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9/20/2009 - The Rev. Susan N. Blue - The Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost

posted May 21, 2010, 6:41 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:42 PM by Terry Brady ]
“Jesus said: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…”
(Mark 9:35)

When my son, Laird, was six he became very ill and was hospitalized. The child in the bed next to him had a badly infected leg. In the two weeks Laird was in that room that child never had a visitor. One day I arrived and found Laird’s fever raging, the air conditioning broken, and orders from the doctor for no aspirin (this was before Tylenol) as his hemorrhaging had increased. He was flushed and still; his eyes were glassy. I held him and asked how he felt. He replied: “I am fine, Mom, but Jimmy isn’t doing well – no one has come to see him and he is so sick and sad. Jimmy’s parents, for whatever reason, had denied the seriousness of his illness, and couldn’t bear to see him. This isn’t an unusual occurrence, just a heart-breaking one. While Laird was in surgery the next day I went to the chapel and bargained with God. I pointed out his concern for Jimmy (as if God didn’t know) and painted him as a paragon who would change the world. Needless to say, Laird lived, and, for awhile it looked like he would be the best educated waiter in New York City. He’s a good guy, but no paragon!
Neither the denial of Jimmy’s parents nor my outrageous bargaining with God is particularly unusual phenomena in the human condition. All of us have myriad defense and avoidance mechanisms whereby we deny that which we do not want to see, know or hear. These responses are often unconscious and a way to avoid the things that terrify us most.
All of us, too, have great concern with how we fit into this world, into the larger scheme of things. None of us wants to feel second-rate, we desire prestige, position and power in order to feel safe and valued. The greater our sense of insecurity the more we need these three things of the world. We find comfort in hierarchy – it gives order to our lives and let’s us know who is in charge and what our responsibilities are. It is out of this that prejudice emerges. We need to feel better than others in order to feel valued. As a result, discrimination exists between rich and poor, black and white, Anglo and Hispanic, male and female, adults and children, those of different gender identities and the intelligent and the slow. We tend to predicate our value not upon who we are in God’s eyes, but who we are in the eyes of the world.
The human condition was little different in the first century. Prestige and personal power were every bit as important as they are now. The disciples arguing about who would be first in the Kingdom would have not been an unusual debate. They were followers of a powerful man and assumed some of that power for themselves.
They were on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus was using the remaining time to try to prepare them for the inevitable, his crucifixion. This idea was so horrifying that they were unable to understand and were so fearful that they could not even ask Jesus about it. They were clearly in denial. It is not that Jesus was not clear – he emphasized the cross, not the resurrection, and promised that it would happen. He was telling them that he would die a most degrading death; that he would give up everything for the world. What a contrast to the disciples’ response! They were in such denial that they could not share their fear, and did not even offer Jesus any consolation. Even more shocking, they bickered among themselves about who would be greatest in the Kingdom. What a contrast – Jesus told them of his upcoming act of total unselfishness, and they responded with total self-concern.
Surprisingly, Jesus did not rebuke them, but responded with patience and love as he continued to teach about the Kingdom. This response was particularly poignant given the very short time remaining before his death.
At that time children were perhaps the most marginalized people in the first century world. Over sixty percent of children died before they were sixteen! Jesus took the disciples aside and taught them by words and actions. The first were to be last, and they were to be servants of all. No power and prestige for them! He then took a child in his arms and held him, an action that indicated love and caring for the least among them. He then said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37) In other words, they were to live, teach and preach according to God’s standards not those of the world.
Jesus says exactly the same thing to each one of us. We are to reach out to the marginalized in our society – to care for all alike, and to be particularly responsive to those in greatest need. We are to share Jesus’ special concern for the poor and outcast. We are called as Christians to work to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth. We are called to live according to God’s standards, not those of the world. That is our charge and our great delight. AMEN