Mark 9:33-37; James 3:13-18
Having lived in North Carolina during many basketball seasons, and in Texas for more that a decade of football seasons, I know that being Number One is not something taken lightly. Even here, in the Land of Jefferson, where scholastic status is discussed somewhere other than the sports page, I suspect the academic ranking of our chosen university or college is considered very seriously. Someone has to be Number One so it might as well be us.
If you don’t think being Number One is important, consider this. Ever been to a sporting event where the fans hold up two fingers and proudly chant, “We’re number two; we’re number two.” Ever been to a T-ball game? The organizers proudly proclaim no score will be kept so the kids can play for the love of the game but I guarantee you every father knows exactly how many runs have crossed the plate. On the ride back from many a tennis tournament my wife would console my son with a pep talk and a promise to stop at the Dairy Queen. I would be strangling the steering wheel, simmering in a quiet rage while mapping out the time needed on the court to develop a much more effective first serve. Being number one is critical, especially to guys. That is the way I was brought up. Be it sports, cards or even table games, it’s not worth the effort if you don’t own Boardwalk. You can understand why I find this mornings scripture to be a bit disturbing. After all, what could possibly be wrong with the desire to be Number One?
Jesus wandered into a very interesting conversation. Each disciple was making a pretty good case as to why they were the MVD, that is to say, most valuable disciple.
Peter exclaimed, “I am the Rock. I am second in command. If something happens to Jesus, I will step up.”
Andrew threw in his two cents, “Peter, you are all talk. If it hadn’t been for me you would not even have met J.C.”
“None for you have the financial responsibility to run this outfit,” cried Matthew. “I am the one who keeps this ship afloat. Without my words of caution we would go bankrupt.”
“Says who?” demanded Judas. “I am the treasurer. Not only that every one knows I am the brains of the outfit.”
“So what,” said John. “We all know Jesus loves me best.”
About this time all the disciples noticed Jesus was listening to the conversation. Without a hint of embarrassment Peter said, “Jesus, settle the argument. Who’s number one?”
Being a fairly descent Old Testament scholar Jesus could have responded, “God is number one and we should place no other gods or egos before him.” But Jesus knew he was in the midst of guy talk and any sort of theological statement would have flown right over their heads. So Jesus calmly said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last. Furthermore if you want to be first you must become a servant to everyone else.” As you might imagine the disciples looked at one another and shook their heads. Thomas whispered to Bartholomew, “When did Jesus start wearing a dress? He just doesn’t get it.”
Actually it was the disciples that didn’t get it but who can blame them. Many of the lessons taught by Jesus sound wonderful, when used in a children’s sermon. Jesus is so…… idealistic. It sounds great on Sunday but the stuff Jesus suggests would never work on Monday morning. The real world strives on competition, conflict and stress. Many of you folks have done quite well for yourselves. Did you get where you are suggesting the first should be last? This stuff suggested by Jesus is utter non-sense. What would our lives be without stress or competition or a full daily schedule scratching to get ahead? WE ARE WAY TOO IMPORTANT TO LET JESUS GET IN THE WAY OF HOW WE LIVE OUR LIVES. (Stop)
Jesus picked up a child. “Whoever welcomes a child is number one in my book.” Well that is the first reasonable thing Jesus said in this whole passage. We love children. We would do anything for our children. We encourage them. We praise them. We motivate them to be as driven and stressful as we are.
Let me do a little biblical homework for you. In the time of Jesus there were no Toys R Us. In the time of Jesus the market place was not driven by the appetites of tots under ten. In the time of Jesus folks weren’t preparing their six year olds to go to an Ivy League School. In the time of Jesus there were no soccer leagues, piano lessons, or dance recitals. No one was writing self-help books on how to be a better parent because in the time of Jesus nobody cared about children. In the Jewish tradition a child was not even considered to be a human being until he was twelve. Noticed I said he. Female children were an embarrassment, a drain on society. A father was never happy until he was able to marry her off. So when Jesus has the audacity to say, “Whoever welcomes a child is first in my book,” the disciples were speechless. How could the least important dregs in all of society matter to Jesus? And the even tougher question is, “Why should those who are the least matter to us?”
It would be so easy to take the logical step and spend the rest of this sermon talking about our relationship to the poor, the sick, the broken, the discouraged. But that would be too easy. One thing I have learned about reading the gospel is Jesus doesn’t want us to do it the easy way. Jesus doesn’t want us to talk in generalities. Jesus wants us to live the gospel in our life, the gospel in our workplace, the gospel in our school, the gospel around our coffee table, the gospel on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, so that on Sunday, we come here, worn out, wasted, breathless, looking for a moment of rest, a day of Sabbath from all the hard relational work we have been doing. You see what Jesus wants is for us not to be in competition with each other but to be in consultation with each other. Jesus wants us to worry less about who is number one and more about who is number 6,347. Jesus wants us to grapple with one question, “Do you value your neighbor as much as you value yourself?” In a world looking out for number one that is a HUGE question.
The writer of James wrote, “The harvest of righteousness is sown by those who make peace.” Something that I have learned the hard way…….. and something I am quick to forget is that true peace, true relationships between people, between communities and even between nations is never possible if there has to be an absolute winner. How often have conflicts arisen simply because one person, or one community, or one nation needs to be greater than any other? What if our motivation to be neighbors could be void of any personal ambition? What if our desire to end conflicts could be motivated by our desire to be complete in Christ, a circle which, by design, includes the least of these? So often, conflict resolution sows the seeds for the next conflict. What if the seeds we attempt to sow are forgiveness and understanding? What if we looked beyond ourselves and walked in the shoes of our adversary?
I’m just kidding. Who would attempt something so ridiculous? After all, We are Number One……aren’t we?