Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 19th of Ninth Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Mark 9:30–37, NRSV
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Good morning, Friends!
The age of social media has given us many new ideas and terms, some of them woeful, some useful. There’s one that I find interesting that has been around for perhaps ten years or so, and perhaps some of you also know if it. This is the phenomenon of “humblebragging,” so christened by a TV writer named Harris Wittels.
“Humblebragging” is a form of false modesty in which someone makes a self-promoting statement about themselves clothed in self-deprecation, or some other way to make it endearing. It's “look at me, I’m doing this great thing, or I'm in this great place, or I'm so busy with my fantastic life, but I'm going to disclose some minor way in which I messed up or I can't keep it together so you won't think I'm just an egotist.”
So, for example, a hypothetical Hollywood actress might post: “I've been signing so many autographs lately, that I was writing a card to my dad and started to sign my last name!!”
Or, a real-life example: “I just did something very selfless. But more importantly, it was genuine & I know it means a lot to the person in the long run. #soworthit...”1 (The author of that one, I think, was in on the joke. #someta)
The “humblebrag” is endemic to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and I’m sure others (those are the only ones that I know anything about, which is dating myself already...). These are places where self-promotion is understood as part of the currency; part of the reason that people are there. It's not that this is really a new phenomenon. Some of us have probably been doing it in our own minds, or in private with a few people, for generations; social media have simply brought it out into the open. “Humblebragging” is simply a recent species of false modesty.
For the next several Sundays when I speak, I want us to consider together what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—a follower in the way that Jesus inaugurated; and also what it means to make disciples. Jesus’ particular teaching in this passage, that the one who wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all,gives us a picture of discipleship as a call to servanthood; a call away from false modesty to humility.
Jesus’ words here, of course, come in a formal teaching session in response to something that has occurred among his followers as they are “on the way” through Galilee. Presumably he has overheard them talking, and he knows what they’ve been saying; but as happens numerous other places in the Bible, the question, when the answer is already known, opens the opportunity for instruction. Commentators note that he formalizes this by sitting down in the house, because rabbis often taught while seated, and he calls the Twelve to him. So this isn’t just, “Oh, by the way, guys, what were you talking about?” This is a formal teaching session.
Now, when I read this passage, I have to say my reaction is: “Seriously???” The disciples were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest? Haven’t they learned anything from Jesus? Don’t they know at this point that the reign of God is not about worldly success, or counting oneself better than one’s sisters and brothers? What a bunch of egotistical dopes!
You might remember that Mark's Gospel is the one that generally treats the disciples in the harshest way; if anyone is going to depict Jesus’ followers as egotistical dopes, it will be Mark. But this preoccupation with who is the greatest shows up in the other Gospels as well. In the parallel passage in Luke, the disciples also argue (22:24); but in Matthew they simply ask, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1). This could seemingly be an abstract query: “Hey Jesus, just wondering, not that it's really important, but who will be the greatest in the kingdom? ...‘cause, you know, we wanna be like that person...” No really, you think you are that person already, don’t you?
Regardless of the setup, in each account Jesus responds by calling the disciples away from the urge to dominate, the way of relationship that the world teaches, to the motive of service and childlike humility: the way of relationship in the reign of God.
Now, it occurs to me that the disciples’ argument about who is the greatest might not have been in terms as baldfaced and apparently clueless as it might seem in the text. As I’ve just said, Mark paints these folks in a deliberately unflattering light. While it wasn’t likely false modesty, there might have at least been some indirection in their argument on the way; perhaps the one-upmanship in their conversation was a bit more subtle than we assume from the text.
Here I should say that I don’t have any evidence from the text for this—I’m thinking really about what I know of human nature (and of course, my own human nature). I think of the way that I take pains to demonstrate my knowledge when I get the opportunity—sometimes this comes in personal conversation, but much more often, and especially since the pandemic began, it’s on social media. Someone will post an opinion or a question, and depending on the subject matter, I dive in.
I never say anything like, “I am the greatest and here I will now demonstrate this…” (that’s not subtle at all!) But in trying to demonstrate my knowledge; in trying to word things just right; in trying to show others they’re in the wrong, or at least haven’t thought things through fully as I have—behind all of this cleverness and subtlety, I am still asserting my greatness: “Hey, look at me, I know the answer, I AM THE GREATEST AT THIS!111!”
I’m not sure I need to say it, but the areas in which I will try to do this are vanishingly small—the subjects on which I feel secure enough to want to correct others’ opinions are limited to Quaker theology and a few rarefied areas of computer technology that each day become more obsolete. I am so afraid of being shown to be wrong that I will venture out in few other areas. Nevertheless, that impulse to demonstrate my greatness—the urge to dominate—is still there.
All this is to say that perhaps the disciples were actually discussing fishing nets, or fig trees, or how best to tell what the weather would be the next day, and in all that trying to best one another. So—egotistical, yes, but they may not have been as dopey as we might think. Regardless of what they said, Jesus hears in it the urge to dominate, and that occasions the words, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
As is usually the case, we need to take care in our interpretation, lest we take things too literally: Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first”, so one could say, “well, OK, I don’t want to be firstin line; in fact, that’s kind of an exposed place to be. I’d be happy just somewhere up at the head of the line, you know, in the top 25%; that’s enough for me... So this doesn’t apply to me, right? I don’t want to be first, I just want to be up there...”
But Jesus is, in effect, asking why there needs to be a line in the first place—in fact, that’s a construct that I’ve just imposed on Jesus’ words, for he says nothing about an actual line of people when he says “first” and “last”—that’s just what comes up in my head because I have been conditioned to see that. I have been conditioned to construct a line out of “first” and “last”. Again, as he proclaims the reign of God, Jesus calls people out of relationships of domination into radical equality.
There’s a particular dimension to this which has only become clear to me, personally, in the last few years; it relates to how our society privileges people of different racial backgrounds, and how that works its way into our thinking. Usually, for white people, this is an unconscious process. We are not often aware of our own superiority thinking—the way that we hold ourselves over others—so that it takes conscious effort to become aware of it. But this is one of the ways that “first and last” especially shows up these days. The “firstness” of white supremacy, and the “lastness” of people of color. So again, I might think, “Well, I don’t want to be first; but clearly I’m ahead of those people over there... I’m willing to be last among my kind, Jesus; let me serve my people, but don’t ask me to be behind those folks.”
When we lived in California there were quite a few church-based activists in the San Francisco Bay Area working on issues like this, all of them much further ahead than me. I remember one group who regularly organized white people to work with people of color on racial justice. One of the mechanisms that they employed was to ask white folks to perform tasks that we (meaning educated white people with college degrees) generally deem menial, to enable people of color to be at the center of the organizing, and to do the most important work. So white people involved in the work might be asked to give rides to events, or perhaps make copies or other mundane kinds of support work, rather than to take the roles at the center that probably most of them were used to and would have filled very naturally. It was a pretty concrete way of putting that “first shall be last” principle into action.
Now, it’s also important to acknowledge that Jesus’ words about becoming the “servant of all” can be interpreted in harmful ways, especially for women and others that have been marginalized in our world. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that when slavery was legal in the U.S., some preacher somewhere used this verse as justification for enslaved people staying right where they were, and serving all who required it of them. And I’m sure that this verse has been used in the same way to keep women in their place.
What does being “servant of all” really mean, here? Are there limits to what Jesus is declaring? I don’t think that it means that any of us should be, or can be, the servant of everyone, all the time. I don’t think it means that the proper stance of discipleship is that of the human doormat.
Part of the key, I think, is in the last part of the passage, when Jesus brings a child among the disciples, and says “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me...” Often when we read and interpret this verse, it’s an opportunity to praise the qualities of childhood; to lift up the innocence, or the purity, or the giving-ness of children,and to remember that we should emulate these praiseworthy traits.
But that doesn’t give us a complete picture. Childhood in Jesus’ day and age was especially about vulnerability. Children were next to nothing in the hierarchy of the day. They were essentially property of the head of household. In that circumstance, they were tremendously vulnerable, and they were thought of as almost nothing. So for Jesus to identify himself with a child, and to say that God as well, through him, identifies with a child, was to make a startling statement. He was pointing people to the most vulnerable and saying, “this is where you will find God.”
So I think that Jesus, with “servant of all” and “welcoming one such child” is calling his followers especially to serving those who are vulnerable, welcoming those who are outcast. And part of that, if we are to follow in that way, is to undo whatever assumed superiority we might have—whatever we have learned from the context in which we live (again, not always consciously, so this takes work); but:
undoing that assumed superiority;
resisting the urge to dominate;
and casting aside our attempts to clothe that urge in false modesty.
In these things, we are called to true humility.
Where do you find the urge to dominate showing up in your life—whether that’s your urge, or someone else’s?
How have you heard Christ’s call to welcome the most vulnerable?
In what ways does God call you—does God call us—to deeper discipleship in this passage?
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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