Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2021 – Mark 9:30-37

“Whoever wants to be first must be last.”  That cuts against the grain, doesn’t it?  No one likes to be last.  No one.  Honestly, we don’t even like being second.  Not all but most people eventually learn to pretend that it’s okay not to win.  You see it on televised competitions and awards shows all the time.  “And the winner is” . . . pregnant pause while on the screen appear all the nominees, looking hopeful . . . then a name is announced and the camera zooms in on one elated contestant, but not before you, the viewer, catch a glimpse of all the others, trying their best to look happy for their colleagues.  Because perhaps the only thing worse than being a loser is being a sore loser.  Still, the bottom line is:  we all really want to win.  That’s why it’s so hard to understand and live by Jesus’ words, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

It was no different for the disciples.  They were all too human, subject to the same natural human desire to be successful as we are.  Most of them had been relative nobodies before they met Jesus.  They weren’t from the rich or powerful or elite strata of society.  But now, for once in their lives, they were part of something exciting – part of something new and big and important.  So it’s no wonder that they argued among themselves about who was the greatest, who was the most important . . . about who was number one.  And yet, while they were glorying in the success of their teaching and healing, Jesus was talking about betrayal and death.  While they were arguing about who was number one, Jesus was teaching about serving and being last.  The disciples must have been scratching their heads in confusion.  This was definitely not what they signed up for.

So Jesus did what he so often did:  he tried to teach the same lesson another way.  He often did that with parables, but in this case rather than using a parable, he reached for a living example of what he was trying to teach them.  He reached for a child.  A child was the exact opposite of the kind of people the disciples were trying to be.  The disciples wanted to be powerful – a child is powerless.  They wanted to be important – in ancient times, children were seen as relatively unimportant because they could not work or be productive members of society.  In our culture, we work to protect the child . . . not so in Jesus’ day.  The disciples wanted to be first – the kind of strong, important people that would have looked right over the heads of the “little people.”  But Jesus picked up the little, powerless, seemingly unimportant child in his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  And in that one statement he both gave dignity to the child and also declared that serving the least in our society is of highest value in the kingdom.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus invited people to look around and see a different world – a world in which the labels “winner” and “loser,” “first” and “last” had no meaning.  Every time he spoke with the poor and ate with outcasts, he showed people that God doesn’t really care about who has the highest GPA or the biggest salary.  Each time he placed his arms around a child or touched someone everyone else labeled unclean, he demonstrated that God’s values are different than ours.  And every time that we think about his willingness to serve us:  to wash our feet, to heal our ills, to forgive our sins, to die for us – we remember that our calling in this world is to serve, even as he was a servant to us.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once delivered a sermon entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct.”   The “drum major instinct” is what he described as our natural human inclination to be out in front, leading the band – to be seen as first and most important.  He warned his congregation that this desire for importance can lead to exclusivism and tragic racism.  In the sermon, Dr. King imagined in updated language and greater detail what Jesus was saying to his disciples as he held that little child in his arms:

Oh, I see, you want to be first.

You want to be great.

You want to be important.

You want to be significant.

Well you ought to be.

If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.

Yes, don’t give up this instinct.

It’s a good instinct if you use it right.

It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it.

Don’t give it up.

Keep feeling the need for being important.

Keep feeling the need for being first.

But I want you to be first in love.

I want you to be first in moral excellence.

I want you to be first in generosity.

That is what I want you to do,

Jesus says.[1]

It’s difficult to give up that drum major instinct.  It’s hard to put others’ needs before our own.  In fact, probably the only way that we can stop worrying about getting ahead and get busy “welcoming the child,” prioritizing the least among us, is by remembering that we are that child.  We are nothing, on our own, that God should choose us.  We have nothing to offer that God doesn’t already have.  We aren’t so smart or so rich or so talented or so important that God’s will couldn’t be done on earth without us.  And yet, we are that child.  We are the ones that Jesus lifts up in his arms.  We are the ones that are loved, not because we deserve to be loved, but just because Jesus chooses to love us.  And we are the ones that Jesus put first by giving us his life.

Who is the greatest among us?  The greatest among us is always and only Jesus Christ, who chose to become least, so that we might have the most.

[1] King, “The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in A Knock at Midnight, ed. Carson and Holloran, 1998.  As cited at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/drum-major-instinct

 

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