Scripture: Mark 9.30-37
Title: On RADICAL Greatness
NOTE: the first part of this sermon was extemporaneous, so below I just give a brief description of the gist of what I said.
*I brought in a Superman figurine. I asked who it was. I declared Superman to be the greatest of all superheroes, because he has so many awesome powers such as flight, superhuman speed and strength, laser vision, x-ray vision, etc. I then said that superman has one weakness--kryptonite. It doesn't matter how great he is, this little rock of kryptonite can take away all his powers until he is just an ordinary person like you or me. *
*I then pulled out a nickle and dime from my pocket. I said to someone who doesn't know much about the U.S. monetary system, he or she would probably think the nickle is worth more than the dime--it's bigger and heavier. But for some strange reason, the dime is worth more! Five whole cents more! *
*I then recapped the Gospel lesson, basically talking about how the disciples were arguing amongst themselves who was the greatest, and Jesus asked them what they were arguing about and they were embarrassed and didn't say anything. But then Jesus took a child... then my sermon continued as follows:*
Jesus says whoever welcomes a child welcomes me, whoever welcomes me welcomes Father Now children in the ancient Greco-Roman world were hardly considered great at all. They had no power, no wealth. Have you ever heard the expression children were to be seen and not heard? Exactly the case here. And yet, Jesus takes this child and says that to welcome this child is to welcome Jesus.
This makes no sense—the disciples—who gave up their jobs and homes to follow Jesus should be the greatest. I mean they followed Jesus, they listened to all his teachings even if they didn’t always understand, they shared meals and journeys and all the ups and downs of Jesus’ ministry, and witnessed miracles beyond wonder and amazement. Yet Jesus doesn’t declare one of them to be the greatest—Jesus instead finds a random child, the lowliest of the low, and shows that by welcoming the least among us, we welcome Jesus, and by welcoming Jesus, we welcome God.
I’m sure it stunned the disciples, because it certainly shocks me. Like the nickel and dime, it doesn’t make sense for a child to be greater than a disciple. And yet in this radical kingdom of God, a child is greater than the disciple. To welcome a child is to welcome God! It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
This reminds me of a joke, actually. You may have heard it before. In a synagogue, congregants are gathered around, praying to God. A Rabbi shouts out in prayer “Oh Lord, I am nobody!” Another Rabbi is inspired and shouts out, too, “Oh Lord, I am nobody!” A visitor to the synagogue is inspired by the Rabbis and adds her own prayer, “Oh Lord, I am nobody!” The one Rabbi says to the other “Who is this person to think she’s nobody?”
We laugh, but how often do we find ourselves doing the same thing! I’m sure if we reflect, we can probably think of a time when we were like the disciples, are arguing amongst ourselves as to who is the greatest! Who here is the greatest? Who here is the cream of the crop? Perhaps the hostess with the mostest? The master maestro? The head hancho? The best as sports? The best at art? The best theologian? And yet, what does that mean? The prophet Isaiah writes “All flesh is grass, and the glory of the flower is grass. The grass withers, and the flower fades” (Isaiah 40.6). Greatness can be taken away. Just like kryptonite does to Superman, sometimes what we work hard for can vanish. The grass withers. And then what greatness are we left with?
Jesus is showing us here that what the world considers great, what we consider great, is not that great after all. It comes and goes. And, even worse, to be greatest inevitably means to have preference over others. One can only be great because someone else is not. That’s not a happy thought, is it? Instead, Jesus is showing the disciples here a new, radical form of greatness—the greatness that is found in hospitality for the least of these. Of helping those who need help, loving those who need loved, and comforting those who need consoled.
That is where the hope is. Because, sometimes we are like the child, aren’t we? Sometimes, we work hard, put our hearts and souls into something, and yet it falls through. Perhaps you worked your whole life in a company only for them to fire you in favor of someone younger? Or, maybe we find an illness keeping us from reaching our full potential. Or sometimes, other people are keeping us from reaching our full potential! How many times is it where we feel the exact opposite of great? Where we are discouraged, meek, or even afraid? We might be forgotten or sad or lonely.
We might feel hopeless in those times. But! Ah! This is where the hope comes in this gospel message today. Because Jesus promises us that he will be with us in those times. Jesus took the child in his arms—a child who was by no means great by the standards of the world—and told the disciples that whoever welcomes that child welcomes Jesus! That Jesus is with that child. Jesus is with us, too, when we are by no means feeling great. Jesus foretold his death and resurrection to the disciples, reminding them and us that by his death on the cross, a death as a criminal, the farthest thing from greatness you can imagine, that by his death and resurrection we have the promise that Jesus will be with us always. When we’re at our lowest, Jesus promised to hold us in his arms as he did to that child, and to provide us with comfort.
You see, in the radical world of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus empowers those without power, strengthens those without strength, comforts those who are comfortless, and gives greatness to those without greatness. And in this radical world we are called to welcome the least of these, we are the ones God calls to empower, to give strength to, and to comfort. There is no earthly greatness in the kingdom of heaven, only those who are last and servants of all. That is a greatness that no one can take from us, no kryptonite is strong enough to weaken the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So, I invite you this week to reflect. First, in what ways are we like the disciples in this passage? But also, reflect on this. Who is like the child in this passage? Who do we know that feels the absolute opposite of great right now? And, how can we welcome them? How can we remind them of the promise Jesus said, that by welcoming the weak and lowly, we welcome Jesus himself?
Let us pray***: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all bad thoughts and deeds, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
***The prayer was adapted from the prayer of the day found in the ELW for the pericope.