piety is best expressed when we love and accept others, regardless of race, or class, or religion, or economics, or culture.  It teaches me that welcoming God into our midst means welcoming those who are a bit odd and a little strange because that’s how Jesus did things – and we are his followers. 


Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes the little ones in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”

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