Rev. Teri Peterson|
23 September 2012, Ordinary 25B
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
There are a few things that have to happen at every youth-group lock-in. Snacks, of course. A movie. And a game of sardines. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it’s a version of hide-and-seek, played in the dark, where one person or team hides, and everyone else looks for them—but when you find the person hiding, you hide with them, until everyone is together in the same place. You can see why it’s called Sardines.
Now, one of the key strategic points of this game is the ability to remain silent. Anyone who has spent the night in a church with a group of teenagers on sugar highs can guess that this strategy is not high on the list of priorities. So a game of sardines usually involves lots of running and shrieking and laughing. But eventually the noise level goes down, and down, and down, until there’s just one person left looking for a whole group crammed into a closet or under a table.
The growing silence is eerie, and is a sign that you’ve been looking in all the wrong places.
I wonder if the disciples, or maybe even Jesus, felt that distress in the silence that followed his question. “What were you arguing about on the way?”
They are too embarrassed to answer...and I suspect we would be too. As we walk along, what are we arguing about? What occupies most of our thinking and speaking? If we’re thoroughly honest, probably something similar to what the disciples were arguing about—who is the greatest. We, as human beings, especially in our culture, tend to be easily seduced by the ever-addictive success. Will we get good grades and play on the winning team so we can get into a good college and network with the right people so we can land a good job with a good salary so we can buy a nice car and a nice house and have a nice looking family and take nice vacations and have a nice retirement account and people will think good things about us? While we may not often state it so baldly, that is what success means in much of our culture. We might even go so far as to call it the American Dream—to succeed. And how we go about achieving that success, and whether we have achieved it or not, is the source of much of our conversation and argument and anxiety along the way. Because of course, those are all laudable goals...and they are also far easier than our calling as followers of Jesus.
Did you notice that there were two silences in this story? One is the most obvious—the embarrassed silence. But before that was the confused silence. Jesus was teaching them, and they did not understand, but they were afraid to ask the question. He was saying things that made no sense—they knew the Messiah was to be a liberator, a king or warrior who would end occupation and bring peace, who would restore the kingdom of Israel, and here Jesus was talking about dying and rising and the kingdom of God. No wonder they were confused, and even a little afraid—what could this possibly mean? Surely he wasn’t going to prove a disappointment, right? They signed up to be the helpers who got reflected glory when they won the big fight. But at the moment when the disciples could have directly asked Jesus to say more about his way, they stayed silent. And that fearful, confused moment of silence brought them directly to that embarrassed moment later on, because they didn’t take the opportunity to learn and listen and focus—so instead they ended up on their own way, looking in the wrong place, arguing over things that don’t matter to the kingdom of God, jockeying for their own position in the glory mirror.
I wonder how often we keep that silence as well? How often do we choose not to ask the question, not to seek Jesus’ way, but instead to remain in our own desires? How often do we gloss over listening to Jesus in favor of hearing what we want to hear? It’s hard to ask the questions, because we might feel dumb for not understanding...or worse, we might hear an answer that we don’t like. What if we ask, and what Jesus says is one of those things that overturns everything we thought we knew about the world and God and life? What if he says something that demands change or action or submitting our wills to God’s? But if we don’t seek our direction from Jesus, we are in danger of the second silence that inevitably follows from the first.
In answer to the disciples, Jesus does something remarkable. We tend to read it as a cute story about welcoming babies and their childlike wonder. But remember that our societal view of children is a relatively new phenomenon. In Jesus’ society, children beyond an heir were useless and value-less. They cost a lot but took a long time to offer a return. They were not worth much as people and were generally ignored until they were old enough to work. In many ways children were seen in much the same way our culture views people who live on the street. I suspect that pulling a child into the circle and saying “welcome a child and you welcome me” provoked a third, stunned silence from the disciples. Why on earth would the answer to “who is the greatest” be “welcome the useless one?”
Perhaps because our drive for success causes us to associate only with people who are useful to achieving our goals or who can make us look better. Perhaps because we are used to thinking “first come, first served” rather than “those who would be first must be last.” Perhaps because our singular focus on our own success needs an antidote that looks like the kingdom of God. Perhaps because we believe that it’s every person for themselves, in spite of the command to love our neighbor and our enemy. Perhaps because the ways we measure ourselves—in money, in grades, in power, in networks, in jobs, in games won—don’t measure up to God’s goals. Jesus says that we are to welcome the lowly, to serve, to offer hospitality, to follow the shameful way of the cross rather than the alluring way of success. He says that we are to be looking for ways to welcome God into our midst. Last week he said we needed to set our mind of divine things rather than human things, and to take up a cross and follow him. I don’t know about you, but I don’t love this life plan—of letting go of my own desires in order to follow a harder path. I, like most of us, find success addictive. But I also don’t love being the one standing in dark silence, knowing I’ve been looking in the wrong place because my pride wouldn’t let me ask a question or listen to an answer or set my mind on anything other than what I want.
When our focus is not where it belongs, we are rightfully embarrassed about what we were really talking about. Which means we need to be constantly seeking Jesus’ way, no matter how much pride or fear we need to put aside. We turn our eyes and hearts to divine things, to grace and truth, and commit to follow this kingdom way, to welcome, help, serve, love...regardless of whether a person or situation can help us achieve that greatness to which we aspire—because every act of loving service is a step on the way to the greatness to which God aspires.
And it is here that we find the true measure of success—not whether we won or did the best or got the most, but whether we loved.